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A Lesson 
Before Dying 






A Lesson 
Before Dying 


The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1 965 as an 
endowment independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest 
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 
cities, and military bases. 


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Published by 

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1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W 
Washington, D.C. 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


Eig, Jonathan. Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson '$ First Season. New York: Simon and Schuster, 

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. 

Margolick, David. Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. New York: 
Random House, 2005. 

Ferris, Bill. "Meeting Ernest Gaines." Humanities, July/ August 1998. 
Web version: 


David Kipen, NEA Director of National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Gunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Deborah S. Replogle with Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts, 

with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington D.C. 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for the Big Read. Page iv: "Low Sky Over a Field of Sugarcane," photograph by 
Samuel Portera; A Lesson Before Dying book cover, courtesy of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 
Inc., New York. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back coven Photograph of Ernest 
J. Gaines, courtesy of Philip Gould. 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Book? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: Sharecropping 16 

Handout Two: Pre-Civil Rights South 17 

Handout Three: Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 

mo* 1 * 

*A low ashen sky loomed over the 
plantation, if not over the entire state of 
Louisiana. A swarm of black birds flew 
across the road and alighted in a pecan 
tree in one of the backyards to our left. 
The entire plantation was deadly quiet, 
except for the singing coming from the 
church up the quarter behind us." 

—from A Lesson Before Dying 





National Endowment for the Arts 



Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National Endowment 
for the Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American 
culture, the Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature, 
as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Ernest J. Gaines' classic novel, A Lesson Before Dying. Each lesson has four 
sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and 
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects 
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, the Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why Gaines' novel remains so compelling more than 
a decade after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make these 
Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, the Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope this 
guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

~£jUAfc M^^. 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD. Read 
Reader's Guide essays. Discuss the ways 
Gaines used elements of his own life to 
create the novel. Write about how a good 
novel can transcend time and place. 

Homework: Chapters 1-4 (pp. 1-32) * 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Discuss the accuracy of Gaines' 
depiction of a small Southern town. Write an 
essay analyzing the way Henri Pichot treats 
Inez and Miss Emma. 

Homework: Chapters 5-9 (pp. 33-74). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point ofView 

Activities: Explore possibilities of alternatives 
to first person narration. Write a brief 
description of the trial in either first or third 

Homework: Chapters 10-13 (pp. 75-1 02). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Discuss Grant's role as the novel's 
protagonist, the antagonistic forces, and 
characters within the novel. Write a short 
essay on a character or situation that serves 
as an antagonist to Grant 

Homework: Chapters 1 4-1 7 (pp. 1 03-1 34). 


* Page numbers refer to the June 1 994 first 
Vintage Contemporaries Edition. 

Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Discuss the ways Gaines uses 
description of the scenery to evoke different 
moods. Write an essay on why the symbol of 
the "hog" affected Miss Emma,Tante Lou, and 
Jefferson so deeply. 

Homework: Chapters 18-21 (pp. 1 35-1 67). 


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V.. 5" 




Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Discuss the religious symbolism in Activities: Examine the themes justice, 

the novel. Write an essay on the symbolism of commitment, and manhood. Ask students to 

a character's name. identify other themes. 

Homework: Read Handout Three and Homework: Prepare outlines and begin 

Chapters 22-24 (pp. 1 68-1 94). essays. 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Discuss the role of heroes in the 
novel and what the concept of heroism 
means to Grant and Jefferson. Write an essay 
on a female character whose actions can be 
considered heroic. 

Homework: Chapters 25-27 (pp. 1 95-2 1 8). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Examine the major events of the 
novel as they pertain to Grant and Jefferson. 
Discuss the ways the lives of the two men 
are linked. Map a timeline. Write several 
paragraphs anticipating the novel's end and 
how the actions of Grant and Jefferson might 
affect the community. 

Homework: Chapters 28-3 1 (pp. 2 1 9-256). 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Great Book? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 
novel. Discuss what A Lesson Before Dying can 
teach us about the pre-civil rights South. 

Homework: Finish essays. 

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The author s life can inform and expand a reader s understanding of a 
novel. One practice of examining a literary work, biographical criticism, 
looks through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, explore the 
authors life to more fully understand the novel. 

Ernest J. Gaines was born into a family of sharecroppers in Pointe Coupee 
Parish, Louisiana. He attended grammar school in the plantation church, 
and was primarily raised by his aunt. A Lesson Before Dying tells the story 
of a young black man convicted of participating in the murder of a white 
man and consequendy sentenced to death in Louisiana in the 1940s. 
Although a work of fiction, this novel reflects the racial discrimination and 
stereotypes Gaines would have encountered in the pre-civil rights South. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to the Big Read CD. Students should take notes as they listen. What do 
they learn about Ernest J. Gaines? Based on what they learned about the novel, ask 
them to identify ways Gaines used elements of his own life to create the world of 
the novel. 

