Corina Crisu | Rewriting | Polytropic Identities in the Postmodern African American Novel | Chapter VII | “Tell Nannan I Walked” Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying

Publicat deMadalina Marcu

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot (McKay 1997, 984)).

The major conflict in my work is when the black male attempts to go beyond the line that is drawn for him. But you’ve also got conflict between young and old, between the desire to go back to the place where you were born or to stay where you are, between religious feeling and atheism… There has to be conflict before there can be a story and before the story reveals racial tensions (Gaines, in Magnier 1995, 6).


Chapter VII

“Tell Nannan I Walked”

Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying

“A White-Defined Heroism:” Beyond Assumptions

Stripped of their humanity, their names and social status, African Americans strangely creep inside canonized white narratives, in which they serve as contrasting images for defining white heroes. In these works, the authorial focus has generally been on the white protagonists’ quest, whose heroism is Narcissistically highlighted by a black presence “playing” in the background. Acknowledging that “literary blackness” is part of the world of “literary whiteness,” Toni Morrison criticizes the assumption that “traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States” (1992, 4-5). As she powerfully stresses in Playing in the Dark, the main characteristics of the American literature are actually shaped as a response “to a dark, abiding, signifying Africanist presence,” which is “crucial to [the white writers’] sense of Americanness” (6).

What would have happened, we can ask with Morrison, if such a black character as Hemingway’s Wesley had been individualized, given a standing role in a narrative in which his only function was to underline the white man’s omnipotence.1 And to move the discussion a little further, what if Twain could have conceived a black Huck, so that Jim’s role in the “adventure” would no longer have been secondary?2 And how would “The Bear” have looked had Faulkner taken the slaves out of Ike McCaslin’s revelation of the Southerners’ sinful condition as part of his story of initiation?3 All these texts, as well as countless others, foreground instances of white heroes whose identity development feeds on the marginal black presence.4 In order to let the “subaltern” speak, African American authors had to face the difficult task of transforming this invisible African American presence into the central element of a complex racial, spiritual, and cultural adventure. From a silent, subjugated figure, from being simply a substitute of the white man, the black protagonist metamorphoses into a polytropic character, whose restorative presence changes for the better the others’ destiny.

In the motley landscape of contemporary African American writers, Ernest J. Gaines has a distinguished place, as his fame grew after the 1970s with the publication of his famous revisionary slave narrative, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In his novels—Catherine Carmier (1964), Of Love and Dust (1967), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), A Lesson Before Dying (1993)—Gaines explores in depth the dehumanizing consequences of racial discrimination, the collision between past and present mentalities, and the importance of resistance to the myth of white supremacy. 5

Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying (winner of the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award) represents an intricate instance of the subtle ways in which authorial consciousness succeeds in disassociating blacks from degrading images. The author challenges the representation of black manhood as a simple contrast for the white man’s superego, and even more, he presents black heroism as the central element of his narrative. In order to accomplish his task, Gaines reaches down to the lowest social strata and pushes forward the most miserable character—an epitome for the “wretched of the earth.”

The author chooses the period of the late 1940s, a difficult time when major changes take place: the postwar economic uncertainty, the tensions in a racially segregated South where Jim Crow customs still prevailed, the growing Southern resistance to integration and recognizing black civil rights. Documenting the violent changes of the time, Gaines focuses on an event that shakes a small Cajun Louisiana community: the trial of a young black man, Jefferson, who is accidentally involved in shooting a white storekeeper. Accused of murder, Jefferson is condemned to death in the electric chair several months later. During his imprisonment, Jefferson dares to reinvent himself and proves to be an example of humanity for both the black and the white characters. He significantly appears as a polytropic hero whose emancipatory movement from physical bondage to spiritual liberation takes place within the circumscribed area of panoptic white power. Jefferson’s story is told from the perspective of a black intellectual narrator, Grant Wiggins, the character-observer who renders both his and the others’ inner struggle. Being a schoolteacher, Grant’s Socratic maieutic mission is to awaken Jefferson’s conscience, to transform his self-crushing image into a heroic effigy.6

The framing argument of this chapter is provided by Gaines’ rewriting of the seminal image of black identity present in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). After insisting on the similar ways in which Wright and Gaines depict the image of the criminal, the analysis will move to various methods used by Gaines in order to enlarge Wright’s naturalistic view on existential isolation. While Wright’s setting is the urban area of Chicago after the Great Migration (a cityscape where Bigger gets alienated from the others), Gaines places his hero in relation to the supportive community of his Southern background. Moreover, while Wright reinforces the stereotype of the rebellious “violent man” 7 or “bad Nigger”8 in order to disclose the social mechanisms of his behavior, Gaines focuses on an innocent victim whose spiritual transformation is stressed. Helped by the teacher’s educational method, Jefferson’s heroic behavior comes to contradict the degrading views of black identity prescribed by the white system.

Furthermore, the present analysis discusses Gaines’ novel in connection to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Tackling the notion of the dominant white discourse and shaking the buttresses of the white educational institution, both Ellison and Gaines produce a harsh critique of black existence either as a continuous flight or as a mere imitation of white models. Drawing on the perspective opened by Ellison, Gaines condemns the false pedagogy that manipulates students according to white rules, to which he opposes a form of resistance pedagogy. Using a shared notion of “communal responsibility,” 9 Gaines reconceptualizes the African American identity as heroic behavior that subverts the preexisting forms of power. One of the main aims of the novel is to reshape identity through discourse, to free the black character from former stultifying associations.

