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A Lesson Before Dying: Notes for Human Liberation

[By Goyland Williams]

Ernest
Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying has been compared to the works of Richard Wright,
James Baldwin, and even William Faulkner. Much like these writers, Gaines calls
the reader to confront the entire bitter history of black people in the South and
America as a whole. No doubt, Gaines writes this piece just as much for the
white youth of this country as he does for the African-American youth of the
rural south—a south germinated by race and slavery.

Set
in a small Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940’s, the novel brings to
the fore issues surrounding racism, prejudice, and a community crippled by the
demons that have haunted the South. Jefferson, a poor young black man becomes
embroiled in a robbery-turned-murder, apprehended and tried for murder. When
Jefferson is found guilty, his godmother-Miss Emma is left alone with her
outrage that he is seen as no more conscious than a hog. Determined that he
will go to his death as a fully realized black man, she puts Grant Wiggins in
charge of “teaching” him how to be a man, but more importantly, how to die with
dignity. Miss Emma’s request is a humanistic ethic for the Integrity of Life. Nothing
trumps the integrity of life. And anything we hold to that does damage to the
integrity of life, we need to get rid of.
There
is no doubt that Gaines’ had in mind the words of Claude McKay when he pleaded:
          “If we must die, let it not be like
hogs
            Hunted and penned in an inglorious
spot…
           If we must die, O let us nobly die
            (Claude McKay, “If We Must Die”)
Whatever
the occasion, Jefferson-condemned by his fate and marked by his own dark skin,
went to the electric chair knowing full well that he was a man of worth and
thus deserving of the human dignity that we innately enjoy. And while it may
seem to be an oddity and a severe case of irony that a man finds the integrity
of life at the last moments of his existence, nevertheless, it is a profound
encounter with considering a way to live in light of one’s pending death. 

One thought on “A Lesson Before Dying: Notes for Human Liberation

  1. When I read Chapter 29, "Jefferson's Diary," I want to weep for all the black men on earth. Gaines' novel stabs my mind to make my heart wiser.

    Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

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