The Study Guide
A Lesson Before Dying Table of Contents Performance Policies and Procedures
New York State Learning Standards
Audience Role and Responsibility
One-Minute Etiquette Reminder
Ernest J. Gaines
Setting, Synopsis, Characters
Questions for After Reading the Story (or Script)
For Further Discussion
Quotations from the Play
Dramaturgical research for A Lesson Before Dying prepared by Pat Pederson, Education Associate; curriculum activities prepared by Richard Keller.
PERFORMANCE POLICIES AND PROCEDURES WHEN TO ARRIVE AT THE THEATRE: We recommend you arrive at the theatre at least 30 minutes prior to the performance to allow time for seating. This is a professional theatre production and will start at the scheduled time. BUS DROP OFF AND PARKING: Busses not staying may load and unload at the Centro bus stop on East Genesee Street. Bus parking is available along East Genesee Street at the bagged meters. Cars must make arrangements in parking facilities as they will be ticketed if parked at the bagged meters. SEAT ASSIGNMENTS: As each seat at Syracuse Stage is reserved and performances are often standing room only, students must sit in their assigned seats. For reasons of convenience, efficiency, and courtesy, we request that students do not trade seats. Regardless of the number in your block of seats, we request that this rule is respected. We ask that chaperons and teachers do not sit together but sit evenly distributed throughout the students. LATECOMERS: Latecomers will be seated at the discretion of the Management. There is no late seating below Row F. BACKPACKS, CAMERAS, AND WALKMANS: Backpacks, cameras and tape recorders (including Walkmans) are strictly prohibited in the theatre. As we do not have storage facilities for these items at Syracuse Stage, we ask that you leave them at school or on the bus. PHOTOGRAPHY: Cameras (flash or otherwise) are strictly prohibited in the theatre. Union rules do not allow the taking of pictures during a production and flash cameras are a distraction to both acting company and audience. FOOD, DRINK AND GUM: There is absolutely no food, drink, or gum allowed in the theatre. Please leave snacks and lunches on the bus. Students will be asked to leave the theatre to remove any food items or the items will be taken and not returned. INTERMISSION REFRESHMENTS: Soda will be available during intermission. Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and 7Up will be offered for $1.00 (exact change will be appreciated). Reminder: You must dispose of all snack items before reentering the theatre. AUDIENCE ETIQUETTE: Live performance theatres require behavior different from that required in the movie theatres. Please review theatre etiquette with your students before attending the performance. If any student becomes disruptive to the point of interference with the performers or other audience members, the chaperon will be asked to remove that student.
POST-SHOW FOLLOW UP: Performances at Syracuse Stage are funded by grants, corporations, and individuals. They do want to hear from you. We ask students and teachers to write the sponsors with your likes and dislikes and to let the sponsors know that the student matinees are an important program. Please: 1] Write thank you letters to the sponsors to let them know that this is an important program. (Names and addresses can be obtained from the Education Associate.) 2] Write to Syracuse Stage with suggestions to improve your theatre experience. 3] Call the Education Associate if you have any questions or if there is an issue that requires immediate action. Thank you in advance for the work you put into helping Syracuse Stage present the student matinee program. We hope that the season entertains and enlightens you and your students. Part of the art of living is living with the arts.
PEOPLE YOU SHOULD KNOW Education Associate……………………………… Group Sales Coordinator........................................ House Manager...................................................... Producing Director................................................. Artistic Director.....................................................
Pat Pederson Tracey White Lisa Doerle James Clark Robert Moss
IMPORTANT NUMBERS Syracuse Stage Administration Offices: 315/443-4008 Education Department: 315/443-1150 Group Sales: 315/443-9844
The New York State Standards of Learning The following chart is designed to assist you in using the activities and questions in this guide to address the New York State Learning Standards for the Arts in the areas of Theatre, English Language Arts, and Career Development and Occupational Skills in the areas of Universal Skills. As you are the experts at adapting these activities to meet the needs of your specific classroom, this grid is only meant as an easy reference and does not intend to suggest that these are the only learning standards to which these activities apply, nor is every activity and question included on the grid. We hope this is helpful, and if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, you should feel free to call us at (315) 443-1150.
AUDIENCE ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY As audience members, your students have a distinct role and responsibility. The success of any performance depends on the actors on the stage as well as the people in the seats. Because, for many students, this is their first exposure to a live theatre production, they might not realize that the behaviors used in the movie theaters or when watching a video or television are not always appropriate in this setting. We encourage you to spend time discussing the subject with your students and have included two pages to assist you. The first contains some discussion questions to use in classroom (with some suggested answers in italics) while the second is a ONE MINUTE ETIQUETTE REMINDER to read on the bus. [ 1 ] What are some of the differences between a live theatre production and a movie? * A movie can be filmed in any order of scenes and can be redone as many times as needed to get a “good scene.” Once a scene is done to the director’s satisfaction, it is “in the can” and will not be done again. Live theatre must be done in sequence as written, continues regardless of mistakes and problems, and is done in its entirety each performance. * The audience’s noise level, activity level, and attention level do not affect the movie actor’s performance. All of these things are heard and noticed by the actors of a live performance and have an immediate effect on the performance. This might be a positive or negative effect-- if the audience laughs at funny lines or is leaning forward in anticipation of the action, this encourages the actors to give an energetic performance; if the audience does not laugh at appropriate times or is restless during the performance, the actors often find it difficult to give their best performance. * The special effects in a movie can be generated by computers or camera angles while the special effects in the theatre rely on the audience’s imagination to help create them. * Movies provide realistic images while live theatre provides images of reality.
[ 2 ] What is the best way to approach viewing a live performance of a play? * The audience attending a live performance must walk into the theatre willing to “suspend their disbelief” and use their imagination to provide part of the setting. * Theatre is alive and active in ways that television and movies are not. Look for the passion and emotion behind the actions and the words. * Because each performance is complete and affected by audience response, an audience member will never see a duplication of a performance. Though the meaning is the same, each performance has its own underlying interpretations.
[ 3 ] What is the audience’s role during a live performance? How do you think audience behavior can affect an actor’s performance? The audience’s role is to form a connection with the actors and to appropriately respond to the performance. This response may be laughter, gasps, applause, or quiet attention as well as restlessness or silence. Noises such as paper rattling from unwrapping food, watch alarms, cell phone ringing, or talking can distract the actors and cause a disruption of the energy flow which in turn weakens the performance. It also keeps those around you from maintaining their connection with the actors.
ONE MINUTE ETIQUETTE REMINDER Please read to students on the bus prior to entering the theatre.
Stay in the group to be seated. Your school or class will be called and seated at the same time. Sit in the seat to which you are assigned. If you move or refuse to take a particular seat, you will be sitting in someone elseâ€™s place and it will cause a delay in seating other classes. No food, drink, gum-chewing, headsets, or backpacks in the theatre. Please leave lunches and snacks on the bus. NO TALKING OR GETTING UP DURING THE SHOW. This includes whispering. Every performance of a play is a unique experience, created by particular actors with a particular audience. The audience is a very important part of the play. The experience of seeing live theatre is very different from seeing TV or a movie where nothing the audience can do will change the show. Stage actors are very much aware of the reactions of the audience, and indeed it is the audience-- you-- that helps the actors toward a great performance. An audience may applaud, laugh, cry and respond in any way that makes it part of the on-stage action. Please avoid talk or inappropriate actions that distract attention from the stage. Remember, the actors can see and hear you. Please use the restrooms before the show or at intermission only. If you have any problems or questions, please ask the ushers for help. Enjoy yourself!
TECHNICAL ELEMENTS A performance does not just happen; it is the product of a great deal of teamwork. The technical elements of a production support the characters the actors create to present the audience with the illusionary reality that is theatre. Sets, lights, sound, props, and costumes create the environment in which the play lives. These elements combine with the audience’s imagination to create the special effects and illusions. The following discussion questions are intended to help students focus on each of these technical elements and analyze its part in a production. SECTION A: SETS Before the performance began, what were your first impressions of the set design? How did it make you feel? Which of your senses were involved by the set design? What was the physicality of the stage? Did the set incorporate any theatrical devices such as a rake, a thrust, ramps or stairs, voms or the pit? What type of action did you expect? As the performance progressed, how did the set change from scene to scene or did it remain one setting for the entire play? Were the changes of location made by actual set alterations or by the actors use of the set? How was the stage used? Did the action take place across the whole stage or was it contained in small areas? What could you tell about each environment and time of the used area? Was movement between areas fluid or rigid? Did the actors move around the set in purposeful motion or did action flow from one area to another? What materials and color schemes were used for walls, the deck (stage floor), set pieces? Did the materials and colors fit the time and location of the play? Were you able to concentrate on the action and characters or did the elements of the set attract your attention? After viewing the performance, do you feel the set design supported the play? Did it make sense to you? Would you have done anything differently? SECTION B: COSTUMES What could you tell about each of the characters based on his or her appearance before any action took place? Did the costumes influence your expectations or opinion of each character? Did the costumes put you in the correct time period? Did the style of the costumes go with the personality of the character and the mood of the play? How did the colors and materials used compliment or contrast with the colors and materials of the set? Did the colors and materials group the characters in any way? Were there any parts of the costumes you found distracting or out of place? SECTION C: LIGHTING What clues did the lighting give you about the feel or emotional tone of the play? Was the lighting from an identifiable source or did it blend into the setting? Was the lighting supportive to the action of the performance or distracting? Could you identify the colors that were used? Why do you think these particular shades were chosen? Did any one character have a particular shade or degree of lighting?
SECTION D: SOUND What types of sounds were used? Were the sounds environmental noise or in response to specific character actions (for example: crickets chirping in the summer or a gunshot)? Did the sounds fit the situation or distract you from the performance? Were the sounds correct for time period and location? SECTION E: PROPS Were the props appropriate to the time period and setting? Did the characters have all the props they needed for the scenes? Did they have too many props? SECTION F: GENERAL What aspect of the performance impacted you the most? Was this aspect more content or physical? Did the technical elements of the performance enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the play? Would you have changed anything about this production? How would you have changed it?
DRAMATIC CRITICISM Why We Attend Theatre Oscar Brockett, from The Theatre: An Introduction Art is one way whereby mankind seeks to understand the world. . . .The search for meaning . . . is always directed toward discovering those relationships that reveal order within what would otherwise seem to be chance events. Art, then, . . . shapes perceptions about human experience into . . . patterned relationships that help us order our views about humankind and the universe. . . . The artist . . . works primarily from his or her own perceptions and seeks to involve the audience's emotions, imagination, and intellect directly. A playwright consequently presents events as though they are occurring at that moment before our eyes; we absorb them in the way we absorb life itself—through their direct operation on our senses. Thus, as art differs from life by stripping away irrelevant details and organizing events to compose a connected pattern, so a play illuminates and comments (though sometimes indirectly) on human experience even as it seemingly creates human experience. But, just as we do not mistake a statue for a real person, we do not mistake stage action for reality. Rather, we usually view a play with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a "willing suspension of disbelief." By this concept he meant that, while we know the events of a play are not real, we agree for the moment not to disbelieve their reality. . .
