Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"The Common Humanity That Is in Us All": Toward Racial Reconciliation in Gaines's A Lesson before Dying

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"The Common Humanity That Is in Us All": Toward Racial Reconciliation in Gaines's A Lesson before Dying

Article excerpt

IN CHAPTER 24 of Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (1993), school teacher Grant Wiggins visits Jefferson, a former student who is awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit. He asks him: "Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?" Regarding this term as applied to white supremacy, Grant then goes on to define myth:

A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth-and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show the common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe. They're safe with me. They're safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don't: want them to feel safe with you anymore. (192)

Grant then challenges Jefferson to defy this myth, to show white people who perceive him as inferior, as being subhuman, as being a "hog," that he in fact is a human being. In naming advocates within the community of Bayonne and in the state of Louisiana who uphold the myth of white supremacy, Grant mentions the jury of twelve white men who found Jefferson guilty of homicide, the white judge who convicted him, the white governor of the state, and the white sheriff Guidry, who has no respect for blacks and who perpetuates the belief of his white forebears that African Americans, as Grant puts it, are "only three-fifths human" (192). To this list, Grant could have added the white aristocrat and landowner Henri Pichot, Dr. Joseph Morgan, the white superintendent of schools, and even the arrogant white saleswoman with whom Grant has to deal in Edwin's store. Indeed, as the end of the novel makes clear, Jefferson does "show the common humanity that is in us all," rejecting the myth and the demeaning stereotype emphasizing his animalism associated with it by walking courageously to his execution as a "man."

Significantly, the character who reports Jefferson's execution to Grant is a white deputy, a sensitive, caring, and keenly perceptive young man, Paul Bonin, who celebrates Jefferson's triumph and who acknowledges Grant's influence in affecting this change. This transformation, which he himself witnessed, precipitates his unsolicited compliment that Jefferson was "the strongest man in that crowded room" (253). Of all the white characters in A Lesson Before Dying, however, Paul is the only one to reject the myth of racism and to show this by embracing the "common humanity that is in us all." As Carlyle V. Thompson rightly observes, when Paul Bonin comes to the quarters to bring Grant Jefferson's diary, his act of good will "suggests the possibility of some redemptive healing between blacks and whites." Moreover, like the apostle Paul, "who brings God's new message to the Corinthians," the white deputy "brings good news of Jefferson's subjectivity" (309).1

The script of a white Southerner with liberal and open-minded racial views, views contrary to racial attitudes of the white majority during the era of segregation, has a realistic basis in Southern autobiography. In an effort to address their personal guilt and the South's, white Southern liberals of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, as Fred Hobson has noted, published memoirs indicting the contradictions and injustices reflected in a racist society. Lillian Smith, Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, James McBride Dabbs, Sarah Patton Boyle, Willie Morris, Larry L. King, and other white Southerners composed racial conversion narratives-"works in which the authors, all products of and willing participants in a harsh, segregated society, confess racial wrongdoings and are 'converted,' in varying degrees, from racism to something approaching racial enlightenment" (2). In a sense, these autobiographical accounts, Hobson continues, may also be termed "freedom narratives" because their authors "escape a kind of bondage, flee from the slavery of a closed society, of racial prejudice and restriction, into the liberty of free association, free expression, brotherhood, sisterhood-and freedom from racial guilt" (5). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.