I know I have been absent here of late. Many projects, both personal and professional, are competing for my time and attention, but I want to continue to make time for reading and for sharing my reading experiences with you all.
I hope that the onset of fall is treating you all well, and that you have the chance to read something pleasurable in the coming days as the leaves fall and the wind picks up a chill.
Here's a much-belated blob-along from my good friend Dan, who read A Lesson Before Dying with me, and then shared his thoughts.
A Lesson Before Dying…
I write these first thoughts upon concluding the book this afternoon. They’re quick and hasty, so please forgive any hasty construction or hasty development of my thoughts and words…
What is this “Lesson”? We spend so much time asking others for comfort, when we can’t learn to embrace the discomfort ourselves. And yet, in the end, the very end, we stand, more comforted, when we know that we should face the discomfort head on.
- "I was not there, yet I was there."
- In Arabic: كان يا ما كان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان There was, oh what there was (or there wasn't) in the oldest of days and ages and times...
- In Chinese: 很久很久以前... A very very long time ago…
- In Filipino: Noong unang panahon… At the beginning of time...
- In Polish: Za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers…
- In Italian: C’era una volta… There was a time…
And always seemingly implying, But not here, not now.
The things (lies?) we tell ourselves. And although the stories aren’t “true”, they are so very very true.
We live a contradiction, we (white) americans, we colonizers, we slavers. We see the past and pretend that stuff being in the past does not make it so now: “It was, and it IS NOT so.” But not here, not now, we tell ourselves.
These following cruel, painful, gross, disgusting words in the novel come from Jefferson’s own lawyer, and they sound like they could come from today. And they set in motion the whole purpose for the book:
- Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?
- To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to… [etc. etc. etc.]
- Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
A testimony to the brilliance of Ernest J. Gaines's writing were these delicate moments in the novel that were interwoven with humor, yet also dark humor. Laughter even among the pain. These often came between Grant and his love, Vivian. Hope among the darkness.
- “When was the last time I told you I loved you?” “A second ago.” “I should say it more often,” I said.
- “How much have you had to drink, Grant?” “A whole fucking barrel of commitment,” I said, and raised my glass.
- Vivian smiled without opening her mouth. I kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Uh-uh,” she said. “Not in public. I have too much quality for that.”
- But Henri Pichot had not thought it was necessary to tell him. At his age, he was still only a messenger to run errands. To learn anything, he had to attain it by stealth or through an innate sense of things around him. He nodded to me, knowing that I knew he knew why Henri Pichot wanted to see me, and he walked away, head down.
- … it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them. Well, I had to put up with that because of those in the quarter, but I damned sure would not add hurt to injury by eating at his kitchen table.
Here, a former teacher talks to Grant about the futility of teaching…but also of life?...of white people?:
- “...You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away – peel – scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years.”
- “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
- Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?
- … with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.
- 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”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?
- The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that 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.
- That’s why you you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings – yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ’Cause reading, writing, and ’rithmatic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt – and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie.
- Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him – and I will not believe.
- Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
“... And he walked straight, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.”
In thinking on today's America, on taking a knee, the NFL, friends drowning in whiteness, all of Ernest's words and Dan's reflectionson those words are worth revisiting, if only so we can see that we are not there yet. We are here, but we are not there, the place where we want to be, the America that I want to live in and be proud of. To get there, we have much work to do, and I hope you will do the work with me, blobbists. Love and leaves to all of you!