This state in which we are sufficiently detached to view an artistic event semiobjectively is sometimes called esthetic distance. [However], the distance must not be so great as to induce indifference. Therefore, while a degree of detachment is necessary, involvement is of equal importance. This feeling of kinship is sometimes called empathy. Thus, we watch a play with a double sense of concern and detachment. It is both a removed and an intensified reaction of a kind seldom possible outside esthetic experience. Another way of putting this is that art (that is, a statue, a musical composition, or a drama) lifts us above the everyday fray and gives us something like a "god's-eye" view of human experience. . . . Art lays claim . . . to being serious (in the sense of having something important to communicate), but because its methods are so indirect (it presents experience but does not attempt to explain it fully) it is often ambiguous and therefore may easily be misunderstood. Special Attributes of Theatre as an Art Even within the fine arts theatre holds a special place; it is the art that comes closest to life as it is lived from day to day. Not only is human experience and action its subject, it also uses live human beings (actors) as its primary means of communicating with an audience. Quite often the speech of the performers approximates that heard in real life; the actors may wear costumes that might be seen on the street; and they may perform in settings that recall actual places. Not all theatre attempts to be so realistic and at times it may even approximate other performing arts (such as dance and music), but nevertheless it is the art most capable of recreating mankind's typical experiences. Such lifelikeness is also one of the reasons theatre is often insufficiently valued: a play, a setting, the acting may so resemble what is familiar to spectators that they fail to recognize how difficult it is to produce this lifelikeness skillfully. To a certain degree all people are actors; they vary the roles they play (almost moment by moment) according to the people they encounter. In doing so, they utilize the same tools as the actor: voice, speech, movement, gesture, psychological motivation, and the like. Consequently, most persons do not fully recognize the problems faced by a skilled actor. Even those within the theatre often differ in their opinions about whether artistic excellence depends primarily on talent and instinct or on training and discipline. Theatre further resembles life in being ephemeral. As in life, each episode is experienced and then immediately becomes part of the past. When the performance ends, its essence can never be fully recaptured. Unlike a novel, painting, or statute, each of which remains relatively unchanged, a theatrical production when it is ended lives only in the play script, program, pictures, reviews, and memories of those who were present. Theatre resembles life also in being the most objective of the arts, since characteristically it presents both outer and inner experience through speech and action. As in life, it is through listening and watching that we come to know characters both externally and internally. What we learn about their minds, personalities, and motivations comes from what they say and do and from what others tell us about them. Thus we absorb a theatrical performance the way we do a scene from real life. Additionally, theatre can be said to resemble life because of the complexity of its means for, like a scene from life itself, it is made up of intermingled sound, movement, place, dress, lighting, and so on. In other words, theatre draws on all the other arts:
literature in its script; painting, architecture, and sculpture (and sometimes dance) in its spectacle; and speech and music in its audible aspects. In some ways, then, theatre encompasses all the other arts. Furthermore, theatre is psychologically the most immediate of the arts. Several contemporary critics have argued that the essence of theatre—what distinguishes it from other dramatic media such as television and film—lies in the simultaneous presence of live actors and spectators in the same room, and that everything else is expendable. . . . Live performance has important attributes that television and film cannot duplicate, most significantly . . . the three-dimensionality of the theatrical experience and the special relationship between performers and spectators: in the theatre, . . . since the full acting area remains visible, the audience may choose what it will watch, even though the director may attempt to focus attention on some specific aspect of a scene, [but] perhaps most important, during a live performance there is continuous interaction between performer and spectator; even as the actor is eliciting responses from the audience, those responses in turn are affecting the actor's performance. Thus, a live performance permits the audience a far more active role than television and film do. Ultimately, there is a fundamental difference in the psychological responses aroused by electronic media and theatre because the former presents pictures of events whereas the latter performs the actual events in what amounts to the same space as that occupied by the audience. This difference results in one unique characteristic of theatre: its ability to offer intense sensory experience through the simultaneous presence of live actors and audience. . . . The Audience Until the public sees the material performed we usually do not call it theatre. For all the arts a public is imperative, but for most this public may be thought of as individuals—the reader of a novel or poem, the viewer of a painting or a piece of sculpture—each of whom may experience the work in isolation. But a theatre audience is assembled as a group at a given time and place to experience a performance. Why Does an Audience Attend the Theatre? One of the most powerful motives for going to the theatre is the desire for entertainment, which implies suspension of personal cares, relaxation of tensions, and a feeling of wellbeing, satisfaction, and renewal. But although everyone may believe that the theatre should provide entertainment, not all agree on what is entertaining. Many would exclude any treatment of controversial subject matter on the grounds that an audience goes to the theatre to escape from cares rather than to be confronted with problems. . . . Other persons look to theatre for stimulation. They too desire to be entertained, but argue that the theatre should also provide new insights and provocative perceptions about significant topics, advocate action about political and social issues, or increase awareness of and sensitivity to others and surroundings. . . . Both points of view are valid in part, but adherents of neither point of view should attempt to limit unduly the theatre's offerings. The whole range of drama should be available to audiences, for the health of the theatre depends upon breadth of appeal. In America today the success of a play is frequently judged by its ability to attract large audiences over a considerable period of time. But is a play to be considered a
failure if it does not achieve financial success? Not necessarily. A dramatist has a right to select his or her audience just as much as an audience has to select a play. Actually, dramatists do so when they choose the subject matter, characters, and techniques to be used, for, consciously or unconsciously, they have an ideal spectator in mind. Although playwrights may hope for universal acceptance, each desires the favorable response of a particular group. Consequently, a play may be deemed successful if it achieves the desired response from the audience for which it was primarily intended. . . . The Problem of Value It is difficult to defend art on the basis of its immediate utility. Art ultimately must be valued because of its capacity to improve the quality of life: by increasing our sensitivity to others and our surroundings, by sharpening our perceptions, by reshaping our values so that moral and societal concerns take precedence over material well-being. Of all the arts, theatre has perhaps the greatest potential as a humanizing force, for at its best it asks us to enter imaginatively into the lives of others so we may understand their aspirations and motivations. Through role-playing (either in daily life or in the theatre) we come to understand who and what we are and to see ourselves in relation to others. Perhaps most important, in a world given increasingly to violence, the value of being able to understand and feel for others as human beings cannot be overestimated, because violence flourishes most fully when we so dehumanize others that we no longer think of their hopes, aims, and sufferings but treat them as objects to be manipulated or on whom to vent our frustrations. To know (emotionally, imaginatively, and intellectually) what it means to be human in the broadest sense ought to be one of the primary goals of both education and life; for reaching that goal no approach has greater potential than theatre, since humans are its subject and living beings its primary medium. . . . Unfortunately, quality—unlike quantity—is not measurable except subjectively. And subjectivity takes us into the realm of taste, judgment, and a host of variables about which agreement is seldom possible. There are many levels of taste, many degrees of complexity, and a wide range of quality. But, if we cannot expect ever to achieve complete agreement, we all can sharpen our own perceptions of the theatre and its processes. To do this, we need first to understand the theatre and how it works. Second, we need to develop some approach through which we can judge the relative merits of what is performed and how it is performed. Then, we should work to encourage those theatrical values that seem important to us. In this way we may acquire understanding and judgment—that is, we become critics of the theatre. The following questions from Katherine Ommanney’s book, The Stage and the School, may help you to view shows intelligently, but don’t let them spoil your enjoyment of the theatre or turn you into a commentator during the performance! Real enthusiasts of the theatre free their imaginations and emotions while seeing a play or a picture, while using their intelligence and discrimination to heighten their appreciation of this great art.
Section A: Theme 1. Is the fundamental idea of the play true or false in its concept of life? 2. Is the theme warped by a distorted or limited life experience on the part of the author? 3. Are we better or worse for having seen the play?
4. Is the theme consistent with the setting, plot and characters presented in the play? 5. Do you agree with the authorâ€™s philosophy? 6. In your opinion, should the general public be encouraged to see the play?
Section B: Plot 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
Is it a clear-cut sequence of events? Does it rise to a gripping climax? Are we held in suspense until the end? Are we as emotionally stirred as the author apparently wants us to be? Are you satisfied as to the final outcome? Are you chiefly interested in the events, the people, or the place?
Section C: Characterization 1. Are the characters true to life? 2. Are they consistent throughout the action of the entire play? 3. Are they in keeping with the social and geographical background of the play? 4. Do they arouse such feelings as sympathy, affection, disgust, admiration, or hatred on the part of the audience? 5. Are their actions in keeping with their motives? 6. Are the situations at the climax and conclusion the result of their inherent natures?
Section D: Style 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
Is the dialogue of a nature so as to retain your interest throughout the play? Is it consistent with the characters and the setting? Is it an end in itself or an adequate means of plot advancement and characterization? Does it make us think about the author or the characters themselves? Do we remember lines after the play because of their pithiness or beauty? Is the use of dialect correct in every detail? Would people of the class represented talk in real life as they do in the play? Is the power of expression worthy of the ideas expressed?
Section E: Acting 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
Is the interpretation of any given role correct from the standpoint of the play itself? Does the actor make his or her role a living individuality? Are they artificial or natural in their technique? Are we conscious of their methods of getting effects? Do they grip us emotionally-- that is, do we weep, laugh, suffer, and exult with them? Are their voices pleasing and their presence magnetic? Do they keep in character every moment? Do we think of them as the characters they are depicting or as themselves? Does any actor use the play as a means of self-glorification, or are each of them an intrinsic part of the action at all times? 10. Does each apparently cooperate with the other actors, the director, and the author in interpreting the play by knowing his or her lines, helping to focus attention on the center of interest, and by losing himself or herself in the part?
Section F: Audience Reaction 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
Is the audience attentive or restless during the performance? Is there a definite response of tears, laughter, or applause? Is there an immediate appreciation of clever lines, dramatic situations, and skillful acting? Is the applause spontaneous and whole-hearted, or politely perfunctory? After the performance are people hurrying away, or do they linger to discuss the play? Are they apathetic or animated, bored or buoyant, serious or scoffing? To what types of people does the play seem to appeal?
Playwright Romulus Linney On his home page at PreviewPort Mr. Linney states: “I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 21, 1930. My father was resident physician at University of Pennsylvania Hospital. In the Depression, we moved to Boone, North Carolina, where I spent the next four years and many summers thereafter, living the life and hearing the voices of Appalachia, to which I have often returned in novels and plays. My father died in 1943. “My mother and I moved to Washington, D.C. where I went to high school, then to Oberlin College in 1949, where I acted in all the University Drama productions, as well as stock in the summers, determined to be an actor. I went to Yale Drama School in 1953, spent two years in the Army at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and came to New York from Yale in 1958. “I worked as a stage manager at the Actors Studio, and in a sea change, took Hiram Haydn's famous fiction workshop at the New School. At Atheneum, he published my first novel, and I was an actor no longer. My first play was successfully produced at the Mark Taper Forum in 1967. I've also taught at many universities over the years, including the Universities of North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Columbia. I teach playwriting now at The Actors Studio Drama School, New School University, at Juilliard and in the summer, at the Sewanee Writers Conference. “I have two daughters, actress Laura Linney and children's book editor Susan Linney. I am married to Laura Callanan, who is Associate Director of Investments at the Rockefeller Foundation. We live in Greenwich Village and Germantown, N. Y.” Romulus Linney is the author of three novels and more than 30 plays, which have been seen over the past 30 years in resident theatres across the United States, as well as in New York, Los Photo by Laura Callanan Angeles, London, Vienna, Oslo and other European cities. They include The Sorrows of Frederick, Holy Ghosts, Childe Byron, Sand Mountain, Three Poets and 2. Six of his one-act plays have appeared in the Best Short Plays series. Mr. Linney has received two Fellowships from the NEA as well as Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Foundation for the Arts grants, a 1980 Obie Award, three Hollywood Drama-Logue Awards, the Mishima Prize for Fiction, the 1999 Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a 1992 Obie Award for sustained Excellence in Playwriting. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and Oberlin College, and has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from Oberlin College, Appalachian State University and Wake Forest University. Romulus Linney on A Lesson Before Dying Courtesy of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival When I first read Ernest Gaines' wonderful novel, I wrote to him and said it was built like a play. We are members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and old friends from serving on the NEA Literature Panels of the From The Face of Louisiana
1970s. Last summer (1998), at the Sewanee Writer's Conference, where we both teach in the summers, he told me about Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intention to produce it as a play. I got in touch with Kent Thompson, Artistic Director, who asked me to do the adaptation. I was overjoyed, because I consider A Lesson Before Dying to be one of the very best of American novels. Mr. Gaines does not need me to speak for him or this work. It and he are acclaimed internationally as well as in the United States. Let me speak about this novel's potential as a play. It is the stuff the theatre cries out for, because it is nothing less than authentic, honest tragedy. The wrongful execution of a young African-American man in Louisiana in the 1940s provokes struggles with his godmother, his minister, and above all, his selfdoubting ex-schoolteacher. The schoolteacher is charged by the godmother to teach the young man, who is filled with despair and self-hatred, to die with dignity. It is almost impossible to see why he should care how he dies. The burden that falls on the schoolteacher, [himself] a racially discouraged man who has come to hate the futility of teaching, is terrible, for how can he ask a young man to face death with dignity and courage, when he cannot face his own life, or believe in teaching the young anything? This central conflict between the two is the stuff of which plays are made. Its astonishing outcome is tragic, but not without hope and a transcending humanity. The lesson the schoolteacher manages to both teach and learn purges away, as tragedy does, our most powerful emotions and leaves us free to develop better ones. The progression of the action in the novel is like that of a play, moving forward in surprising but inevitable scenes. The play can take place in one setting with a few characters. Many speeches and much dialogue are written with such terse eloquence by Ernest Gaines, they can be used extensively [as is]. The characters are all rich and full of life. The confrontations are both explosive and tender. The opportunities to see eternal human struggles in our particular American setting and racial situation are endless. The novel has gained the respect of readers and critics worldwide. It is an honor for me to be allowed to give it what dramatic shape I can for the theatre. Ernest Gaines, a Literary Life 1933 Ernest J. Gaines born, 15 January, in Point Coupee Parish, Oscar, Louisiana, the first child of Manuel and Adrienne J. (Colar) Gaines. 1948 Moves to Vallejo, California, to join his parents and continue his schooling. 1956 First short story, “The Turtles,” published in Transfer magazine.
Labatut plantation house, Point Coupee Parish, 1982
1957 Graduates from San Francisco State College and is awarded the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship. 1958 Begins study at Stanford University. Greatly encouraged by Malcolm Cowley. Publishes story “A Long Day in November.”
1959 Receives the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award for the short story “Comeback.” 1962 Story “Just Like a Tree.” 1963 Story “The Sky Is Gray.” 1964
Catherine Carmier (novel).
1966 Receives National Endowment for the Arts grant. 1967
Of Love and Dust (novel).
Bloodline (collection of short stories).
1971 “A Long Day in November” (taken from the Bloodline collection) is published separately as a children's book. Writerin-residence, Denison University, Granville, Ohio. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel). Receives a National Endowment for the Arts grant. 1972 Receives the Louisiana Library Award; the California Gold Medal for the best book by a Californian for the year; and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award. 1974 Receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman airs as a television movie. 1978
In My Father's House (novel).
1986-87 Interviews with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton, culminating in Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines. 1993
A Lesson Before Dying (novel); nominated for the Pullitzer Prize in literature; awarded the National Book Critics Award. Receives a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for lifetime achievement.
1999 Emmy Award–winning HBO production of Lesson. 2000
Mr. Gaines, 1987
Lesson premieres at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and moves to the Signature Theatre (NYC).
