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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Context


Catholicism, Slavery, and Black Communities

A Lesson Before Dying is set in a Louisiana parish where the majority of people of all racial castes are Catholic. The African American community on the plantation practices its own exuberant form of Catholicism, which is revealed to be the source of their strength to endure injustice and oppression. In this context, Grant Wiggins's lost faith and the matter of Jefferson's salvation become major sources of the novel's tension, motion, and thematic significance. Jefferson's execution date is even chosen with express regard for not offending the Catholic public by coinciding with Lent and Easter.

The religious roots of the former French and Spanish colonies in the Southern United States, including Louisiana, are Catholic. Since colonial days Catholicism has played a large part in Southern culture, and the Catholic Church was highly respected by non-Catholics and Catholics alike. Catholicism, though, has a long, complicated relationship with slavery. In 1866 Pope Pius IX declared slavery is "not contrary to the natural and divine law." Church doctrine stated the bodies of slaves belonged to their owners, while their souls belonged to God. The Church required slave owners to convert their slaves to Catholicism, resulting in a significant population of black Catholics. Southern white Catholics in the 19th century were racist, and even Catholic bishops and monastic orders owned slaves.

Black Catholicism differed from white Catholicism most notably in its use of song and movement, just as Gaines depicts in his novel when the singing from the church prevents Grant from focusing. In this expressiveness, black Catholicism shared more with black evangelical worship than with white Catholic services.

In Louisiana, slaves combined their own culture with traditional Catholic elements, producing a unique synthesis of religious expression. In black communities Catholic churches were not just places of worship but a forum to address social, economic, and political issues. Such integration of the church into everyday life is depicted in A Lesson Before Dying, with the plantation church doubling as a school.

The Catholic Church saw the post-Civil War emancipation of four million African Americans as a tremendous opportunity to gain converts. However, the unanimous refusal of American seminaries to admit blacks meant many black Catholic churches were led by laypeople—like Reverend Mose Ambrose in A Lesson Before Dying. By the mid-20th century, there were 400,000 black Catholics and 100 black Catholic priests in the United States.

The Plantation System

In A Lesson Before Dying Grant and his community live and work on the cane plantation where their ancestors worked as slaves. The fact that his people have still not made it off the white man's plantation, 80 years after the end of slavery, is the source of Grant's bitterness, despair, and desire to run away.

When slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the plantation-based economy of the South underwent a slight reorganization, but then continued to function on exploited black labor for the next 80 years.

After the war plantation owners needed capital and labor, and freed blacks needed homes and jobs. New systems of farm tenancy emerged to address these needs, but these arrangements were reorganizations of labor rather than paradigm shifts. The plantations continued to run on the labor of the same people who had once been slaves but were now wage laborers, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers. These emancipated black workers dreamt of land ownership, which the system seemed to promise but which rarely came to pass.

Blacks were excluded from land ownership as well as the political participation that would allow them to vote in their own interests by a variety of systematic, legal, and extralegal mechanisms. The Homestead Act of 1862 specifically excluded blacks, but the Homestead Act of 1866 was ostensibly meant to facilitate black land ownership. However, despite this federal legislation, blacks were commonly prevented from becoming landowners due to a number of obstacles at the state and other levels. Blacks who attempted to rent land were violently and regularly attacked by white mobs. Groups such as the White League worked to prevent African Americans from voting Republican, the antislavery party. Such groups also successfully pressured plantation owners to evict black tenants for voting Republican. As a result of this violent and pervasive exclusion from opportunity, many blacks left the South after Reconstruction ended in 1877.

As the Southern economy rebounded in the postwar years, farm tenancy arrangements became increasingly exploitative. There were three classes of arrangements. A plantation manager directed the work of wage laborers, who were given room and board. These laborers were paid wages, minus the cost of their room and board. The wages were often not paid in cash, but in credit at the plantation store, where the plantation owner could manipulate prices. This wage-labor system was predominant in the sugarcane growing regions of Louisiana, and is also the system the black plantation community in A Lesson Before Dying is engaged in.

In cotton-growing regions in Louisiana, the dominant arrangements were sharecropping and farm tenancy. Sharecroppers worked independently of any plantation manager on their allotted acreage, but were provided by the plantation owner with room, board, and other necessities, who deducted these costs from their share. At season's end sharecroppers were given a portion of the crop's value. However, the plantation owner handled the sale of the crop, and could easily cheat sharecroppers. It was common for sharecroppers to make negligible profits or even find themselves in debt to the plantation owner.

Farm tenants rented land from a plantation owner for cash. They had the greatest amount of autonomy, with total control over their own crops and the ability to manage a homestead to provide for their families' needs. However, being a farm tenant necessitated having capital for rent and supplies, as well as owning equipment—something most blacks did not have. In 1930 two-thirds of farmers were not self-sufficient tenants, but easily exploited sharecroppers or wage laborers.