Copy the Reader's Guide essays "Introduction to the Novel" (p. 3),"Ernest J. 
Gaines" (pp. 4-5), and "The Pre-Civil Rights South" (pp. 6-7). Divide the class into 
groups. Assign one essay to each group. After reading and discussing the essays, 
each group will present what they learned. Ask students to add a creative twist to 
make their presentation memorable. 

Writing Exercise 

Gaines believes that all great writers are regional writers but that their works are 
universal. Ask your students to choose a favorite book. Have them write a 
paragraph on how a novel about a particular place can cross regional boundaries 
and appeal to readers who have never lived in that period or place. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 1-4 (pp. 1-32). Prepare your students to read three to four chapters 
per night in order to complete the book in ten lessons. In the novel's opening lines 
Grant says, "I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not 
hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be." Ask your students 
to consider why Gaines might open the novel in this way. 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the heart of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating the intricate 
details of the time and place can assist us in comprehending the motivations 
of the characters. In this lesson, use cultural and historical contexts to begin 
to explore the novel. 

A Lesson Before Dying is set in the 1940s, a gap between two very 
important eras in American history — the period of Reconstruction 
following the U. S. Civil War but before the Civil Rights movement began 
in earnest in the 1950s. The economy of the South was still primarily based 
on agriculture. Sharecropping — tending a portion of another persons land 
in exchange for a percentage of the crops — was common among both black 
and poor white families. 

Discussion Activities 

Copy Handout One, "Sharecropping," and Handout Two, "The Pre-Civil Rights 
South," and have your students read them in class. Gaines has said that one of the 
reasons he started to write was so he could memorialize the Louisiana of his 
boyhood and the people who lived there. On page 25, Grant describes the 
fictional setting of the novel: 

Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. [. . .] The courthouse was there; 
so was the jail. [. . .] There were two elementary schools uptown, one Catholic, 
one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored. Bayonne's major 
industries were a cement plant, a sawmill, and a slaughterhouse, mostly for hogs. 

Ask your students to locate other descriptions of the setting in Chapters 1-4. 
Based on what they learned from listening to the CD and reading the handouts, 
how accurate are Gaines' depictions of a small Southern town in the 1 940s? 

Writing Exercise 

Many of the characters in A Lesson Before Dying live on a former plantation that is 
farmed by sharecroppers. Ask students to write a one-page essay on the way 
Henri Pichot treats Inez and Miss Emma in Chapter 3. Does he treat them with 
respect? Based on what students learned from the handouts, can they understand 
why Inez and Miss Emma defer to him? What can we learn about the culture of 
1 940s Louisiana from reading their exchange? 

23 Homework 

Read Chapters 5-9 (pp. 33-74). What differences do you see between Grants 
classroom and yours? How does his role as a teacher influence the way he views 
himself and others? 

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and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed bv his or 
her beliefs and experiences. The narrator can be a major or minor character 
within the novel. The narrator weaves her or his point of view, including 
ignorance and bias, into the telling of the tale. A first-person narrator 
participates in the events of the novel using "I." A distanced narrator (often 
not a character) does not participate in the events of the story and uses 
third person (he, she, they) to narrate the story. The distanced narrator can 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all characters within the novel. 
Ultimately, the type of narrator determines the point of view from which 
the story is told. 

A Lesson Before Dying\s told from the first-person point of view of Grant 
\\ iggins, schoolteacher for the black children in the quarter. His hesitancy 
to become involved in the events of the novel establishes one of the major 
conflicts in the story — his reluctance to visit Jefferson versus his aunts 
determination for Grant to help Jefferson die with dignity 

Discussion Activities 

Grant tells his aunt and Miss Emma, "Jefferson is dead. It is only a matter of weeks, 
maybe a couple of months — but he's already dead. [. . .] And I can't raise the dead. 
All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this — but he's gone from 
us" (p. 1 4). Why does Grant lash out like this? How does his reluctance to help 
affect the way he views the situation? How do his views on his own life and 
teaching as a profession affect the way he tells the story? 

Why do you think Gaines chose Grant as a first-person narrator rather thanTante 
Lou. Miss Emma or Jefferson? How would the novel have been different if it were 
told from the perspective of one of these characters? 

Writing Exercise 

Have your students choose one of the two writing exercises below Invite them to 
share their writing by reading it aloud to the class. 

• Write a description of the trial from the first person point of view of one of 
the other characters. 

• Write a description of the trial from an objective third person point view as it 
might be reported in the local newspaper. 

