A Lesson Before Seeing

This novel had the greatest impact on me.  Not only were the characters very real, but I felt the issue of recognizing someone for who they are is an issue today.  Everyone should read this book and take the opportunity to meet Dr. Gaines while he is still alive.

I was not there, yet I was there.  No, I did not go the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be.  Still I was there.  I was there as much as anyone else was there.
— Ernest J. Gaines




These very first lines of the novel, A Lesson before Dying, by Earnest J. Gaines set up an issue that stood out to me throughout the novel.  Describing his experience at the trial of Jefferson, a man sentenced to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Grant Wiggins felt removed from the environment.  He is looking, but not seeing.  He is listening, but not hearing what is being said.


In the trial, Jefferson’s defense attorney places him as less than a man, an African American thing, a hog.  The rest of the novel is Grant convincing the imprisoned Jefferson he is a man, a human being, before his death.  This word defined Jefferson for the jury who sentenced him.  The issue of looking yet not seeing is what I took away from this novel.

Gentlemen of the jury, look at him—look at him—look at this. Do you see a man sitting here?...Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan—can plan—can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackout Africa.

Grant’s aunt does not look at him because he does not practice Christianity as she would like.  Grant is effectively condemned in her eyes for one decision of his. 

Gropé, who is murdered in a shootout, did not like Brother and Bear from the start, just by looking at them.  They had intended to rob him.  He truly sees who they were and meant to do and died because of it.  Only Jefferson is left standing and is sentenced to death for murdering Gropé. 

Jefferson’s own godmother during court is “not even listening.  She had gotten tired of listening” (4).  She later tries to get involved and impose her will on saving Jefferson so she can feel good, but she was not even present in the courtroom.

In the streets of New Orleans, we walk by homeless people, beggars, and scammers hoping to scrape out a meager existence. Veterans and youths tap dancing away. 

Looking has to do with seeing, with recognizing one another.

I had told her I was no teacher, I hated teaching, and I was just running in place here. But she had not heard me before, and I knew that no matter how loud I screamed, she would not hear me now.

Grant, who disliked teaching, felt this angst to get out of the city and go somewhere else. Yet, in teaching Jefferson to believe in himself as a human being who is worthy, Grant also learned his own worth. In trying to see and understand others, we can also grow.

The issue of looking but not seeing is present historically but also has repercussions today.

We often in seeing confine what we see to a term-homeless, slave, a statistic. We judge books and people by the cover.  As the book wrestles with Jefferson being seen no more than a hog, we struggle to go against being seen as mere stereotypes.  We are human beings.  

Taking Dr. Gaines work further, I took the work to mean we need to go beyond our senses.  This can be related to knowing but not understanding or even doing. We know not to litter, we know to recycle, yet we are fine with destroying our planet. We know racism is a problem, yet we don’t understand it fully and deal with it.  What separates us from animals, from being a hog, is our mind.  We can look, but it is our brain that processes that information and uses it, it translates it into seeing.  If our head is not in the right place, as many characters were in the novel, we do not see and comprehend what is presented to us. 

This book and the experience along with it will be my most memorable part of this bookpacking journey.  No literature classroom including this novel could help me truly understand how little we see how little we understand.  Being in a foreign place like New Orleans and Baton Rouge shocked my mind into seeing the city and the people around me.  No statistic or academic language can make me feel what I saw and heard.  That is the beauty of bookpacking, being on the ground and empathizing with those we meet.Book packing allows you to not only be on the ground to experience the place and see sites of interest, but you can see manuscripts and visit authors unlike any other way of access.

 Yesterday, we got to meet Dr. Gaines, his wife Dianne, and the director the Gaines Center and her assistant. Interestingly, he lives on the very plantation he grew up on. The church on his property is the church he learned in between grinding seasons. He first got his creative streak writing letters for the elder sharecroppers. He eventually moved out to California to get educated but got drawn back to Louisiana for a teaching position in Lafayette. He moved back as he found himself coming more and more to the graveyard his relatives are buried, where he now welcomes people each year to maintain the the graveyard with him before exchanging stories and food. He continues to write and I could really see his passion and how writing has become him. His role model growing up, with eight siblings, was his aunt who raised them. She was handicapped and crawled around the house taking care of them. Ernest was truly an inspiration and it was an honor to meet him.


Read On!

An original manuscript of Jefferson’s journal entry, my favorite part of the novel

An original manuscript of Jefferson’s journal entry, my favorite part of the novel

The very church on the plantation where Ernest learned as a child

The very church on the plantation where Ernest learned as a child