Racism and Its Driving Force in A Lesson Before Dying
We live in a society. This is true for the past and stays true for now and the future. ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ crafts a deep and intriguing plot and story structure that builds deep character development around one idea: coping with your inevitable death from the oppression of society. The story starts off with several questions for the reader to answer, such as what lesson is being taught and why is it so important? The reader soon learns that the lesson is about how to be a man, one that Grant, the main character, teaches to Jefferson, a wrongly convicted African American plantation worker. The structure of the story builds around these questions with the beginning of the story giving the premise and the reality hitting at the end with all the struggle in between. Many scholarly articles look into the idea of manhood and identity in the story such David E. Magill’s ‘Make Him a Man’: Black Masculinity and Communal Identity in Ernest J. Gaines’s ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ while other scholars such as Jeffrey J. Folks in “Communal Responsibility in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying” focus on the relationship between African American writing and folk culture. Racism and oppression play a major role throughout the story. However, there are not any scholars that talk about racism and the role in plays in the interaction between characters. Racism and its oppression to the African Americans not only is a major driving force in the story but also is a major force in how Grant interacts with other characters in the story.
Racism is the driving force in the novel. It is why Grant is suspected of murder and why he was found guilty even though he was innocent. Right from the start of the novel you see racism as plain as day. Jefferson’s lawyer’s idea of a legal strategy for Jefferson is to argue, ‘Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.’ This dehumanizing joke of a defense that uses the “inferiority” of African Americans quickly fails under the white judge and the all-white jury. This event sparks the beginning of the story and the start of Grant’s interaction with Jefferson. Characters such as Reverend Ambrose act as a foil to Grant and as the leader of the black quarter’s religious community he believes that faith in God shields the believer against the oppression of white racism. The Reverend reveals in the story that he believes that lying is an important part of African American survival. This is because of the oppression they have to face from white racism. He believes that they should be willing to do anything to survive, even if it means lying and throwing away your personal beliefs and pride. Henri Pichot owns the plantation where Grant spent his childhood. He enjoys the status quo because it allows him to feel superior others, specifically African Americans. Grant’s visit to Pichot is an embarrassing and humiliating part of the novel. They have to enter Pichot’s house through the servants’ entrance in the back and then must wait until Pichot allows them to come in and see him. They talk to Pichot as servants to master, careful not to offend him and appeal only to his generosity for help. This event shows how racism affects the interaction between characters. Pichot is not considered to be evil however he enjoys the status quo and it enables him. The characters have to beg for his help and are relegated as people that are to be pitied. Paul, a white deputy who stands with Jefferson when Grant cannot is one of the only few whites in the story that sympathizes with the black struggle in the South.
Grant often criticizes society. He resents the racism of whites, shown by the fact that he cannot stand to think of Jefferson’s unjust conviction. Grant longs to run away and escape the society he feels will never change and yet he comes back after leaving the town long ago. This is questioned up by Vivian, Grant’s girlfriend. Grant hates and is repulsed by the society he lives in and yet at the same time he cannot bring himself to leave. This is in part by the people he has meet and the relationships he has gained in this town. It is Grant’s self-pride and that prevents him from appreciating the people whom he lives with and this is why he was unable to answer Vivian asked.
While racism is the reason for his conflicts it is also the reason for his bonding. It brings the characters together, with a common goal. Professor Antoine ideals are very similar to Grants and as his predecessor it is not surprising. Professor Antoine believes no one can change society without being destroyed in the process. This idea is reinforced by Jefferson’s trial and it increases Grant’s pessimistic attitude. Grant sees a system designed to uphold the superiority of one race over another. He sees a man struck down to the level of a hog by a few words from an attorney. He sees a judge blind to justice and a jury deaf to the truth. These injustices are particularly infuriating because no one stands up to defy them. The entire town accepts Jefferson’s conviction with solemn silence. Even Grant stays silent, resisting his aunt and Miss Emma, who implores him to teach Jefferson how to regain his humanity.
By the end of the novel, Grant truly understands Jefferson. He understands that by dying like a man, he will defy the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just of murder, but of being black. He knows that by refusing to bow down in his final moments, he will make his community proud. For these reasons, he walks to his execution calmly, and onlookers say he is the strongest man in the room.
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