National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

In all my stories and novels, no one ever escapes Louisiana.


Ernest Gaines (Copyright Joseph Sanford)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

KenYatta Rogers reading A Lesson Before Dying...

"Gentlemen of the jury, look at this. [...] Do you see a man sitting here? Do you see a man sitting here? I ask you, I implore, look carefully— [...] Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand, look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan, can plan, can plan anything? [...]

"What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." [...]

The jury retired, and it returned a verdict after lunch: guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree.

Reed: That's KenYatta Rogers reading from Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying, a novel about a man condemned to death and the teacher who helps him find dignity in the face of adversity.

Romulus Linney: What I think is so magnificent about the novel is that there's a lot more to it than just this trial. There is great resonance here.

Warden Burl Cain: It's like I keep thinking Ernest Gaines had witnessed an execution. He got the emotions for everybody.

Sister Helen Prejean: You have this transparent story where your heart gets brought more and more into it. And more than one mission has been achieved in A Lesson Before Dying. A lot of people learn lessons.

Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Ernest Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying is set in rural Louisiana in the 1940s. Actress Ruby Dee.

Ruby Dee: It takes place on a plantation outside of Bayonne, Louisiana, where racism is a rule of thumb of human behavior in that part of the world. It was where slavery has taken hold. It's where the economics of life depends upon the subjugation of one group of people over another.

Gioia: Rural Louisiana is also where author Ernest Gaines was born and raised.

Ernest J. Gaines: I spent my childhood here in Pointe Coupee Parish. I lived on a plantation. Just like any other child growing up on the country at that time, I'd get all the field work. I picked the cotton, I gathered pecans and blackberries and did a lot of fishing in the bayous and the river until I was 15 years old, and the reason why I left here at that time was because there is no high school for African American children in this parish and my folks wanted me to be educated because I'd be the first male in our family history to go beyond elementary school.

Gioia: At 15, Gaines moved to California to attend high school. There he discovered books, a rare commodity on the plantation. Hour after hour in the Vallejo Public Library, he immersed himself in Russian, French and American literature, anything he could find. It was also in California, living near the infamous San Quentin Prison, that he became fascinated and haunted by capital punishment.

Gaines: In San Francisco, you live across the bay from San Quentin, you know, and ten o'clock on Tuesdays, this was execution day. And I always wondered and wondered what this person must go through the month before, the week before, then the night before, knowing that he's going to die at ten o'clock that Tuesday.

Gioia: Those dark meditations about death row would eventually become A Lesson Before Dying. Editor Ash Green worked with Gaines on the book.

Ash Green: This young man who inadvertently gets involved in a liquor store robbery is railroaded in a trial, sentenced to death. And a young teacher is asked to prepare his way for what is going to happen to him and the relationship between the young man who is about to die and the teacher is really an extraordinary literary feat.

Gioia: The story begins with the trial of this young black man named Jefferson. Sister Helen Prejean.

Sister Prejean: What his defense lawyer does, and I understand kind of why the defense lawyer did this, but what he basically said to that jury was, "Look at him, he is not capable of planning a murder. He's like nothing but a, a hog. There's nothing in that skull. Look at that face."

Cicely Tyson: And in his efforts to achieve success in saving this young man's life, he demeaned him in every way possible.

Gioia: Actress, Cicely Tyson.

Tyson: The blow that devastated his godmother, Emma, was when he was referred to as a hog. It has to tear you up inside.

Gioia: After watching the boy she raised suffer this gross indignity, Jefferson's godmother, Ms. Emma, makes a decision.

Tyson: She had accepted the fact that he was going to die. What she refused to accept was that he was not going to die as a hog, but as a human being who is a man.

Gioia: Ms. Emma makes a plea to the plantation owner, Mr. Henri Pichot, whom she has served much of her life.

KenYatta Rogers reading A Lesson Before Dying...

"They called my boy a hog, Mr. Henri," Ms. Emma said. "I didn't raise no hog, and I don't want no hog to go set in that chair. I want a man to go set in that chair, Mr. Henri."

He looked at her but he didn't say anything. He was waiting for his drink.

"I'm old, Mr. Henri," she went on. "Jefferson is go'n to need me but I'm too old to be going up there. My heart won't take it. I want you talk to the sheriff for me. I want somebody else take my place. [...]