Q Homework 

Read Chapters 10-13 (pp. 75-102). Make a list of the primary characters and what 
motivates each of them. 


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The main character in a work of literature is called the "protagonist." The 
protagonist often overcomes a weakness or ignorance to achieve a new 
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great courage 
may be called a "hero." Readers often debate the virtues and motivations of 
the protagonists in the attempt to understand whether they are heroic. The 
protagonists journey is made more dramatic by challenges presented by 
characters with different beliefs. A "foil" provokes the protagonist so as to 
highlight more clearly certain features of the main character. The most 
important foil, the "antagonist," is any character or force in a literary work 
that opposes the efforts of the protagonist, barring or complicating his or 
her success. The antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be a person. It could 
be nature, a social force, or an internal drive in the protagonist. 

Discussion Activities 

Grant Wiggins is the protagonist of the novel, but his life becomes inextricably tied 
to Jefferson's. Ask your students to examine how Jefferson acts during the visit 
with Grant in Chapter I I and how he later acts when Miss Emma visits, as 
depicted in Chapter 16. Grant tells his aunt,"He treated me the same way he 
treated her. He wants me to feel guilty, just as he wants her to feel guilty. Well, I'm 
not feeling guilty, Tante Lou. I didn't put him there. I do everything I know how to 
do to keep people like him from going there" (p. 1 23). Why is Grant offended by 
Jefferson's behavior? Does Jefferson want Miss Emma or Grant to feel guilty, or is 
he simply unable to cope with his fete? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask your students to write three paragraphs on a character other than Jefferson 
or a situation that serves as an antagonist to Grant. What is the conflict? How 
does Grant respond? Is his response appropriate? Have students support their 
ideas using examples from the text. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 14-17 (pp. 103-134). Ask your students to pay close attention to 
the way Grant describes the scenery during his walk with Vivian. 

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Writers often use non-literal language to invite readers to visualize events, 
view internal conflicts, glimpse social themes, or grasp abstract concepts like 
beauty, truth, or goodness. An author uses figurative or non-literal language 
to stretch our imaginations, challenging us to decode the references and 
meanings bound within images, similes, metaphors, and symbols. Such 
devices require a reader to participate actively in the novel, as the reader 
begins to (implicitly or explicitly) interpret non-literal elements of the tale. 

Gaines vividly describes the Louisiana countryside throughout A Lesson 
Before Dying. Imagery, a description that appeals to one or more of the 
five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, or sight), assists the reader in 
understanding the time and place where the novel is set. Imagery can also 
project emotion, enabling the author to imply a mood without disrupting 
the narrative to inform the reader of a characters emotional state. 

Discussion Activities 

One of the most beautiful descriptions of the plantation occurs in Chapter 14 
when Grant takes Vivian on a walk down the quarter. Ask students to close their 
eyes while you read page 107 aloud to the class. What emotions are evoked by 
the images of "a low ashen sky," "a swarm of blackbirds," and the plantation 
cemetery? How does the mood change once Grant and Vivian turn on the road 
that leads to the field of sugarcane? 

Writing Exercise 

The defense attorney compares Jefferson to a hog by saying, "Why, I would just as 
soon put a hog in an electric chair as this" (p. 8). Have students write a few 
paragraphs on why that image backfired as a defense argument What was the 
attorney's purpose in using that characterization? Why did the remark affect Miss 
Emma.Tante Lou, and Jefferson so deeply? Even though Jefferson suggests it, why 
won't Miss Emma bring him corn to eat? 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 18-21 (pp. 135-167). Have students pay close attention to Grant's 
actions during the Christmas program. As the schoolteacher, he is in charge of this 
event. Why is this an uncomfortable situation for Grant? How does he respond? 


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Symbols are interpretive keys to the text. Most frequently, a specific object 
will be used to stand for a more abstract concept. A figurative meaning is 
attached to the object above arid beyond face value. Symbols may be of two 
types: universal symbols that embody recognizable meanings wherever used, 
or symbols specific to a particular story. Found in the novels title, at the 
beginning and end of the novel, within a profound action, or captured by 
the name or personality of a character, symbols can reveal the authors 
intentions or can reveal a new interpretation of the novel. 

An author does not always include symbols intentionally. Sometimes, they 
develop organically as part of the writing process. In a 1998 interview with 
Humanities magazine, Gaines said, "Students come up now and ask me, 
'Did you know you put those symbols in there?' You never think of 
symbols." Gaines does not intentionally insert symbols into his writing; 
they evolve as part of the creative process. 

