Novelists Teaches "Lesson" to 2000
Date: April 24, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Campus News
The book that has been the focus of Cincinnati's community-wide reading assignment this spring carries many themes -- among them capital punishment, religion and education. But of all the themes its author says the greatest one is about "manhood -- what makes a man."
On April 23 at Shoemaker Center, high school students, teachers and other members of the Greater Cincinnati community who have been reading "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines got the chance to meet the author in person and ask him questions. Gaines' novel, the focus of the On the Same Page Cincinnati project, was selected from more than 145 nominees to serve as the book that Cincinnati reads to help bridge its racial divide. Mitchel Livingston, UC vice president for Student Affairs and Services, served on the committee that selected the work.
Gaines spoke at UC's spring quarter Just Community/MainStreet event in a forum that drew 2,000 people, nearly all of whom raised their hands when asked if they had read the book. In addition to the author event, the reading program has included dozens of book discussions during March and April. One met at Langsam Library on April 17. Raymond Walters College has also been reading the book, chapter by chapter, in public settings.
"This is an English teacher's dream come true - seeing readers fill a basketball arena to hear an author speak," said James Schiff, assistant professor of English, in his introduction for Gaines. Channel 5's Anne Marie Tiernon emceed.
Gaines began his writing career as a teen-ager. He had not been allowed to enter a library to read until he moved West, from Louisiana to California. Once he relocated, he read fiction voraciously, but found the stories didn't ring true for him or his world -- the books were all written by whites. That's when Gaines decided to start writing his own stories.
Today he is an acclaimed American author. His "A Lesson Before Dying" won the National Book Critics Award in 1993 and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. It also was made into a film and has been performed as a play.
What does make a man, Gaines told the Shoemaker audience, answering the main question his novel raises, is "responsibility." Although they've fought and died in every war in American history, too often, Gaines said, African American males have failed to "stand up for" the women in their lives.
By the novel's conclusion, two main male characters have learned the lesson of responsibility and doing something for someone else, he said. One is an African American prisoner who has been sentenced to die in the electric chair despite his innocence. The other is an African American teacher, whom Gaines describes as a prisoner to his southern environment and is enlisted to visit the condemned prisoner in the months before the sentence is carried out.
The convicted man, Jefferson, is a poorly educated black man who gets caught at a liquor store shootout drinking the white store owner's alcohol and carrying the store's cash in his pocket. He is found guilty of the store owner's murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The setting is Louisiana in the late 1940s.
In the courtroom, a defense attorney compares Jefferson to a hog. Afterwards, Jefferson's godmother and another woman ask teacher Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson to walk to the electric chair as a man with dignity. Wiggins agrees to visit Jefferson in his jail cell, but does so only with great reluctance. After initial visits prove fruitless, Wiggins begins to make contact with Jefferson by bringing him a radio to listen to in his cell and later a pencil and notebook to write in.
The novel includes a compelling description of the portable electric chair - nicknamed Gruesome Gertie -- when it is driven into town on the day of the execution. The chair is powered by a generator that can be heard blocks away.
Gaines told his audience he based his portrayal of the chair on accounts he heard from a lawyer who defended a real African American on death row in the late 1940s. The real case, appealed unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court, involved a man whose death was postponed for 13 months when the electric chair malfunctioned on the original execution date.
While Gaines fictional death row inmate, Jefferson, learns to be a man by novel's end, one member of the Shoemaker audience wanted to know what lesson Grant Wiggins learns.
"Grant has learned to be more human. Before Jefferson he was just running in place. He didn't really care for his students," Gaines said.
"Are you Grant Wiggins?" another member of the audience asked. "No," responded Gaines, but added he had been to California, like the character had. Like most writers, however, Gaines said parts of him were in Grant and he did draw on his own life experience in writing the novel. He was raised on a Louisiana plantation, where he picked cotton and gathered potatoes. His grandmother worked in a white family's house, just like the characters of Tante Lou and Miss Emma had.
After his talk, Gaines signed books on the Shoemaker Concourse where hundreds lined up to get his autograph.
Lecture on the web: Ernest J. Gaines' presentation at UC can be seen on the web in streaming video at stremedia.uc.edu/justcommunity/gaines/index.html.
Previous stories on Ernest J. Gaines.