A black man awaits his death, Southern-style

May 09, 1993|By Judith Wynn

A LESSON BEFORE DYING.

Ernest J. Gaines.

Knopf.

257 pages. $21.

Ernest J. Gaines sets his engrossing new novel, "A Lesson Before Dying," in late 1940s Louisiana, when a phrase such as "politically correct" would be regarded as devious, communist brainwashing. Grant Wiggens, a young, black country schoolteacher, sulks in his bedroom at his elderly aunt's house. Aunt Lou and her best friend, Emma Glenn, silently await him in the kitchen. Grant hates the job they've given him.

But the women's minds are made up. Miss Emma's young godson, Jefferson, has been sentenced to die for being present at a hold-up that left a white shop-owner dead.

As the community schoolmaster, Grant must teach the condemned man in the time left about human dignity -- teach him "how to die like a man."

At the murder trial, Jefferson's lawyer tried to beat the death sentence by telling the jury that executing his client would be like putting "a hog in the electric chair." The lawyer's tactic

failed. Jefferson must go to the chair.

Miss Emma and the rest of the black community accept the verdict. But that shameful word -- "hog" -- grates on them.

This assignment disheartens Grant. A college graduate who is far too bright to "adapt" to white supremacy, he finds it hard enough to live like a man in a town whose white leaders bristle and jeer whenever an educated black says "He doesn't" instead of "He don't."

Grant tries to explain his disgust to his girlfriend, Vivian: "Suppose I reached him and made him realize that he was as much a man as any other man; then what? He's still going to die. The next day, the next week. So what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?"

Grant wishes he and Vivian could run away and never come back, but both of them know that there's no escape from one's own home.

Mr. Gaines ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") does a masterful job recapturing a not-so-distant past that is both startlingly different yet eerily akin to our own times. Grant's fierce, silent struggles with the administrators who stand between him and Jefferson chill the blood as they remind us how bad apartheid -- South African or Dixie-style -- is. His side battle with the black minister who also wants to "save" Jefferson is a compelling look at an educated man's conflict with a religion that both sustains and holds him back.

In Jefferson's jail cell, Grant finds a cold, sarcastic pupil. "Manners is for the living," Jefferson sneers, and kicks his godmother's food offering aside.

Frustrated, Grant goes back to his one-room schoolhouse. Are all his students doomed to fail? The advice that his own teacher, an embittered mulatto, left him doesn't help: "Just do the best you can. But it won't matter."

Grant recalls another young black man, who -- in a true event -- went to the chair in Florida, screaming for world heavyweight champ Joe Louis to save him. Where, Grant wonders, is our Joe Louis? His answer comes slowly as the weeks pass and the town prepares for Jefferson's execution. "A Lesson Before Dying" stirringly depicts the everyday courage of the black people (and the decent whites) who became the backbone of the gathering civil rights movement.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

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