Discussion Activities 

There is a great deal of religious symbolism in A Lesson Before Dying. Like Gaines, 
many Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Katharine 
Anne Porter, and Zora Neale Hurston use religious symbolism to reflect the 
moral ideals of a story's characters or to highlight the conflict between characters 
whose religious views differ. Ask your students to consider the way religion 
permeates the society in which Grant lives and the way it influences the actions 
of Vivian, Grant, Miss Emma,Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose. 

Grant's classroom is in a church. How is this appropriate for his role in the black 
community? Does this contribute to Grant's conflict with the Reverend? Does 
Tante Lou expect more out of Grant as a teacher than helping children learn to 
read and write? If so, what? 

Writing Exercise 

Choose a character from the novel whose name might serve a symbolic function. 
Explain how the name as a symbol relates to the character. Does the person 
reflect or contradict the values of his or her namesake? Why might Gaines have 
chosen to depict the character in this way? 

EJ Homework 

Copy and distribute Handout Three. Ask students to read the handout and 
Chapters 22-24 (pp. 168-194). Ask them to play close attention to the scene in 
Chapter 24 when Grant describes a hero. 

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Lesson Seven 



Novels trace the development of characters that encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist often undergoes 
profound change. A close study of character development maps the 
evolution of motivation, personality, and belief in each character. The 
tension between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader 
guessing about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot. 

In A Lesson Before Dying, Grant must teach Jefferson how to die like a 
man. In doing so, Grant examines his place and purpose in the community 
and Jefferson learns to act with dignity and pride while facing his own 

Discussion Activities 

Discuss Handout Three, "Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis." What qualities did these 
men possess that made them cultural heroes? In Chapter 1 2, the old men in the 
bar reenact highlights of the baseball games of their hero Jackie Robinson. Grant 
later tells Jefferson, "A hero is someone who does something for other people. He 
does something other men don't and can't do. He is different from other men. He 
is above other men" (p. 191). Ask your students to consider the rest of Grant's 
comments on pp. 191-194. Do they agree with his definition of a hero? Can 
Jefferson be the role model Grant wants him to be? 

Consider the ways Grant is a hero to his students and his aunt. Does he ever 
disappoint them? If so, what do we learn about Grant's character in these 

Can small actions be considered heroic? Are there opportunities for personal 
heroism in the world of A Lesson Before Dying 7 . If so, who are the heroes of the 
novel so far? Do they possess any of the same qualities as Jackie Robinson or Joe 

Writing Exercise 

Grant's speech to Jefferson seems to imply that only men can be heroes. Ask your 
students to write a brief essay on one of the women in the novel whose actions 
could be considered heroic. What is most admirable about her? How do her 
actions affect others? Do those who benefit from her actions realize it? 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 25-27 (pp. 195-218). Ask your students to pay close attention to 
the scene in Chapter 25 where Grant fights with the mulatto sharecroppers. How 
does Grant describe the mulattoes' racism? Are his remarks about them equally 
racist? Ask your students to consider the ways this scene advances the plot of the 

| * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Plot 

Hie author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase 
suspense, and inform character development. A novels plot follows a series 
or events as they lead to a dramatic climax, a tragic realization, or a happy 
ending. The authors timing of events from beginning to middle to end 
can make a novel predictable and boring, or stimulating and riveting. 
Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to defy time while telling 
the story. A successful author will keep a reader entranced by clever pacing 
built within the tale, sometimes confounding a simple plot by telling stories 
within stories. 

The events leading to Jefferson's execution shape the way Grant views 
himself and others. While Jefferson's fate is strongly foreshadowed 
throughout the novel, Gaines chooses to show us Grant's transformation 
slowly, creating tension that might not otherwise exist. In Chapter 25, 
Grant fights with the mulatto sharecroppers. This is a major turning point 
in the novel because it demonstrates how deeply Grant is affected by his 
relationship with Jefferson. 

Grant's journey toward self-discovery defines the novel's pacing as much as 
Jefferson's impending execution. 

Discussion Activities 

Divide your class into two groups. Ask one group of students to examine the plot 
structure as it relates to Jefferson, the other as it relates to Grant Students should 
identify the novel's major events from the perspective of the character they were 
assigned using passages from the novel to explain why these events are the most 
significant Have each group write these events in a column on the board. Draw 
lines to show where Grants and Jefferson's lives intersect Discuss the ways each 
of them change during those scenes. 

Divide students into groups and have them map a timeline showing the 
development of the plot as a whole. Students should define the events that 
constitute the beginning, middle, and end of the novel. Groups should present 
their timelines, discussing any discrepancies along the way. 

IB Writing Exercise 

Ask students to anticipate the novel's ending. Have them write several paragraphs 
describing what will happen to Grant and Jefferson. Ask them to consider the 
ways the actions of these two men might affect the entire community. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 28-3 1 (pp. 219-256). During his last days in jail, Jefferson keeps a 
journal. Why is Sheriff Guidry concerned about how Jefferson will portray him? 