Mr. Gaines holds honorary doctorates from Brown University, Bard College, Tulane University, Denison University and Loyola University, among others. Mr. Gaines now divides his time between San Francisco and Lafayette, Louisiana, where he is Writer-inResidence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Setting A variety of locations in and around Bayonne, Louisiana, including a storeroom in the Parish Courthouse, the Rainbow Club, Grant's schoolroom and an area in front of the Courthouse. The time of the play is the fall and winter of 1947 and the spring of 1948. Synopsis: Jefferson, a young African-American man, unfortunately found drunk at the scene of a triple murder has been charged with the murder of a white store owner despite the fact that he was unarmed and obviously had not fired any gun. Jefferson offered no defense, and none was asked of him from the white community. His public defender, in an effort to avoid the death penalty, told the all-white male jury that to execute Jefferson would be like leading a hog to slaughter. While awaiting his execution, Jefferson's godmother Miss Emma brings herself, Rev. Ambrose and his former teacher Grant Wiggins to him to prepare him to die with dignity, to reverse the terrible slight Jefferson has suffered at the hands of white justice. But Grant has no more self-respect than Jefferson, and it's only out of his sense of obligation to Tante Lou and Miss Emma, compounded by his fiancĂŠe Vivian's urging, that he meets with his former pupil at all. Meetings between teacher and student continue even though Jefferson won't even to respond to Miss Emma, until Grant unwittingly reminds him of what's good in life. Character Descriptions Grant Wiggins - a 30ish black man raised by Tante Lou, not his parents (who left Louisiana for California, leaving Grant in Tante Lou's care, just as Grant's mother was left in her care). Grant was sent to college by Tante Lou and Miss Emma Glenn (and others in their community) to become a teacher and bring it back home, but Grant hates the Deep South and its racism, and hates teaching because he sees no future for his students, growing up on this former plantation, far from any city, surrounded by white oppression. However, Grant does love Vivian Baptiste - 30ish black woman with children from a marriage she is ending. She and Grant met when she was expecting her second child, about 3 years before the time of this story. She is also a teacher but she loves teaching (she teaches in town). While she loves Grant she refuses to consider his urging that they flee their problems. Vivian has a strong sense of obligation and responsibility to her community, and is very conscious that her relationship with Grant will be considered taboo until her divorce is final. Miss Emma Glenn â€“ An older black woman who has worked in some important white homes while raising Jefferson, the man accused of murder (his parents felt they couldn't raise him, like Grant's parents). Her best friend is Grant's Tante Lou. Miss Emma is compelled to work within the racist system, but she manages to work it to her satisfaction. She can't imagine any other way, but she knows that there must be 29
something better for the younger folks, which is why she helped send Grant to college and is anxious to impart a sense of personal dignity to Jefferson. Paul Bonin - The sheriff s deputy whose instinct is to treat Jefferson compassionately, even though, since Jefferson's under a death sentence, the sheriff s policy is not to become involved. Paul abides by the rules and regs but recognizes the fact that prisoners are people, in part because he is relatively untouched by the racism that colors many of the other white people in his community. Sheriff Sam Guidry - A real dyed-in-the-wool white southern lawman, up for re-election. He is the boss of the jail and don't you forget it; he does listen to his political betters, though, and jumps when they say. The Reverend Moses Ambrose - Miss Emma's minister, a simple man of God who reads only the Bible and does not appreciate Grant's worldly outlook, which he feels is infecting Jefferson. Vocabulary The Lord is my Shepherd/I shall not want – Miss Emma is quoting the 23rd Psalm from the Bible to buoy her spirits and her resolve so she won’t betray how tired she is to the white jailer. public defender – a lawyer appointed by the court to represent someone who cannot afford a lawyer. Public defenders are not paid well, and often consider such work volunteer; consequently some of them spend less time on these cases than on those for which they are specifically hired. You think he know the gravity? – Rev. Ambrose is asking Grant if he thinks Jefferson knows how serious his situation is spiritually; that is, Does he know that his soul must be ready to meet God? vex – trouble, bother, pester. Jefferson feels that Grant is bothering him by bringing up the fact that he is actually innocent yet is expected to walk to the electric chair like a man, so Jefferson “vexes” Grant by putting down Vivian. parish – county. Parish is an old French designation for what most of us call a county. cussed at – cursed at. A sin box – Rev. Ambrose does not like popular music, so he calls Jefferson’s radio a sin box. aggie/pee wee – any true player of marbles knows that an aggie, a large, colorful, lucky marble is not to be parted with, while a small pee wee, which won’t earn you any marbles during a game, may be easily parted with.
okra – a favored vegetable of the South, often dipped in batter and fried. (Yum-ditty!) Miss Emma must be good with okra, because Jefferson includes it in the last meal she’s going to cook for him. A moon pie – a large cookie, perhaps a descendant of a s’more, because it’s basically marshmallow between two graham crackers or similar cookie dipped in chocolate. gumbo – a Southern stew thickened with okra. The word is based on an African word and was first used in Louisiana. Joe Louis – The Brown Bomber was heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 till 1949 (when he retired, undefeated), and, as a black man, a hero to African-Americans for The champ much longer. At age 23 he was also the youngest man to in win the title (so far). 1937.
The Quarter The part of the community where Jefferson, Grant and the children who go to the plantation school live is called the quarter because it’s where the slave housing or quarters were when their ancestors lived on the plantation. According to John Rehder (Delta Sugar), The quarters is a village-like settlement established to house the workers on a plantation. The name comes from the time when the village was a slave quarters, but throughout the history of plantations in Louisiana, the settlement has always been “the quarters.” . . . Four types of plantation quarter houses were well represented in [Louisiana’s] delta region into the 1960s. The small Creole quarter house with a built-in porch was widespread [and featured] sidewardfacing gables, double front doors and a single central chimney. The two-family houses had two front doors that led to separate living quarters and a central chimney with two flues to serve the two families. . . . The [small Creole] quarter house had two living areas measuring 15 by 16 feet located directly behind the two front doors. In the 19th century, each family ate, slept, and lived in a single room. An attached kitchen at the rear once
served both families. Eventually, the internal living space was modified to accommodate one family living in a two-unit house. The attached-porch quarter house was a square house with a shed roof overhang attached to the roof in front of the dwelling. . . . The relatively square house had dimensions averaging 30 by 30 feet with sideward-facing gables, usually a central chimney, and double front doors leading to two interior rooms. . . . Long, narrow shotgun houses appeared as quarter houses on plantations chiefly along Bayous Lafourche and Teche and in Terrebonne Parish. [It] can be easily recognized, with its frontfacing gable and extremely long, narrow shape. . . . Dimensions . . . average 15 by 45 feet, but folk versions could reach 30 feet wide. Tenant farmersâ€™ houses near Alexandria, La., 1948 In plan, the house was one room wide and three or more rooms long and naturally had a long series of interconnecting rooms in a single file. The single front door was usually perfectly aligned with all interior doors and with the back door. In the folk wisdom of the area, it is said that the shotgun house was so named because if someone fired a real shotgun through the front door, the pellets would pass through. Bungalow quarter houses, wider houses believed to be derived from the shotgun type, were found with the same spatial distribution as the shotgun [that is, narrow and long]. . . .
Ernest Gaines on Lesson as a work in progress From: Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines Porch Talk is a series of interviews with Mr. Gaines conducted by Marcia Gaudet of Arkansas State University and Carl Wooton of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where Gaines was writer-in-residence, over the 1986-1987 academic year. For the most part they discussed Mr. Gainesâ€™ published work to date (Lesson was not published till 1993), except the end of the last chapter: MG: What about your work in progress? Can you tell us anything about it? Gaines: I can say that it deals with a teacher who visits a guy on death row. That has been said in the opening chapter, when the defense is trying to get something less than the death penalty for him. This guy is going into a bar. He's as broke as anything. He doesn't have any money . . . , and it's probably cold weather like this. Two guys come along and say, hey, man, do you want a ride? He says, all right. So he gets into the car with them, and these 32
guys don't have any money. . . . These guys start talking about how we need a bottle, want some booze. Let's go over to the old man. We've spent our money there all the time, and he should be able to let us have a pint until grinding, until the sugarcane-cutting time. When they go into the store, the old man's there all by himself. . . . The old man knows them and speaks to them the way he does all the time, saying hello and how's your family and all that kind of stuff. One of them speaks to him and he says, we want a bottle of wine. The old man says, OK, give me your money. When they put the money on the counter, he knows there's not enough money. He says, no, no, no, you bring your money, then you'll get your bottle. They say, come on, you know we're good for it. The old man says, no, no, so one of the guys starts going around the counter. He's going to take it. The old man says, hey, don't come back here. I told you already, you must bring the money. The guy is walking toward him, so the old man breaks toward his cash register where he has a gun. This guy [who just caught a ride] doesn't know what the hell is going on around him. All of a sudden, there is shooting all around. When he realizes what has happened, the old man is dying, and the [other] two guys are dead. And then he doesn't know what to do. He hears this voice calling him and calling him . . . . Finally he goes around the counter. The old man is dying, and the guy feels, "God, he knows I was here and now he's going to blame me for all this. He's going to tell." He doesn't know what he’s doing. He just grabs a bottle and he starts drinking. He's looking at this man and drinking and drinking and drinking like this. And as he turns he sees the cash register is open . . . , and he grabs the money. . . . By now the old man has died. This is told from a teacher's point of view—who knows nothing about any of this. . . . That's why I wanted to see the local prisons where the executions went on at that time. The trial goes on. The jury is made up of twelve white men, and this kid is sentenced to death, although he says he had nothing to do with it. But the prosecutor says, wait Marcia Gaudet, Ernest awhile. He went there with those guys. He's telling us he had Gaines & Carl Wooton; nothing to do with it. We don't know that. We know that photo by Iris Vidrine everybody's dead except him, and he came out of the place with a bottle and money in his pocket. So [this] convinces the jury, and he's sentenced to die. The court-appointed defense attorney tries to get him off by saying this is not a man. This is a fool. You wouldn't call him a man. This boy has no idea what size his clothes are. He doesn't know Christmas from Fourth of July. He doesn't know a thing about Keats. He doesn't know Byron or the Bill of Rights. He can't plan any murder or robbery. He didn't do any of this. Finally he says, I'd just as soon tie down some kind of animal in the electric chair, a hog or something like that. Nevertheless, he's sentenced to die for this crime. Now, his grandmother, or his nanane, or his auntie, or whoever she is, approaches this schoolteacher. She tells him: "I don't know how much time he has left—I don't know whether it's a year, several months, several weeks. Whatever, I want you to approach him and bring him to the level of a man. Then let him die as a man. That's what I want."
And this is where I am now. This teacher is sort of like I am. I don't want to have a damned thing to do with any of this. That's what he's saying at first. . . . The crime is there. It's over with. He's a schoolteacher on this plantation. He says, my job is to keep other kids from going that way. I want nothing with any of this. So this is what the story is about. I've reached the point now, chapter 6, that he's deciding whether or not he will go to the courthouse to visit this guy. I still don't know what he's going to say. I have no idea what he's going to say to this guy. I have no idea what the guy is going to say to him. I have no idea what the guard's going to say. I know [the teacher] has a little car, a '46 Ford he drives around. . . . I've no idea of anything—nothing. But as the thing will move along, it will come out. These are the problems I'm having with this. And this is what I wanted to see, what a jail looks like, how does this guy sleep. Those are small details. I have a twofold problem here. Number one, I can create the jail. That's easy for me to do. But to get that character to tell that damned story in a way that makes it flow smoothly—I don't know what the teacher wants, you see. I know the teacher doesn't want to be there, but I know . . . he's going to be there. This is the kind of conflict I'm having there. I have to get that personality together and make him do what I want him to do without controlling him, . . . saying, goddamn it, you ought to give these people the information. These people are out there waiting for you to give him that information now. [To the character:] I'm not going to gee-haw on you every time I want you to go left or right [as one would drive a mule]. You've got to do what I want you to do for me. And I haven't got him there, but I've got him to a certain point where he's doing some of the things. I haven't got him to the point where he's going to do most of it [but] I think I've got a pretty good start. I was working on that today. Anyway, that's what this story is about. I think it's going to be very good once I get it. I can tell it better than I can write it now, because I've been trying to write it for the last couple of years or so. CW: How old is the boy? Gaines: About twenty-one. He's as illiterate as someone can be. I want him on that level—not an idiot: he knows how to work, he knows how to follow orders. The defense attorney says, now, listen, he can plow, he can load sacks and pick cotton and all that sort of stuff. But we're talking about what is a man. What is a man? And this is one of the things that the teacher must find out. . . . And another conflict is in the question, why should we make this man a man if he's going to die tomorrow? Why do this? The old lady says, I want it done. The sheriff's against it because all you can do is aggravate things. Let it go. But I've got to create something that happens in the past. The little old lady says, I want it done, and your wife owes me something. . . . . These are the little tricks I [spoke about] earlier. I must find some reason to convince that sheriff through this old lady and the sheriff’s wife that the teacher will come to that jail twice a week. That's what I call little tricks. You pull all these little deals, and you throw them all in there. It's just like making gumbo. If you mix it well, you don't notice the tricks. MG: We don't want you to tell us, but do you know whether or not he's going to be executed? Gaines: I don't know. But I know one thing: I'm going to have him give a very good speech before it happens, if it happens. He has to stand up as a strong man and give this talk. It's almost like in The Confessions of Nat Turner, that there's a guy who is interested
in what this guy has to say because he's followed this whole thing. It's a Pygmalion type thing, the Elephant Man type thing [that is, mentor and student/subject]. I want all of that. . . . And there's a guy who's been following this. I don't know who this guy's going to be, whether he's going to be a newspaper guy or his defense attorney or someone else, but he's going to be there. He's going to follow everything that's going down, and he's going to make notes. The day before this guy's supposed to be executed, if the guy will be executed or not—I really don't know, to be honest with you—this guy's going to talk to him. He's going to say, tell me things, tell me what it is. And the [young man on death row]'s going to tell him—he's going to stand up real tall—and tell him what he thinks manliness is and citizenship and what life is about, and then he's just going to say, OK, let them do what they want. This teacher, who is cynical—I mean, he hates teaching—says, "I hate the whole god-damned thing." Hearing what he has done for this man who was condemned will bring something out of him. And he will go back to these kids, these small kids he has around him, and he will realize he has a duty to perform. And that duty is not to run away to the North as he wanted to, to get the hell away from all of these things. But, OK, I'll just give my life here, and this is it. But this other person, this condemned man, must be the one to convert him to this, to give his life. That's what the whole thing is about. He in one way makes the condemned boy, who is like an animal, a man, and the condemned
one makes him a man, so that he can go back to develop something. That's what this is about. If I ever get it done. Ernest Gaines on the situation in Point Coupee Parish, briefly: "Everything you sent me to school for, you're stripping me of it," I told my aunt. [She and Miss Emma] were looking at the fire, and I stood behind them with the bag of food. "The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man's kitchen. The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me. Now going up to that jail. To watch them put their dirty hands on that food. To search my body each time as if I'm some kind of common criminal. Maybe today they'll want to look into my mouth,
A boy and his dog in the quarter, East Feliciana, La., 1937
or my nostrils, or make me strip. Anything to humiliate me. All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school. Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be. But he didn't tell me that my aunt would help them do it.” She got up slowly, heavily, and went to Miss Emma, who had begun to shake her head and cry. Miss Emma sincerely did not want me to go now, but my aunt had not changed her mind for a moment. "I'm sorry, Mr. Grant, I'm helping them white people to humiliate you. I'm so sorry. And I wished they had somebody else we could turn to. But they ain't nobody else." *
Grant and Vivian "[My student] Irene and my aunt want from me what Miss Emma wants from Jefferson," I said. "I don't know if Miss Emma ever had anybody in her past that she could be proud of. Possibly—maybe not. But she wants that now, and she wants it from him. Irene and my aunt want it from me. Miss Emma knows that the state of Louisiana is about to take his life, but before that happens she wants something to remember him by. Irene and my aunt both know that one day I will leave them, but they are not about to let me go without a fight. It's the same thing, the very same thing, Miss Emma needs a memory. Do you know what she told me when I sat on the bed? That Reverend Ambrose and I should get along, and together—together—we should try to reach Jefferson. Why not only Reverend Ambrose? Why not only the soul? No, she wants memories, memories of him standing like a man. Oh, she will meet him soon, and she knows that. But she wants memories, if only for a day, an hour, here on earth. Do you understand?" "No," Vivian said. She wasn't drinking anymore. "Let me explain it to you, let me see if I can explain it to you," I said. The brandy was really working well now. "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. Because even though he wants to change it, and maybe even tries to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own. I can see by your face you don't agree, so I'll try again. 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. "And 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 the 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. That in order for me to be what they think I am, what they want me to be, I must run as the others have done in the past." I drank. "Now do you see? Do you see?" "Will that circle ever be broken?" I drank some ice water to chase down the brandy. "It's up to Jefferson, my love." . .. *
. . . Jefferson turned his back to the window and looked at me. "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." He went to the cell door and grasped it with both hands. He started to jerk on the door, but changed his mind and turned back to look at me. "Who ever car'd my cross, Mr. Wiggins? My mama? My daddy? They dropped me when I wasn't nothing. Still don't know where they at this minute. I went in the field when I was six, driving that old water cart. I done pulled that cotton sack, I done cut cane, load cane, swung that ax, chop ditch banks, since I was six." He was standing over me now. "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 thought that's how it was s'pose to be. You too, Mr. Mule drawn water wagon, Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing West Baton Rouge, 1946 else. I didn't neither. Thought I was doing what the Lord had put me on this earth to do." He went to the window and turned to look at me. "Now all y'all want me to be better than ever'body else. How, Mr. Wiggins? You tell me." "I don't know, Jefferson." "What I got left, Mr. Wiggins—two weeks?" "I think it's something like that—if nothing happens." "Nothing go'n happen, Mr. Wiggins. And it ain't 'something like that.' That's all I got on this here earth. I got to face that, Mr. Wiggins. It's all right for y'all to say 'something like that.' For me, it's 'that'—'that,' that's all. And like Reverend Ambrose say, then I'll have to give up this old earth. But ain't that where I'm going, Mr. Wiggins, back in the earth?" My head down, I didn't answer him.