"I want the teacher visit my boy. I want the teacher make him know he's not a hog. He's a man. I want him know that before he goes to that chair, Mr. Henri." [...]

"I done done a lot for this family and this place, Mr. Henri," she said. "All I am asking you talk to the sheriff for me. I done done a lot for this family over the years."

"I can't promise anything," he said and sipped his drink.

Gioia: Cecily Tyson appeared in the 1999 film adaptation of A Lesson Before Dying. She played the role of Ms. Emma's best friend, Tante Lou.

Tyson: The character Tante Lou probably on the exterior appeared to be very stern and very strict, but she knew what black men had to face in that bigoted society.

Gioia: Just as Ms. Emma is the mother figure to her godson, Jefferson, Tante Lou raised her nephew, Grant Wiggins, since childhood. Grant is the schoolteacher on the plantation and the man on whom Ms. Emma pins her last hope. She asks Grant to visit Jefferson in jail to teach him that he is not an animal, but a man who should walk to his death with dignity.

Tyson: While there was a great deal of reluctance on Grant's part because he said he himself was still grappling with what in fact is a man. Who in fact is a man? Am I a man? He said, "I don't even know if I am accomplishing what I would really like to accomplish with these children. And that's because I am not sure of myself, so how can I project to someone something that I am not sure of myself."

Linney: It's actually as much a struggle for Grant to understand what's going on as it is for Jefferson.

Gioia: Playwright, Romulus Linney, adapted A Lesson Before Dying for the stage in 2000. He was struck by the story's contemporary reverberations.

Linney: How many black men are in prison now that did not do what they're in prison for? Are you kidding? It's one of the awful, shameful things about our country. A great country but it has great things wrong with it and that's one of them. There is great resonance here and the resonances are all about the relationship between African Americans and white people in very difficult circumstances.

Gioia: Grant Wiggins, who narrates the story, describes his first visit to Jefferson in jail.

KenYatta Rogers reading A Lesson Before Dying...

We went through a heavy steel door to the area where the prisoners were quartered. The white prisoners were also on this floor but in a separate section. I counted eight cells for black prisoners with two bunks to each cell. Half of the cells were empty. The others had one or two prisoners. They reached their hands out between the bars and asked for cigarettes or money. Ms. Emma stopped to talk to them. She told them she did not have any money but she brought some food for Jefferson and if there was anything left, she would give it to them. [...]

There was an empty cell between Jefferson and the rest of the prisoners. He was at the end of the cellblock and he was lying on his bunk when we came up. The deputy unlocked the door for us, and Ms. Emma and I went in. Jefferson still lay on his bunk, staring up at the ceiling. He didn't look at us once.

Sister Prejean: It's really a story about human freedom and choice up against great extremity and great injustice.

Gioia: Author of Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic sister of Saint Joseph whose account of her relationship with a death row inmate was made into a 1995 feature film.

Sister Prejean: Jefferson is on his bunk with his face to the wall and he doesn't utter a word. And the first visit goes like that, second visit goes like that. So Grant is thinking, "Man, if he won't even talk to his own mama, I'm not going to be able to get headway."

Gioia: During one visit, Jefferson intentionally behaves like hog to upset Grant, eating his aunt's food off the floor like an animal. Grant calmly explains the despair his behavior would cause Ms. Emma if she knew of it.

Sister Prejean: Grant more and more appealed to him, "Look, it would really make your nannan happy," and that's really going to end up being a fulcrum of love around which things are gonna pivot because, "Do it for her. You owe it to her. She raised you and loves you. Do it for her."

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines.

Gioia: Like Jefferson, Grant is engaged in his own internal battles. He hates living on the plantation, where the only job for an educated black man is as a school teacher. With astonishingly limited resources and students who worked the fields more often than they attend school, he has little power to affect change. Despite a burning desire to flee the plantation and the South, Grant cannot leave. He is bound by a complex sense of duty to the community in which he was raised, and he is in love with a young woman named Vivian, who's in the midst of a divorce and must stay put in order to keep her children.

KenYatta Rogers reading A Lesson Before Dying...

We left the house. Up at the church, Reverend Ambrose had just started his 'Termination song, Amazing Grace. We went down the quarter. [...]

Horses and mules were grazing in the pastures beside and behind the houses, but that was about as much movement as you saw. Above, a low ashen sky loomed over the plantation, if not over the entire state of Louisiana. A swarm of black birds flew across the road and alighted in a pecan tree in one of the backyards to our left. The entire plantation was deadly quiet, except for the singing coming from the church up the quarter behind us.