Ultimately, the chapter demonstrates that A Lesson Before Dying has to do with transcendence. Its message refers not only to trespassing racial and social lines, but also to one’s ability to move beyond designated limits by means of religious belief or faith in a black communal hero. Gaines does not simply restore Jefferson’s dignity, humanity, and sense of liberation in the face of death. He also places him in a religious environment, where his Christ-like behavior resonates deeply into the community’s conscience.10 His final words inscribed in his journal bear witness of the transformative power of language. As the novel’s symbolic “lesson,” they encompass a whole peratology—a science of crossing one’s limits—in which the student/teacher roles are interchangeable.


Chapter VII

“Tell Nannan I Walked”

Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying

Dispossessions: Native Son’s “Unfinished Quest”

Even though Gaines does not “see the world” as Richard Wright, he admits in an interview that both of them struggle to present in their writing the causes of the dehumanizing effects of racism (Magnier 1995, 7). In this way, Gaines delineates his manner of writing from that of his precursor, while simultaneously acknowledging their common focus on redefining black identity. As Keith Byerman specifies, “this very denial of literary fathers, also made by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), has itself become part of a tradition” (1985, 41).11

By considering A Lesson Before Dying as a rewriting of Wright’s Native Son, we must take into account Gaines’ focus on a similar literary matter: the importance of finding imaginative ways of re-drawing the image of the negative character—the outcast, the criminal, the prisoner. Both Wright and Gaines deconstruct the stereotype of the black man as a “beast” reflected in countless literary portrayals from the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.12 Both authors present young rebellious heroes who seem to “hide from humanity,” by experiencing feelings of anger and shame—“that ubiquitous emotion in social life” (Nussbaum 2004, 173). Both authors dismantle the negative effects of public exposure and imprisonment as ways of reinforcing white morality. While developing an intertextual analysis of Wright’s and Gaines’ novels, we should ponder Gaines’ techniques of rethinking the rebellious image of the native son in reconstructing African American manhood.

There is a long, thorny way from Jefferson’s wordless apathy to his final remark: “Tell Nannan I walked” (254). Jefferson’s phrase echoes Bigger’s message to his mother: “Tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none” (453). In both novels, self-erasure is replaced by self-affirmation, as expressed by the two heroes’ final gesture of overcoming the determinism of social forces. For both characters, imprisonment initiates the process of self-awareness. On the one hand, Bigger assumes the significance of his crimes as part of his self-definition,13 and learns to articulate his own story in order to defend himself. On the other hand, Jefferson becomes conscious of the uselessness of his anger and the impossibility of claiming his innocence, acknowledging that a dignified attitude is the only solution.

At a close reading, A Lesson Before Dying begins where Native Son ends.14 While captivated by the sensational thriller of Bigger Thomas’ troubled existence, while watching his two crimes, his flight, capture, trial, and death sentence, one is left with a sense of Bigger’s unfulfilled potential. Subtly connecting in a naturalistic manner the relationship between Bigger’s environment and his reaction to it, Wright places him in a communal void. As Michael Cooke comments, “kinship is what Bigger Thomas rejects early in Native Son, because he thinks of it as amassed pain rather than amassed alliance” (1984, 40). This idea is also sustained by Nick Aaron Ford who observes that the main theme of Wright’s novel encodes “the inability of the individual to find satisfactory fellowship in the group” (1970, 29).

What triggered the causes of Bigger’s “unfinished quest”?15 What made him create this impenetrable aura of spiteful solitude?16 Was it his mother’s version of the American Dream, her desire for him to find a decent job that would pull them out of the poorest black neighborhoods in Chicago? Or the impossibility to continue attending a Southern school, during the Great Depression of the 1930s? Or the killing of his father in a riot when he was a boy?

Trapped by a hostile social environment, Bigger is alienated from both the black and the white community. When he is fortunate enough to get a “decent job” as a chauffeur for the white family, the Daltons, he still perceives their Daltonism, their color blindness that accounts for their inability to really see him.17 Even Mary, their “open minded” daughter, makes him feel insecure whenever she strives to treat him as her equal, thus signaling the racial/social gap between them. As some critics have suggested, although he kills Mary by accident, his act might be fully intended. Moreover, he becomes estranged from his girl friend, Bessie, whom he later rapes and then kills for fear that she would tell on him.

By means of the above questions and remarks, my intention was not just to sketch once more Bigger’s portrait, but mostly to draw attention to the feeling of universal dispossession that Wright constantly inflicts upon his character. The writer himself underlines that Bigger Thomas “is the product of a dislocated society,” that “he is a dispossessed and disinherited man” (Introduction 2000, 15). Hence, the motto of his novel pointing to the emblematic story of the Biblical Job—whose loss functions as a test of faith:

Even today is my complaint rebellious,

My stroke is heavier than my groaning (32).

