A Lesson Before Dying. This novel is a gem. Hard-hitting, revelational, compassionate, true. In a mere 250 pages Ernest J. Gaines shows us with uncompromising clarity a piece of the world as we made it — an important part of American history and culture (and the West by proxy) and the baggage that comes with it.
It’s the story of Jefferson, a young black man in late-forties Arkansas who is sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, and the efforts of his family to restore his dignity before he dies.
To cut through the depravity Jefferson is immersed in, his nannan employs the help of Grant Wiggins, an unwilling but compliant teacher who struggles with the duty assigned him.
‘The public defender, trying to get him off, called [Jefferson] a dumb animal. He said it would be like tying a hog down in that chair and executing him—an animal that didn’t know what any of it was all about. The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God? . . . What do I say to him? Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?’
Wiggins just wants to get away, live out his life with his woman, Vivian, and forget the hell that is home. But something keeps him there. Something brought him back even after he’d gone to California a few years earlier. A sense of urgency and duty, a penchant for punishment, atonement, he doesn’t know what it is, sifting through his memories of his old teacher for answers:
‘The big Mulatto from Poulaya had predicted it, hadn’t he? It was he. Matthew Antoine, as the teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.’
The old teacher had a way with cruel but straight words.
He went on to say:
‘I told you what you should have done, but no, you want to stay. Well, you will believe me one day. When you see that those five and a half months you spend in that church each year are just a waste of your time, you will. You will. You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away—peel—scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years. You’ll see.’
The lessons are hard, and Wiggins is having a terrible time processing the words of his old teacher. He can’t reconcile himself with his past, with the choices he’s made in life, with the choices all black people are making within the range of choices afforded to them at the time. He finds his life detestable and his task of reaching Jefferson impossible, and yet he perseveres. He visits Jefferson in his jail cell, brings him food, prompts the young man to talk and be brave and love his nannan and those who love him and care for him. He urges Jefferson to honor nannan’s grief by dying like a man. To embrace the God she embraces and give her comfort.
That last part about God is especially hard on Wiggins. He believes in God in some way but not in the Church. He doesn’t buy into its weekly performances and the dogma it sells. He’s disillusioned and doesn’t believe in heaven, or can’t say for sure it’s there, which to him is the same thing. He’s a man of letters and numbers, teaching at the local school, trying to get black youths to think for themselves and expect salvation from nobody but themselves. He can’t persuade Jefferson to embrace something he himself doesn’t ascribe to.
Wiggins’ stance is admirable on some level, the stance of a man of principle, but Reverend Ambrose, an annoyingly single-minded, stubborn, flat man steps up to reveal a different side to the argument. In a rare show of acumen, Reverend Ambrose confronts Wiggins with a call to faith, telling him what a person of authority needs to do to instil courage and hope in his fellow men and women in their time of need:
‘You think you educated, but you not. You think you the only person ever had to lie?’
‘I don’t know, Reverend.’
‘Yes, you know. You know, all right. That’s why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings—yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ‘Cause reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie. When you tell yourself you feeling god when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that ’cause they have pain too, and you don’t want to add yours—and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bled from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ‘Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.’
Hard-hitting words, and true.
Hence the title of the book. A Lesson Before Dying. Everyone gets one, not just the convict on deathrow.
Of course the greatest lesson of all comes from the convict himself, Jefferson. He learns a few things along the way, which he notes down in his diary, unwittingly teaching a bunch of things to those around him:
it look like the lord just work for wite folks cause ever sens i wasn nothin but a litle boy i been on my on haulin water to the fiel on that ol water cart wit all them dime bukets an that dipper just hittin an old dorthy just trottin and trottin an me up their hittin her wit that rope . . . im gitting drunk so the lord coud see it . . . an sayin i kno you dont love nobody but wite folks cause you they god not mine an com on and tho you litenin if you want cause no niger aint got no god an the church goin people closin they doors an windos to keep from herin boo blasfemin the lord
im sory I cry mr wigin im sorry I cry when you say you aint comin back tomoro im strong an reven ambros gon be yer wit me an mr harry comin to an reson I cry cause you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im somebody
my lite on but they aint no mo lite on in the place an the place is quite quite but nobody sleepin
they got a moon out ther an i can see the leves on the tree but i aint gon see no mo leves after tomorro
when i was a litle boy i was a waterboy an rode the cart but now i got to be a man an set in the cher
dont kno if you can red this mr wigin my han shakin and i can yer my hart
good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this
And that’s the way the book ends, its lessons timeless, impossible to ignore.
From the bays of Pearl Coast,
Fish a ton of oysters, strike a shiny pearl.