-Martin Luther King, Jr.
This post is for Trayvon Martin.
It is for Freddie Gray.
It is for Walter Scott,
Manuel Loggins, Jr.,
LaTanya Haggerty, those who I have failed to list because it is a traumatizingly large group, and every person whose name did not make this list simply because they died in silence and their injustice has yet to be named.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Bigger, Jefferson,
a young black man,
This we know from the start.
The question then, is not how
And in the time
before the shocking current
reverberates through his veins and brain
what parts of his humanity
will this world allow him
Enter Grant Wiggins,
reluctant teacher, fellow black man,
staying, simultaneously wanting
to run away as fast as he can.
Cell block conversations,
shared sweet potatoes -
even a radio makes its way
to Jefferson as if to say
perhaps this is a nightmare after all
and there is still time
to wake up.
But the nightmare is the truth
and death is certain still, you see,
the time is fixed
we know it will be
some time between noon and three.
Shaken and shaking,
but firmly a man,
Jefferson does not sit but stand.
Heard for miles,
a humdrum horror,
sanctioned, legal, still - a scandal
Louisiana blows him out like a candle.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I hope that this blob finds you well, or as well as can be, given the current state of affairs. I have been struggling to craft this post both because I wanted to honor the heft of its content, and because recent events left me wondering, yet again, whether we are in a desperate circle. But, as Dr. King reminds us, we must speak out, or our silence will be what our friends remember, louder even than the voices of the hateful supremacists in Charlottesville or Charleston. So here are my thoughts, simply put, aired without expectation, but with the hope that they will speak over the silence of others.
Narrators, not unreliable, but rather unwilling
Choosing Grant Wiggins as the narrator of this story was a fascinating choice, and one that confused me at first. Grant is sent to the jail to help Jefferson understand that he is 'not a hog, but a man' before he dies, a mission devised by Jefferson's nannan (godmother), seemingly his only kin. They are all living on a plantation in Louisiana, no longer slaves but tied to the land. Grant's interest in this task is minimal at best, and he undertakes the project under extreme pressure from his own aunt, Tante Lou.
Grant's unwillingness to confront this effort had this ingenious way of mirroring how I felt about reading the book at all. Here are a few lines that illustrate this push-and-pull, this internal tension:
Grant, on wanting to spend time with Vivian, his lady, instead of going to see Jefferson:
"I didn't want to think about that cell uptown. I wanted to think about more pleasant things."
and later, when the time of Jefferson's execution is fixed:
"That's where you come in, Reverend. I'm going for a walk, a long walk in the opposite direction."
At several points (choosing to read this book, reading this book, writing this blog) all I wanted to do was talk a long walk in the opposite direction and think about more pleasant things. And while, for our own survival, and our own happiness, it's important to create space for those pleasant things (and for long walks!), I think it's equally important to climb into this challenging headspace, inhabit the discomfort of harsh realities, and, one labored breath at a time, turn and face the fictional demons that haunt our nation's painful past, listening closely, as their doppelgängers often duplicate and divide us still today.
So here's a long walk we can all pretend that we've just taken, during which we've thought of many pleasant things,
"Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'"
And once you've decided whether pigs have wings (it's really up to you, you know!) we can, as a group, move on to that challenging headspace together.
Ok. Off we go!
Referents and reverberations
Some of my most faithful readers (A VERY SELECT FEW) will know that I have recently started a section where I speak about things that either feel as though they've informed a work or come out of it. This is not to suggest that I am drawing clear lines of connection (SOOPRIZE! I'm not omniscient!) but rather that the web linking these works was apparent to me, in my mind.
(1) To choke, to suffocate, to bear a burden.
Native Son, by Richard Wright (published in 1940)
Bigger: "They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in 2015)
"The [American] Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
A Lesson Before Dying (published in 1993, set in the 1940s)
Grant, to Vivian: "For my aunt and Irene it is the same. Who else does my aunt have? She has never been married. She raised my mother because my mother's mother, who was her sister, gave my mother to her when she was only a baby, to follow a man whom the South had run away. Just as my own mother and my own father left me with her, for greener pastures. And for Irene and for others there in the quarter, it's the same. They look at their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their brothers - all broken. They see me - and I, who grew up on that same plantation, can teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. I can give them something that neither a husband, a father, nor a grandfather ever did, so they want to hold on as long as they can. Not realizing that their holding on will break me too."
And later, Grant, to Jefferson: "I need to know what to do with my life. I'm needed here and I know it, but I feel that all I'm doing here is choking myself."
Television show Being Mary Jane, S2E6, aired in 2015
A conversation between Sheldon, a black man, and Mary Jane, a black woman, recounting his experience:
Sheldon: Did you know that étouffée in French literally translates to "suffocate?" To smother.
Mary Jane: What's your point? I'm guessing you're trying to make one.
Sheldon: My point is that black men in America today, like Brian Ellis, have been smothered literally their whole lives. Smothered as they clawed their way up the ranks. Smothered by corporate greed. Smothered by racism. By oppression. Smothered by hatred. Smothered by fear. Smothered by a system that truly never wanted to see them succeed. And why do you think that is? Jealousy. Obama's walk was inspired by Michael Jordan's dunk, was inspired by John Coltrane's solo, by Malcolm X's thoughts.
Mary Jane: Can you drive the car straight? Because I have low blood sugar.
Sheldon: Black men represent freedom, and that's what they're trying to squash.