The freedom that came with emancipation still left African Americans with severely limited mobility. Black workers often lacked access to healthcare, education, and voting. These farm tenancy arrangements continued until after World War II, when the need for large amounts of human labor in the agricultural economy was eliminated by the development of machines.


A Lesson Before Dying is intensely concerned with racism, which defines the social order in the novel just as it has long pervaded the culture of the American South. Racism within the social order is expressed and perpetuated by a variety of personal, cultural, and legal mechanisms. An understanding of these mechanisms will help the reader appreciate the magnitude of the black community's struggle as depicted in A Lesson Before Dying.

Structural racism is a property of social, economic, and political systems that inherently reinforce racial inequality. Because it is normalized by history and culture, as well as encoded in policies and laws, structural racism has a diffuse, pervasive quality that can be harder to recognize than individual acts of racism. An example of structural racism in the novel is the parish government's persistent underfunding of the plantation school, which maintains a cycle of black poverty and powerlessness.

Structural racism is written into the 1865 amendment that ended slavery "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The economy of the South needed free labor to function, so state governments took advantage of this loophole and created the institution of prison slavery by passing laws that made it possible to convict blacks for vague behaviors such as "mischief." Large numbers of black men entered the prison system as a result of these black codes, providing the labor to sustain enormous prison plantations, like Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison farm. Black convicts also provided the labor for railroad construction, mining, and other key industries. This principle of criminalizing blackness is what Jefferson is called to undermine in the text.

At the same time that structural racism disadvantages one group, it heaps advantage upon another group. The sum of the advantages white Americans have over black Americans as a result of structural racism is known as "white privilege." This privilege is accumulated over generations, resulting in the entrenchment of racist institutions and norms.

Interpersonal racism is expressed between individuals. Characters like Henri Pichot and Sheriff Guidry express interpersonal racism through their verbal and nonverbal communication with the black people in the novel. Interpersonal racism may be subtle, as when the sheriff corrects Grant for not calling Deputy Paul Bonin "mister," or it may be egregious, as when the attorney argues Jefferson is not a person because he is black.

Individual racism refers to the racist attitudes of individuals. The racism of the dominant group can also be internalized by those who are its target. An example in the novel is Jefferson's repeated insistence that he is a hog, not a person.

Because the American institution of slavery was based on race, the need arose for a legal classification of racial identity. These legal classifications became the foundation of a color-based caste system, which guided interactions between groups. Caste was particularly complicated in Louisiana, where the caste system had three major divisions instead of two. Blacks were at the bottom of the hierarchy, while whites were at the top. Mixed-raced persons, called mulattos, were in the middle of the social hierarchy and were further classified according to how much white blood they had.

As Gaines demonstrates with his characters, mixed-race persons often looked down on blacks much the same way as whites did. The desire to preserve their status above blacks lead to taboos against black-mulatto relations, which would produce darker-skinned offspring of lower social status. Gaines depicts the damaging effects of mulatto racism through the character of Vivian Baptiste, disowned by her family for marrying a black man, as well as through Matthew Antoine, who states he is "superior to any man blacker" than he is.

Black Communities in the Jim Crow Era

The period from 1865 to 1877, following the Civil War, was known as Reconstruction, a violent time in the American South. It saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups who sought to undermine the new legal protections for blacks through intimidation, property destruction, and violent attacks. The period from the end of Reconstruction to the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the 1950s is known as the Jim Crow era. It was characterized by policies that provided a legal basis for discrimination against blacks.

The first stirrings of the Jim Crow era began with the passage of what are called the "black codes" immediately after the war ended. These laws, strictly enforced in parts of Louisiana, criminalized normal behaviors when performed by blacks. This trend of undermining black rights accelerated with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877.

Because of its base of African American support, white supremacist groups focused on destroying the Republican Party's presence in the South. To this end, they pursued strategies of voter intimidation and violence and passed restrictions designed to prevent blacks from voting.

In 1890 Louisiana began to pass laws legalizing segregation of public facilities. The 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson was a federal endorsement of the Jim Crow era's definitive doctrine of "separate but equal" facilities for whites and blacks. The early years of the 20th century saw the passage of numerous "Jim Crow laws," segregating all aspects of life, from schools to public transportation to bathroom facilities. This racist social order was bolstered by organized violence against blacks.

In the period of the Jim Crow Era following the turn of the 19th century and before the civil rights movement, the black community responded to subjugation by forming a number of church-based and social justice organizations, one of which was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP). In the 1930s the NAACP began to challenge Jim Crow laws in court.

Although many blacks served in World War II, the armed forces weren't desegregated until 1948. In the 1950s the nonviolent civil rights movement began to take shape. With the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas the Supreme Court reversed the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson "separate but equal" doctrine. States responded with gradual desegregation. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing all forms of public discrimination.

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