Earnest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying
A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines is set in a plantation community in rural Louisiana. The two main characters in the novel, Grant and Jefferson, are engaged in a struggle to achieve self-respect in society, which allots them none. The story takes place at the end of the 1940s, a time when Louisiana and many other southern states were practicing segregation. The second college edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines segregation as, “…The policy and practice of imposing the social separation of races, as in schools, housing, and industry…” (1111). Mr. Gaines employs a variety of settings to illustrate how this cruel practice invades every aspect of Grant and Jefferson’s lives; from religion and legal process to love.
In the courtroom, the defense lawyer insinuates that Jefferson is less than a man because of his physical characteristics and apparent lack of intelligence. He asks the jury, “…do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand…do you see a modicum of intelligence?” (7). He further degrades Jefferson by referring to him as a thing, “What you see here is a thing that acts on command”, and finally as an animal, “…I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” (7-8). Evidently, discrimination and stereotyping based on the degree of skin pigmentation exhibited existed as a hierarchy with the lightest skin pigmentation on top and the darkest on the bottom, with the each individual cluster discriminating against the one beneath them.
Grant’s former schoolmaster, Mathew Antoine, may have been a male role model for him. However, professor Antoine was bitter, he loathed himself and everyone else in the community, apparently; he had subscribed to the ideology of segregation. He told Grant he was Creole and that, “I am superior to any man blacker than me” (65). When Grant did not agree with him, he advised Grant to leave the plantation and said that if he stayed, “ He’ll [the white man] make you the nigger you were born to be.” (65). After Grant had finished college and returned to the plantation as the new schoolmaster, Antoine offered him a final piece of advice, “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.” (66). From the courthouse to the schoolhouse stereotyping and discrimination based on simple differences in human biological variation existed, but it did not end there.
Not only was Grant forced to endure harsh treatment from his teacher; the white community especially hated him because he was educated. He was, in their opinion, too smart; he did not know his place. When Grant met with Sheriff Guidry at Pichot’s house, he was rudely forced to wait for hours in the kitchen and was spoken to condescendingly by Sheriff Guidry. After Grant answered a question intelligently, Guidry stated, “Maybe you’re just a little too smart for your own good.” (49). After earning a college...