Bigger’s dispossession should be considered both in a social and economic context, as well as from a cultural and religious perspective. As most critics have suggested, his failure to be integrated into the system is mostly due to the very system that is responsible for Bigger’s psychological developement.18 More than that, Bigger is dispossessed of human assistance, as he dangerously inhabits an emotional wasteland. He has no real friend to show understanding and compassion, the only exceptions being his girl friend, Bessie, the communist, Jan, and his advocate, Max, who finally strives to comprehend his behavior. As we follow Bigger’s tempestuous race, all the other characters fade into mere sketches, lose their concrete-ness, and no longer interact with him. In such a Sartrean, existential novel, the individual is left alone and there is no prospect to transcend subjectivity.

If we read A Lesson Before Dying within Native Son’s frame, we observe that Gaines’ bookopens with the same motif of crime and punishment with which Wright’s novel ends. In prison, Jefferson embodies a new version of Native Son: a lonely, victimized, and orphaned character. Job’s complaint is even truer in Jefferson’s case, since he is a naïve young hero who suffers undeservedly.19 Even if he is accidentally involved in the shooting of a white man, even if the defense calls him “an innocent bystander,” the prosecutor keeps stressing his premeditated crime, placing his story in a stereotypical scenario where he presumably plays the role of the “bad Nigger.”20 His attempt to establish the truth is useless, his testimony does not count:

A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die. Though he told them no, he had nothing to do with it, that he was on his way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when Brother and Bear drove up beside him and offered him a ride. After he got into the car, they asked him if he had any money. When he told them he didn’t have a solitary dime, it was then that Brother and Bear started talking credit, saying that old Gropé should not mind crediting them a pint since he knew them well, and he knew that the grinding season was coming soon, and they would be able to pay him back then (4).

The above scene reminds us of another instance in Native Son, in which Bigger’s pals, (Gus, Jack, and G. H.) are the same sort of troublemakers as Jefferson’s friends, (Brother and Bear). Still, while Bigger plans together with his friends to rob a white man’s shop, this never happens, and their desire to play white is left unfulfilled. What is just hinted at in Wright’s novel actually takes place in Gaines’ story. Here Jefferson’s mates do not commit a premeditated crime, since their only intention is to have a drink. Unfortunately, as the white storekeeper refuses to offer them alcohol, they shoot and kill each other. Left alone at the site of the crime, Jefferson acts unintentionally, in a state of prostrated bewilderment. His half-conscious decision of having a drink and getting the money from the counter stigmatizes him in the white people’s eyes as a criminal, a drunkard, and a robber.

Without a social and moral status, Jefferson suffers another form of dispossession: he is deprived of his intelligence, his manhood, and his humanity.21 Significantly, this blow does not come from the prosecution, but from the defense that uses the argument of his racial inferiority as the very proof of his lack of guilt.22 In front of a racially mixed audience, the court-appointed attorney invokes Jefferson’s racial inferiority as an argument for his innocence. He thus brings forth the reductive perspectives upon the Africans that have been perpetuated by the works of such philosophers as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Hegel.23 The zoomorphic attributes that the attorney manages to imprint on Jefferson’s identity—“a cornered animal,” “a hog” (7)—disclose his internalization of the white prejudices. Intertextually, these attributes evoke another scene in Wright’s novel, where Buckley, the prosecuting attorney, repeatedly calls Bigger a “half-human black,” a “thing,” a “beast,” and a “fiend” (403). In addition, the newspapers proliferate an animal-like image of Bigger, a demonized version of a criminal and rapist whom the enraged whites desire to lynch.24

In her in-depth analysis of the rituals of burning and lynching, Trudier Harris explains how these two forms of punishment emerged as a result of racial antagonism, serving as instruments of consolidating white supremacy. The same pattern (in which a presumed guilty black man is killed by the white mob) keeps appearing in works by Charles Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. In most cases, as in Wright’s Native Son, the whites’ public opinion develops a sort of hysteria toward the image of the black man defiling the sacred body of a pure white woman. Consequently, the need to symbolically and literally emasculate the black men by rituals of lynching and burning, in a context in which they have already been “emasculated because they were stripped of economic and political power, and of any kind of status” (Harris 1984, xii).25

Even if the events in A Lesson Before Dying happen about twenty years after those in Native Son, Gaines’ novel is focused on the same “terrifying epiphanies of the social worlds” (Robert Butler 1995, 51-2). Although there is no overt discussion over lynching, this idea appears in infinitely subtle ways. One may argue here that Jefferson is spiritually lynched, crippled, and mortified. Like Bigger, Jefferson is “a particular person who struggles with the burden of his humanity” (Gibson 1995, 35). Or, better said, he has to strive with what the others see as lack of humanity, with the white reductive gaze that stigmatizes him as a criminal. His precarious notion of being is defined in terms of not having, so that his own pejorative self-definition marks his dispossession—as revealed by the dialogue between Jefferson and Grant:

          “Reverend Ambrose say I have to give up what’s down here. Say there ain’t nothing down here on this earth for me no more.”

          “He meant possessions, Jefferson. Cars, money, clothes—things like that.”

          “You ever seen me with a car, Mr. Wiggins?”

          “No.”

          “With more than a dollar in my pocket?”

          “No.”

          “More than two pair shoes, Mr. Wiggins? One for Sunday, and for working in?”

