Ernest J. Gaines is considered by many critics to be a giant in his genre, and although he is not as "militant" or "intense" in his writing as Richard Wright, or James Baldwin, he makes his points about racism, about poverty, and about cultural bias, with a very strong sense of narrative and character development. This paper will address the characters in Gaines' novels, and it will also look into the background in which Gaines grew up into manhood. Though the civil rights movement is now just a point in the history of the United States, and today's news tends to focus on America's war in Iraq and on terrorism, for many African-Americans and others struggling to become part of the "American Dream," Gaines is a writer who hits home with honesty.
The civil rights movement came about because there was so much discrimination and prejudice against African-Americans in the United States. This discrimination was very bad for racial relations between whites and blacks, and it made blacks feel like even though they were no longer slaves, they were not really "free." In the first fifty-to-sixty years of the Twentieth Century, blacks were treated with very little respect, especially in the south. Gaines writes about characters that lived then, but rather than preach to his readers about how bad it was for blacks back then, he lets the story come out through his characters.
The Literature and Background about Gaines and his Characters
In his very well received novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines' protagonist is a man named Jefferson. (Jefferson is an interesting choice of names, and may seem to reflect an urge on Gaines part to show the historical side of America, and he may appear to be using "Jefferson" to refer to Thomas Jefferson, who pushed for the Bill of Rights to become part of the U.S. Constitution. Although, "Jefferson" is also the last name of the woman who raised him, so, perhaps it could be both, as well.)
Jefferson is an innocent black man, not too sophisticated, but a nice fellow. He lives in a place called Bayonne, Louisiana (Gaines lived in Louisiana as a boy). The community in this book, no doubt similar to towns in Louisiana during the time Gaines was living there, was "dominated by racism, segregation, and eye-for-an-eye judicial practices when crimes have been committed against Whites by Blacks" (Doyle, 2001).
In the novel, Jefferson accepts a free ride from two young men - both of whom have been in trouble before. When the three go to a liquor store, an argument between the two trouble-makers and the liquor store owner occurs, and anger leads to gunshots. On page 5 of his novel, Gaines writes: "Grope (the liquor store owner) moved quickly toward the cash register, where he withdrew a revolver and started shooting. Soon there was shooting from another direction. When it was quiet again, Bear, Grope, and brother were all down on the floor, and only Jefferson was standing."
Jefferson "wanted to run, but he couldn't run." Gaines writes that Jefferson "couldn't think," and stayed around long enough to get caught, an innocent victim. It is at this point in the book that the reader might think that Jefferson is symbolic of many black people in the south at that time. They did not intend to get caught in the trap of a racist society, but there they were, and they didn't know how they got there, and couldn't really escape, so, they were forced to in a way, accept their punishment from the White society.
The readers know that Jefferson is naive, because on page 6, while Jefferson is wondering what he should do, "He didn't know whether he should call someone on the telephone, or run. He had never dialed a telephone in his life..."
And meantime, Jefferson makes three mistakes: he stays around wondering what he should do, rather than run like the wind; he grabs a bottle of whiskey, which is stealing; he takes money from the cash register, which is also stealing. And he is caught. A black man caught allegedly killing white men. Jefferson is sentenced to die in the electric chair, but many months pass, and his godmother and her godmother's friend try "to secure the lessons necessary to take up his final months and his own death with some measure of dignity" (Doyle).
According to an article in Mississippi Quarterly (Folks, 1999), Gaines' interest in the story of Jefferson "centers less on this injustice than on the restoration of Jefferson's human dignity." In other words, Folks believes that Gaines is not so much concerned with the rage that comes with such a terrible wrong done to an innocent black man, but with the hope that black Americans may have for the future if they can achieve a fair and decent education and become part of society, rather than outcasts and criminals. Indeed, Folks writes, "In restoring Jefferson's status as a worthy member of society, Gaines focuses in particular upon the importance of male role models in the family and community."
Gaines writes about history honestly, and he has "compelling consequences," Folks writes. Gaines' work "leads to positive development toward positive social ends...and the layers of implied meaning are clearly understood." In fact, the way that Jefferson's godmother and her friend tutor Jefferson, develops a "metaphor of education." And Gaines takes that a step further through the character development of an elementary school teacher in Jefferson's community, named Grant Wiggins. Grant does not live up to the great standards that towns expect of their teachers, and so, as Jefferson grows in his academic pursuits (thanks to the godmother and her friend); he actually surpasses Grant Wiggins in "book learning" for a time.
And actually, the novel itself is a kind of "lesson" for readers, "to instruct the reader in a fundamental truth about moral choice..." Folks explains through his article. And "the awakening of self-respect in Jefferson is paralleled by Grant's restoration as a responsible human being who believes in his own self-worth." So again, instead of being bitter about the racism and the brutal conditions of injustice and social despair that blacks lived with for so many years, Gaines makes his characters grow and become positive.
Meanwhile, to back up that same idea (of the black author moving beyond anger and hate towards the bad part of white society, towards the racism and towards the endless poverty) mentioned above, an article in African-American Review (Miller, 2003), states a similar point. The writer of the article, Miller, is talking about James Baldwin, but he mentions Gaines as part of the subject of a book called Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson. "The multi-layered and multi-voiced works of Baldwin, Gaines, and Wilson reflect a new wave of African-American writing, where characters and authors background racial oppression and move beyond protesting the sanctity and superiority of whites and whiteness." The writer also says that the author of the Manhood in James Baldwin... book is "optimistic about this new wave's capacity to transform 'the damaged black male Other into the communal Brother'."
Looking at the young life of Gaines, it is understandable that Gaines writes about characters that are able to overcome serious obstacles. According to an article in Essence (Peterson, 1993), A Lesson Before Dying is "a powerful story that tackles themes of manhood, duty and respect for one's elders." And that manhood, duty, and respect for elders comes from Gaines' own childhood. He was raised, according to Peterson's article, "by his great-aunt Augusteen Jefferson, whom he credits with teaching him courage, discipline and 'how not to complain'."
It is easy to see why he learned not to complain, because in fact his great aunt was crippled. She "had to crawl on the floor," Peterson quotes Gaines as saying. "But she still did everything - took care of us, washed clothes, even crawled from the porch to tend a vegetable garden we had." If anyone would ask Gaines what person had the greatest influence over him, as a man, or as a writer, he would say it was his great aunt.
There is more than just redemption and the courageous facing up to horrible challenges in this novel; there is also "resistance to knowledge," according to Doyle's article. "Jefferson resisted Grant's efforts as much as Grant had resisted Miss Emma's plan that he teach Jefferson." It's not an absolute sure thing that the resistance in the novel is symbolic of the resistance in the south to accept the black community as a viable part of the American culture, but it is interesting to think that that could be involved.
Gaines agreed to an interview for the magazine Melus (Lepschy, 1999), and during that interview, he was asked if his novel, A Lesson Before Dying, is in a way like a sequel to Catherine Carmier. The interviewer notices that "Grant" in A Lesson Before…