The Bookpacking experience for Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying proved to be the most impactful of the trip. It was quite enjoyable to read a fictional story about vampires hunting on the lively nighttime streets of the French Quarter, where I had been spending the better parts of my days, or to read a story of a woman’s awakening while lounging on the same beach that she had. These were inspiring and pleasurable bookpacking experiences. Reading and visiting the locations of A Lesson Before Dying, however, proved to be an entirely different type of experience. It was a difficult one. It was not an easy thing to read about the mistreating of an innocent young black man, forced into a death sentence of which he has no chance of escaping, and then having to stand in the exact spot where he had lived this struggle.
Our visit to the New Roads Courthouse Prison was a somber one. I’ve gotten used to our group being loud, always laughing, and occasionally bursting out in song. That all stopped once we had taken the tiny elevator—no bigger than a phone booth—up to the top floor of the courthouse, where the old prison cells still stand. The mood instantly changed. There was none of our usual laughter, no joking, and entirely no singing. There set upon us a silence and a sadness that could only have resulted from having just read Jefferson’s story, and the reality of his situation dawning on all of us simultaneously. You could feel the weight of the book descend on all of us again, with even more effect this time, as we saw the cells and beds that we had read about right in front of us.
I didn’t know how to write a blog about this book, or the experience of visiting the place that the majority of it had taken place in. My blogs so far have mostly been retellings of the joy I’ve experienced on this trip. This experience, however, while very powerful, was rather minimal in its joy factor.
I’ve chosen instead to write a poem, trying to relate the feelings I had while standing in the prison cells. Tammy, a deputy who had been kind enough to take us upstairs to the prison, showed us the exact spot where they had used to hang the prisoners who, like Jefferson, were sentenced to the death penalty. She pointed up to a spot almost directly above me. It was at that moment that the gravity of this place, and of Jefferson’s situation, really struck me. The poem I’ve written tries to capture the immensity of this moment.
Courthouse Prison Blues
dirty dingy room
they hung them right above me
tiny hardly lit
enclosed with bars and left to rot
standing here unchained
what crimes had locked their manacles
had their keys been turned
with reason or with malice
i am free, i can leave
i can smell and climb the trees
so why can’t i see why can’t i breathe
in their shoes
i try to see
through their eyes all their suffering
in this i find
“we are equal” written on the wall
now i feel chained
shackled and kept
years of crime burden my mind
done by the hangers
and not the hanged
i now can see
sorrows suffered by
the writer of the letter signed