          “No, Jefferson.”

          “Then what on earth I got to give up, Mr. Wiggins?”

          “You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions—and that is love…”

          “Y’all asking a lot, Mr. Wiggins, from a poor old nigger who never had nothing” (222).

Besides the reference to Jefferson’s lack of possessions, the above scene also contains the solution employed by Gaines in order to redefine his protagonist. As the next part explores, A Lesson Before Dying stresses that only Jefferson’s responsible care for the others, as well as the others’ united efforts to help him can be channeled toward a collective project of spiritual redemption.


Chapter VII

“Tell Nannan I Walked”

Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying

The Teacher’s “Lesson:” Ethics and Freedom

Enlarging Wright’s textual quest, Gaines makes a thorough revision of the African American male identity in relationship to communal values, social institutions, and racial issues. A Lesson Before Dying thus focuses on an initiatory process, during which Jefferson acquires a polytropic identity. His self-definition changes from an animal-like image to a heroic one, in the context in which Gaines’ “fiction demonstrates his penetrating understanding of the complexities and subtleties of universal nature that affect and are affected by these regional realities” (Hudson 1985, 515). In truth, the Southappears as a significant “regional reality” whose ethical principles are part of Jefferson’s self-reconstruction. Unlike Bigger—an uprooted character taken from his native South to Chicago—Jefferson is beneficially affected by the traditional Southern culture, “which includes African-American religion, respect for elders, loyalty to family and neighbors, and common-sense morality, a useful and enduring cultural tradition that can be set against the fragmentation inherent in the long Diaspora” (Folks 1999, 259).26

Gaines creates a constellation of symbolic black figures that contribute to Jefferson’s own development: the teacher (Grant Wiggins), Jefferson’s godmother (Miss Emma), Grant’s lover (Vivian), Grant’s aunt (Tante Lou), the priest (Reverend Ambrose), and the children whom Grant teaches. In addition, a white man significantly named Paul Bonin shows sympathy toward Jefferson, and, as in the Bible, Paul is “converted” to a major understanding of the other’s humanity that transcends racial limits. In this way, Gaines’ reconstruction of black manhood consists in transforming his hero’s invisibility (imprisonment/marginality) into visibility (liberation/centrality) by placing him in relation to the black and white community.

Having an important part in highlighting the principles of the elders, Grant Wiggins makes an important contribution to Jefferson’s conversion. His position is reminiscent of a mediator between the puer and the senex, between Jefferson (the rebellious youth) and Miss Emma (the wise elder). Grant has to assume the role of an educator, as urged by Miss Emma’s words: “I don’t want them to kill no hog. I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet” (13). Miss Emma’s words intertextually allude to the famous lines written by the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” (1997, 984). By proposing an in-depth transformation through discursive power, McKay’s urge to heroic self-reconstruction resonates with Grant’s ideas. Grant thus realizes that his task of assisting Jefferson in redefining himself implies going against the white system that strives to implant self-denigrating images in young black men. Sensing the implications of such a burdensome enterprise, Grant’s first gesture is one of negation, of refusal to play “God” (31).

As autumn stretches inaudibly into winter, Grant passes through a subtle change and the complex facets of his personality are polished through his interaction with the elders. Together with Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose, and Tante Lou, Grant pays visits to Jefferson in prison, striving to reach beyond the boy’s inaccessible blankness. Grant’s double task as witness and agent of Jefferson’s trial opens up the text for new symbolic readings:

I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there. Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them (3).

Through the technique of indirect directness that suggests both attachment and detachment, the above fragment hints at the narrator’s ubiquitous presentia in absentia, to his position as an insider/outsider able to preserve his perspective and incorporate the views of the others. The paragraph also sets the utterly simple, objective tone of the novel, its á la Hemingway style, and its procedure of not burdening the sentence unnecessarily, as if leaving space for words to breathe.

This metaphorical freedom of words is made explicit in the message of the novel: the importance of liberating oneself from the white normative discourse that reifies blackness. In this respect, the book deeply resonates with Michel Foucault’s views. Throughout his work, Foucault has stressed the impossibility of liberating oneself from the network of power in which one is caught; nevertheless he has maintained that one might become free through discursive subversion as a means of dis-placing “white mythologies.”27 In his late texts, Foucault constructs an “ethics of the concern of the self,” in which one’s self-formation is connected with one’s relationship to the others. He considers that “human freedom is expressed in the deliberate actions individuals perform in response to others and the world,” so that “one can be neither detached from one’s own actions and possibilities nor inconsiderate of others and still be free” (Infinito 2003, 156-57).