This was Vivian's first time back here. And I told her that my people had worked these fields ever since slavery and many of them were buried in the cemetery behind us. I asked her if she wanted a piece of cane and she said yes. [...] She chewed it and let some of the juice run down her chin, the way a small child would do. [...] I cut off a round for myself and chewed it. It was very soft, very sweet.

Gioia: When not teaching, Grant spends as much time with Vivian as he can manage. He tells her about his bleak and discouraging visits to the prison; then suddenly, Grant makes an important connection with Jefferson.

Sister Helen Prejean.

Sister Prejean: Grant's big breakthrough with him comes when he brings him a radio. He had to go through trouble to get that radio, he had to have permission to get the radio, he had to borrow money to get the radio and that radio becomes a turning point.

Ernest Gaines: When I was kid growing up, we'd go to my grandmother's house and we used to listen to the music, especially late at night you could hear this blues and the stuff.

Gioia: Author, Ernest Gaines.

Gaines: And the blues was reaching Jefferson spiritually. And I, this is the reason why I had it, it was to get him to open up.

Gioia: Music reaches Jefferson in a way that nothing else had. Not religion, not his family. But the radio proves to be only the first gift that changes Jefferson's life. Grant brings him a notebook and pencil and he urges Jefferson, who is barely literate, to try to write down some of his thoughts.

KenYatta Rogers reading A Lesson Before Dying...

The letters were large and awkward, the way someone would write who could barely see. [...] As closely as I can figure, he had written: I dreamt it again last night. They was taking me somewhere. I wasn't crying. I wasn't begging. I was just going, going with them. Then I woke up. I couldn't go back to sleep, I didn't want go back to sleep. I didn't want dream no more.

Gaines: I wanted to show his limitation his language and words and his spelling. I wanted all of those little things going on for a person who is illiterate.

He never ever thought himself important. "I'm nothing, I just obeyed and like a dumb ox or a mule or whatever, I do what people tell me to do and that's it and then I try to turn it into who am I and what do I like about life, how's life treating me." And he tried to put that down on paper.

Gioia: Jefferson's sentence is death by electrocution, a practice that continued in Louisiana until 1991. Ash Green.

Green: In Louisiana in those days, when a person that was sentenced to death, the electric chair was moved to his hometown so that he could be electrocuted in front of his neighbors, if you will. It was rather an extraordinary way of doing of this.

Gioia: Sister Helen Prejean.

Sister Prejean: Then Gaines takes us into the viewpoints from different people-the words spreading from the people that the chair had arrived. Of people saying, "Oh, I don't want to see it," or "Oh, I can't believe they gonna do that." And the fascination and the horror that this man is going to be killed in this chair.

Warden Burl Cain: They did that too. They hauled it in a truck, and they brought the big generator and I remember when I read the book about the generator because the generator is a noisy loud thing and they used an old tractor motor to run the generator.

Gioia: Burl Cain is the warden of Angola State Penitentiary, where all executions in Louisiana now take place. These days, the state uses lethal injection for its executions. The traveling electric chair now sits in Angola's prison museum. Warden Cain.

Warden Cain: When the switch is pulled then the engine is like when it is strained, and the governor kicks in and revs the engine up. It'd be (sound of engine), then they pull the turn switch on and it idles back down, and so can actually tell when, you know, when it's doing its job.

Gioia: Warden Cain has witnessed eight executions-six by lethal injection and two by electrocution.

Warden Cain: My role has been that, I am going to be the one that walks in there with him, that talks to him and gives the signal. I've held four of 'ems' hands, you know, when they died because they didn't want to hold their hand because they reach into the next earth. It is crazy. I revisited all of 'em when I read the book.

Gioia: Gaines' novel deals with the harsh realities of capital punishment, not a common theme in contemporary fiction. Warden Cain describes everyone's fear that, at the last moment, the prisoner will not be able to walk on his own.

Warden Cain: It is a cop out, probably, when I think about it, but you just can hardly bear to have to carry him down there and fight with him and struggle and tie him down, and what if the witnesses see that struggle, I mean, this is traumatic for everybody. It's just rough, that is what it is.

Sister Prejean: That's a huge thing for all the people. I have accompanied six people to execution. "I want to walk. Sister, pray God he holds up my legs. I want to walk to my death like a man."

