By Nyambura Mutanyi
This week has seen the world revel in the spectacle that is the Democratic National Convention. A Lesson Before Dying is a reminder of just how far Black people have come in the United States.
Set in the American South, it opens with a scene that is disturbingly familiar. A Black man, Jefferson, is wrongfully accused of a White man’s murder. Perfect recipe for disaster, if ever there was any. His defence lawyer’s words set off a chain of events that rope in various members of the community and threaten to upset the tenuous calm that seems to pervade it.
Words are powerful. Books are evidence of it; this book more so. The convict is dejected and understandably so bearing in mind the South’s preference for the death sentence. With his death imminent, he resists all attempts to talk him out of his despondency. Not that the people that love him and care about him do not try. This love is the transcending theme in this book. It is his godmother’s love that transforms this tale into a tribute to hope.
A local school teacher in the community is disenchanted with his lot in life. Dead-end job, the condition o the black man, a relationship he can’t be honest about. Grant doesn’t seem to have anything going for him in his opinion so he doesn’t see what value he would add to the discourse by participating in the rehabilitation of Jefferson. In the manner of black men everywhere, both of them have been brought up by their female relatives. This proves to be their salvation but also their undoing. Only a man can truly speak to them, only women can truly save them.
Grant sets out to try to help Jefferson and encounters resistance that is not unexpected but not any less unnerving. Frustrated with his life, he seeks some redemption through Jefferson who does not consider himself worthy of the role. An emotional tug-of-war ensues and the winner is a delightful surprise. Growing up on a plantation, Jefferson is emblematic of the Black condition and grows to become larger than all the things expected of him.
One of the things that make books so special is the refusal to force an ending that will please the masses. There is a death, there is heartbreak, there is despair. Hope, too. The title’s lesson before dying is one that one will enjoy and carry with them; an exploration of all that can be when people dare.