A colleague of mine is starting off the study of A Lesson Before Dying with a research project about Capital Punishment. I'm okay with that, because kids need to learn how to research. But I have issues with thinking of this book in terms of capital punishment. I mean, that's certainly something that happens in it, but it seems to me that it's more about what a person does when all the cards are stacked against him, when there is a mountain of injustice in his path.
In fact, I've gotten in arguments about whether the book was about racism or not. Dana Huff, my favorite teacher blogger, has a webquest for students, all pointing them to sites about capital punishment and Jim Crow and racism. But, I wonder, is that what this book is about?
Jefferson makes a poor decision and gets in the car with his two drunk friends. His two drunk friends hold up a liquor store and shoot the storeowner, who shoots them back. All three are dead. Jefferson is in shock, and decides to steal the money out of the cash register and take a shot of whiskey to calm himself down. When the next people come into the store, he is stealing the money and drinking whiskey. Forget the racist 1940s south: that circumstantial evidence would have convicted anybody anywhere. Perhaps modern ballistics would be able to test whether Jefferson had shot a gun or not, and perhaps there was an air of inevitability to his conviction because of racism, but Gaines wanted there to be ambiguity there in his character. You can't blame the judge nor the jury for the conviction, which doesn't seem to be a product of racism but, rather, more the product of a couple of bad choices and a horrible wrong-place-in-the-wrong-time incident.
The rest of the novel does have some significant undercurrents of racism - the defense attorney's hyper-racist "defense" of Jefferson, the superintendent's inspection of the black schoolchildren like a slaveowner would inspect prospective slave purchases, the mixed-race bricklayers picking a fight with dark-skinned Grant, the can't-act-smart-in-front-of-white-people act that Grant has to fake - but to look at the main "lessons" learned by both characters, they're not about race or facing racism. They're about standing up and standing strong (perhaps, in Jefferson's case, against unbelievable injustice). Against white people? Perhaps. I might be convincing myself of things that I didn't quite believe before I started writing this.
But I guess one of my points is this: with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (in a setting about 15 years before A Lesson Before Dying) wanted us to examine racism in the south. She made her innocent black character, Tom Robinson, so ridiculously innocent (he can't use his hand! he couldn't possibly have choked Mayella!) and her accuser so ridiculously malignant that only a jury completely blinded by racism could find him guilty. And she spent a lot of time on that trial, as we see all the witnesses called and hear from both sides and all the onlookers. We see just how innocent Tom is, so his guilty verdict is a shock (or, at least, it is to the innocent Jem, who had not yet realized the racism of his society).
On the other hand, Gaines gives us a 5-page description of the trial, and Grant's first words about it ("I was not there, yet I was there") also speak to its inevitability. The trial is a given. The racism, ironically, is mainly demonstrated (and rather cartoonishly at that) by the defense. It's everything else that matters - the redemption that Jefferson gets, the two horrible choices he was faced with (no matter how bad life is, no matter how much injustice you are faced with, you still have a choice) and the relationship between Grant and Jefferson.
What's my point in all this? I guess it's that I think capital punishment and racism are both important for the story, but that it's more universal than that. It's about the Lesson that both men learn, which I don't really think is about either. The capital punishment and the racism were inevitable parts of their world. But was that their lesson before dying? No, it's about dealing. Jefferson learns to accept and to stand up and die like a man, to be strong for his community, even though he doesn't deserve to die. Grant learns (maybe - I love his ambiguous ending) to stand strong for his community as well, to (hopefully) not bitterly run away but stand strong.
I often introduce this text with the film Dead Man Walking (I know, I know, it's about capital punishment), which basically tells the story without racism and without innocence. It's still remarkably similar, at least in a lot of ways, and talking about these similarities and differences makes for some really interesting discussions in class.
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