Friday, January 02, 2015

The Power of Words

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying 
by Ernest J. Gaines

"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?" I asked him. "A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better then anyone else on earth -and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer gave justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of stand, they're safe."  -  Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying is an amazing book. Reading it was an emotional experience and I also attended a dramatic reading of a stage adaptation where it did not lose its emotional power. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth named Jefferson who is on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting. Each must learn a lot about himself. The teacher, Grant Wiggins, believes that he must get away from that town, that country, as soon as possible.

"I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be..."

But he is coerced into visiting the young prisoner, Jefferson, who is confined by the law to an iron-barred cell. Jefferson's grandmother, Miss Emma, begs Grant for one last favor: to teach her grandson to die like a man. As Grant and Jefferson meet and talk they begin to realize the nature of the bonds that hold them and how, perhaps they can both learn about themselves. This is a book of inspiration for those who read and believe in the power of words. But it is also a testament to the belief that you can choose to cause your own change.
Reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines was an inspirational experience. The lesson of the title is both demonstrated by the story and felt by the reader. This is a book that I would recommend to anyone who loves reading and life.

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Brian Joseph said...

I have recently read a a couple of things about unjustly accused, convicted and executed African Americans in the American South, so this topic is timely for me.

In addition the book sound very powerful and very good.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. While this is still a timely topic the juxtaposition of the narrator's situation with that of the young Black man makes this story even more memorable. He also wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and many other books.