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Themes of 
the Novel 

Profound questions raised by the story allow the character (and the reader) 
to explore the meaning of human life and extract themes. Themes 
investigate topics explored for centuries by philosophers, politicians, 
scientists, historians, and theologians. Classic themes include intellectual 
freedom versus censorship, personal moral code in relation to political 
justice, and spiritual faith versus rational commitments. A novel can shed 
light on these age-old debates by creating new situations to challenge and 
explore human nature. 

Use the following themes, as well as ones students identify, to determine the 
themes of A Lesson Before Dying. Which themes seem most important? 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises. 

Using historical references to support ideas, explore the statements that A Lesson 
Before Dying makes about the following themes: 

Racial Injustice: "They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong 
place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the 
crime other than being there when it happened" (p. 1 58). 

1 . Has Jefferson been treated unjustly? Would a young white man in the same 
situation have been punished as severely? Why or why not? 

2. How have Grant, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose suffered from 
racial injustice? How has each responded? 

Commitment: "You hit the nail on the head there lady — commitment. 
Commitment to what — to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live 
like other people?" (p. 29). 

1 . Why doesn't Grant leave? Why did he come back after he left the first time? 
Why won't Vivian support his desire for both of them to leave? 

2. How does Grant explain "obligation" to Jefferson? Why does he bother? Does 
Grant practice his concept of obligation? 

Manhood: "Do you know what his nannan wants me to do before they kill him? 
The public defender called him a hog, and she wants me to make him a man" (p. 

1 . How does Miss Emma define manhood? How does Grant? 

2. The final entry in Jefferson's journal is, "good by mr wigin tell them im a man. . ." 
How does Jefferson define manhood? 

EJ Homework 

Students should begin working on their essays. See "Essay Topics" at the end of 
this guide. For additional questions, see the Reader's Guide "Discussion 
Questions" (pp. 14-15). Outlines are due at the end of next class. 

| 2 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Ten 


What Makes 
a Great 

Novels illustrate the connections between individuals and questions of 
humanity. Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily 
lives, while painting those conflicts in the larger picture of human struggle. 
Readers forge bonds with the story as the writers voice, style, and sense of 
poetry inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
for learning, imagining, and reflecting, a great novel is a work of art that 
affects many generations of readers, changing lives, challenging 
assumptions, and breaking new ground. 

03 Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on 
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? What are some of the books they 
consider "great?" Do any of these books remind them of A Lesson Before Dying? 

A great novel stands the test of time and is read long after it is written. Gaines 
published A Lesson before Dying in 1994. The novel is set in the late 1940s. Do you 
believe this novel will endure the test of time? Is the novel as relevant today as 
when it was first published? Do you think that its subject and themes will continue 
to be relevant? Why or why not? 

Writers can become the voice of a generation or of a particular group of people. 
What kind of voice does Gaines provide through Grant? What can this teach us 
about the concerns and dreams of people of color who grew up in the pre-civil 
rights South? 

Writing Exercise 

If you were the voice of your generation, what would be your most important 
message? Why might you choose to convey this in a novel rather than a speech 
or an essay? What story would you tell to get your point across? 

Be available to assist students as they work on their essays in class. Have students 
partner with each other to edit outlines or rough drafts. Provide them with the 
characteristics of a well-written essay. 

EJ Homework 

Students should work on their essays. Rough drafts are due next class. Celebrate 
by participating in a Big Read community event. 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • | 3 

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the "Discussion Questions" in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with 
their own essay topics, provided they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are 
provided here. 

Students should organize their essays around a stated thesis, argument, or idea about the novel. 
This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and 
supporting reasons should rely on references to the text. 

1 . Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Vivian are used to 
taking care of themselves and others. Explain 
the role of women in the novel. What was 
their function in this society? Was their 
contribution and sacrifice recognized? 

2. Education is very important in this novel, both 
its attainment and the lack of it Tante Lou 
continually refers to Grant as "the teacher." 
The other men call him "Professor." Yet Grant 
hates teaching, echoing the feelings of his own 
teacher, Matthew Antoine. Contrast the 
opinions of education presented in this novel. 
Why do some seek it and others consider it a 
burden? What role does it play in the 
characters' lives and the life of the community? 

3. Reread the description of Vivian from Chapter 
4 (pp. 27-28) and the passage in Chapter 1 5 
about Vivians marriage (p. 1 1 1). What was the 
cause of conflict between Vivian and her family 
over her marriage? What causes the conflict 
between Vivian and Tante Lou over her 
relationship with Grant? Why does Grant say 
that the conflicts are not the same, as Vivian 

4. Find specific examples of how Gaines uses 
different levels of language and non-verbal 
communication to make his characters realistic. 
How does the manner in which they speak or 
don't speak enhance the story? How would the 

novel change if everyone spoke as Grant does, 
or as the older people in the quarter do? Or 
as Jefferson writes? 