What strikes me in these four moments is how aptly each one fits with the others. If you're concerned by the dates and the seeming lack of difference in sentiment despite the decades between them, then good. You should be. I know I am.
(2) To run, to sprint, to hasten away.
It's not surprising that given the state of emergency which is presented as potential inhabitable existence, the black man in literature is struck often with an urgent desire to flee, literally or metaphorically, whether it's in times of literal or moral slavery:
Jefferson, when he was witness to the robbery and knew he would be considered guilty of murder:
"He wanted to run, but he couldn't run. He couldn't even think. He didn't know where he was. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He couldn't remember ever getting into the car. He could remember a thing he had done all day."
Grant, on advice given to him about growing up as a black man in the south: "He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run."
in Beloved, when Paul D got help from a Cherokee tribe to run away from Sweet Home plantation:
"Follow the tree flowers to find north. Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone."
(3) To rain, to storm, to prevent adventures.
At one point in the novel, Grant's visits to Jefferson seem to have broken through, and Jefferson starts to make observations about life, from the food he's brought to the weather outside. At one point, he's speculating about the forecast, and Grant says,
"I hope it's the kind of day you want, Jefferson."
I loved this line and its tenderness, and it reminded me of one of my favorite lines from 'To the Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf. The book's title is a reference to a potential trip to the lighthouse that James, a young boy, is to make with Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay officiously asserts that the weather will be wretched, and that the trip will have to be postponed. Mrs. Ramsay is devastated for James, and tries to keep a cautiously optimistic outlook on the weather to come. She turns to James and says, "Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing."
(4) To die, to sleep - to sleep, perchance to dream.
Grant gives Jefferson a pencil and a notebook to record his thoughts, and this is one of his last:
"sun goin down an i kno this the las one im gon ever see but im gon see one mo sunrise cause i aint gon sleep tonite.
* * *
im gon sleep a long time after tomoro."
which reminded me of this line from Sydney Carton, who also faces execution for a crime he did not commit, though under rather different circumstances (and not by chair, but by guillotine):
"There is nothing to do until tomorrow. I can't sleep."
How much can one word hold?
Grant wants to give Jefferson a radio to listen to in his cell, something to call his own before he dies, but he can't afford to buy it by himself, so he asks for donations from the community. My favorite moment of offering is Thelma, the wife of the owner of the Rainbow Club, the local bar and café:
"When I was finished, she put a wrinkled ten-dollar bill on the counter by my plate.
It was the kind of 'here' your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of 'here' that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of 'here' that said she wished you had it and didn't have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then 'here' it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of 'here' that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs 'here'?" So much weight for one syllable.
What comes after? Does anyone know?
I liked that Grant didn't believe in heaven. I don't say this to be incendiary, or offensive, or to suggest that I have any conception of what afterlife(or lives) do or don't exist. Simply that I appreciated that the emphasis for Grant was on reinforcing Jefferson's manhood and personhood before he died, not simply lining up a potential hereafter. The local reverend also visits Jefferson, and Grant is clear that he is not working to nullify or negate any of the reverend's message, just that he personally doesn't believe. Unfortunately for Grant (and for me) his disbelief is met with condescension, much as it is in my most recent books, but at least it is expressed honestly on Grant's part, and he is not deterred in allowing it a space in how he sees this present world and his work with Jefferson.
Who decides if and when we die?
I'm generally opposed to the death penalty, as I don't think it's our right to decide when life should end for other people, regardless of their crime. I know the issue is complex, so I will leave my thoughts at that, for now. If you were curious, though,
- The electric chair is 'optional' in AL, FL, SC, and VA - lethal injection is the go-to method, but the chair is still presented as a choice (lucky them).
- The death penalty is legal in 31 United States and 58 countries in total.
- Twenty people (all men) were executed in the United States in 2016. Sixteen men were executed this year. Of those thirty-six, nine of them were black men.
chifforobe - a piece of furniture with drawers on one side and hanging space on the other
sugarcane - a perennial tropical grass with tall stout jointed stems from which sugar is extracted. The fibrous residue can be used as fuel, in fiberboard, and for a number of other purposes. OK, so I knew LOOSELY what sugarcane was, but I didn't know it had so many uses, or that this is what it looked like!
filé - pounded or powdered sassafras leaves used to flavor and thicken soup, especially gumbo
cush-cush - a tropical American yam that produces a number of tubers on each plant (cmidbdis?)
It's close to bedtime for me now, and I am exhausted in my body and my brain, my thoughts and my soul. I will leave you with my three favorite exchanges between Grant and Jefferson.
"Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don't and can't do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. The white people out there are saying that you don't have it - that you're a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are." You have the potentials, I have the potentials, we all have the potentials. We do!
"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth - and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe. They're safe with me. I don't want them to feel safe with you anymore." Unfortunately, it's they who don't feel safe with us, but I echo this sentiment, and hope we can build a path to the future where all men and women stand and fight, particularly the ones we have repressed and oppressed and forced to kneel over the years.
Grant, speaking to Jefferson early on:
"It don't matter," I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.
"What don't matter?"
He didn't answer.
"What don't matter, Jefferson?"
"Nothing don't matter", he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.
"It matter to me, Jefferson," she said. "You matter to me."
I may not be able to undo bigotry with my words, or bring the wrongfully dead back to life, but I can exert power in this small corner of the world where I have created safety for all. I can use my power to say that I will fight injustice, I will do better to protect you and yours, and it and you matter to me, always. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.