"You can look at me, Mr. Wiggins; I don't mind." I raised my head, and I saw him standing there under the window, big and tall, and not stooped as he had been in chains. "I'm go'n do my best, Mr. Wiggins. That's all I can promise. My best." "You're more a man than I am, Jefferson." " 'Cause I'm go'n die soon? That make me a man, Mr. Wiggins?" "My eyes were closed before this moment, Jefferson. My eyes have been closed all my life. Yes, we all need you. Every last one of us. " He studied me awhile, then he turned his back and looked up at the window. "So pretty out there," he said. "So pretty. I ain't never seen it so pretty." I looked at him standing there big and tall, his broad back toward me. "What it go'n be like, Mr. Wiggins?" I thought I knew what he was talking about, but I didn't answer him. He turned around to face me. "What it go'n feel like, Mr. Wiggins?" I shook my head. I felt my eyes burning. "I hope it ain't long." "It's not long, Jefferson," I said. "How you know, Mr. Wiggins?" "I read it." I was not looking at him. I was looking at the wall. It had been in the newspaper. The first jolt, if everything is right, immediately knocked a person unconscious. He came back and sat down on the bunk. "I'm all right, Mr. Wiggins." I nodded without looking at him. "Care for a 'tato, Mr. Wiggins?" he said, opening the paper bag [from Miss Emma]. "Sure," I said. . . . [Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose, Jefferson and I were trying to eat in the storeroom the day before the chair was installed. Jefferson and I decided to take a walk.] "Jefferson," I said. We had started walking [around the storeroom]. "Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does some thing 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 lowered my voice again until we had passed the table. "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 [your nannan], 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 itâ€”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.
"Those out there are no better than we are, Jefferson. They are worse. That's why they are always looking for a scapegoat, someone else to blame. I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them, you're nothing but another nigger—no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing else—nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things. 'Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.' And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so." We were coming up to the table again, and the ones at the table were quiet and trying to hear what we were saying. I did not start talking again until we had passed them. "Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?" I asked him. "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 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, Fairhope, La.: “Folks here . . . can get they're safe. They're safe with me. They're safe with twice as much work out of the blacks Reverend Ambrose. I don't want them to feel safe [as white tenant farmers]. But they need to be trained. Beat a dog and with you anymore. he’ll obey you. They say it’s the same "I want you to chip away at that myth by way with the blacks.” standing. I want you—yes, you—to call them liars. I want you to show them that you are as much a man—more a man than they can ever be. That jury? You call them men? That judge? Is he a man? The governor is no better. They play by the rules their forefathers created hundreds of years ago. Their forefathers said that we're only three-fifths human—and they believe it to this day. Sheriff Guidry does too. He calls me Professor, but he doesn't mean it. He calls Reverend Ambrose Reverend, but he doesn't respect him. When I showed him the notebook and pencil I brought you, he grinned. Do you know why? He believes it was just a waste of time and money. What can a hog do with a pencil and paper?" We stopped. His head was down. "Look at me, Jefferson, please," I said. He raised his head. He had been crying. He raised his cuffed hands and wiped one eye, then the other. "I need you," I told him. "I need you much more than you could ever need me. I need to know what to do with my life. I want to run away, but go where and do what? I'm needed here and I know it, but I feel that all I'm doing here is choking myself. I need someone to tell me what to do. I need you to tell me, to show me. I'm no hero; I can just
give something small. That's all I have to offer. It is the only way that we can chip away at that myth. You—you can be bigger than anyone you have ever met. "Please listen to me, because I would not lie to you now. I speak from my heart. You have the chance of being bigger than anyone who has ever lived on that plantation or come from this little town. You can do it if you try. You have seen how Mr. Farrell makes a slingshot handle. He starts with just a little piece of rough wood—any little piece of scrap wood—then he starts cutting. Cutting and cutting and cutting, then shaving. Shaves it down clean and smooth till it's not what it was before, but something new and pretty. You know what I'm talking about, because you have seen him do it. You had one that he made from a piece of scrap wood. Yes, yes—I saw you with it. And it came from a piece of old wood that he found in the yard somewhere. And that's all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we—each one of us, individually— decide to become something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood, and those out there are no better. But you can be better. Because we need you to be and want you to be. Me, your godmother, the children, and all the rest of them in the quarter. Do you understand what I'm saying to you, Jefferson? Do you?" He looked at me in great pain. He may not have understood, but something was touched, something deep down in him—because he was still crying. . . . *
Grant and Reverend Ambrose "I went to college." "But what did you learn?" "To teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, Reverend." "What did you learn about your own people? What did you learn about her— [your Tante Lou]?" he said, gesturing toward the other room and trying to keep his voice down. I didn't answer him. "No, you not educated, boy," he said, shaking his head. "You far from being educated. You learned your reading, writing, and arithmetic, but you don't know nothing. You don't even know yourself. Well?" "You're doing the talking, Reverend." "And educated, boy," he said, thumping his chest. "I'm the one that's educated. I know people like you look down on people like me, but"—he touched his chest again—"I'm the one that's educated. . . . "Yes, you know. You know, all right. 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
Reverend Parker of Little Zorah Missionary Baptist Church, Jeanerette, La., 1947
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 themself, lied to themselves—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.". . . Justice, Jail and the Death Sentence By Gwen Orel, ASF The focus of the story . . . is the jail, where Jefferson is locked in a cell under his execution [sentence]. How society's institutions have rendered this verdict on him and how they treat him set up a situation that provides vital issues and images. Justice: The story makes it clear that the judicial system has rendered an unjust verdict in Jefferson's case. The twelve white men who heard his trial did not constitute a "jury of peers" but men who brought their own preconceptions, assumptions, and prejudices into the courtroom, who convicted Jefferson not because he was guilty but because he was black. Even Jefferson's white defense lawyer, in a futile attempt to save his life, used racial stereotypes from slavery to make his appeal and thereby provided the primary label—hog—against which Jefferson and everyone who tries to support him react. [In his 1959 study of Race Relations and the Law Jack Greenberg presents detailed descriptions of how public law was affecting race relations in such areas as interstate travel, elections, livelihood, education, housing, the armed forces, domestic relations and criminal law; for our purposes I have excerpted a response to a survey Greenberg sent to judicial offices around the country asking about jury selection and deliberation processes: a New Orleans office stated that in Louisiana the most heinous crime in the eyes of the public is a rape of a white woman by a negro man. In these cases as a rule the jury convicts. If it is the rape of white against white or black against black I would say that the jury comes back in 99% of the cases with a not guilty verdict . . . Under the felony-murder doctrine whether the victim be white or black and the assailant white or black there is usually a conviction. The rest of the cases— theft, carnal knowledge, simple burglary, etc., the defendants are treated equally. As you can see from the above, it is only when there is violence to the person involved that both the juries and the Judges, without admitting it, take into consideration the color of the defendant. . . .
It is my understanding that about 15% of the jury panel for the Parish of Orleans, which must have at least 750 names on it, are Negroes. . . . The jury panel . . . serves the 8 sections of the Criminal District Court and the Grand Jury for the Parish of Orleans. I cannot recall ever being in Court and not seeing at least 5 or 6 Negroes on each petit jury panel. A Grand Jury of 12 persons is selected by each Judge in turn every six months out of a list of 75 names. Each of the 75 names are drawn by ballot . . . . Usually, the Judge has some Negroes in the 75 names. He has full discretion for whatever reason he sees fit to choose whomsoever he wants to serve on the Grand Jury. Up until 3 years ago no Negro had ever served on the Grand Jury in the Parish of Orleans with the exception of one instance about 30 years ago when a man was placed on the Grand Jury and it was thought he was a white man because of his color and the texture of his hair and skin. Since 3 years ago only two Grand Juries have had Negroes on them. The present Grand Jury does not. Most of the defense attorneys and the prosecuting attorneys by consent discharge a Negro if he is called to serve on a petit jury. If they could not reach an agreement by consent either the state or the defense will exercise a peremptory challenge. I, myself, will not take a Negro whether the defendant is white or black because I feel that he will not be fair in the sense that he will say to himself "I will show these over eleven men that we can do a good job and therefore I will convict this Negro" when in fact there may have been reasonable doubt on his part. I have also noticed that most of the Negroes on the petit jury panel are not as well educated as the average white man and that his employment is usually that of laborer, porter, etc., and therefore I will not take them. This is not based on prejudice but on my own ideas. The only time I was prepared to take a Negro because of his good mentality and appearance and prominent social and business standing in the community, he was peremptory challenged by the State. . . . Things had not changed greatly since the federal act of 1875, under which public officials found disqualifying anyone from petit or grand jury duty due to “race, color or previous condition of servitude” would be charged with a misdemeanor. However, this act had little effect on local jury selection, which must still “determine if the prospective jurors fulfilled all of the other qualities required by law.” As noted above by the New Orleans clerk, blacks often did not meet local education requirements; however, that was in large part due to traditional discriminatory education policies and programs based on the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. In fact, Ernest Gaines’ parents moved him from Louisiana to California at age 15 because there was no high school for young black people Pointe Coupee Parish, and that was in 1948.] Jail: Jefferson has been through the court but has not met with justice. He was at the site of a crime but is not a murderer. Suddenly this young man in his early twenties finds himself arrested, tried, and jailed awaiting death. The image of jail works powerfully in this story, for Jefferson is literally, physically jailed; he cannot get out of the cell except
in shackles, and then he only goes as far as a storeroom, another makeshift form of cell. Much of Jefferson's distress and reaction [to his sentence] is based on the fact that he is in circumstances he cannot get out of—[a stereotype] and a jail. By the end of the play, however, Jefferson's ability to perceive and value not the cell but what is outside the cell—sky, tree, bluebird—becomes a simple, wrenching, and eloquent testimony to recognition. Literally Jefferson is locked in and will not get out. The jury also locked him into a perceived stereotype, as did his attorney, and he accepts it: he locks himself into the identity of hog. Much of the action of the play is dedicated to unlocking that particular "jail cell." One can buy into damaging and degrading stereotypes and act down to them, thereby seeming to corroborate them, or one can contradict them. Jefferson perceives himself as a victim of the system, which he is—of the judicial system and a system of social segregation that evolved from slavery—and yet Miss Emma and Grant want him to accept the power of defining himself, not allowing ignorance and prejudice to define him. This cell Jefferson can release himself from, and his decision to walk or be dragged to the chair is the crux of this entire dynamic of values and perspectives in the story. Jefferson is not alone in a feeling of confinement, of a need to get out or escape. Grant, too, very strongly seeks escape from his frustrating life in an ill-equipped, under-funded school that he must meet, not in a proper schoolroom, but in a found space, the one-room church. Grant sees the school as his jail, but he is very aware of holding the key to his cell in the form of a ticket out of town. The school, this use of his talents, this plantation society in Louisiana—all aspects of the world he lives and works in sap his strength and prevent him from thriving. He wants to live, work, marry, and have a family elsewhere. The [community] keeps insisting that he is needed here, for Jefferson, for his current students, for Vivian and her children. Vivian contradicts his sense that place is the ultimate consideration—for her, being responsible where one is, being a man matters much more than living in California. After discussing Grant's own teacher, a bitter man who could have passed for white, . . . Jefferson asks Grant if be would rather be white, implying that racial identity can seem a "jail cell." Grant rejects the idea and affirms his own being as a black man in a society not of his own making. He learns, however, that he can shape that society for himself and others by how he uses his own life. He is not locked in and does not perceive race in terms of jail, but in terms of essence, of being, of identity and manhood. Death Sentence: Jefferson faces a court-appointed date with death. He is young, vital, and might otherwise live a longer life, we presume; his death is an unnatural ending, but, as Grant recognizes when he lists the fates of Jefferson's classmates, not an unusual one. He is convicted of killing, and he is being killed. All the issues relevant to the discussion of the death penalty are relevant to this play, but they are not its focus. No one challenges the sentence, although they all know its injustice. The manner in which Jefferson responds to the sentence, the way he approaches his imposed death is their concern.