5. Grant's fight with the mulatto sharecroppers 
demonstrates his anger and frustration. Why 
are the sharecroppers' comments about 
Jefferson particularly hurtful? Would Grant have 
reacted in the same way if a black man had 
made similar comments? A white man? What 
might this scene teach us about the racial 
tensions in Louisiana in the 1940s? 

6. On the morning of Jefferson's execution, Grant 
leaves his classroom to stand outside, alone, to 
wait for news. He asks himself, "Why wasn't I 
there? Why wasn't I standing beside him? Why 
wasn't my arm around him? Why?" (p. 250). 
Attempt to answer these questions, referring 
to the text of the novel for examples of 
Grant's strengths or weaknesses. 

7. Paul earns Grant's respect through his 
treatment of Jefferson and his visitors. How is 
Paul different from the other jail keepers? 
How do his actions at the end of Jefferson's life 
demonstrate Paul's goodness? Why might he 
have chosen to attend the execution even 
though it was not part of his job? Why did he 
choose to drive out to the quarter to tell 
Grant the news personally? 

I 4 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

These activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could 
be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore. 

1 . News video: Have students script and shoot a 
video news segment about Jefferson's case that 
might appear on a national network broadcast 
The segment could include any of the following: 
on-the-spot interviews with the two attorneys 
immediately after the trial verdict an interview 
with Miss Emma. Mrs. Grope, Reverend 
Ambrose, or an eye-witness account of the 
execution from Paul. Students might choose to 
combine several segments to make a whole 
program on Jefferson's case. Screen the video 
for the class, at an assembly, or as part of a 
showcase for parents. 

2. Performance: Have students choose one or 
more powerful scenes from the novel to 
dramatize, using Gaines' dialogue and his 
narration as direction. Present the scenes as 
part of an assembly, or as part of a showcase 
for parents. 

3. Photo Gallery: Create a photography exhibit 
using archival photos (or a combination 
including students' photos) to illustrate the 
South of the 1 940s. The photos should 
correspond to the setting, the events, or the 
society portrayed in the novel. Each photo 
should be captioned. Students should be able to 
discuss the photos and explain their choices. 
Have students display this gallery at the school 
or local library. 

Retrospective: Have students do further 
research on sports in the 1 940s, especially with 
regard to black athletes. They should focus on 
the life and career of either Joe Louis or Jackie 
Robinson. They should include photos of the 
athletes, posters (either authentic or student- 
created), enlargements of trading cards, and 
either an audio or video of a boxing match or 
baseball game. Students may obtain a transcript 
of the event and present it as it would have 
been broadcast live. Students may choose to 
assume the identity of the athlete for an 
interview discussing his life. Students should do 
an in-class presentation, an in-school assembly, 
or a showcase for parents. 

Reading: Have students read the James Joyce 
short story "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," 
mentioned in the novel. Have students 
summarize the story and choose to read one 
or two particularly meaningful passages. Have 
them explain why this story might be 
considered universal, "regardless of race, 
regardless of class." Explain how this story 
applies to the novel, citing passages that show 
the connection. 

National Endowment for the Arts 




The concept of sharecropping evolved in the South 
out of economic necessity. The Souths main 
industry, farming, only operated successfully with 
free slave labor. After the Civil War, the 
Emancipation Proclamation, and passage of the 
Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the 
white plantation owners found themselves "land 
rich but cash poor," with no one to work their 
land and no money to hire anyone to do it. The 
mass exodus of former slaves to the North and the 
absence of any other profitable industry added to 
the region's woes. 

Many of the freed slaves who stayed in the South 
knew only one vocation, farming. But they were 
no longer content to work for somebody; they 
wanted to own land and support their families. 
Unfortunately, none of these men had any money, 
nor owned the things needed to operate a 
successful farm. Thus, sharecropping became the 

Landowners, usually whites, would lease a portion 
of their land, along with tools, seed, fertilizer, and 
other necessities, to former slaves or poor whites. 
In return, the sharecroppers paid their debts with 
interest to the landowners by giving them a 
portion of their crops. Since the farmers had no 
money, plantation owners operated stores that sold 
needed goods, which the farmers "charged," and 
the bill was "paid" with another portion of the 
crops. Whatever portion of the crops was left over 
after the sharecroppers paid their bills could be sold 
and the profit kept. However, there was rarely any 
portion of the crops left over or any profit made. 
The farmers were obliged to continue this 
arrangement year after year in vain hope of getting 
out of debt, creating a never-ending cycle of 

Many sharecropping agreements were verbal. Some 
of the sharecroppers actually signed written 
contracts, but, often illiterate, they could not read 
these agreements to understand that they heavily 
favored the landowners. Examples of this 
inequality can be found in samples of old contracts 
stipulating that the landowners or their agents 
could specify how the land was cultivated. In 
addition, those who raised cotton were required to 
pay to have it ginned on the plantation before 
turning it over to the owner. 

