Ernest J. Gaines's thought provoking A Lesson Before Dying will make you rethink what you believe about capital punishment. It will make you think about the inequality of our criminal justice system. It will make you think about life, death, the measure of a human, and compassion.
The story is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man has been arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. His defender said, "What justice would there be to take this life? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this" (8). Because of this statement, Jefferson feels less than a man. He refuses to see himself as human. His godmother asks the town's teacher to come and help him see that he is human so he will walk to the electric chair with grace and dignity.
What follows is an emotional account of human strength, compassion, and frailty.
One paragraph that really hit me was when Grant (the teacher) is trying to explain to his girlfriend what the elderly godmother wanted from Jefferson. "We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle - which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, and maybe even tries to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own. I can see by your face you don't agree, so I'll try again. What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years. She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of her bed again, she can go to the little church there in the quarter and say proudly, 'You see, I told you - I told you he was a man.' And if she dies an hour after that, all right; but what she wants to hear first is that he did not crawl to that white man, that he stood at that last moment and walked. Because if he does not, she knows that she will never get another chance to see a black man stand for her" (167).
Keep in mind that in the south in the late 1940s there was no equality for black Americans. Black men were treated as children by white people and Jim Crow laws ran rampant.
In the last section of the book, we get to read Jefferson's journal and see how he really feels about going to the electric chair. This book will make you cry and cringe and look hard at accepted norms. This book will make you want to be a little kinder and more loving.
This book is life changing and thought changing. I started out listening to the audio version, which is well acted with good voice actors, but it isn't the same as the book. It is more like dialogue, music, and sound effects. I felt like I was listening to a movie without seeing the pictures. I opened the book and saw that it is completely different - same story but the book has all the narration, descriptions, and internal thoughts and dialogue. I like audio books, but in this case, I recommend the book over the audio version.
Read a book today in order to keep an open mind and challenge your thinking.