And Ernest Gaines captured that, he captured that in that book. It came so close to the actual experiences I've had in the death house. I said, "Ernest Gaines, I don't know if you've ever walked in that place, but boy you've captured it in this story."

Gioia: Although Grant helps Jefferson develop his humanity, the teacher is unable to bring himself to be with the condemned man during his final hour. He is at the church school instead, walking outside while inside his students kneel in silent prayer.

KenYatta Rogers reading A Lesson Before Dying...

I had no idea what I would do while I waited to hear from Bayonne but I found myself out in the road and walking up the quarter. It was a couple of minutes after twelve, and I was trying not to think. But how could I not think about something that had dominated my thoughts for nearly six months? It seemed I had spent more time with him in that jail cell than I had with the children in the church school. [...]

Why wasn't I there? Why wasn't I standing beside him? Why wasn't my arm around him? Why?

It must have been 12:15 by now; I didn't want to look at my watch anymore. Had it already happened or was he still waiting, sitting on the bunk, hands clasped together, waiting? Was he standing at the cell door, listening for that first sound of footsteps coming toward him or was it finally, finally over?

Linney: Ernest is one of the finest writers the country has ever had.

Gioia: Romulus Linney.

Linney: At his best, as he is in this book, there is a love of life in spite of what life does to you. There is a love of human expression that soars above the story. If you want, it's about goodness.

Gioia: Cicely Tyson.

Tyson: What I get is a lesson on how to maintain your pride and dignity no matter what the circumstances are. And you are able to do that when you understand who you are.

Gioia: Ruby Dee.

Dee: The message is something that you think you've known as a black person for a long time, but he gives it clarity. He gives it an undeniable sense of truth. He dimensionalizes racism, knowing that if you can analyze something, you can understand it better. When you can pull something apart and look at it, it's not as fearsome.

Gioia: Today, Ernest Gaines lives in a house that he built on the same plantation that he worked as a child. He bought the land when he returned to Louisiana after his years in California.

Gaines: The body went to California. The soul remaining here with my aunt that my brothers and sisters in the old shack we lived in. We have a cemetery back there where my people are buried the last over a hundred years.

Gioia: Many readers assume that Gaines's portrayal of Grant Wiggins is somewhat autobiographical-a point that the author denies, but that intrigues him.

Gaines: Grant-he was, he just hated where he was, but at the same time he can't leave. I don't know what would've happened to me had I stayed here. I probably would have ended up teaching as Grant did in a little school like this or somewhere and angry. I've said it quite a few times that the two best moves I have ever made in life are the day I went to California and the day I came back here.

Green: I think what is important about Gaines is that he can be read with equal profit by a twelve year old or a sixty year old.

Gioia: Ash Green.

Green: And not many American writers of fiction reach those multiple kinds of audiences these days.

Gioia: Gaines recalls an encounter years ago when another writer asked him for whom he writes.

Gaines: I said, well, I'm writing for so many people, I don't write for any particular group. And he said, what if a gun was to your head? And I said, well, hopefully I write for the black youth of the South to help him find his way in and know something about his past so maybe it'll help him in his future. And he said, what if the gun is still at your head? I said, well, I write for white youth of the South to let him know that unless he knows something about his neighbor over the last 300 years, he knows only half of his own history.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

It was written and produced by Molly Murphy and Dan Stone, and mixed by Molly Murphy.

Readings from A Lesson Before Dying were by KenYatta Rogers. "Were You There?," "Guitar Man," "John Henry," "Piedmont Medley" and "Amazing Grace" by NEA Heritage Fellow Cephas and Wiggins used courtesy of John Cephas, Phil Wiggins and Joe Wilson."Cotton Fields," "Leaving Blues," "Let it Shine on Me" and "Moanin'" performed by Lead Belly. Plus "Death is Awful" by Doc Reed, all used with permission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Original sound effects by Brent Finley at Sonic Magic Studios. Production Assistant: Adam Kampe. Administrative Assistants: Pepper Smith and Erica Koss. Special thanks to Ken Hoffman, Louise Herras, Keith Cornell, Sister Margaret, Luthetha Martin, Angie Knorwood and to our contributors: Warden Burl Cain, Ruby Dee, Ernest J. Gaines, Ash Green, Romulus Linney, Sister Helen Prejean and Cicely Tyson.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I am Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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