The Freedmen's Bureau was created to regulate this 
system. It attempted to establish model contracts 
that protected sharecroppers, proposed standard 
payment of one-third of the crops for a year's rent, 
and created a council to settle disputes between 
landowners and sharecroppers. The sharecroppers 
formed organizations such as the Colored Farmers' 
Alliance and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union 
to aid and support their members. The federal 
government established the U.S. Farm Security 
Administration to help stop the abuse of 
sharecroppers, but still it continued. 

So why did freed slaves choose to stay despite such 
a harsh lifestyle? Sharecroppers hoped they could 
ultimately buy their own farms. This method of 
farming continued from Reconstruction until the 
Civil Rights Movement. Falling crop prices, 
continued black migration to the North after 
World War II, and more rights and opportunities 
for blacks finally destroyed this way of life, but not 
before it left its mark on generations struggling to 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Pre-Civil Rights South 

Life in the pre-civil rights South offered little 
opportunity and denied its black citizens many of 
the most basic human rights. Slavery had been 
abolished in the Confederate States by the 
Emancipation Proclamation in 1 863. The Fifteenth 
Amendment to the Constitution ( 1 870) gave all 
men — white and black — the right to vote. 
However, the Supreme Courts decision in the 
Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 made segregation 
virtually the law of the land. In light of Plessy, it 
was not illegal to have separate facilities for black 
and white Americans as long as they were equal. 
This gave rise to the "separate but equal" notion. 
Unfortunately, "separate" was rarely "equal." 

In the 1940s, the decade in which A Lesson Before 
Dying takes place, the South was still governed by 
many of the laws enacted after Reconstruction. 
These statutes, known as "Jim Crow" laws, were 
designed to keep former slaves from achieving 
equality with their former masters. Louisiana, 
where Ernest J. Gaines was born and the novel is 
set, had the most such laws of any state. 

Jim Crow laws prohibited miscegenation 
(intermarriage between different races) and made it 
punishable by harsh prison sentences and steep 
fines. Many laws made it difficult for blacks to 
exercise the right to vote by requiring that they pay 
poll taxes they could not afford or take tests they 
could not pass. One of the most ludicrous laws in 
Louisiana prohibited blind people of different races, 
who could not even see the color of each other's 
skin, to be housed and treated at separate facilities. 
Neither white nurses nor white barbers were 

allowed to serve blacks. A black person accused of 
any perceived offense to a white person was subject 
to intimidation, violence, and possible lynching by 
groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. 

Jim Crow laws extended well outside the 
geographical area known as the "Deep South." In 
Oklahoma, it was a misdemeanor for white 
teachers to teach at a school that accepted students 
of both races. Oklahoma also required separate 
facilities for swimming, fishing, and boating, in 
addition to separate phone booths. As late as 1 948 
even California, the state to which Grants parents 
have "escaped," had laws outlawing marriage 
between the races. 

A Lesson Before Dying is set just before the Civil 
Rights Movement gained momentum. In 1954 the 
U. S. Supreme Court ruled segregation of public 
schools unlawful by unanimous decision, after 
hearing the Brown v. Board of Education case. 
Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for 
refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery 
public bus to a white man. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
helped organize a bus boycott and was elected 
president of the Montgomery Improvement 
Association, making him the official spokesman for 
the boycott. Still, another decade passed before 
Congress ratified the Civil Rights Act of 1 964, 
nullifying the country's Jim Crow laws and ending 
legalized segregation. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis 

Two of the greatest African-American athletes of 
the 20th century, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, 
are remembered not only for their ground- 
breaking achievements but also for personal 
courage that allowed them to break the race barrier 
in their sports a full decade before the Civil Rights 
Movement began in earnest. The two men were 
born just five years apart in the rural South, both 
sons of sharecroppers. Their families ultimately left 
the region in search of a better life. 

