Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 3

April 7, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

Returning to our discussion of Gaines’ Lesson, I said that, even as they prepare the final version of their Salesman papers, they would need to draw on their journaling to begin planning their essays on Gaines’ novel.  To help them begin this process, I passed out their assignment sheet, which featured the following subjects as possible focuses for their essays:

  • The effects of racism on the American justice system
  • The relationship of liberty to literacy
  • The love story of Vivian and Grant
  • Grant: the man and the teacher
  • Jefferson: His transformation from “hog” to man
  • Reverend Ambrose, Grant, and the dynamics of faith and doubt
  • The women in Gaines’ novel

I then suggested that we spend our last hour talking about approaches to one or two of these overlapping subjects, focusing particularly on chapters 20-31, the ones we had not discussed.  By common consent, we began with “Grant: the man and the teacher.”  Reminding students that we saw a new Grant emerging at the end of our last session, I asked what evidence they saw of Grant’s effective teaching.  Kadrije mentioned the radio that Grant bought for Jefferson and his defense of this purchase in a confrontation with Reverend Ambrose, who calls it a “sin box” (181).  “So how can we consider a radio a teaching device?” I asked Kadrije.  She responded by reading key quotes from Grant’s defense:  “I found a way to reach him for the first time….He wants something of his own before he dies….The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio” (182, 183).

After commending Kadrije on her insights and evidence, I asked if anyone else could uncover some effective teaching that emerges, rather ironically, from his conflict with Reverend Ambrose.  “You recall,” I said, “that Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to pray, to kneel; Grant refuses, saying that he has tried to teach him to stand.  But what kinds of teachings does Grant share with Jefferson in the meetings that follow?”  Edita answered, referring to Grant’s lesson about heroism, his teaching Jefferson to be a hero; she then read some key quotes from the lesson: “A hero does for…people he loves because he knows it would make their lives better….You could give something to Emma, to me, to those children in the quarter” (191).  “Can you tell me what Grant has to say about Mr. Farrell’s slingshots?” I asked her.  “It’s a metaphor,” Edita explained; “Farrell turns rough wood into a beautiful slingshot handle; he wants Jefferson to “decide to become something else” (193).  “And what irony does this lesson have, given Grant’s recent fight with the Reverend?”  “Grant speaks like a pastor, teaching about love,” Edita answered.  “And what does Grant tell Jefferson as they walk around the day-room, Jefferson in shackles?”  Edita answered with another quotation from Grant: “I think it’s God that makes people care for people” (223).  Naturally, I had lots of praise for Edita, too.

Delighted by these insights, I asked the class what other brilliant teaching idea Grant has just before he begins this ‘sermon’ about love.  Several answered with “the pencil and diary.”  I then asked how this teaching strategy works, and how it relates to the “liberty and literacy” subject on their assignment sheet.  “What do we learn about Jefferson from his journaling, besides the obvious fact that he had minimal literacy skills?  What does he write about?”  These questions led to an array of answers: Jefferson’s dream about the execution, his feeling that God “just work for wite folks” (227), his gratitude to his teacher, his tearful response to the children who bring him pecans and kisses and marbles, the kisses he gives to Emma at her last visit, his admission that he “been shakin an shakin but im gon stay strong” (233).  I then asked what they would call a person who admits his fears but faces them, a person who can show tenderness to children, compassion for his godmother, and gratitude to the man who made him “think im somebody” (232).  Several answered instantly: “a man.”  “Yes,” I responded, “so what does Gaines suggest here about the power of writing?  Jefferson still wears chains, he still will die, but what has he achieved?”  “Freedom,” Fidan said.  “He has escaped the ‘hog’ identity.”

Thanking the class for their thoughtful responses, I encouraged them, as they began to draft on their chosen subject, to think about blending a critical theory or theories with their analysis.   For example, I noted that the subject of Jefferson as well as the first two subjects focus on racism and the justice system and on the relationship of literacy to liberty; therefore, these subjects might invite a Marxist reading of the novel, arguing that the injustices of capitalism appear in the arrogance of the ruling class and in their oppression of the proletariat or working class.  On the other hand, I said that if they chose to write about Grant, they could take a deconstructive approach, arguing that Grant’s transformation and its effects on Jefferson and the deputy Paul undercut the Marxist critique, showing that capitalist injustices can, eventually, be overcome.  Further, I suggested that a paper on Vivian and the other women in the novel would invite a feminist reading, stressing the failed attempts to silence women, and a paper on Grant and Reverend Ambrose could take a psychoanalytic approach, tracing the conflict between the agnostic and the man of faith as a clash between a ‘son’ and a surrogate father/authority figure.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.