sun comin up
the bird in the tre soun like a blu bird
sky blu blu mr wigin”
- A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
At 7:32 p.m., I walked out of the hotel we were staying at in Baton Rouge. For about a block, I walked through the warm, humid air to watch the sunset on the Mississippi River. Aside from the beautiful sunset itself, I looked around and saw families, couples, singles, and dogs enjoy the golden hour as well. It was a blissful scene that deserved to be appreciated.
Watching the sunset moved me to feel a sense of liberation. A freedom that starkly contrasted the day’s earlier events. We had visited the Courthouse in a small far-off town called New Roads. It was a simple and quiet place, with houses outlining the “false” St. Charles River. The town seemed desolate, but everyone was actually just inside, trying to escape the heat. While the front of the Courthouse stood picturesque under the pretty Louisiana clouds and blue sky, I only thought about what it must have been like for the characters of our novel in A Lesson Before Dying. Jefferson, a black man who is sentenced to death by electrocution for alleged manslaughter, had stayed behind the bars inspired by the Courthouse jail.
It was a chilling experience. Walking through the jailhouse wouldn’t have felt the same if I had not read the novel and developed a personal connection with Jefferson. There were waves of hurt, injustice, and anger because it was all a reminder of how segregation, alongside continuous discrimination and hate, was normalized in the 60’s. It was upsetting and heartbreaking to see the conditions and details of the space: number of days and “f--- you’s” engraved on the wall, beds smaller than a twin size, a sad and isolated outdoor area, and leftover playing cards shoved through the iron-fenced windows.
“i cry cause you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im sombody”
- A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
Pictured on the left: a heart engraved on the jail cell wall.
Later in the evening, I sat on my bed, balling. I don’t remember the last time a novel made me cry. I couldn’t help it though—how can you not be moved by the last words and transformation of a man who is sentenced to die? Throughout the A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson was referred to and treated as a “hog;” not just for his alleged crime, but for a simpler reason: his identity as a black man. That is how his white attorney pleaded for his innocence, that is how the sheriff treated him in front of Jefferson’s own mother, and that is how most white people talked about him until he was electrocuted to death. It was tragic, but the situation was turned into something beautiful as this man, Jefferson, had come to accept and believe that he was worthy of love.
While this novel speaks measures on various topics and themes, I definitely resonated most with what it had to say about love and the state of humanity. We discussed ideas at seminar the next morning, which left everyone in a reflective mood. We were also eager to ask questions since we had the privilege of meeting Dr. Gaines, the author of A Lesson Before Dying, at his home later in the afternoon.
“Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.”
– John Green
Pictured on the left: Dr. Ernest J. Gaines at his home with fellow bookpackers.
In the midst of asking Mr. Gaines questions and reflecting upon the lessons to take away from this book, it’s difficult to not consider these themes and ideas in my own life. Something that I was reminded of, when I was reflecting on Jefferson’s lesson before dying, was the idea of self-esteem. But with the busyness of our full day (which included going to Mr. Gaines’ home, lunch, and an unexpected boat ride and tubing experience on the lake, to say the least), I was tired and took naps in the car, instead of staring out of the window thinking contemplative thoughts.
That night we also went out to dinner, but not just dinner—we went to dinner and dancing. There were so many older ladies and gentlemen who danced the night away to a live band.
Typically, when it comes to dancing, I usually opt out and enjoyably watch people from the sidelines (although secretly, I love to dance, just like everyone else). This past semester, I took a Ballroom dance class with my boyfriend and I really found myself hating it sometimes. I liked to joke that it was the hardest class of the semester, even though it was simply a credit/no credit 2 unit class. It was fun in the beginning because everyone was wonky and awkward and bad, but toward the middle of the semester people were beginning to look like pros, and the novelty of the class was wearing off. Not that I wanted other people to be as bad as me, but I had this insecurity where I felt like my partner was just not having a fun time dancing with me. And obviously I would want the person I’m dancing with to have fun with me. Sometimes I’d take someone’s lack of enthusiasm as a personal offense or assume that they looked miserable because I sucked at dancing, when in reality everyone was tired from dancing because the class was 2.5 hours long. After identifying and addressing those insecurities, I also realized why I never got into dance or sports. It was not because I didn’t like the activity, but I never liked how it made me feel because it revealed how I really felt about myself: insecure and unconfident.
Despite the unfortunate way I felt about myself and dancing, I still had the most joyful time dancing the night away. Why did I have the best time? Because I was doing it with these new friends who I felt comfortable and secure with. Because they were the type of people that reminded me that I am loved and helped me to believe it. It wasn’t like we had some therapy session where we sat down and they reassured me that I am a loved individual. It was through their actions, words, and attitudes that I knew, and didn’t have to think much about it. Of course, I feel this support more at home with people I’ve known and loved for years, but it’s been rejuvenating and empowering to have a group of new and diverse people (who I didn’t even know three weeks ago) to remind me that I am loved.
By the end of the day, we settled in cabins by the Bayou (a river/swamp area). While I was tired out, it was nice to be in my rickety bed with my book, after a nice shower to wash off all the sweat and humidity accumulated throughout the day. It had taught me so much the first time reading it, that I almost wanted to read it again at that moment because I knew there was definitely more to learn from it. There’s so much I was able to learn about humanity, the past world, and myself—all through literature. Reading heartwarming, heart-wrenching, inspiring, and thought-provoking books like A Lesson Before Dying are the things that remind me about our human condition and what we all long for, which ultimately helps me to strive to be a more aware, selfless, and loving individual.
“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”
- Junot Díaz
Taking this whole month to bookpack has allowed me to fully immerse myself in this experience as well as devote my attention and curiosity to what literature, a culture, and people can teach me about the world. This particular book was a great reminder that I need to believe I am loved and that I ought to love the people around me as well. So as we enter into this last week of bookpacking, I look forward to continuing to make great memories with the people already around me as well as the people back at home. A Lesson Before Dying has actually been a great lesson on how to live.
More photos so far: