A Lesson before Dying

ALesson before Dying

“Alesson before dying”, is a story that shows how racism had hugenegative effects for African Americans. The story shows a state ofhopelessness for black people with a seemingly no chance ofadvancement. The settings show a community that has been marginalizedfor generations amid an inferiority complex that portrays them asinferior to the white community, who are the majority. As evidencedby the story’s historical setting, it was actually uncommon to finda literate black person let alone one with a college education. Withthis level of illiteracy and marginalization, black people constantlybelieved that they were uncivilized compared to whites. It is on thisbackdrop that a reader comes across Jefferson, a black man with noformal education who is also a wrongly accused murder suspect. Theentrenchment of inferiority among the black community convincesJefferson that he is inferior to the level of comparing himself withan animal. Thus, he seeks the teachings of both Reverend Ambrose andGrant Wiggins, a school teacher in the nearby plantations. Both menintend to teach Jefferson that he is a man and not an animal.Reverend Ambrose and Grant teach Jefferson very differently becausethey have divergent social and educational backgrounds. Thedifferences also stem from their conflicting personalities andbeliefs that guide the way they teach Jefferson to perceive hisidentity and dignity as a human being.

ReverendAmbrose and Grant disagree on several occasions about what and how toteach Jefferson. The two men disagree on whether Jefferson shouldlearn about God (Gaines 54). Although Ambrose wants Grant to help himteach Jefferson about God, Grant no longer believes in God as he didbefore. He was also not going to pretend about it because he feltthat he cannot believe in the God that the jurors who sentencedJefferson to execution believe. Grant also rejects the idea of thechurch because it is attended by people with inhuman characters likethe jurors, in his opinion (Jones 128). Thus, Grant refuses to helpreverend upon his request to help him teach Jefferson. In an attemptto defend prevail upon Grant, Reverend calls in uneducated andunskilled to deal with people but quickly realizes why Grants says heno longer believes in the church. Indeed, the disagreement betweenGrant and Reverend Ambrose reveals the lies that go on within thechurch. Reverend Ambrose admits that he occasionally lies to peopleso that they can bear the pain they are going through. From thisstatement, it is, therefore, apparent that Reverend Ambrose simplyintends to relieve Jefferson of the pain of execution without theutmost concern based on empathy. Grant downplays Reverend Ambrose’spursuits by saying that he cannot go ahead to lie to Jefferson thesame way the Reverend does to all other people.

While Reverend Ambrose admits his constant lies to people a means tocomfort he counters Grant’s assertions by saying that people alsolie to themselves to obtain the comfort to face life. In hisargument, Ambrose uses Tante Lou as an example. According to ReverendAmbrose Lou has been lying to Grant and herself that all is fine andyet she works extremely hard just to afford Grant a Collegeeducation. Grant defends his beliefs by stating that he no longerbelieves in the church and the bible because those who profess it arethe one that are responsible for the predicaments of the blackcommunity.

Thereis much to learn from the disagreement between Reverend Ambrose andGant. They represent the effects of institutionalized religion andthe influence that masculinity had on the racial relations back thenin history. Masculinity was intertwined with certain aspects of thereligion and the society was aware of the fact that religion was aninstrument of keeping black people docile. Grant is justifiablyaverse to a black church and the black community that he does notunderstand the role they have played in creating traditions that havesustained black people in a racist society. Grant is also justifiablyright by refusing in heaven or in black church’s placation of theoppressed because he believes that it has the effect of bolsteringthe white power structure.

Inconclusion, Reverend Ambrose and Grant teach Jefferson verydifferently because they have divergent social and educationalbackgrounds. The arguments and characterization of Reverend Ambrose,Grant, and Jefferson tell a lot about racial relationships. Unlike inother stories such as “Dirty Work”, by Brown, where whites assumerespect and a desire for friendship from black men they seek tobefriend, “a Lesson before Death”, through the relationship andconversations of Gaines’s black protagonists reveals otherwise. Inthis case, interracial respect and trust are real expectations incross-racial relationships. The later presents inter-racial respectand desire for friendship as things that must be earned beforefriendships can evolve. For Gaines’s black men, earningself-respect and getting the same respect from white people emanatesfrom cross-racial relationships.


Gaines,Ernest J. ALesson Before Dying., 1993. Print.

Jones,Suzanne W. RaceMixing: Southern Fiction Since the Sixties.Baltimore [u.a.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.