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"Black Southern Femininity in 'A Lesson Before Dying'" by Melanie Johnson

Jaime Bergeron ... -- Tue, 07/11/2023 - 8:43am

In Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, many things strike me having finished the book. One thing in particular is the way the novel ends with a bittersweet moment of hope despite the profound unfairness of Jefferson, an innocent Black man's execution at the hands of the state in rural 1940's Louisiana. The novel's protagonist, Grant Wiggins and the white sheriff's deputy, Paul are able to see the humanity in each other despite being on opposite sides of the social spectrum and law. That said, the female characters in the novel are arguably the most complex and interesting. Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Vivian all feature instances of Black Southern femininity that get used in ways to reach their desired goals, which is ultimately Jefferson dying with the dignity the state tries to take away from him.

Grant is a teacher on the plantation's grounds who teaches all of the Black children who are left in what is the old slave quarters and is charged with the impossible task of teaching Jefferson what it means to be a man after he is violently dehumanized at what is essentially a show trial after the death of a white store owner. Grant is given this responsibility by his Tante Lou, the woman who raised him. Though Grant is not the easiest character to root for because of his surly disposition, I couldn't help but sympathize with him. He wants to go his own way and form his own connections but familial and communal responsibility that he didn't ask for nor does he want is given to him with a complete lack of regard for his own emotional wellbeing. Not only is grant a teacher and a social worker, but he is also given the role of therapist while being severely underfunded and unsupported. Through Gaines's prose, Grant's growing mental instability was felt and I felt bad for him that no one seemed to consider his feelings in everything that happens in the novel. I'm not certain how I am supposed to feel about Tante Lou and the way she treated Grant with a complete lack of regard. Adam Nemmers argues that :

At the same time, [Black domestic workers] were not weak and passive victims but string, dignified and resolute, acting with determined agency to provide for themselves and their black kin. When returning home, Black women served as matriarchs of their own families, responsible for education, moral training, and religious instruction, to say nothing of the discipline and diligence required to raise African American children in the racially stratified south. (2)

Gaines underscores that Tante Lou being both the matriarch of her family and the "mammy" for the white Pichot family means that she is not in the position of caring for Grant's feelings while still thinking of the greater good of the community. She uses the very direct and gruff way she has been conditioned to deal with everyone outside of her employer to achieve her end goals, which is essentially forcing Grant to endure the mental anguish it costs him to visit Jefferson in jail. Considering Grant is college educated as a black man in 1940's Louisiana, to Tante Lou, he represents everything that is aspirational to the community whether he wants to or not, therefore he does not have a choice in the matter.

Furthermore, Joanna Davis-McElligatt claims that "Black women were thus victims of both southern paternalism and southern maternalism, powers which sought to police every aspect of their beings from their reproductive lives tot their locations in space and place" (37). I argue that this is the reason that Tante Lous and Miss Emma are the way they are. Though Tante Lou is gruff, Miss Emma is very passive aggressive and I believe she uss passive aggression as a way to navigate within the confines of the "southern paternalism and southern maternalism" that is found on the Pichot plantation. It is especially apparent in her dealings with Henri Pichot, the owner of the plantation, someone who has abused her labor as a domestic worker. Miss Emma tells Mr. Pichot:

I'm not begging for his life no more; that's over. I just want to see him die like a man. This family owe me that much, Mr. Henri. And I want it. I want somebody do something for me one time 'fore I close my eyes. Somebody got to do something for me one time 'fore I close my eyes, Mr Henri. Please, sir" (Gaines 22).

Here, Miss Emma uses that passive aggression to guilt Mr. Pichot into allowing Grant to visit Jefferson in jail before he is executed by claiming that she's near death herself. She reminds him of all the physical and emotional labor she has given the Pichot family and that they owe her this one favor. This mode of persuasion is ultimately successful and it is the only way she can navigate the systems of hierarchy on the plantation to get what she most desires.

Vivian, Grant's girlfriend, is another female character that makes an impact with the distinctly southern and feminine way she is able to accomplish her own goals which echoes the goals of both Tante Lou and Miss Emma. One moment in the text is where Grant and Vivian are dancing at the Rainbow Club, after the meeting with Mr. Pichot. The Rainbow Club is a lounge they like to frequent and likely one of the few places Vivian and Grant can go in segregated Bayonne. In this moment Vivian uses her own powers of persuasion to get Grant to want to visit Jefferson in jail:

"I want you to go up there," Vivian said.

"They make those decisions, sweetheart, I don't."

"If they say yes, I want you to go for me."

"For you?"

"For us, Grant." (Gaines 32)

What Vivian does here is very interesting because she blends both of the methods used by Tante Lou and Miss Emma, she is forceful yet gentle when using the power she wields over Grant. SHe says it's "For us" because she knows he wants to sleep with her and finds it within his best interest to keep her happy. Though the women in A Lesson Before Dying are not main characters, they all contribute to the plot of the novel evolving into what eventually becomes Grant teaching Jefferson what it means to be a man and die with dignity. Through this change, Gaines sheds light on some hard truths of pre-Civil Rights Louisiana but he also makes the case that there is hope that change can be made for the betterment of everyone even in a place like Bayonne.

Works Cited

Davis-McElligatt, Joanna. "Queering the Mammy: Southern Black Domestics and Revolutionary Mothering as Social Practice." Through Mama's Eyes: Unique Perspectives in Southern Matriarchy, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, Lafayette, LA, 2021, pp.33-46.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. Vintage Books, 1993.

Nemmers, Adam. "Between Two Families: The Mammy and the Matriarch." Through Mama's Eyes: Unique Perspectives in Southern Matriarchy, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, Lafayette, LA, 2021, pp. 1-15.