A young black man is soon to be put in the electric chair, but the fact that he is innocent is not important in Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. The question is will he face death like a man, or like a dumb animal, a hog, as his defense attorney carelessly characterized him.
The story takes place in a small Louisiana town during the 1940’s, when all-white male juries commonly found accused black men guilty until proven innocent. In this case, some prominent white men in the town wanted to bet on how the young black man would face execution. After all, Jefferson, who was convicted of murdering a white man, had no family or close relatives, just a godmother, who loved the boy, but hadn’t raised him to die in the electric chair.
The narrator of the story is Grant, a young man who lives and teaches school in the black quarter of a large plantation. He is not related to Jefferson, but his aunt and Miss Emma, the godmother, want Grant to convince Jefferson that he must take death as a man.
Grant has problems of his own. He wants to marry Vivian, but her divorce is still pending. Except for being closer to her, he regrets that he returned to his hometown to teach. He also does not like living with his aunt, especially now since she and Miss Emma expect him to counsel Jefferson for them. Worse than that, Reverend Ambrose wants Grant to reassure the deathrow prisoner about Heaven, something Grant is no longer able to believe in.
Grant bitterly explains to Vivian that “We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery.” Perhaps that’s why Miss Emma hopes that on that last day Jefferson “… did not crawl to that white man the executioner, but he stood …and walked.”
Gaines’ portrayal of a near-illiterate black inmate facing the electric chair is excellent. The diary he scribbles out in his cell, though difficult to read, reflects the things that he can’t explain orally to Grant and brings alive the last thoughts of a misunderstood and misjudged young man.
Only Paul, a young deputy at the courthouse, shows respect for the black prisoner and Grant. “You’re one great teacher…”, Paul admits on the day of the execution, the day that all blacks stay home from work, most of them on their knees. “He Jefferson was the bravest man in that room today.”
Gaines openly exposes many conflicts between the blacks in A Lesson Before Dying, but all under a cloud of the white supremacy which still exists. The book, written in 1993, became the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award For Fiction and was also selected by Oprah’s Book Club.