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.