GENERATIONS OF STRUGGLE: Discussion Notes, Part Two
As might be the case with Marilynne Robinson's Home, in A Lesson Before Dying, "the religious backgrounds inhabited by the characters and the community generate a mythology of the past and a vision of a possible future, but the action persistently, and often frustratingly, remains arrested in the anxious and unfulfilled present" (Ray Horton, " 'Rituals of the Ordinary': Marilynne Robinson's Aesthetics of Belief and Finitude. PMLA 132.1 (2017): 126 ). Moreover, as Horton proposes "the experience of being stretched uncomfortably between past and future (eschatological time) and the way that such an experience, when conceptualized in a theological or theopoetic framework, opens new avenues of aesthetic perceptivity (aesthetics of immediacy)" (126). That Gaines's novel addresses a sliver of African American Louisiana cultural history in tandem with the demands of the American criminal justice system in 1948 necessitates a more perfect interpretive union of theological and secular frames. Interpretation of A Lesson Before Dying is more vexed than interpretation of Home. Therein is a crucial lesson about difference between American and African American understandings of criminal justice.
Session 3, June 8: A Lesson Before Dying: Jim Crow and the Imprisoned Life
Three questions supplied by the African American Resource Collection, New Orleans Public Library:
1. Jefferson is convicted of murder in what appears to be a case of "wrong place, wrong time." His defense attorney describes him as a "hog," a description Jefferson repeats once he is imprisoned. What prejudices are reflected in that description? How does Grant combat this blow to Jefferson's self-esteem?
Before trying to name prejudices, we ought to read the wording of the text carefully. Prior to using the word "hog," the attorney informs the jury that Jefferson is a boy, a fool, "a thing that acts on command"(7). The word "thing" activates pre-existing attitudes a white juror possessed about black males in a Louisiana parish circa 1948; the black male was considered to be semi- human, possessing limited intelligence "inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa…." The attorney apologizes for the error of using the word "man." He bids the gentlemen of the jury to consider, whether the thing was innocent or not innocent, "What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this" (8). The jury in good conscience can find an "it" or a thing "guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree." It is as futile for a thing to appeal a verdict as it is for a plow to protest that it has been abused. The prejudices reflected in the description are those which are innate in American racism.
Pressured by his aunt (Tante Lou) and by Jefferson's godmother (Miss Emma), Grant Wiggins reluctantly undertakes a series of verbal and material actions to persuade Jefferson that he is not a thing or a hog but a human being, a man who is condemned to die. He slowly persuades Jefferson to recognize that he does possess agency, the human capacity to discriminate between right and wrong, along with the dignity that no hog can ever possess. Jefferson leaves evidence in his diary ( Chapter 29) of how his self-esteem is restored. In terms of literary history, we note the closing lines of Jefferson's diary parallel the final statement Bigger Thomas makes to his lawyer in Native Son.
2. Grant sees his small town in Louisiana as a prison and yearns to escape. What holds him back? How does this conflict impact his relationship with his students? With Jefferson? With Vivian?
It is difficult for Grant to admit to himself that he is held back by a sense of commitment and a certain recognition that no man is an island. His small town, Bayonne, is thirteen miles away from a plantation where he lives and teaches; it is a rural scene of action in 1948, the year that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which "barred segregation in the Armed Forces and created the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, to end discrimination in military facilities and units." In 1948, "30% of all the Negroes in school in the South were educated in buildings contracted under the Rosenwald Fund's aid programs." [Quotations from Bergman, Peter M. The Chronological History of the Negro in America (New York: Mentor Books, 1969), page 516] The building in which Grant taught was a church contracted by the plantation and maintained by people who lived in the Quarter. Commitment to those people holds Grant back and leaves him in agony.
Grant teaches his students with tough-love, transferring to them his desire to be liberated from the "prison" that a plantation could be. A Lesson Before Dying conjures memory of what is documented in the film Slavery by Another Name. Although Grant is aware that his university education has created a barrier between Jefferson and himself, he is equally aware that both he and Jefferson are located in a mythology of rural Louisiana, a Southscape, or in the words of Thadious M. Davis [Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)], "the incarceral world goes on with its dividing lines, its racist segregationist codes, its systemic injustices" (302). From the theopoetic angle, Grant and Jefferson and Vivian remain" arrested in the anxious and unfulfilled present" (Horton 126). Grant's conflicted feelings create great tension between Vivian and himself, but those feelings endow his love for Vivian with maximum honesty.
3. Is the conflict between Grant and the reverend a generational conflict or a religious one? Do you think their arguments remain relevant today?
The conflict between Grant and Reverend Ambrose is at once generational and religious. It is no mere accident that Grant teaches in a plantation church, yoking the sacred and the secular in his personhood. It is Reverend Ambrose who tries to complete the education that Grant did not obtain from the university, namely that the practice of religion incorporates the lying and hypocrisy that relieves the intense pain of living. Listen as Reverend Ambrose "lessons" Grant:
"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.
And that's the difference between me and you, boy; that makes me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themselves, lied to themself ---hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain." (A Lesson Before Dying 218)
The arguments and the lesson have extraordinary relevance in 2017 for us and what we may think about the American criminal justice system that vicious, subtle, and bereft of spirituality.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. June 6, 2017