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Jaya Hinton

Pd. 2

A Lesson Before Dying Synthesis Essay

Aside from the portrayal of African Americans during the extended period of slavery, there is no

worse place to find a depiction of African American males than the Jim Crow South. Between the late

1870s and the late 1950s, African American citizens, mainly males, continued to be treated as less than

human, even though slavery and the of a human law had been abolished. They were unable to eat at

the same restaurants, attend the same schools, or even drink out of the same water fountains as Whites.

When they did these things as acts of civil disobedience in order to bring attention to the injustice of

segregation, they were beaten, sprayed with fire hoses, mauled by dogs, spit on, and verbally and

physically attacked by White citizens. The themes of the throwing of innocent African American males in

jail and the portrayal of Jefferson as unintelligent, immature, and a dirty animal found in Ernest Gaines A

Lesson Before Dying are completely emblematic of the experience of African American males in the Jim

Crow South.

The entire plot of A Lesson Before Dying is centered around an innocent African American Male

being thrown into jail, a very prominent occurrence in both the deep south and most other parts of the

country during the Jim Crow era. Because this theme is present in multiple novels about the Jim Crow

South, this is clearly emblematic of the portrayal of African Americans during this period. In the novel,

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a lawyer defends Tom Robinson, an innocent African American

man against fabricated rape charges. Tom, like Jefferson, is convicted by an all-white jury, and eventually

killed by the guards for attempting to run away from the racist environment of the prison. To Kill a

Mockingbird exists in a parallel world to A Lesson Before Dying, just from the perspective of a White

family. It allows for the reader to view the perspective of the community, which in this novel is that any

Black man would rape any White woman because he is an animal. And as it is said in the book, Tom

Robinson was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed" (Lee, ch. 25). This

quote, along with the entire theme of the novel shows the apathy of the community toward its African
American citizens, and the ruining of their lives by throwing them haphazardly and unjustly in jail. As

this book matches A Lesson Before Dying, it is emblematic of the true American history of the Jim Crow

South. In 1931, nine black youths ages 13 to 19 were pulled from a train, arrested and taken to nearby

Scottsboro, Alabama, where they were jailed, tried and declared guilty of raping two white women a

crime that never occurred. All-white, male juries quickly sentenced eight to death. A long-term and

ultimately successful campaign to save the youths' lives and, in time, exonerate them led to one of the

most dramatic and revealing civil rights struggles in U.S. history (scottsboro-boys.org). Law

enforcement and White citizens in the Jim Crow South were perfectly pleased to place innocent African

American children in jail. They were unconcerned with whether the claims of crime were true, and

worse, when they were proven untrue, they did not care enough to free them, expunge their records, and

help them transition back into society. The Caucasian race was unconcerned with the humanity of their

actions, because they did not find African Americans human enough to warrant it. They treated African

Americans like animals in the real Jim Crow South and in the Jim Crow South of A Lesson Before Dying.

Along with the unjust mass incarceration, Thousands of African Americans continued to be abused, both

mentally and physically by White Americans who believe that they are superior. Through slight

comments and behaviors showing White mans expectancy of unintelligent African Americans, and both

the conscious and subconscious belief that they are animals, African Americans were treated as less than

human, and were therefore expected to behave as such. According to Gaines, [White peoples]

forefathers said that we're only three-fifths humanand they believe it to this day." This quote refers to

the compromise proposed at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. It would count each enslaved person

as of a person in order to balance representation between big and small states in the House of

Representatives. The argument could be made that this was an economic decision, but those enslaved

African Americans were treated as if they were less than human even after slavery had been abolished.

This can be found in the way Jeffersons lawyer attempts to appeal to the all-white jury by calling him a

hog and saying that electrocuting an animal is inhumane. It can also be found in the way that Henri
Pichot, the man Grant and his family used to work for, expects Grant to address him as sir, and more

importantly expects him to speak with improper grammar, and then is irritated when, even though Grant

is an educated man and professor, his grammar is not the typical black way of speaking, which just

means speaking improperly. Pichot does not believe that Grant is equal to the white man, and therefore

expects him to be unintelligent. Jeffersons lawyer does not believe that Jeffersons innocence will be

enough to save his life, so he resorts to calling him a hog in order to appeal to the way the white men in

charge of his fate are thinking of him. Scenes in movies such as The Butler also show the gross

mistreatment of African Americans in this time period. In The Butler, there are two scenes very

representative of the mistreatment of African Americans. In the first, a group of African American

college students engage in a sit-in at a local diner. They are met with both physical and verbal violence.

They are called the n-word and coon two racial slurs. They have ketchup squirted on them, they are

spit on, and they have hot coffee thrown in their faces. In the second scene, a freedom rider bus is blown

up by the Klu Klux Klan. All of these actions are done by White people without any consideration of

African Americans as a people, or their individual lives and health. This exemplifies the treatment of

African Americans as lesser individuals expected to do nothing but obey. In the end, after the abuse, the

African Americans are still arrested and the White offenders remain free to go about their terrorism. This

novel as well as other examples from pop culture very accurately portrays the mistreatment and general

abuse of African Americans during this time period.

However, not all people hold this viewpoint. Because Ernest Gaines did not grow up in the exact

environment in which A Lesson Before Dying took place, and spent some time denying his southern roots,

people believe that it is possible for Gaines to be overcompensating and exaggerating in order to show

and reaffirm his pride of his heritage. According to Jeffrey Folks, In his own case, having as a teenager

moved to California to live with his mother and stepfather, Gaines found that it was necessary to suppress

his own rural cultural heritage Gaines never forsook his Southern heritage entirely, but in his early

writing he viewed that heritage with greater distance and irony than in his more recent novels The real

source of cultural coherence at the center of all of Gaines's writing is precisely that culture which he was
told to conceal in California: the Southern rural folk tradition. This source leaves room for the argument

that Gaines does not really have the authority to make such claims about the South because he did not

spend all of his time there growing up. However this actually makes Ernest Gaines one of the best people

to tell this story, because he is one of the few people who can bring the story and lesson to life through

both personal experience and an outsider's view. According to Folks, It is important to understand that

Gaines's perspective has never been specifically Southern. Like so many of his protagonists, Gaines was

educated and lived much of his adult life in California, and as a result he brings an outside perspective to

the Southern African-American historical narrative. This outside experience, along with the strong

familial influences from his life (Miss Emma, Tante Lou, etc) that influenced his writing and vision of

the world, make Gaines one of the most qualified people to write this story. He is able to pull from both

his personal experiences and the experiences of his Southern family in order to make the novel as

emblematic of the time period as possible. Without a doubt, Gaines is one of the most reliable people to

write this novel because of his personal experience with the topic that allows the story to come to life in a

way that no other person could.

As Jefferson is wrongly incarcerated and his lawyer and most White citizens were calling him a

hog, Gaines does an impeccable job of creating a parallel between his fictional world and the real Jim

Crow South. However the portrayal of African American males has not changed much since the Jim Crow

era. African American males are still being incarcerated at alarmingly high rates, and Jim Crow laws

have just been replaced by the War on Drugs. Since the beginning of slavery in the Americas in the

1600s, African Americans have been seen and unintelligent and immature animals.