Close to Foucault, Gaines emphasizes that the intersecting domains of ethics and freedom are equally important for his characters’ ontological (re)definition. In a creative sense, both ethics and freedom are essential for Jefferson’s and Grant’s self-transformation, as well as for changing the others. Being a teacher, Grant strongly advocates the importance of ethics for a new educational system that assists one’s formation, in an antinomian manner that defies normalized identities.28 Struggling to disrupt various formative discourses, Grant has to fight on several battlefields: the black man’s cell, the black children’s school, the white man’s kitchen, and the black people’s club. Using what Foucault called “technologies of the self” (1988 a), Grant helps Jefferson assume a fully-realized identity by revealing to him his potential for spiritual freedom in spite of the imprisoning conditions. This form of reconstructing manhood is thus achieved only through intense self-examination and dialogue with the others.29

Even if he is placed in the privileged position of a literate person, Grant himself passes through an acute crisis, feeling entrapped within the limitations of his own community. His meandering trajectory in and out of prison symbolically suggests his tormenting struggle to break free: “I was screaming inside. I had told her [his aunt] many, many times how much I hated this place and all I wanted to do was get away” (14-15). Grant’s higher education has contributed to his estrangement from religion—a fact that makes him a persona non grata in the eyes of his community. After paying his parents a visit in California during the summer following his junior year at university, he returns to Bayonne where he remains in the future to teach, “unable to accept what used to be [his] life, unable to leave it” (102). His desire to leave is also hindered by his relationship with his girl friend, Vivian, who is getting divorced and, in order to keep her children, cannot leave Bayonne.30

Moreover, Grant’s frustration is exacerbated by the scarcity of financial means: the poverty of the children and the meager teaching materials. The place where he teaches—the church—functions as a symbolic setting, framing his pedagogic assignment within the community’s religious activity:

My classroom was the church. My classes ranged from primer to sixth grade, my pupils from six years old to thirteen and fourteen. My desk was a table, used as a collection table by the church on Sundays, and also used for the service of the Holy Sacrament on the fourth Sunday of each month. My students’ desks were the benches upon which their parents and grandparents sat during church meeting. The students either got down on their knees and used the benches as desks to write upon, or used the backs of their books upon their laps to write out their assignments (34).

By juxtaposing the church and the school in the same institutionalized space, Gaines makes us consider their equal importance in one’s education. From a Foucaultian perspective, both the church and the school are systems of power that work to discipline either the body or the spirit. Conscious that the church is imbued by white ideology, Grant also admits that his teaching has to follow the white norms meant to “tame” black children by keeping them half-illiterate.31

Through Grant, we can envisage the social and economic reasons that made the white people oppose any education for the black Americans in the segregated South of the late 40s—a time when the doctrine “separate but equal” actually meant “separated but unequal.” Seen as “mules and oxen,” the African Americans were needed as a cheap source of labor, so that they were consciously withheld from having access to education (Litwack 1998, 101). As Frank N. Schubert cogently notes, Gaines’ novel is “a strong reminder of the South’s success in the Civil War.” The novel stresses the maintenance “of a two-tiered racial system, albeit without chattel slavery, through a combination of legislation, custom, and outright terror for an entire century. The vocabulary of Gaines’ novel underscores the South’s long-term triumph—‘plantation,’ ‘quarter,’ ‘back door’—as does the entire narrative regarding social arrangements” [Frank N. Schubert, copy in author’s files, 2005]. 32

A sample of this disciplining ideology is offered in a key scene, where Dr. Joseph, the school inspector, pays a visit to the school. As in an episode taken out of a slave narrative, Dr. Joseph starts inspecting the children’s hands and teeth. His “lesson” to them lays stress on hard work, leaving little room for intellectual activities: “In other words, hard work was good for the young body. Picking cotton, gathering potatoes, pulling onions, working in the garden—all of that was good exercise for a growing boy or girl” (56). Mispronouncing Wiggins’ name, Dr. Joseph hilariously calls him Higgins, a name that reminds us of the professor in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Indeed, departing from the model offered by Dr. Joseph, Grant assumes the true role of a Pygmalion, one who does not only transform himself, but also models his students internally into “responsible young men and young ladies” (39). Through a Foucaultian lens, his demand from each of his students is to work on his or her self, seeking to “develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being” (Foucault 1984, 282).33 Grant searches for transgressive ways to break the vicious circle that makes these children either run away from Bayonne or remain at home to live in poverty. His option for a pedagogical ethics that is constructive rather than reductive points to his understanding of education as a liberating process of self-creation, and not as a process of normalization. Grant’s challenging “lesson” gains momentum from the necessity of transforming each student spiritually into a potential agent of change.



Chapter VII

“Tell Nannan I Walked”

Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying

“A Myth of Success:” Rethinking Ellison

Searching for new pedagogical means of reconstructing black identity, Gaines undermines the white institutionalized educational standards. In his Lesson, he highlightstwo types of fallacies that have led to an erroneous idea of freedom: first, the error of negating the black community’s values, and, second, the mistake of unselectively adopting the white educational models. The representation of the African American identity therefore forks in two directions: in the first instance the black person turns into a run away criminal who moves away from his/her community, while in the second instance he/she is converted into a mere imitator who lives according to white standards.

A famous critique of these two stereotypes—the runaway and the imitator—can be found in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison’s masterpiece stresses the same point as A Lesson Before Dying, i. e. negative images of black identity are proliferated in order to consolidate the myth of white domination. As I shall further discuss, both Ellison and Gaines highlight the necessity of subverting hegemonic norms by challenging the image of the black fugitive and that of the black imitator, whose false representations are skillfully deconstructed.

At the beginning of Invisible Man, the narrator’s grandfather urges us to become accomplice to his haunting message: “To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (26). As the nameless narrator obeys his grandfather’s advice, his existence proves to be a continuous flight. We follow his convoluted trajectory from the rural South to the urban North, from the Edenic college to the paint factory, from the Brotherhood to his hibernating hole. While “the boomerangs of history are ever whirling down on the protagonist’s naïve head” (O’Meally 1994, 245), two more decades will pass before he can acknowledge the uselessness of his running, the illusion of his progress.34 In order to do that, he will have to get rid of his dream of equality, of his “unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a myth of success” (Ellison 1972, 177). His innocence manifests on various occasions: when he is expelled from college for revealing too much about his black people to Mr. Norton, a white man; when he is unable to obtain a job as a result of the accusatory letters he receives from Mr. Bledsoe; when he misinterprets the Brotherhood’s manipulation of phony social slogans.35 Ultimately, his descent into his well-lit hole conveys the pointlessness of his existential flight and the revelation of his emblematic invisibility.36

The grandfather’s message in Invisible Man adumbrates Matthew Antoine’s ideas in A Lesson Before Dying. A former teacher, Matthew Antoine stresses the importance of escaping a choking environment, by prompting his students to run away from Bayonne, despite the violent death that might await them in the future. Putting into practice Antoine’s advice of breaking the vicious circle of their existence, a great number of young men have been mesmerized by the Eldorado of a better life. Away from their community, labeled as criminals, they could never transcend the poverty and violence of their condition. Consequently, Antoine’s pedagogy perpetuates the myth of black illiteracy, going back to the time of slavery. Referring to the inability to surpass the determinism of social forces, Antoine chastises Grant for his increased efforts to educate his pupils, to “scrape away” their ignorance:

When you see that those five and a half months you spend in that church each year are just a waste of your time, you will. You will. You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years (64).

Antoine and Wiggins therefore personify two contrasting educational views. While the first advocates the uselessness of any didactic effort, the latter strives to find a solution for guiding his students in their attempt to overcome the oppressive conditions of their circumscribed existence.37

At the same time, via Grant, Gaines does not only criticize the image of the black fugitive, but also that of the black imitator. In order to accomplish his liberating mission, Grant must prove the falsity of the learning that he has received from university, the place where one is told “how to succeed in the South as a colored man” (65). While in college he has been taught mere numbers and letters, Grant realizes that he needs to grasp the real situation of his people. Gaines presently emphasizes the black students’ manipulation by means of the mirage of a successful career—an idea to be found in Invisible Man, too.

In the famous college episode in Invisible Man, Ellison ironically depicts two heroic black men whose intellectual efforts have lifted their black people: the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe.38 Their legendary biographies document poor men who rose to important positions, leaders who strove to inspire tender minds. A dangerous Janus-faced personality, Bledsoe models his existence upon the white men’s standards, while he stands as an example to emulate for black students.39 As his voice modulates into humbleness and his face assumes the mask of meekness, he is a master of appearance, whose power manipulates the white millionaires who financially “support” the college, but cannot really control it. 40 Conscious that all institutions are run by white people, Bledsoe has to be subversive and “act the nigger” in order to maintain and consolidate his position. Under his façade of humility, his tactic is doubly aimed at controlling influential white men and deceiving innocent black students—those to be transformed into future teachers.41

Searching for a solution to the white-faced education presented in Invisible Man, Gaines creates another type of black teacher, essentially different from Bledsoe. Grant Wiggins does not have Dr. Bledsoe’s material possessions, his influence and power, and he is not the leader of a prosperous Southern college. Yet, at his modest school level, Grant dares to search for various educational methods that can reconstruct a liberated image of the African American identity. His confession to Jefferson encompasses his open dissatisfaction with the normative system:

I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing else—nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, noting about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’ And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so (192).

As the scene takes place in the day room of the prison, where Jefferson is brought with chains around his ankles, the teacher’s words attain a profound significance. Jefferson is one of those misled children who have wrongly internalized the whites’ belief in their superiority, one who has been turned into a victim by their need to consolidate their authority by scapegoating the others.

In order to help Jefferson gain back his self-esteem and develop his personality, Grant asks him to become a hero, in his own words, to be one who does something for the others. Grant’s demand of sacrificial heroism is essential not just for Jefferson’s redemption, but also for educating the others. 42 In this respect, the black children need someone who can stand as a genuine model of higher conduct. Jefferson’s godmother also needs his courage in order to die peacefully, while Reverend Ambrose considers Jefferson’s conversion a religious example for his community. Last but not least, Grant himself acknowledges Jefferson’s importance in his own process of self-discovery as a true teacher.

At a deeper level, Jefferson’s heroism represents a means of destabilizing the white supremacy, the “old lie that people believe in” (192). Grant explains to Jefferson that the black people need someone who is able to embody the “common humanity that is in us all” (192). Through Jefferson’s example, the meaning of a whole history of slavery has to be overturned, left without a justification. By demonstrating his humanity, Jefferson has to prove the falsity of the white myth, as shown by Grant: “I want you—yes, you—to call them liars. I want you to show them that you are as much a man—more a man than they can ever be… You—you can be bigger than anyone you have ever met” (192-93).