In a sense, we are all under a death sentence, for from the moment we are born we are facing the inevitability of death. Reverend Ambrose ministers to Jefferson's humanity, his mortality, by asking him to remember religion's promise of immortality and redemption. The minister asks Jefferson to focus on his soul rather than on his body, on the next world rather than this one. Both Jefferson and Grant have difficulty with the issues of faith and spiritual redemption. Grant challenges the truth of Reverend Ambrose's preaching just as the minister challenges the efficacy of Grant's teaching, yet by the end Grant speaks of Reverend Little Zorah Missionary Baptist Ambrose with respect and in turn Ambrose agrees that Church, Jeanerette, La., 1948 Grant should stay and teach. For a significant portion of the play, Grant considers staying in Bayonne to teach at the plantation school to be its own kind of death sentence, a living death. When, at Jefferson's request, he finally promises to stay and teach rather than leave, one must decide if he has recognized the affirmative value of his work and its reward for his own life, or whether he is manfully facing his own sentence. In the course of the story he realizes his own strengths and weaknesses, and he has certainly reached Jefferson as few others could have done; his worth as a teacher as well as a learner is manifest. Louisiana Economics, Society and Culture, 1940-1950 From: Louisiana: A History . . . The Great Depression did have a regressive effect on the state's economy, for it sustained a difficult way of life for its people. By 1940 Louisiana still had 105,000 unemployed, a figure that does not include the thousands holding temporary jobs with the WPA and other New Deal agencies. Two-thirds of the permanently employed held unskilled positions, and only 10 % of the work force could be classified as white-collar workers. . . . As late as 1940 Louisiana agriculture continued to be depressed. The state's main cash crop, cotton, declined drastically both in acreage and in price between 1930 and 1940. The crop had fallen to its lowest price in the 1932-1933 season, and although New Deal measures did help bring the price back up, its 1940 level was 35 % below that of 1930. . . . Many left the farm forever, and for those who remained, the 1930s continued Louisiana's historic tradition of deprivation, coupled with racial injustice for blacks. Dirt poor, with little education, most of the state's farmers saw little change in their status as Louisiana's â€œBringing the white bossâ€™ fine cotton along,â€? Lake Providence, Louisiana, 1930s most oppressed class of citizens.
In 1930 Louisiana industry was still an infant, and a decade later it had barely developed into a toddler. The Great Depression severely hampered industrial growth, for the serious shortage of capital necessitated a curtailment of expansion plans made in better days. Lumber, petroleum, gas, and sulfur remained the most important industries, and foreign trade played a vital role in the state's economic life. Still, by 1950 significant economic progress had come to Louisiana. World War II contributed greatly to this improvement. The enormous demands of the armed forces for food, clothing, and equipment revived agricultural and industrial production all over the state. . . . A statistical analysis of Louisiana's economy in 1950 reveals a marked improvement over 1940. Employment in manufacturing doubled, and the value of the state's manufactured products tripled. Personal income tripled, and job opportunities abounded. Farm acreage declined but production doubled, and the value of agricultural products quadrupled. Such statistics, however, do not paint an accurate picture: on a national scale, Louisiana still ranked near the bottom in all economic categories. The inflation of the late 1940s consumed some of the on-paper increases in income and value. Aggravating these difficulties was the absentee ownership of most major industries, which created a serious deficiency of native capital. . . . The general economic trends evident in the 1940s continued in the 1950s in Louisiana. The citizens of the state experienced significant advances in income and educational levels and in the overall standard of living, but they still remained far behind the rest of the nation in these categories. The agricultural decline continued while the development of industry accelerated. In 1950 Louisiana had 124,000 farms and 5.6 million acres under cultivation; ten years later these figures had fallen to 62,000 farms and 4.9 million acres. . . . The population of Louisiana rose from 2.68 million in 1950 to 3.26 million in 1960, the state's highest rate (21.4 %) of population growth in the 20th century. Of the total, two-thirds were white, but Louisiana did have the second highest proportion of blacks to whites of any state in the nation. . . . The very young and the very old experienced the greatest gains, although all age categories increased substantially. Plowing the sugarcane field, The people of Louisiana continued to near False River, 1943 move around. Tens of thousands of farmers moved from rural to urban areas. Many of them were black, and their migration into the central cities constituted the most significant aspect of social mobility during the decade. The trend touched New Orleans first. The city's population grew by only 57,000 in the 1950s. Of that number, 52,000 were black and only 5,000 white. The low increase in the white population resulted from the very large migration of whites out of the city into the suburbs because of the mass movement of blacks into the central city and because of the availability of cheap land in the suburbs. . . .
Already a national trend since before 1900, country-to-city migration had come to Louisiana in the 1930s and 1940s. Many tenant farmers, white and black, joined the army. When they returned after the war, a sizable number moved to the cities rather than continue their serf-like existence on the farm. By 1950 the people of the state were experiencing a drastically altered way of life. More than half owned automobiles, refrigerators, and washing machines, and because of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) [created by FDRâ€™s executive order in 1935], almost all of them had electricity. . . . One feature of Louisiana society did not change: the historic division of that society into white and black had by 1950 hardened into a permanent caste system. Although a few blacks could vote, oppressive racial laws subjected them to political, social, and economic discrimination. . . . The expectation of economic freedom raised by the New Deal and the visions of brotherhood raised by World War II did not include blacks. Louisiana remained a society dominated by whites, and in the field of race relations, little or no progress was made during the 1930s and 1940s. . . . Louisiana's educational quality remained low, although the overall educational level of the state did improve. With inadequate facilities and poorly trained and low-paid teachers, Louisiana schools stayed near the bottom of the national rankings in academic quality. Political meddling had always afflicted the public schools (see Longism Returns below) . . . Education, 1936-1950
1937 plantation school , Arkansas
In schooling Louisiana ranked near the bottom among the states. It had nearly three times as many illiterates in its adult population as did the rest of the nation. One-quarter of its adult blacks could neither read not write. One-fifth of the adult population had received no schooling whatever, and over half of the remainder had reached only the fourth-grade level. Schoolchildren found inadequate physical plants and poor instructional quality. Low teachers' salaries, lenient teacher certification standards, and gross political interference in the schools contributed to their substandard quality. The southern half of the state did have some good parochial schools and northern Louisiana had some good 46
public schools, but the extremely low scores achieved by the state's servicemen during the war reflected the overall level of schooling. . . . As recently as 1970 the state ranked a disappointing forty-ninth out of fifty in overall education attainment. The status of higher education in Louisiana was not significantly better than that of the secondary school system. Some schools were quite good. Tulane University built a solid reputation as one of the South's leading educational institutions, and Loyola University, a Jesuit-run institution, became known for, among other good qualities, its schools of dentistry and law. Dillard and Xavier Universities provided excellent education for blacks. These institutions, all private, restricted admission to students able to pass stiff entrance examinations and to pay tuition charges. The state university, LSU, did enjoy high academic standing in such disciplines as history, English, and geography. Its press achieved both regional and national renown. On the whole, however, the university received more recognition for its football team than for its academic endeavors. State universities and colleges in Ruston, Monroe, Natchitoches, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Thibodaux, Shreveport, and Hammond served regional needs, while Grambling and Southern provided college educations for blacks. In the 1960s blacks began to attend all of the state's institutions of higher learning, private and public [emphasis added]. Both [Governors] Huey and Earl Long (see below) contributed to improvements in the state's educational institutions. They provided free textbooks, lunches, and bus transportation to schoolchildren, and higher salaries for their teachers. They provided the needed capital for buildings for schools at all levels. [Gov.] Jimmie Davis also greatly increased the state educational budget, especially for teachers' salaries. From 1936 to 1950 the state college and university system saw the establishment of several new professional schools for legal, dental, and graduate training, improved teacher education, programs, and reforms in undergraduate curricula. Longism Returns: State Politics, 1948-1950 . . . For the 1948 gubernatorial primaries, . . . some reformers turned to a man of untarnished reputation, Judge Robert F. Kennon, as their candidate. The Longite faction selected Earl K. Long to head its ticket. Several minor candidates also entered the race. . . . . Earl Long correctly assumed that after eight years of dull reform government the voters were ready for a change, and that their memories of his brother [Huey Long]'s accomplishments outweighed the purported improvements of the [previous 2 administrations]. Earl promised heavy increases in state spending for teachers' salaries, veterans' bonuses, and old age pensions. He combined these promises with a campaign style that made him one of the most effective as well as amusing politicians in the state's history. Some of Long's campaign tactics deserve recounting, for they show the often comical and at times absurd manner in which Louisiana politicians appeal for votes. Sound trucks and posters heralded a typical Earl Long campaign appearance. Before speaking, "Uncle Earl" distributed hams, turkeys, watermelons, and beer to the crowd. He tossed coins to the children (as he said, "a quarter to the white kids and a nickel to the niggers"). When speaking, Long spliced fancy promises with anecdotes and tales so hilarious that the voters overlooked such unmentioned matters as the tax increases necessary to pay for the services he promised. To reinforce his image as a
friend of the poor, Long wore shoes with holes in the soles, casual trousers held up by suspenders, and inexpensive, gaudy sport shirts. . . . People also loved to hear Earl Long characterize his opponents, for no one could demolish an adversary more effectively. He called [Gov.] Jimmie Davis "a liar and a thief, and he's got DIABETES!" . . . These unique campaign methods, complemented by the vote-getting prowess of the Long political machine, resulted in a landslide second primary victory for Earl Long and for 75 % of his candidates for the state legislature. To celebrate the victory, Long invited all citizens to attend the May 1948 inauguration, an extravaganza held in the LSU football stadium. . . . Unconcerned with the niceties of political and fiscal integrity, Governor Long established as his priorities the enactment of his program of increased state spending for health, education, welfare, and transportation. Such measures cost money, and he persuaded a compliant legislature to pass a series of tax measures. The state sales tax was doubled; hefty increases were made in the beer and gasoline levies; the tobacco, cigarette, and liquor excise taxes were raised; and the severance taxes on crude oil and natural gas were increased. Earl's search for new sources of revenue proved so exhaustive that the legislature even taxed slot machines, which were illegal in Louisiana. These 1948 measures increased state taxes by approximately 50 %. Interestingly enough, despite the increases, taxes paid by Louisianians remained the lowest in the United States. The governor used the tax revenues to pay for an extensive program of social welfare benefits. The elderly received pensions of $50 a month, and children were given a greatly expanded school lunch program. Schoolteachers got sizable raises, and black teachers were placed in the same salary scale as their white counterparts [emphasis added]. Veterans received bonus payments of up to $1,000, plus a homestead tax exemption of $5,000. The Long program also included numerous new schools, the expansion of the state university system, many new roads and highways, improvements to the state charity hospital system, the establishment of new vocational training institutions, and the A woman tends to two young children in her yard in enlargement of the state's mental hospitals. . . . East Feliciana, Point Coupee Parish, La., 1960
An Overview of Race in Louisiana ... Race has always been a central theme of Louisiana history. The importation of Africans by the Spanish and French, the development of sugar and cotton as the state's main staple crops, and New Orleans' position as the leading port and slave trading center in the Deep South made Negro slavery the most obvious of Louisiana's social institutions during the antebellum period. After emancipation, the traumas of Reconstruction and Redemption contributed to [19th century] racial unrest....
Like other southern states, Louisiana in the 1890s and 1900s adopted a series of Jim Crow laws whose cumulative effect ... was to deprive the state's black citizens of equal opportunity in education, employment, legal redress, and access to public accommodations. The U.S. Supreme Court gave the state legal authority to persist in this policy of racial separation. In its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, a case that challenged a Louisiana law requiring separate but equal railroad cars for blacks and whites, the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that the policy was not prohibited by the Constitution. The federal policy of noninterference continued well into the 20th century. In the 1930s, for example, the Roosevelt administration permitted strict racial segregation in the local administration of the WPA, CCC, and other New Deal programs. World War II provided the conditions necessary for a drastic reversal of this federal policy. As wartime conditions generated an enormous increase in federal authority, Governor Sam Jones and other state leaders grew apprehensive about the centralization of authority in Washington. Their concern originated not in race but in conflicts between the federal and state governments over energy policy, especially over which government entity had jurisdiction over offshore oil lands. In 1943 Sam Jones and Plaquernines Parish boss Leander Perez (who had a vested interest in his region's mineral-rich lands) started a states'-rights movement in Louisiana. Its latent political strength was seen in the refusal of five of Louisiana's Democratic electors to bind themselves to support the national party ticket in the 1944 presidential election. The war, however, overcame this budding separatist fervor, and the national Democratic ticket easily carried Louisiana. The end of the war saw the states'-rights movement infused with new blood.... Certain policies of [President Harry] Truman's administration generated much popular support for states' rights. Truman's Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), an innocuous federal agency designed to secure equal employment opportunities for blacks, aroused vehement local opposition, as did the president's public support for civil rights for all Americans. [NB: This is Truman of Missouri, you know.] The seeds of the states'-rights protest movement had thus already been sown, and the presidential election of 1948 produced their harvest. At the Democratic National Convention that year, the party adopted a platform plank offered by Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, an LSU alumnus, calling on the federal government to enforce civil rights for blacks. Many southern delegates, including some Louisianians, walked out of the convention and organized the States' Rights or Dixiecrat party. The party nominated Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president and Governor Fielding L. Wright of Mississippi for vice-president. So popular were the Dixiecrats in Louisiana that they took over control of the state Democratic party. Dominating the party's state central committee, they assigned the traditional symbol of the party in Louisiana, the rooster, to the Thurmond-Wright ticket. This symbol gave the Dixiecrats a great advantage because thousands of Louisiana voters automatically cast their ballots for anyone listed under the rooster emblem. As justification for its action, the central committee condemned President Truman for trying to force upon the people of Louisiana "foreign ideologies such as the Russian 'all races law' here called F.E.P.C." [in 1948 Americans already lived in fear of Communist overthrow of our government, hence the use of Russian as an epithet]. Because of the Dixiecrats' enormous popular support, of the state's leading politicians only Governor Earl Long openly endorsed the Truman slate...
