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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 7 | Summary



In preparation for superintendent Dr. Joseph Morgan's annual visit, Grant Wiggins drills his students in sitting and standing in unison. He makes sure they bathe and wear their best clothes. The superintendent, a fat, slow man who is overwhelmed by his few responsibilities, finally shows up one day. He communicates by grunting and repeatedly calls Grant "Higgins," despite Grant's correcting him.

One by one, the superintendent calls up students for interrogation and inspection of their hands and teeth. Grant remembers reading how slave masters used to similarly inspect slaves they were considering buying. He sarcastically remarks on the superintendent's "humanitarianism," since he doesn't use "some kind of crude metal instrument" to inspect the children's bodies.

The superintendent lectures the students, encouraging them to eat beans and to think of work in the fields as healthy exercise. "Higgins," he concludes, "You have an excellent crop of students." Grant despises himself for "drilling" the students in preparation for the visit.

Privately, Grant tells the superintendent he desperately needs more school supplies. Dr. Morgan replies the white schools are in the same shape, and Grant points out he is using books with missing pages. Dr. Morgan ends the conversation by asking if Grant is "questioning" him. He tells Grant to focus more on patriotism and hygiene. When Grant says many students don't have toothbrushes, the superintendent tells Grant his students should get "off their lazy butts" and work for money to buy them.


Gaines's description of the superintendent's visit to the plantation school demonstrates the way institutions of white power regard black children and their education. It is an exercise in humiliation for Grant and his students, and the superintendent uses it as a chance to impart his white racist ideology to the children.

The superintendent clearly sees his visit to the plantation school as a mere annoyance, and does not give Grant the courtesy of making an appointment but rather shows up, unannounced, when it suits him. Grant tries to earn Dr. Morgan's respect by doing all he can to make his students seem disciplined and accomplished. He hopes this will convince the superintendent the plantation school is an endeavor worthy of additional funding, as Grant struggles to lead his class with the meager and inadequate resources available to him.

But the superintendent is not there to listen and respond; he can't even get Grant's name right. He is not concerned with education, but with preserving white power. He wants the students to be healthy—something he himself clearly is not—so they are strong enough to labor in the fields. He encourages the students to eat and enjoy beans—a cheap food that he, as a grossly obese man, clearly does not partake of himself. He treats them as a commodity, calling them "an excellent crop" and encouraging them to see work as exercise. This advice demonstrates his deep hypocrisy, as he has trouble walking from the car to the school. He wants to make sure they've internalized the values, religious and patriotic, that will compel them to be complacent and hard-working, therefore easily exploitable.

He responds to Grant's request for adequate resources with the lie that the black school is given the same resources as white schools. This idea of "separate but equal" justified the entire Jim Crow era of segregation, perpetuating racist inequalities under a façade of equality. When Grant's response indicates the untruth of the statement, the superintendent silences Grant by implying it is not Grant's place to question his authority. The subtext is that this is the new face of slavery—a hypocrisy pretending at liberty while ensuring bondage.

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