Thursday, February 28, 2002
Excerpts from the novel A Lesson Before Dying
Do you see a man sitting here? 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? 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 blackest Africa yes, yes, that he can do but to plan? 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 hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood to pull your corn. That is what you seesee here.
Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful. For God's sake, be merciful. He is innocent of all charges brought against him. But let us say he was not. Let us for a moment say he was not. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
For the next half hour it continued. Dr. Joseph would call on someone who looked half bright, then he would call on someone whom he felt was just the opposite. In the upper grades fourth, fifth and sixth he asked grammatical, mathematical, and geographical questions. And besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say "Ahhh' and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.
Grant Wiggins (the plantation school teacher and the book's narrator)
The big Mulatto from Poulaya had predicted it, hadn't he? It was he. Matthew Antoine, as the teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. 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. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him he did not say all this, but we felt it there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.
Nothing pleases me more than when I hear of something wrong. Hitler had his reasons, and even the Ku Klux Klans of the South for what they do. You don't believe me do you? You will one day. I told you what you should have done, but no, you want to stay. Well, you will believe me one day. When you see that those five and a half months you spend in that church each year are just a waste of your time, you will. You will. 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.
Matthew Antoine (Grant's former teacher at the plantation school)
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. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle which he never does.
What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years. She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of her bed again, she can go to that little church there in the quarter and say proudly, "You see, I told you I told you he was a man.' And if she dies an hour after that, all right; but 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 does not, she knows that she will never get another chance to see a black man stand for her.
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 could never be a hero. I teach, but I don't like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today. I don't like it; I hate it. I don't even like living here. I want to run away. I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.
That is not a hero. A hero does for others. He would do anything for people he loves, because he knows it would make their lives better. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. You could give something to her, to me, to those children in the quarter. You could give them something that I never could. They expect it from me, but not from you. 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.
That's why 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 'rithmetic 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. When you tell yourself you feeling good when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that 'cause they have pain too, and you don't want to add yours and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That's how you got through that university cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she's all right. I've seen her hands bleed from picking cotton. I've seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. 'Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that's the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themselves, lied to themselves hoping the one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.
The Rev. Mose Ambrose
Me, Mr. Wiggins. Me. Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan's cross, my own cross. Me, Mr. Wiggins. This old stumbling nigger. Y'all axe a lot, Mr. Wiggins.
Yes I'm youman, Mr. Wiggins. But nobody didn't know that 'fore now. Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by. Everybody though that's how it was s'pose to be. You too, Mr. Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing else. I didn't neither. Thought I was doing what the Lord had put me on this earth to do. Now all y'all want me to be better than ever'body else. How Mr. Wiggins" You tell me.
Jefferson (the accused)
mr wigin you say you like what I got here but you say you stil cant giv me a a jus a b cause you say I aint gone deep in me yet an you kno I can if I try hard an when I ax you what you mean deep in me you say jus say whats on my mind so one day you can be save an you can save the chiren and I say I don't kno what you mean an you say I do kno what you mean an you look so tied sometime mr wigin I just feel like tellin you I like you but I don't kno how to say this cause I aint never say it to nobody before an nobody aint never say it to me.
From Jefferson's diary
He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins. He was, he was. I'm not saying this to make you feel good. I'm not saying this to ease your pain. Ask that preacher, ask Harry Williams. He was the strongest man there. We all stood jammed together, no more than six, eight feet aay from that chair. We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, "Tell Nannan I walked.' And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I'm a witness. Straight he walked.
Young Deputy Paul
Local libraries and bookstores are stocking extra copies of the book, and there will be many opportunities to join in book discussions. To find out more about the project and how you can become involved, visit the Web site www.Cincinnati.Com/bookclub.
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