Most other influential politicos either openly or covertly backed the Dixiecrats. In the election, Thurmond easily carried Louisiana. Harry Truman won the election and the Dixiecrats dissolved, but the states'-rights movement remained strong in Louisiana. Rooted in the state's historic resistance to the expansion of federal power, the emphasis on states' rights had previously manifested itself in such crusades as nullification and secession. Dormant since Reconstruction, the movement awakened in the 1940s and became active by the end of the decade. Already hostile toward Truman, Louisianians became further alienated when the president desegregated the armed forces and publicly opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist crusade.... Anywhere one looked, one could observe the visible signs of the racial polarization of that society: "White" and "Colored" signs forcing the races to eat at separate lunch counters, drink from separate water fountains, and use separate toilet facilities. By law, blacks had to sit in the backs of buses and streetcars, in the upper balconies of movie theaters, and even in separate waiting rooms at bus and train stations. These and innumerable other visible signs were the outward manifestations of a social, political, and economic system carefully structured to prevent blacks from challenging the assumption of white superiority. These citizens of Louisiana had no choice but to be born in an all-black hospital, to be wed in an all-black church, and even to be buried in an all-black cemetery. Denied the right to attend the public school of their choice, they had to attend one with decidedly inferior facilities and with inadequately trained instructors. Underneath the surface of racial segregation lay white social attitudes nurtured during slavery and brought to fruition during Reconstruction and Redemption. Whites were taught to regard blacks as lazy, ignorant, and generally hopeless. White parents taught their children to avoid contact with children of other races. Whites casually used such derogatory terms as "niggers," "pickaninnies," and "coons." Deprived of genuine economic opportunity, the victims of white bigotry, blacks were condemned to lives as dirt farmers in the country or as domestic "help" in the city. They had no legal redress, for the police, district attorneys, judges, and juries were all white. Their potential political power was minimized by a clever system of voter registration laws and electoral district gerrymandering that effectively prevented them from being elected to public office or, with few exceptions, even from casting ballots. Most white Louisianians hardly considered such matters. For them, racial segregation provided the most feasible means of maintaining a society in which the two races could coexist in relative peace. The majority of whites did not consider themselves members of a privileged class. Only long hours of hard work enabled them to earn enough money to pay the rent, feed and clothe their families, and educate their children. Because people of any race rarely achieved wealth or social distinction, whites wanted the few opportunities available to be reserved for members of their own race....
Louisiana History and Facts From The Stevens Family webpage
Some Flat Facts Located in the southeastern United States, Louisiana lies entirely within the Gulf Coastal Plain. It is shaped like a capital L, approximately 530 km (330 mi) at its widest, and about 450 km (280 mi) from north to south. Louisiana is bordered by Mississippi on the east, the Gulf of Mexico on the south, Texas on the west, and Arkansas on the north. Sighted by the Spanish in 1519, Louisiana was first explored by Panfilo de Narvaez of Spain, who navigated its coast in 1528. Later, Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, named the region Louisiana in honor of the French King Louis XIV, claiming it for France in 1682. The state's long and varied history, diverse population, abundant energy resources, and strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi River are valued attributes. The problems that exist in Louisiana stem from its prolonged recovery after the Civil War, its relatively slow industrial growth, and its heavy dependence on extractive industries. . . . STATE SYMBOLS. Statehood: Apr. 30, 1812; the 18th state. Nickname: Pelican State; bird: pelican (Eastern brown pelican); flower: magnolia; tree: bald cypress; motto: Union, Justice, Confidence; songs: "Give Me Louisiana" and "You Are My Sunshine."
LAND. Area: 123,677 sq km (47,752 sq mi); rank: 31st. Capital: Baton Rouge. Largest city: New Orleans (1990 census, 496,938). County equivalents (parishes): 64. Elevations: highest-163 m (535 ft), at Driskill Mountain; lowest--minus 2 m (minus 5 ft), at New Orleans.
People of Louisiana There is a rich diversity of peoples in Louisiana. They include the original Indian inhabitants, plus the descendants of a variety of settlers, among whom were the French, Spanish, English, German, Acadians (from Canadaâ€™s maritime provinces), West Indians, Africans, Irish and Italians and now include almost every nationality on earth. The original French colonists were soon joined by the Spanish and Acadians, and later by French aristocrats fleeing slave revolts in the West Indies or the horrors of the French Revolution. As part of Louisiana's French legacy counties are called "parishes" and the Napoleonic Code (rather than Common Law) holds sway in the state's courtrooms.
Some Odd Facts Ironically, it was the Spanish who built many of the colonial structures that still stand in the "French Quarter" of New Orleans, and Spanish is still spoken in some communities, particularly in St. Bernard Parish below New Orleans. Hundreds of German families were recruited in 1719 by the Company of the West (which held the French royal charter for the development of Louisiana), and those sturdy pioneers settled upriver from New Orleans along a section of the Mississippi River that is still called the Cote des Allemands ("German Coast"). The parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain (the sixth largest lake in the U.S.) and east of the Mississippi River were once a part of British West Florida, occupied by English planters and military in the 1700s. Bernardo de Galvez, Louisiana's Spanish governor and an American ally in the Revolution, prevented the further development of a British stronghold in the Mississippi Valley by capturing British forts at Manchac and Baton Rouge in 1779. Among the other nationalities that have settled in Louisiana are the Yugoslavians who made a success of oyster harvesting along the Gulf Coast and the Hungarians who became cultivators of strawberries and other crops in the Albany area. Free blacks amassed some of Louisiana's largest land holdings prior to the Civil War and blacks have major contributions to jazz and Louisiana cuisine in particular. And many of Louisiana's annual festivals are celebrations of particular ethnic contributions to the "cultural gumbo" of this unique state.
Copyright ÂŠ 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 by A Cajun in Texas, All Rights Reserved Last Updated 25 April 2001, Version 2.8
These statistics are courtesy of links from the Stevens Family page to some census pages. They present some background to plantation life in 1940s Louisiana, as well as on capital punishment.
Decennial Census Population, by Race, Sex, and Male/Female Ratio Louisiana 1940-1950 Total Both Sexes
Black 94.8 92.8
Other 145.3 129.0
Males per 100 Females 1940 1950
Total 98.4 96.7
White 100.4 98.6
Prisoners Executed under Civil Authority United States and Louisiana 1940-1994 -------------------------------------------------------------------United States Louisiana
Louisiana as a Percentage of United States -------------------------------------------------------------------1940-49 1,284 47 3.7 %
Includes 23 Federal executions not shown by State: 1940-49: 13; 1950-59: 9; and 196069: 1. Number of Acres Harvested By Selected Crop Louisiana Selected Years, 1930-1994 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Sugarcane Cotton All for Sugar Lint Corn and Seed Tomatoes (1,000) (1,000) (1,000)
Soybeans for Beans
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------1,953 1,190 191 16 60.0 491 22,000 ----- 1930 1940 1950
1,200 1,130 715
Farm Average Season Prices Received by Major Commodity Louisiana Selected Years, 1930-1950 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Cotton Corn Sugarcane Lint for Grain for Sugar Tomatoes (lbs.) (bu.) (cwt.)
Soybeans for Beans (tons)
Sweet Potatoes (bu.)
Rice Strawberries (cwt.) (cwt.)
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------1930 1940 1950
$0.09 0.11 0.40
$0.89 0.65 1.46
$1.71 1.89 5.07
$3.38 2.72 7.88
$2.73 $2.02 $14.22 1.46 1.38 9.94 2.35 1.34 27.30
$2.06 1.50 10.75
cwt. = hundredweight Questions about the subject matter should be directed to the offices in the Economic Census Staff, Business Division or Industry Division specified below.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------Division of Business and Economic Research College of Business Administration University of New Orleans New Orleans, Louisiana 70148-1536 Tel:504-280-6240 Fax:504-280-6094 www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/3021/links/louisiana.html
Civil Rights Action ca. 1948 While African Americans had been working to secure their civil rights since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement is generally considered to have begun in the early to mid-1950s (many point to the Supreme Courtâ€™s landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision in 1954 as a starting point). Still, there were some events just prior to then that heralded the movement. One of the most important of these was President Trumanâ€™s issuing his executive order that the armed forces be integrated, which went into effect in 1948. Obviously this has no direct bearing on A Lesson Before Dying but it may prove instructive as an indication of what African Americans faced nationwide. (The entire text may be found on line at www.army.mil/cmh-pg/ )
DEFENSE STUDIES SERIES INTEGRATION OF THE ARMED FORCES, 1940-1965 by Morris J. MacGregor, Jr. Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C. 1985 CHAPTER 12: The President Intervenes On 26 July 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, calling on the armed forces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for black servicemen. This act has variously been described as an example of presidential initiative, the capstone of the Truman civil rights program, and the climax of the struggle for racial equality in the armed forces. But in some ways the order was simply a practical response to a presidential dilemma. The President's order was related to the advent of the Cold War developments in the Middle East and Europe. . . . Many Americans feared the spread of Communism throughout the world, a threat more ominous with the erosion of American military strength since World War II. In March 1947 Truman enunciated a new foreign policy calling for the containment of Soviet expansion and pledging economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey. A year later he asked Congress to adopt the Marshall Plan for economic aid to Europe, authorize military training, and enact a new selective service law
to maintain the armed forces at expanded levels. That same month his principal military advisers met at Key West, Florida, to discuss new military roles and missions for the armed forces, to grapple with paralyzing divisions among the services, and to reform the military establishment into a genuinely unified whole. . . . Integration of the armed forces hardly loomed large on the international scene, but if the problem of race appeared insignificant to military planners, the sheer number of Negroes in the armed forces gave them new prominence in national defense. Because of postwar racial quotas, particularly in the Army and Air Force, black servicemen now constituted a significant segment of the service population, and consequently their abilities and well-being had a direct bearing on the nation's Cold War defenses. The black community represented 10 % of the country's manpower, and this also influenced defense planning. Black threats to boycott the segregated armed forces could not be ignored, and civil rights demands had to be considered in developing laws relating to selective service and universal training. Nor could the administration overlook the fact that the United States had become a leading protagonist in a Cold War in which the sympathies of the undeveloped and mostly colored world would soon assume a special importance. Inasmuch as integration of the services had become an almost universal demand of the black community, integration became, The Fourteenth willy-nilly, an important defense issue. Amendment to the U.S. A second stimulus to improvement of the black serviceConstitution man's position was the Truman administration's strong civil rights (Ratified July 9, 1868) program, which gave executive sanction to a national movement started some years before. The civil rights movement was the Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the product of many factors, including the federal government's United States, and increased sense of responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens, a subject to the jurisdiction sense that had grown out of the New Deal and a world war which thereof, are citizens of expanded horizons and increased economic power for much of the the United States and of black population. The Supreme Court had recently accelerated this the State wherein they movement by broadening its interpretation of the Fourteenth reside. No State shall Amendment [see sidebar]. In the black community itself greater make or enforce any law participation in elections and new techniques in community action which shall abridge the privileges or immunities were eroding discriminatory traditions and practices in many of citizens of the United communities. States; nor shall any The civil rights movement had in fact progressed by 1948 to State deprive any person a stage at which it was politically attractive for a Democratic of life, liberty, or president to assume a vigorous civil rights stance. The urban black property, without due vote had become a major goal of Truman's election campaign, and process of law; nor deny he was being pressed repeatedly by his advisers to demonstrate his to any person within its jurisdiction the equal support for black interests. A presidential order on armed forces protection of the laws. . . integration logically followed because the services, conspicuous . practitioners of segregation and patently susceptible to unilateral action on the part of the Chief Executive, were obvious and necessary targets in the black voters' campaign for civil rights. . . .
The Truman Administration and Civil Rights Little in the President's background suggested he would sponsor basic social changes. He was a son of the middle border [state of Missouri], from a family firmly dedicated to the Confederate cause. His appreciation of black aspirations was hardly sophisticated, as he revealed to a black audience in 1940: "I wish to make it clear that I am not appealing for social equality of the Negro. The Negro himself knows better than that, and the highest types of Negro leaders say quite frankly they prefer the society of their own people. Negroes want justice, not social relations." . . . But if he failed to appreciate the scope of black demands, Truman nevertheless demonstrated as early as 1940 an acute awareness of the connection between civil rights for blacks and civil liberties for all Americans: In giving Negroes the rights which are theirs we are only acting in accord with our own ideals of a true democracy. If any class or race can be permanently set apart from, or pushed down below the rest in political and civil rights, so may any other class or race when it shall incur the displeasure of its more powerful associates, and we may say farewell to the principles on which we count our safety.
He would repeat these sentiments to other gatherings, including the assembled delegates of the NAACP's 1946 convention. The President's civil rights program would be based, then, on a practical concern for the rights of the majority. Neither his social philosophy nor his political use of black demands should detract from his achievements in the field of civil rights. It was probably just as well that Truman adopted a pragmatic approach to civil rights, for there was little social legislation a reform president could hope to get through the postwar Congresses. Dominated by a conservative coalition that included the Dixiecrats, a group of sometimes racially reactionary southerners, Congress showed little interest in civil rights. The creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, the one piece of legislation directly affecting Negroes and the only current test of congressional intent in civil rights, was floundering on Capitol Hill. Truman conspicuously supported the fair employment measure, but did little else specifically in the first year after the war to advance civil rights. He seemed content to carry on with the New Deal approach . . . : improve the social condition of all Americans and the condition of the minorities will also improve. In this vein his first domestic program concentrated on national projects for housing, health, and veterans' benefits. The conversion of Harry Truman into a forceful civil rights advocate seems to have come about, at least partially, from his exposure to what he later called the "antiminority" incidents visited on black servicemen and civilians in 1946. Although the lynchings, property destruction, and assaults never matched the racial violence that followed World War I, they were enough to convince many civil rights leaders that the pattern of racial strife was being repeated. Some of these men, along with a group of labor executives and clergymen, formed a National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence to warn the American public against the dangers of racial intolerance. A delegation from this committee, with Walter White as spokesman, met with the President
on 19 September 1946 to demand government action. White described the scene: The President sat quietly, elbows resting on the arms of his chair and his fingers interlocked against his stomach as he listened with a grim face to the story of the lynchings. . . . When I finished, the President exclaimed in his flat, midwestern accent, "My God! I had no idea it was as terrible as that! We've got to do something!"
