The story centres upon the robbery of a liquor store which resulted in the murder of the shopkeeper and the two Black men robbing the store. An innocent bystander, Jefferson is charged by an all white jury with the murder of the storekeeper and sentenced to death. The narrator of the story, schoolteacher Grant Wiggins must struggle and come to terms with the age-old question, “What makes a man?” as he struggles to make Jefferson a “man” before his execution.
The novel looks at various themes which provided a platform for stimulating discussion. The theme of oppression in the shadow of a recent slave history figures strongly as does the struggle of residents in the Black quarter to assert themselves in the Jim Crow south. Their struggle comes to the fore as they must collectively witness the execution of an innocent Black man. Ernest Gaines writes not only of Jefferson’s struggle to assert himself as a man in the face of death, but also that of Grant, the educated teacher who struggles with his feelings of frustration and being overburdened with this weighty task. Religion and the Black community’s traditional dependence on it in times of trouble also comes into question, “Is there such a thing as blind faith?” and “When we are faced with overwhelming trials, should we just leave it in God’s hands or fight?” These questions resonated throughout the lively discussion.
The group dialogue often reverted to the parallels in A Lesson Before Dying and the reality of the Black male and Black society today in North America. These parallels were contemplated as Blackstarline members discussed these critical questions, “How many Black men today are wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit?” and “Jefferson did not receive a fair trial with an impartial jury. How often does that happen in 2017?” One member voiced the oft-repeated phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This phrase opened the discussion about what change is being undertaken in today’s society to challenge the status quo and give voice to the oppressed. A Lesson Before Dying places a magnifying lens on a time in Black history when Black men and the Black community in the South were oppressed and feared voicing their opinions. The difference today is the Black community is able to have their collective voices be heard via a variety of platforms, social media proving to be one of the most powerful and effective.
A Lesson Before Dying is a powerful and moving novel which touches on man's inhumanity but also allows us to witness small acts of humanity from the most unexpected sources. This book presents many moral dilemmas, and challenges the reader to experience a time and place in African American history that is all too real even today. At least one BlackStarline reader confessed to shedding a tear during the reading of this book and yes, it will challenge the reader to think about humanity and what makes a man. In one powerful discourse Grant speaks to Jefferson and tells him, “Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? A myth is an old lie people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth- and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is us all. It would destroy that myth. They would no longer give justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe.” #Blacklivesmatter
Blackstarline Readers rating: 3.5/4
Written by: Adeola Noble