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Discussion Offers Prelude to Gaines Visit

Date: April 19, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover
Archive: Campus News

Some read it because their book club chose to. Others did so because the Greater Cincinnati community is participating in a reading program to help bridge the city's racial divide. And in the spirit of the program, they came together to discuss the novel, "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines.

Rosemary Franklin

The nine people who gathered at Langsam Library Wednesday afternoon, April 17, took part in a discussion similar to ones taking place all over the city in different places and times. This time, the discussion was sponsored by University Libraries and led by Rosemary Franklin, associate senior librarian, and Erika Taibl, the libraries' associate public information officer.

"A Lesson Before Dying" was chosen as the book for the region to read in the On the Same Page Cincinnati project, sponsored by The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County and other groups. Set in rural Louisiana in 1948, the novel tells the story of Jefferson, a poorly educated black man who is present at a liquor store shootout. Found guilty of a murder he did not commit, he is sentenced to death by an all-white jury. In the courtroom, a defense attorney compares Jefferson to a hog. A teacher, Grant Wiggins, is enlisted to help Jefferson die as a man, with dignity. Wiggins agrees to visit Jefferson in his jail cell, but does so only with reluctance.

Mary Gratsch

The novel won a National Book Critics Award in 1993. It was also a Pulitzer Prize nominee. The book has many themes, among them racial discrimination. The practice of exclusion is not shown just among whites, but also among African Americans of different shades. The definition of "person," capital punishment and the power of education are also among the issues the novel raises.

"It's a good opportunity to maybe start something that we can have more often," said Franklin in opening remarks.

Those who gathered noted early in the discussion with disappointment that no African Americans were in attendance to participate in dialogue. As a result, the conversation was generated by whites and two Asian-born women.

One participant, Allison Armstrong, said she thought the book was easy to read but moving. "I thought it was a wonderful book." Armstrong is also reading "Caucasia," an On the Same Page project book assigned in Madison, Wis.

"It moved me...It stirred me," said Teresa Sabourin, professor of communication in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. "It made me want to take some action to right something that I think is so wrong in our culture."

Jane Thompson, associate librarian at the Health Sciences Library, told the group she was from Louisiana and praised the author for how well "he caught the cadences of the speech of both the blacks and the whites. I think he did that to show our similarities," she said.

She also pointed out that two main characters had names with significance that might be lost on northerners: Grant, the general who defeated the South in the Civil War and Jefferson, who called slavery an "execrable commerce" in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence.

John Tallmadge, a faculty member at the Union Institute, noted how cruel the character, Grant Wiggins, was to the students in his all-black classroom, noting that he is very angry character. He drew a parallel between Grant's rage and the rage that African Americans in Cincinnati must be feeling and repressing.

Further discussion raised questions about who the novel's real hero is. Whose story is it?

Tuesday, April 23, will present an opportunity for the discussion group participants, as well as all of Cincinnati and UC, to hear from Gaines himself. Gaines will speak at 2:30 p.m. at the Shoemaker Center. Admission is free.

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