Reading Knoxville: A Lesson Before Dying

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Book by Ernest J. Gaines, Reviewed by Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.

 

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“I don’t want them to kill a hog,” she said. “I want a man to go that chair, on his own two feet.” Miss Emma’s godson, Jefferson, has been sentenced to die in the electric chair for his unwitting involvement in a liquor store robbery that left three people dead, including the white storeowner. By arguing for life imprisonment instead of the electric chair, the defense attorney tried to convince the jury that Jefferson, a young black man, wasn’t even a man: “Do you see a man sitting here?…Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery?…What justice would there be to take this life?…Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair?” Ernest Gaines’ powerful novel A Lesson Before Dying (purchase the book on Amazon here), set in the 1948 South, portrays the struggle to help Jefferson die like a man.

Grant Wiggins, the local teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, is reluctantly persuaded by Miss Emma and his Aunt Tante Lou to visit Jefferson in his jail cell. Although university educated, Grant is angry and disillusioned with his life as a black man in the South. He feels he has nothing to teach Jefferson. His own seeds of discontent were first planted by the schoolteacher who taught him years earlier in the same schoolhouse: “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. No, he did not tell us this, but daily he showed us this.”

Although it is set in the South before the advent of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the novel foreshadows racial issues and death penalty controversies that resonate today.

At the first visits, Jefferson will not speak to Grant. In fact, Jefferson is even acting like “hog” by eating his food with no hands. Later, Grant brings him a radio, a pencil, and a notebook to write down his thoughts. Grant argues that Jefferson needs to die like a man for the sake of others. “Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people…I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today. I don’t like; I hate it…[I am not a hero] but I want you to be. You could give something to [Miss Emma], to me, to those children in the quarter.”

Both Jefferson and Grant are struggling to become different men. The local Reverend berates Grant for his lack of faith. “No, you not educated, boy…You far from being educated. You learned your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself…You’re lost.” Jefferson, in his notebook, records his thoughts and dreams: “i aint done this much thinkin and this much writin in all my life befor” On the day before the execution, Jefferson writes: “good by mr wiggin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by”

Jefferson’s lesson before dying becomes Grant lesson in living. As Jefferson is being executed on a Good Friday, Grant walks around the schoolhouse noticing a butterfly lit on a hill of bull grass.  “What had brought it there?” After he receives the news of Jefferson’s death, he walks back into the schoolhouse and faces the children. “I was crying.” A Lesson Before Dying is a stirring contemplation of life, death, and salvation. Although it is set in the South before the advent of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the novel foreshadows racial issues and death penalty controversies that resonate today.

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

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