Study Guide

A Lesson Before Dying Race

By Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 1

A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die. (1.1)

One little adjective shows how the balance of power and the scales of justice in the novel depend on skin color: white. Without having to come out and say it, this sentence lets us know that if the murdered man had been black, things would have turned out differently for the captured robber.

Chapter 3
Grant Wiggins

"I have no idea." He stared at me, and I realized that I had not answered him in the proper manner. "Sir," I added. (3.45)

In this scene Grant shows how race determines everything about a person in their relationships with the world, even the way they are supposed to speak to others. He knows that he is supposed to call Henri "Sir", because as a white man he is Grant's superior.

Chapter 4

There, instead of houses and trees, there were fishing wharves, boat docks, nightclubs, and restaurants for whites. There were one or two nightclubs for colored, but they were not very good. (4.8)

Talk about separate but unequal. Even the geography of the town, with the wide variety of establishments for white people and small, undesirable selection of those for black people, reflects the racial inequality.

Chapter 6

I had come through that back door against my will, and it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them. (6.47)

The way that society is structured allows white people to humiliate black people without even having to face them or speak to them. Designing a house with a back door for black people to come through instead of using the front door, and having them wait in the kitchen for hours on end for a meeting, are subtle ways of demonstrating control.

Chapter 21
Grant Wiggins

"We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves." (21.86)

This statement by Grant shows the very deep effects that the history of slavery can have on family structures and gender relationships for an entire race. Even though slavery had ended almost a hundred years before (not actually a long time, historically speaking), its legacy still limits black men's choices in the South.

"[. . . B]ut what she wants to hear first is that he did not crawl to that white man, that he stood at that last moment and walked. Because if he did not, she knows that she will never get another chance to see a black man stand for her." (21.86)

Miss Emma's desire is completely limited by her surroundings and her race. She never even dreams of a way of freeing or rescuing Jefferson from the electric chair—that is completely outside of her capacity is a black woman living in a racist system. Instead, she just hopes that he will somehow be rescued from the racism that has limited his own conception of himself.

Chapter 25

Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the n*****s. (25.6)

In this quote Grant is talking about biracial people, or people who have both black and white ancestry. It shows that race is a complicated notion. The people in question do not consider themselves to be black—in fact, they consider themselves superior to black people; however, white people do not count them as white, so they are caught in the middle.

Chapter 28

"Y'all asking a lot, Mr. Wiggins, from a poor old n***** who never had nothing." (28.63)

Jefferson refers to his race to explain why he has such a limited capacity. For him, being asked to stand on his own two feet as a man is a lot to ask, even though he is twenty-one years old. This shows us just how much racism can affect whether or not people can imagine a different life.

Chapter 30

The man held the door open for the woman, but she would not go inside, and Clay would not dare go through the door until the white people did. (30.8)

Whoever knew that going through a door was so complicated? It's an action we do several times a day (unless you're living in a cave or something) and yet, as we see here, unequal race relations can make it into a treacherous test. If Clay were to go in before the white people it would be considered an affront, because he's black. The craziest part is that it seems natural to everyone involved.

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