Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying (1998)

Ernest J. Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying (1998) is about racism in the American South, specifically in Louisiana in the 1940s.  The novel explores the impact of racism on its African-American victims in terms of its economic, legal, political, sociological and psychological dimensions.  For Gaines, the worst evil inflicted by racism is the denial of human dignity to its victims.  Consequently, the antidote, or way forward, for those oppressed by racism is to reclaim their dignity.  In this respect, the novel presents a depressing portrait of a bleak and daunting environment of oppression inflicted upon African-Americans, yet the novel also presents uplifting messages regarding how these oppressed people can find hope and dignity in the face of adversity. 

Gaines argued that racist notions of white supremacy and black inferiority are myths.  He believes that if black people live in dignity they are able, through the proof of their own example, to chip away at the credibility and negative effects of these myths.

The novel features a young black man, Jefferson, who is accused, convicted and executed for being involved in a robbery and shoot-out that left three men killed.  Although motivated by poverty to be involved in this liquor store robbery, murder was a crime he did not commit.  This scenario provided Gaines the opportunity to comment extensively on the racism endured by African-Americans after their emancipation following the American Civil War (1861−1865) and before the liberating gains that came as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The novel depicts a time when society in the South was segregated on racial lines, a policy enforced by what were known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws.  For example, African-Americans had their own washrooms, churches and schools, and they were confined to living in the ‘coloured’ neighbourhoods, which were often characterised by poverty.  Their public facilities were usually poorly resourced and below the standard of those provided for whites.  Meanwhile, blacks were barred from attending venues designated for whites.  White government officials maintained and administered this unequal and unjust system. The justice system was characterised by racist values and seen to provide ‘white justice’ rather than justice for all.  

In addition to these major injustices, Gaines seems to believe that subtle everyday expressions of racism were among the most insidious because they gradually robbed black people of their dignity.  For example, blacks were expected to lower their eyes when in the presence of a white person whom they were not directly addressing. 

Gaines promoted education as a means to dignify people.  The novel implies that education bestows upon individuals the civilised qualities that make one able to take one’s place in the world with dignity.  Teachers as educators are the custodians of this power.  The African-American teacher, Grant, bestows upon Jefferson the qualities that allow him to die with dignity despite having suffered a life of indignities and being executed for a crime he did not commit. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: A Lesson Before Dying meaning, A Lesson Before Dying themes, A Lesson Before Dying analysis, A Lesson Before Dying notes