In this light, Gaines undertakes a thorough reconsideration of Ellison’s pedagogic view. While in essence both authors strive to undermine the white supremacy that propagates degrading images of black people, the two authors employ different techniques in order to find educational solutions. Ellison acknowledges pretension as a subversive weapon, whereas Gaines ascribes to heroism a redeeming role.

On the one hand, Ellison advocates invisibility and camouflaged fight through the use of masks and ambivalence as means of overcoming white power. For that reason, the invisible man’s grandfather utters oracular words on his deathbed, advising the narrator to be “a spy in the enemy’s country,” to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction” (13). In this sense, the narrator’s emblematic invisibility is nothing else that “covert preparation for a more overt action” (Invisible Man 11).

On the other hand, Gaines stresses the significance of Jefferson’s visibility and exemplary posture as a means of undermining white rules: “You have the chance of being bigger than anyone who has ever lived on that plantation or come from this little town. You can do it if you try” (193). Above all, the author conflates a strong message of racial uplift in Jefferson’s transfiguration. It is the aim of the next part to demonstrate how Jefferson’s identity comes to symbolize that “piece of drifting wood” that can be polished through the increased efforts of communal support.


Chapter VII

“Tell Nannan I Walked”

Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying

The Community’s “Lesson:” Heroic Redemption

Gaines asserts the importance of an education based on communal solidarity, while searching for new pedagogic ways that strengthen intra- and inter-racial relations. His view on human solidarity distances him from Wright’s and Ellison’s perspectives that emphasized the characters’ isolation from their community. Gaines’ “lesson” effectively aims at rewriting the former image of the African American individual as a native son or an invisible man (partly juxtaposed in Jefferson’s portrait), by providing us with a communal pedagogy of representation. As Henry Giroux specifies, the “pedagogy of representation focuses on demystifying the act and process of representing by revealing how meanings are produced within relations of power that narrate identities through history, social forms, and modes of ethical address” (1994, 47).

Through his praxis of communal pedagogy, Gaines proposes an educational system in which the individuals help each other to disseminate a new image of black identity. Not just Grant, but also Reverend Ambrose, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian are educators involved in the process of producing different views on identity. In Gaines’ “counternarrative of emancipation,” the members of the community assume the role of “critical educators” involved in a process of rethinking their own ethnic representation as black people (Giroux 1994, 51). In this way, all of them contribute to transforming Jefferson’s stultified representation into a heroic one: the “hog” becomes a hero. As the deepest string of his humanity is touched by their shared effort, Jefferson’s portrait remains tuned to our image of Christian endurance. The stages he passes through—from muted anger to dignified calmness—testify the development of his complex personality through the religious meaning of his inner growth.

In a context in which the connotations of such words as “school,” “church” and “prison” cross over all the time, both social and educational acts attain a religious dimension. Many instances in the novel testify for the Christ-like significance of Jefferson’s death. In this direction, Philip Auger observes that “Jefferson’s death is timed by the town’s officials so as not to conflict with a religious holiday, as Christ’s death is timed by Roman and Jewish authorities so as not to coincide with the Jewish Passover” (1995, 81). The New Testament motif of the sacrifice of an innocent man who assumes the others’ sins transpires in Jefferson’s words: “Me, Mr. Wiggins. Me. Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan’s cross, my own cross. Me, Mr. Wiggins. This old stumbling nigger. Y’all axe a lot, Mr. Wiggins” (224).

While Jefferson’s image is Christ-like, “Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, takes on the role usually reserved for God the father: she is the initiator of the discursive movement; from her ultimately springs a new identity for Jefferson and his ‘followers’” (Auger 1995, 81).43 As in Walker’s The Color Purple, the proposed religion is matriarchal, in the sense of gravitating around a female image. Still, while Walker’s Shug promotes a new pantheistic religion, Gaines’ Emma remains faithful to the old Biblical pattern, which she reinforces with the help of the minister. A nurturing figure, Miss Emma is also a stubborn person who prompts Grant and Reverend Ambrose to insufflate Jefferson’s transfiguration. As a godmother, she symbolically officiates at Jefferson’s baptism as a new man.

In his turn, Reverend Ambrose offers spiritual sustenance to Jefferson’s godmother, while playing a significant role in both Jefferson’s and Grant’s conversion. Even if he has no higher education, the reverend is “a simple, devoted believer,” ready to always aid his community (101). The reverend is the one who urges Grant to revise his religious beliefs and his educational system that should be focused on the ethics of care for the other. For the reverend, to be educated does not mean to teach “reading, writing, and ’rithmetic,” but implies a profound knowledge of the others’ needs. In his equation, believing in a better life can also imply lying to the others: “They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie” (218).

Urged by the reverend, Grant reconsiders the basis of his educational method from a religious perspective, realizing that his position as a teacher makes him responsible for the acts of the young people he is educating. His skepticism, his refusal to lie to Jefferson about his lack of belief in the afterlife implies his negation of the values of his own community. In response to Reverend Ambrose’s admonishment, Grant discusses with Jefferson the importance of faith. Without giving up his honesty, Grant admits that even if he does not pray, he does believe in God, whom he characterizes as the supreme force that makes people care for each other. Through his maieutic method of bringing forth his pupil’s knowledge, Grant makes Jefferson comprehend the similarity between his destiny and that of Jesus Christ, to see his death as a redeeming act of heroism for the sake of the others.

