Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines in church (Source: African American Literature Book Club)

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

Cover of Gaines' 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.

The Three-Arched Bridge

February 21, 2012

If you read the Valentine’s Day posting on the legend of Rozafa, you no doubt found inspiring the purity of Rozafa’s self-sacrificial love for her child and her country, yet you also noticed the ambiguity surrounding the brothers’ decisions and actions.  On the one hand, to their credit, the two elder brothers break their pledges to keep secret the imminent human sacrifice in order to protect their wives, and the youngest brother, seemingly a man of honor, keeps his “besa,” his pledge to say nothing about the immurement to Rozafa.  On the other hand, the elder brother hangs his head in shame when he tells Rozafa that the wall demands a human life, for Rozafa has been chosen not by “chance,” as he claims, but rather by the elder brothers’ manipulative hypocrisy.  Further, if the sacrifice must be determined by chance, then the three brothers might have drawn lots so that one of them, not one of their wives, would die.  The men, in other words, find motives for their actions in self-preservation and fear.  Only the woman, Rozafa, overcomes her ‘trembling’ and gives her life for her child and for Albania.

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Albania’s great novelist Ismail Kadare draws on the legend of Rozafa in his 1976 novel  The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura Me Tri Harqe), another story of immurement that roots the theme of sacrifice in the ambiguity of motives.  Kadare has set his story in the late fourteenth century, just one generation before the Albanian hero Skanderbeg leads the resistance to the Ottoman invasion of 1444, a resistance that ends in 1479 at the Siege of Shkodra, where the triumphant Turks littered the Citadel of Rozafa with 60,000 Albanian corpses to be shredded by vultures.  With the monk Gjon narrating Kadare’s novel, we learn that Albania stands in need of another building project, this time a bridge, to link Albania to the rest of the Balkans at a time when Ottomans have already infiltrated the culture, a precursor to invasion.   Though this bridge, just like Rozafa’s castle, goes up quickly, after each night the piers and arches show signs of damage no hammer or claw could inflict, generating wide-spread gossip in favor of another “sacrifice for the sake of the thousands and thousands of travelers” who will cross the bridge “down the centuries to come” (105).

Well informed about Rozafa’s patriotic act, Gjon immediately notices that this call for sacrifice has more to do with commerce than with defense, so he wonders who might be willing to die for a significantly lesser cause.  But someone does volunteer to be walled in the bridge, Murrash Zenebisha, an “ordinary” man, a mason, just like Rozafa’s husband (114).  Yet instead of responding with adulation for Murrash when Gjon hears rumors of his heroism, Gjon reacts with confusion over the mason’s lack of a clear motive for martyrdom, then with horror when he sees Murrash “planted in the stone,” his face “splattered” with a “mask” of plaster, his “arms and legs…merged with the wall (115), his “oblivious white eyes” staring out at the monk (117).  Gjon’s terror grows, too, when he notices Murrash’s “wounds…between the neck and collar bone” (122), and when Murrash’s family members, seemingly “petrified” with grief initially, soon bring suit against one another after quarreling over “compensation” for their kinsman’s death (131, 177).  Has Murrash been murdered, caught sabotaging a bridge he believed would benefit only foreigners and a corrupt local Count?  Has Murrash’s family sold him out for profit?

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

With Murrash supporting the bridge, Gjon concedes that it quickly becomes a splendid “rainbow” structure.  But this supposed guarantor of a prosperous future, Gjon knows, has “death at its foundations” (157, 151), a martyrdom tainted by lies.   Eventually, Kadare’s narrator acknowledges his own complicity, confessing his presence as the Count and the bridge-builders planned the murder of Murrash (184, 122).  Yet Gjon persists courageously with his chronicle to the end, even as the Turkish horsemen clash with Albanian patriots on the bridge (179), thus mitigating his role in the death of the mason.  But fear for his country blends with his courage, and that fear roots in self-knowledge, as Gjon imagines his ethnic identity plastered and dead in the bridge, a bridge built—as was Rozafa’s castle—with sacrificial blood and soul-withering lies.

The significance of Kadare’s novel rests not only in the morality tale—break not thy besa—but also in Kadare’s Faulkner-like capacity to paint so vividly the truths of the human heart, a heart sometimes strong enough to die for others but often weak enough to succumb to fears and lies.  If these same kinds of hearts beat in Asia and the West as well as in Albania, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, then we may read Kadare’s work as a prophecy for us all.  As we behold Rozafa’s milk streaming down the fortress walls, then Murrash’s eyes peering from the bridge, we witness at once our past and our future, our collective magnificence and our self-inflicted doom.

For a full discussion of Kadare’s novel in the context of the legend of Rozafa, see my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, volume 1, number 4, fall 2006, pages 62-77.  The ideas above and much of the language come directly from the article.

Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,
2009)