But the Truman administration had nearly exhausted the usual remedies open to it. The Attorney General had investigated the lynchings and Klan activities and the President had spoken out strongly and repeatedly against mob violence, but without clear and pertinent civil rights legislation presidential exhortations and investigations counted for very little. . . . Nevertheless, it was in this context that the President decided to create a committee to investigate and report on the status of civil rights in America. . . . The [Committee on Civil Rights] recommended the concentration of civil rights work in the Department of Justice, the establishment of a permanent civil rights commission, a federal anti-lynching act, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and legislation to correct discrimination in voting and naturalization laws. It also examined the state of civil rights in the armed forces and incidentally publicized the long-ignored survey of black infantry platoons that had fought in Europe in 1945. It concluded [that] â€œthe injustice of calling men to fight for freedom while subjecting them to humiliating discrimination within the fighting forces is at once apparent.â€? . . . [Further] the committee proposed a specific ban on discrimination and segregation in all phases of recruitment, assignment, and training, including selection for service schools and academies, as well as in mess halls, quarters, recreational facilities, and post exchanges. It also wanted commissions and promotions awarded on merit alone and asked for new laws to protect servicemen from discrimination in communities adjacent to military bases. . . . The armed forces, it declared, should be used as an instrument of social change [because] World War II had demonstrated that the services were a laboratory in which citizens could be educated on a broad range of social and political issues. . . . [In turn], the President told Congress that he had already instructed the Secretary of Defense to take steps to eliminate remaining instances of discrimination in the services as rapidly as possible. He also promised that the personnel policies and practices of all the services would be made uniform. . . . Executive Order 9981 The historic document, signed by Truman on 26 July 1948, read as follows: EXECUTIVE ORDER 9981 Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense: Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows: 58
1. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale. 2. There shall be created in the National Military Establishment an advisory committee to be known as the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which shall be composed of seven members to be designated by the President. 3. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to examine into the rules, procedures and practices of the armed services in order to determine in what respect such rules, procedures and practices may be altered or improved with a view to carrying out the policy of this order. The Committee shall confer and advise with the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Air Force, and shall make such recommenda-tions to the President and to said Secretaries as in the judgment of the Committee will effectuate the policy hereof. 4. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work, and to furnish the Committee such information or the services of such persons as the Committee may require in the performance of its duties. 5. When requested by the Committee to do so, persons in the armed services or in any of the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall testify before the Committee and shall make available for the use of the Committee such documents and other information as the Committee may require. 6. The Committee shall continue to exist until such time as the President shall terminate its existence by Executive Order. HARRY S. TRUMAN, The White House July 26, 1948 . . . The wording of the executive order was in part both vague and misleading. . . . The failure to mention either segregation or integration puzzled many people and angered others . . . . In fact integration was not the precise word to describe the complex social change in the armed forces demanded by civil rights leaders, and the emphasis on equality of treatment and opportunity with its portent for the next generation was particularly appropriate. . . . Questioned at the press conference . . . the President refused
to set a time limit [for implementation of his order], but he admitted that he expected the order to abolish racial segregation in the armed forces. . . . The racial reforms instituted by the four services between 1949 and 1954 demonstrated that integration was to a great extent concerned with effective utilization of military manpower. In the case of the Army and the Marine Corps the reforms would be delayed and would occur, finally, on the field of battle. The Navy and the Air Force, however, accepted the connection between military efficiency and integration even before the Fahy Committee began to preach the point [as they were] facing the same problem: . . . reduced manpower allocations and increased demand for technically trained men. These services came to realize that racial distinctions were imposing unacceptable administrative burdens and reducing fighting efficiency. . . . The Air Force, 1949-1951 The Air Force's integration plan went to the Secretary of Defense on 6 January 1949, committing that service to a major reorganization of its manpower [by] proposing to open all jobs in all fields to Negroes, subject only to the individual qualifications of the men and the needs of the service. To ascertain these needs and qualifications the Director of Personnel Planning was prepared to screen the service's 20,146 Negroes (269 officers and 19,877 airmen), approximately 5 % of its strength, for the purpose of reassigning those eligible to former all-white units and training schools, and dropping the unfit from the service. As Secretary of the Air Force Symington made clear, his integration plan would be limited in scope. Some black service units would be retained; the rest would be eliminated, "thereby relieving the Air Force of the critical problems involved in manning these units with qualified personnel." . . . Despite the predictions of some analysts, the effect of integration on black recruitment proved to be negligible. In a service whose total strength remained about 415,000 men during the first year of integration, Negroes numbered as follows: TABLE 6- BLACK STRENGTH IN THE AIR FORCE Date December 1948 June 1949 August 1949 December 1949 May 1950
Not available 319 (47) 330 (32) 368 (18) 341 (8)
Not available 21,782 (2,196) 23,568 (2,275) 25,523 (3,072) 25,367 (2,611)
% of Air Force 6.5 6.0 6.5 7.2 7.1
Includes in parentheses the Special Category Army Personnel with Air Force (SCARWAF), those soldiers assigned for duty in the Air Force but still administratively under the segregated Army, leftovers from the Department of Defense reorganization of 1947. Figures extracted from Marr Report.
1947 The Navy and Executive Order 9981 The changing government attitude toward integration in the late 1940s had less dramatic effect on the Navy than upon the other services because the Navy was already the conspicuous possessor of a racial policy guaranteeing equal treatment and opportunity for 60
all its members. But . . . the Navy's 1946 equality guarantee was largely theoretical; its major racial problem was not one of policy but of practice as statistics demonstrated. It was true, for example, that the Navy had abolished racial quotas in recruitment, yet the small number of black sailorsâ€”17,000 during 1949, averaging 4.5 % of the total strengthâ€”made the absence of a quota academic. It was true that Negroes served side by side with white sailors in almost every occupation and training program in the Navy, but . . . 62 % of all Negroes . . . were still assigned to the nonwhite Steward's Branch. This figure shows that as late as December 1949 fewer than 7,000 black sailors were serving in racially integrated assignments. Again, with only 19 black officers, including 2 nurses, in a 1949 average officer strength of 45,464, it meant little to say that the Navy had an integrated officer corps. . . . Submitted to and approved by the Secretary of Defense, the new Navy plan announced on 7 June 1949 called for a specific series of measures to bring departmental practices into line with policy. . . . Secretary of the Navy Matthews issued an explicit statement . . . abjuring racial distinctions in the Navy and Marine Corps and ordering that all personnel be enlisted or appointed, trained, advanced or promoted, assigned and administered without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. . . . His specific mention of the Marine Corps and the problems of enlistment, assignment, and promotion, subjects ignored in the earlier directives, represented a start toward the reform of his department's racial practices currently out of step with its expressed policy. . . . TABLE 8- BLACK MANPOWER, U.S. NAVY
Year 1949 1950 1951 1952
A. Enlisted Strength Total Strength Black Strength 363,622 17.051 329,114 14,858 656,371 17,604 728,511 23,010
% Black 4.5 3.7 2.7 3.2
B. Percentage of Blacks in Steward's and Other Branches Year Steward's Branch Other Branches 1949 65.12 34.88 1950 57.07 42.93 1951 55.27 44.73 1952 54.95 45.05 Source: BuPers, Personnel Statistics Branch. See especially BuPers, "Memo on Discrimination of the Negro," 24 Jan 59, BAF2-014. BuPers Technical Library. All figures represent yearly averages.
The Army Integrates The integration of the United States Army was not accomplished by executive fiat or at the demand of the electorate. Nor was it the result of any particular victory of the civil rights advocates over the racists. It came about primarily because the definition of military efficiency spelled out by the Fahy Committee and demonstrated by troops in the heat of battle was finally accepted by Army leaders. The Army justified its policy 61
changes in the name of efficiency, as indeed it had always, but this time efficiency led the service unmistakably toward integration. Race and Efficiency: 1950 The Army's postwar planners based their low estimate of the black soldier ability on the collective performance of the segregated black units in World II and assumed that social unrest would result from mixing the races. They thus accepted an economically and administratively inefficient segregated force in peacetime to preserve what it considered to be a more dependable fighting machine for war. Insistence on the need for segregation in the name of military efficiency was also useful in rationalizing the prejudice and thoughtless adherence to traditional practice which obviously played a part in the Army's tenacious defense of its policy. An entirely different conclusion, however, could be drawn from the same set of propositions. The Fahy Committee, for example, had clearly demonstrated the inefficiency of segregation, and more to the point, some senior Army officials . . . had come to question the conventional pattern. Explaining later why he favored integration ahead of many of his contemporaries, [Chief of Staff] Collins drew on his World War II experience. The major black ground units in World War II, and to a lesser degree the 99th Pursuit Squadron, he declared, "did not work out." Nor, he concluded, did the smaller independent black units, even those commanded by black officers, who were burdened with problems of discipline and inefficiency. On the other hand, the integrated infantry platoons in Europe, with which Collins had personal experience, worked well. . . . He reasoned that if integration worked at the platoon level "why not on down the line?" The best plan, he believed, was to assign two Negroes to each squad in the Army, always assuming that the quota limiting the total number of black soldiers would be preserved. . . . If carried out, such an agreement would complicate an orderly and controlled integration, and Collins' desire for change was clearly tempered by his concern for order and control. So long as peacetime manpower levels remained low and inductions through the draft limited, a program such as the one contemplated by the Chief of Staff was feasible, but any sudden wartime expansion would change all that. Fear of such a sudden change combined with the strong opposition to integration still shared by most Army officials [combined] to keep the staff from [taking] any initiative toward integration in the period immediately after the Fahy Committee adjourned. . . . [Secretary of Defense] Gray had appointed a panel of senior officers under Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Chamberlin on 18 September 1949 in fulfillment of his promise to review the Army's racial policy periodically "in the light of changing conditions and experiences of this day and time." After sitting four months and consulting more than 60 major Army officials and some 280 officers and men, the board produced a comprehensive summary of the Armyâ€™s racial status based on test scores, enlistment rates, school figures, venereal disease rates, opinion surveys, and the like. . . . The Army's postwar racial policy and related directives, the board assured Secretary Gray, were sound, were proving effective, and should be continued in force. It saw only one objection to segregated units: black units had an unduly high proportion of men with low classification test scores, a situation, it believed, that could be altered by raising the entrance level and improving training and leadership. At any rate, the board declared, this disadvantage was a minor one compared to the advantages of an
organization that did not force Negroes into competition they were unprepared to face, did not provoke the resentment of white soldiers with the consequent risk of lowered combat effectiveness, and avoided placing black officers and noncommissioned officers in command of white troops, "a position which only the exceptional Negro could successfully fill." A decision on these matters, the board stated, had to be based on combat effectiveness, not the use of black manpower, and what constituted maximum effectiveness was best left to the judgment of war-tested combat leaders. These men, "almost without exception," vigorously opposed integration. [Therefore] the board called for retaining the 10% quota [of black men admitted into the army]. To remove the quota without imposing a higher entrance standard, it argued, would result in an influx of Negroes “with a corresponding deterioration of combat efficiency." In short, ignoring the political and budgetary realities of the day, the board called on Secretary Gray to repudiate the findings of the Fahy Committee and the stipulators of Executive Order 9981 and to maintain a rigidly segregated service with a carefully regulated percentage of black members. . . . The catalyst for the sudden shift away from these sentiments and practices was the Korean War [which] caused the Army to double in size in five months. By June 1951 it numbered 1.6 million, with 230,000 men serving in Korea in the Eighth Army. This vast expansion of manpower and combat commitment severely tested the Army's racial policy and immediately affected the racial balance of the quota-free Army. When the quota was lifted in April 1950, Negroes accounted for 10.2 % of the total enlisted strength; by August this figure reached 11.4 %. On 1 January 1951, Negroes comprised 11.7 % of the Army, and in December 1952 the ratio was 13.2 %. The cause of this striking rise in black strength was the large number of Negroes among wartime enlistments. The percent of Negroes among those enlisting in the Army for the first time jumped from 8.2 in March 1950 to 25.2 in August, averaging 18 % of all first-term enlistments during the first nine months of the war. Black reenlistment increased from 8.5 to 12.9 % of the total reenlistment during the same period, and the percentage of black draftees in the total number of draftees supplied by Selective Service averaged 13 %. The effect of these increases on a segregated army was tremendous. By April 1951, black units throughout the Army were reporting large “overstrength,” some as much as 60 % over their authorized organization tables. Overstrength was particularly evident in the combat arms because of the steady increase in the number of black soldiers with combat occupational specialties. . . . By 1950 some 30 % of all black soldiers were in combat units, and by June 1951 they were being assigned to the combat branches in approximately the same percentage as white soldiers, 41 %. . . . In August 1950, Collins declared that the Army's social policy was unrealistic and did not represent the views of younger Americans whose attitudes were much more relaxed than those of the senior officers who established policy. Reporting Collins' comment to the staff, [Army Inspector General] Craig went on to say the situation in Korea confirmed his own observations that mixing whites and blacks "in reasonable proportions, did not cause friction.” . . [Nonetheless,] Collins still had to persuade these men of the validity of his views before they would accept the necessity for integration. . . . [Thus,] Personnel Chief Lt. Gen. Brooks recommended reconvening the Chamberlin Board to reexamine the Army's
racial policy in light of the Korean experience. Brooks wanted to hold off the review until February 1951 by which time he thought adequate data would be available from the Far East Command. His recommendation was approved, and the matter was returned to the same group which had so firmly rejected integration less than a year before [emphasis added]. . . . [Similarly, in] viewing the critical overstrength in black units, Assistant Secretary Earl D. Johnson recommended distributing excess black soldiers among other units of the Army [but] Maj. Gen. McAuliffe . . . advised against integrating the organized white units on the grounds that experience gained thus far on the social impact of integration was “inadequate to predict its effect on overall Army efficiency" [despite the fact that] the Secretary of Defense's acceptance of parity of enlistment standards had robbed the Army of any excuse for special treatment on manpower allotments. . . . [So, while] the operations staff recommended . . . that black soldiers in excess of unit strength be shipped directly from training centers to overseas commands as replacements without regard for specific assignment, [the] personnel staff . . . warned that on the basis of a monthly average dispatch of 25,000 replacements to the Far East Command, the portion of Negroes in those shipments would be 15 % for May 1951, 21 % for June, 22 % for July, and 16 % for August. . . . Commanders in Korea had already begun to apply the only practical remedy. Confronted with battle losses in white units and a growing surplus of black replacements arriving in Japan, the Eighth Army began assigning individual black soldiers just as it had been assigning individual Korean soldiers to “understrength” units. . . . [For example,] by December the 9th Infantry had absorbed Negroes to about their proportion of the national population, 11 %. Of six black officers among them, one commanded Company C another was temporarily in command of Company B when that unit fought in November on the Ch'ongch'on River line. [Their commander] later described Company B as "possibly the bravest" unit in that action. . . . By May 1951 some 61 % of the Eighth Army's infantry companies were at least partially integrated. Though still limited, the conversion to integrated units was permanent. The Korean expedient, adopted out of battlefield necessity, carried out haphazard and based on such imponderables as casualties and the draft, passed the ultimate test of traditional American pragmatism: it worked. And according reports from Korea, it worked well. The performance of integrated troops was praiseworthy with no report of racial friction. It was a test that could not fail to impress field commanders desperate for manpower. . . . Grant Waits for Word on Jefferson From: A Lesson Before Dying [Waiting for news about Jefferson on the day of his execution,] I did not want to think. I wanted to sit there until I heard, but not to think before then. No, I wanted to go to my car and drive away. To go somewhere and lose all memory of where I had come from. I wanted to go, I wanted to— God, what does a person do who knows there is only one more hour to live? I felt like crying, but I refused to cry. No, I would not cry. There were too many more who would end up as he did. I could not cry for all of them, could I? . . .