To sum up, in an equilateral triangle, the godmother, the priest, and the teacher represent three basic figures in Jefferson’s education and conversion. Besides them, the community’s lesson is essential for a new pedagogical praxis in a “narrative of liberation” that acquires a “metacritical function—that metaconceptualizes relations of everyday life” (McLaren 1994, 211). A Lesson Before Dying suggests the transformative potential of communal efforts that develop a local critique of dominant institutions.44

Accordingly, there are significant moments when the community’s solidarity subverts the oppressive regime. For example, the few Christmas gifts that the members of the community manage to buy for Jefferson reveal their combined efforts to assist him, to symbolically dress him with their affectionate support.45 Another important gift is the radio, which is bought by Grant with the financial assistance of various people. Another instance of the community’s support appears when the children and the “ole folks” pay Jefferson a visit as their last homage. This shared acknowledgement of Jefferson’s value endows with a positive meaning his shameful imprisonment. Narrated by Jefferson in his notebook, the event makes him shed tears for the first time, thus revealing his profound understanding of the others’ abnegation:

this was the firs time i cry when they lok that door bahind me the very firs time an i jus set on my bunk crying but not let them see or yer me cause i didn want them think rong but i was cryin cause of bok an the marble he giv me and cause o the people com to see me cause they hadn never done nothing lik that for me befor (231).

To borrow from McLaren, A Lesson Before Dying demonstrates that shared beliefs and values result in a “critical pedagogy” which attempts “to explore other modes of sociality and self-figuration that go beyond dominant language formations and social organization” (McLaren 1994, 215). This critical pedagogy allows the community members to pass over or interrogate local meanings that are part of their own collective practice. Hence, their pedagogic efforts “enable them to understand and intervene into their own history” (Grossberg 1994, 16).


Chapter VII

“Tell Nannan I Walked”

Reconstructing Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’

A Lesson Before Dying

Jefferson’s Notebook: “Humanity Masked with Blackness”

Gaines manages to subvert in his novel the preexisting perception of the intra- and inter-racial relations.46 Through this communal lesson, not just the black people attain a complex awareness of themselves, but also the white people acquire a new perspective upon blackness. 47 Whereas at the beginning of the novel, the whites perceive the African Americans in a degrading way, some of them gradually change their point of view. Thus, the white man Paul Bonin starts communicating with Jefferson. Impressed by Jefferson’s transformation and Christ-like courage in the face of death, Paul is “converted” to a new understanding that transcends racial limits.48 Witnessing Jefferson’s death, Paul comes to testify for Jefferson’s heroic manhood symbolically ingrained in his message: “Tell Nannan I walked” (254).

Jefferson’s personality is reformed in the process of writing, since his self “is constituted intertextually across a range of discursive practices,” being “active in the negotiation of those discursive practices” (Lloyd 1996, 253-54). Coming from a half-illiterate character, Jefferson’s notebook represents the antithetic response to a racist system whose social, religious, and economic basis is undermined. In a broken confession, his writing emerges as a fundamental means of reconstructing male African American identity. 49 His écriture masculine50 has the therapeutic function of overcoming the traumatic events of his inevitable death by transmitting to the others his most intimate thoughts.

The pen and the notebook—that were symbolically given to Jefferson by the teacher—become essential instruments in redefining Jefferson’s polytropic identity. Jefferson’s journal will be preserved and showed to the others in the future; his writing will have the role of communication that takes “the form of a community-making” (Sell 2004, 29), i. e. of creating links between individuals and acknowledging their common beliefs. Gaines therefore succeeds in creating a “narrative of Bildung,” in which Jefferson reenacts a version of the enslaved man who is able to transfigure his existential imprisonment into a liberating “lesson” for the others. Unlike in canonical white texts, the black protagonist is no longer a meek, shadow-like presence reinforcing the splendor of the white character. On the contrary, Gaines’ novel reveals to us the African American man as a standing hero. To paraphrase Ellison, Gaines knew that “in his America humanity masked its face with blackness” (1994 b, 148).51

Returning to the initial argument of this chapter, we may notice again that the stereotypical assumption undermined in Gaines’ novel is the inability of a black character to transform, to evolve, to be more than a simple pawn in the white people’s legal game. No longer a scapegoat, or a representation of the whites’ fear of otherness, Jefferson gets involved in a redemption project that makes both the black and the white people reconsider their deepest held convictions. In addition, Gaines’ character makes us thoroughly reevaluate previous ideas on male black identity. Thus, Sherley Ann Williams observes, “a hero in the eyes of black people is more likely to be a law-breaker than a law-maker,” so that “good niggers cannot be heroes, for heroes affirm though their actions not only the values of their culture but also their personal worth in their own eyes” (1972, 213). Even if Williams’ remark might be true for many African American fictional works, it is no longer valid in Gaines’ novel, which manages to turn the tables in Jefferson’s favor. While, as Williams affirms, in most former cases “blacks have sought a white-defined heroism only to find that they have negated their own humanity” (1972, 213), in Jefferson’s case, his final endurance remains an exemplary lesson inscribed in both the black and white communal spirit.

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