Joe Louis Barrow was born in Alabama in 1914. 
After his fathers death, his mother remarried, and 
in 1 924 the family moved to Detroit. When he 
began boxing as a teenager, he dropped his last 
name. Known as "The Brown Bomber," Louis 
fought his two most important bouts against the 
same opponent, Max Schmeling, a German boxer. 
During their first match in June 1 936, Schmeling 
knocked Louis out in Round 12. This first 
professional defeat devastated Louis and his fans, 
causing tears in the dressing room and riots in 

Although he beat his next opponent, "Cinderella 
Man" James J. Braddock, a year later and became 
the first black heavyweight champion, Louis 
longed for a rematch with Schmeling. On June 22, 
1938, he got his chance. This rematch became a 
symbolic batde: Nazism and all Hider stood for, 
against democracy and the American way of life. 
Louis took only 124 seconds to knock out 
Schmeling and become the hero of all Americans. 

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Georgia in 
1919 but grew up in Pasadena, California. He 
began his sports career as a semi-professional 
football quarterback but later played baseball in the 

Negro American League. After meeting with 
Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, 
Robinsons life and professional sports in America 
forever changed. 

On August 28, 1945, Branch Rickey subjected 
Robinson to shouted racial slurs and 
dramatizations of demeaning situations. When 
Robinson proved he could handle the pressure, 
promising silence for three years despite the 
expected racial abuse, he was offered a contract to 
play for the Dodgers' farm team. On April 15, 
1947, Jackie Robinson broke the "color line" by 
walking onto Ebbets Field in a Dodgers uniform 
wearing number 42. Rookie of the Year in 1947 
and National League MVP in 1949, he was 
inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1 962, 
and posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold 
Medal and the Medal of Freedom. In Robinsons 
honor, Major League Baseball retired the number 
42 from professional baseball. 

In Chapter 12 of A Lesson Before Dying, Grant 
relates the euphoria of the men in the bar as they 
relive some of Jackie Robinson's greatest plays. 
Grant also remembers the heartbreak of Joe Louis' 
stunning defeat by Max Schmeling and his 
inspirational victory two years later. Ultimately, 
each man's victories — in the ring and on the 
baseball diamond — promised the hope of a world 
in which people were judged on merits and 
abilities rather than skin color. 


National Endowment for the Arts 

Printed Resources 

Eig. Jonathan. Opening Day.The Story of Jackie Robinson's First 
Season. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007. 

Margolick, David. Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, 
and a World on the Brink. New York: Random House, 2005. 

Web sites 1 998-07/gaines.html 
Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the 
Humanities. A 1 998 interview conducted by Bill Ferris, then 
chairman of the NEH, in which writer Ernest Gaines talks 
about storytelling, race, and his Louisiana roots. 

http:// 1 98.4 1 .70.4/lhs/la_authors/gainesinterview.htm 
An interview with Ernest Gaines conducted by students 
from Lafayette High School in Lafayette, Louisiana on April 
21,1 998. It was part of a project on Southern authors that 
appeared on the web site Louisiana Legacy: A Celebration of 
Literature Through Technology. 
An article on the Plessy v. Ferguson case — one of the earliest 
desegregation cases argued before the Supreme Court. This 
article appears on the web site USINFO, which delivers 
information about current U.S. foreign policy and about 
American life and culture. 


A sampling of Jim Crow laws from various states created by 

the staff at the Martin Luther Kingjr., National Historic Site 

and posted on the National Parks Service web site. 


PBS's American Experience series entitled "Reconstruction: 

The Second Civil War" includes a model contract that 

reveals some of the injustices typical of sharecropping 

arrangements. I OO/heroes/profile/ 
robinsonO I .html 

Time magazine's "1 00 Most Important People of the 
Century" issue. Jackie Robinson was named one of the 
twenty people who exemplify courage, selflessness, 
exuberance, superhuman ability, and amazing grace. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



CTE Standards 

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and non- 
print texts to build an understanding of texts, 
of themselves, and of the cultures of the United 
States and the world; to acquire new 
information; to respond to the needs and 
demands of society and the workplace; and for 
personal fulfillment Among these texts are 
fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to 
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate 
texts. They draw on their prior experience, 
their interactions with other readers and 
writers, their knowledge of word meaning and 
of other texts, their word identification 
strategies, and their understanding of textual 
features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, 
sentence structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, 
language conventions (e.g., spelling and 
punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that 
suit their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

1 0. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

I I . Students participate as knowledgeable, 

reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literacy communities. 

I 2. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

*This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop 
your application of the curriculum. 


National Endowment for the Arts 

[* I iT* j 

escapes Louisiana. Maybe that is because 

my soul never left Louisiana, although 

my body did go to California." 



'Why wasn't I there? Why 
wasn't I standing beside 
him? Why wasn't my arm 
around him?... Why wasn't 
I down on my knees?" 


Grant Wiggins in A Lesson Before Dying 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

A great nation deserves great art. 

•ti' - .INSTITUTE o< . ., 

:'.\. MuseurrUdLibrary 

' .••„•• SERVICES