[W]ho was with him? Who is with you, Jefferson? Is He with you, Jefferson? He is with reverend Ambrose, because Reverend Ambrose believes. Do you believe, Jefferson? Have I done anything to make you not believe? If I have, please forgive me for being a fool. For at this moment, what else is there? I know now that [Rev. Ambrose] is much braver than I. I am not with you at this moment because—because I would not have been able to stand. I would not have been able to walk with you those last few steps. I would have embarrassed you. But the old man will not. He will be strong. He is going to use their God to give him strength. You just watch, Jefferson. You just watch. He is brave, braver than I, braver than any of them—except you, I hope. My faith is in you, Jefferson. . . . Where was he at this very moment? At the window, looking out at the sky? Lying on the bunk, staring up at the gray ceiling? Standing at the cell door, waiting? How did he feel? Was he afraid? Was he crying? Were they coming to get him now, this moment? Was he on his knees, begging for one more minute of life? Was he standing? Why wasn’t I there? Why wasn’t I standing beside him? Why wasn’t my arm around him? Why? Why wasn’t I there with children? Why wasn’t I down on my knees? Why? . . . 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 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, 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. . . .
Questions for After Reading the Story/Play 1. Who is being taught the lesson in A Lesson Before Dying? 2. Why is Grant indebted to the black community of Bayonne, Louisiana, specifically Miss Emma? 3. Why is it important to Miss Emma that Jefferson doesn’t die like a hog? 4. What are some of the hardships that Grant faces as a teacher in a rural black community? 5. How do the white and the black characters feel about Grant’s college education? 6. Why do you suppose Sheriff Guidry would rather “watch a dumb hog die in that chair than an upset, out of his mind, aggravated boy fry in it”? Does he relieve himself of any guilt if he can view Jefferson as an animal? 7. How is Jefferson and Grant’s family backgrounds similar? 8. How does Reverend Ambrose think Jefferson should be consoled? 9. Why does, Paul, the deputy sheriff, assist Grant? Is it only because he thinks Jefferson is innocent? 10. What does Grant mean when he calls the bricklayers he fought “mulattos”? Besides describing their color, what other meaning does the term have for Grant? 11. How is Vivian instrumental in convincing Grant to help Jefferson? 12. Is Miss Emma trying to teach Reverend Ambrose anything by having Grant administer to Jefferson? 13. How important was writing in the notebook to Jefferson? What do you think it helped him to accomplish? How did the gift of the radio and listening to it affect Jefferson’s state of mind? 14. Why is it important for the black community to know that Jefferson died like a man? 15. Grant describes a hero as “ . . . a man who does something for other people. Something other men can’t do.” Besides Jefferson, who are some of the other heroes in A Lesson Before Dying?
Post Performance Questions 1. Why do you think Romulus Linney chose to adapt the novel A Lesson Before Dying for the stage? Are there elements in the novel that seem theatrical? The novel was also adapted into a film and aired on HBO. Compare the three versions. Give examples of how each medium was able to enhance the story in a way that would’ve been difficult in the other genres. 2. The play takes place in several locations that are pre-set at the beginning of the play. Why has the playwright chosen to have Grant walk into each of these pre-set scenes as opposed to doing set changes? Did you think this was an effective dramatic device? 3. What music has the sound designer incorporated into the story? How does the music set the mood of both the time and place? What are some of the ambient sounds in the play? How did these sounds impact your appreciation of the play? 4. In the Syracuse Stage production, Jefferson is not strapped into the electric chair at the end of the play. Why do you think Timothy Douglas, the director, chose not to incorporate this bit of staging in the play? Is Jefferson’s execution at the end of the play a powerful moment? 5. The tone of a play is set by many factors. In Syracuse Stage’s production, the lighting in each scene is crucial to the mood of the play. Describe the lighting in the play. How was it different from scene to scene? For example, how is the lighting different in the schoolroom from the storeroom? How did the lighting impact the last scene of the play? 6. Often when a work is adapted for another medium some story lines are sacrificed in order to preserve the larger story that is being told. This is often true when one adapts a novel into a play or film. A playwright or a screenplay writer has a limited amount of time to tell a story, whereas a novelist can write as many pages as necessary to tell the story. Were there plot lines or characters from the novel you would’ve liked to seen incorporated into the play? 7. How did the actors’ portrayal of the characters in the live play compare to how you imagined the characters while reading the novel? Casting is a significant part of any theatrical production. How did Syracuse Stage’s casting choices live up to your expectations of the characters? 8. Having seen the play, do you now have a deeper understanding of the novel or a greater appreciation for the story that Ernest J. Gaines was trying to tell?
For Further Discussion 1. Ernest J. Gaines was born on a plantation in the racially segregated Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana. There were no schools that would teach black children past the eighth grade, so he was sent to San Francisco to study. There he spent considerable time in the library (the first time he was ever in a library), where, in his loneliness, he searched for stories that contained people similar to the ones he knew back home. Not finding books like that, he eventually began writing them himself. What do you think it must have been like for Gaines to live in a world where institutions paid little attention to the existence of him and his culture? Are there groups in the United States today that face a similar existence? Are there groups in your community or region of the country that are disenfranchised? 2. There is a growing debate in the arts, especially in theatre and film, that black stories should be the domain of black writers. Romulus Linney, southern, a friend of Ernest J. Gaines for twenty-five years, and an admirer of his work, is white. Obviously, Linney had Gaines’ permission to adapt the novel into a play. Gaines has stated that race was not an issue in choosing Linney to do the adaptation. A long time admirer of Linney, Gaines said, “I had a good idea of what he could do.” Think back to the first question and remember how little writing Gaines was able to find on his own experience when he was a child. What makes it possible now for whites to empathize so much with the hardships its race inflicted on African-Americans. Do whites have the capacity to tell black stories? Or, do the themes such as those in A Lesson Before Dying transcend race to the point where anyone could and should tell these stories? 3. Both Grant and Jefferson have been abandoned by their parents. Although there are similarities in their outlooks and the way they were raised, there lives are extremely different. Why has Grant fared so much better than Jefferson? In the play, there isn’t much back story on either of the characters. Is there anything in the novel that helps to explain the divergent paths their lives have taken? 4. What part did music play in moving Jefferson from dwelling on his fate to considering the world around him? What music might he have listened to in 1947 and 1948? Take into consideration that all-music format radio was still a fairly new thing in the late forties and that AM was all that was available; music programs were mainly local and featured local music. The Rev. Ambrose is opposed to the popular music played on the radio. Why might that be so? (Baptists, for example, thought dancing and card playing sinful well into the 20th century.)
Writing Assignments 1. Choose a chapter from the novel A Lesson Before Dying that wasn’t dramatized in the play. Adapt the chapter into a scene using dialogue and monologues that you write and existing text in the novel. Remember that dramatic writing “shows” a story rather than “tells” it. 2. Write a journal entry that Jefferson might have written on his last night in prison. Use a style of writing that is representative of Jefferson’s education and his state of mind on the night before his execution. 3. Put yourself in the place of Jefferson’s lawyer. Prepare a closing argument to present to the jury that maintains Jefferson’s innocence without demeaning him. Appeal to a specific quality that you would think the jury might possess. 4. Write a lecture that Grant might give to his students on the importance of staying in school. Consider the times and the environment in Bayonne, Louisiana. What opportunity does school really provide for the black children? 5. Grant is in a difficult position: through his education he has the means to escape the racism and ignorance of Bayonne, but if he leaves he takes with him the hope of his community. Put yourself in Grant’s place and write a letter explaining your decision to Miss Emma. 6. Reverend Ambrose’s situation is just as overwhelming as Grant’s. How difficult must it be for him to convince his congregation in the existence of God when their daily existence is often colored by hate, cruelty, and injustice? Prepare a sermon to be delivered to his parish where he consoles them after the execution of Jefferson. 7. Six years after the events in A Lesson Before Dying, the Supreme Court’s decision in the famous case Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) led to the desegregation of publicly funded schools. Discuss some of the fallout from this decision. Did it change the racial makeup of schools? Write brief paper accessing the major changes in public education that have occurred in predominantly black communities in the last fifty years. 8. Grant offers Jefferson a journal to help him through his difficult last weeks. By writing in the journal, Jefferson begins to express what’s important to him. It’s just one way he can build the self-esteem necessary to take on the mantle of manhood. Many writers keep journals, as do sociologists and other people who study humanity. Have the students keep a journal for themselves. Use published journals, such as Anne Frank’s diary, as a model or a point of departure for a discussion of journal writing.
Arts Activities 1. Using the question from the Further Discussion section about who should be telling the stories of blacks in the United States, create two teams to debate the question. Have the debaters research the topic, reviewing articles or interviews with Spike Lee, August Wilson, and Robert Brustein, among others. Study the rules of debate with the class prior to the debate. The class can decide who won the debate. 2. The characters in A Lesson Before Dying speak with a Southern dialect. Look back at the novel and the play. Although this dialect is often imitated in film and TV, the nuances of the accent are often missed. Do the black characters speak differently from the white characters in A Lesson Before Dying? Are there different southern dialects? Have students compile a list of words or accents that are unique to the South. Have them incorporate the words into a monologue that they can recite for class. 3. Discuss the art of improvisation with the class. Write situations from the novel A Lesson Before Dying that weren’t included in the play on index cards. Divide the class into pairs of two and distribute the index cards among them. Each pair gets a turn at improvising their scene. Discuss the scenes after each improv. Why weren’t the scenes included in the play? Why were they in the novel? 4. Create a soundtrack for A Lesson Before Dying. Choose eight song titles that you would include. Play a little of each selection for the class. Consider the time and setting of the play. (Of course, if you think there are some modern songs that reflect the themes of the play in an exciting way, you could include them.) You should be able to explain why you chose a song for a particular scene. Does the music comment on the action or the emotion of the scene? Does it create a mood that is instrumental to the story? Be able to support your choices in class. 5. Choose either the monologue, sermon, or letter you wrote in the Writing Exercises section and present it to the class in the appropriate character’s voice. Try to incorporate the correct pronunciations (dialect) you learned in this section. 6. Many different professions and trades play an integral part in theatre. Early on in the process, a set designer will prepare a blueprint for the construction of the set, similar to blueprints used in everyday construction, such as for your house. This design is the culmination of discussions with the director and other professionals who are involved in the production. Look at some blueprints for miscellaneous structures to understand how they are drawn. Based on this, try your hand at designing a set for a production of A Lesson Before Dying. Incorporate those elements that you think are crucial to the production. Explain your choices with the class.
Quotations from the Play Use the following quotations to discuss specific events from A Streetcar Named Desire in context, or to discuss the universal ideas expressed by the quotations. You might use the quotations as a springboard to role-playing, or as the first line of letters, poems, and short stories; or you may choose to use them as titles for pictures, paintings, other visual images or music. Grant:
“I teach school. I can’t raise the dead.”
“For some of you, it’s ladybug time in class.”
“I would rather watch a dumb hog die in that chair than an upset, out of his mind, aggravated boy fry in it”
“Youmans don’t live in no stall. Slop and shit and old hog. I’m old hog you fattening up to kill.”
“He used contempt for black people to try and get you off. He was a helpless, stupid white lawyer. He never meant you’re a hog.”
The blood of six generations of white men could not admit you were innocent, when you obviously very likely were. You could not stay alive when a white man lay dead.”
“You sho ain’t staying here with the likes of me!”
“Mulattos, who don’t work in the field, and try to act white. They saw me in the drug store. Started talking loud. One said, ‘Should have burned him months ago.’ Other said, ‘That kind of nigger makes it hard on all of us.’
“How can you ask an innocent boy to face an electric chair when you won’t face yourself?”
Reverend Ambrose: “First time you say God, you insult me.” Jefferson:
“He wanted to give me something, but not that Agie! A Pee Wee!”
Reverend Ambrose: “Listen to the Bible, not a radio!” Grant:
“A black hero has to face white people.”
“Grant. I will never forget this day, or him, or you. Tell the children he was the bravest man in the room. I’m his witness.”
Sources Consulted A Lesson Before Dying. 14 July 2001. Alabama Shakespeare Festival. 23 July 2001. www.asf.net/ASF.html Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Frank Day, ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991. Caldwell, Erskine, and Margaret Bourke-White. Rprtd. 1975. You Have Seen Their Faces. New York: The Arno Press, 1937. Free, Jr., Marvin D. African Americans and the Criminal Justice System. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1996. Gaudet, Marcia and Wooton, Carl. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1990. Gevatheatre.org. “A Lesson Before Dying program.” Daniel J. Roach, ed. 2000. Geva Theatre. 15 May 2001. www.gevatheatre.org/program/artistic_company_Lesson.htm Gleason, David King. Plantation Homes of Louisiana and the Natchez Area. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. Greenberg, Jack. Race Relations and American Law. New York: Columbia university Press, 1959. “Center for Business and Economic Research: Louisiana Electronic Assistance Program.” 2000-2001. University of Louisiana at Monroe. 10 May 2001. http://leap.nlu.eud/STAAB/c02.htm Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965. M. MacGregor, Jr. Updated 2 May 2001. U.S. Army Center of Military History. 2 August 2001. www.army.mil/cmh-pg/ Kester, Howard. Revolt Among the Sharecroppers. Rprtd. As part of The American Negro: His History and Literature series, William Loren Katz, gen. ed. New York: The Arno Press, 1969. Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. “Louisiana.” Updated 1999-2001. Encyclopedia Britannica. 11 May 2001. www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=12186&tocid=0. Morgan, Elemore and Charles East. The Face of Louisiana. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
O’Brien, Gail Williams. The Color of the Law: Race, Violence and Justice in the PostWorld War II South. The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture, Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, eds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Rehder, John B. Delta Sugar: Louisiana’s Vanishing Plantation Landscape. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Romulus Linney home page. Donald Mares, sr. dev. 2001. PreviewPort.com. 22 August 2001. www.previewport.com/Home/linney.html The Stevens Family webpage. “Louisiana: History and Facts.” 2001. Geocities.com. 11 May 2001. www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/3021/links/louisiana.html Wall, Bennett H., ed. Louisiana: A History. Arlington Heights, IL: The Forum Press, Inc., 1984.
A Lesson Before Dying- Study Guide