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What happens when people are forced to survive on their own while also seeing others live in wealth? Ernest J. Gaines wrote the novel “A Lesson Before Dying” in 1930 with the goal of showing the general population the subtleties of residual racism in the nineteenth century. His main outlet for showing how America has not been kind to the African American population was Jefferson, a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was falsely accused solely because of his skin color.
Jefferson’s choice to go into the store that day not only defined his fate but also defined the state of the United States and how they treat African American citizens.
The only reason Jefferson was arrested was because of his upbringing. On the day Jefferson was in the store and was arrested, he chose to steal the money and whiskey. He knew he wasn’t supposed to but he was in shock and did not have any money to his name.
He stole to survive. This was no of no fault of his own because he says “Ain’t never had enough ice cream. Never had more than a nickel cone.”(Gaines 170) One nickel in 1940, the time period this book was set in, would be worth 92 cents today. By using context clues in the passage, it is easy to tell that Jefferson could hardly make ends meet most of the time. Jefferson didn’t even have any money during the robbery. This was no fault of Jefferson’s, it was a fault of the system he was born into during the 1940s.
Despite slavery having ended almost 90 years prior, there was still lots of hatred towards African Americans in the south. They may have gotten the right to vote in 1870, but there were restrictions on who could vote by tests and other rules that only got outlawed in 1965. Grant thinks to himself, “There was always news coming back to the quarter about someone who had been killed or sent to prison for killing someone else.”(Gaines 62) Society wants them to stay on plantations, working from the day they can to the day they die. Even if they try to leave the plantation they end up worse than they were there. Without new laws or new lines of thinking from the “superior” class, they will never leave, not even in death.
Much like Jefferson, many choices I have made are influenced by my environment. One choice I made in the past that affected my environment (and in doing so would affect my choices going forward) was joining the cross country team. By joining the cross country team I gained a new friend group which expanded my viewpoints on life and introduced me to new interests that I never knew I had. One specific example is my music choice being affected by some of my friends. Many times I have been sent music that my friends have enjoyed and vice versa. While Jefferson was unable to choose the environment he was born into, he was influenced by it much like I am by my friend group and their interests. My environment will never lead me to do anything as drastic as Jefferson’s choice, but it is easy to see how one’s environment can easily influence one’s entire character and how they act. I see some of my prior friends change as they join other friend groups and how they are changed by the people they associate with and how they can change for the worse. People being changed by their environment can be for better or for worse; it really depends on what that person decides will define them.
The way that the United States has treated minorities in the past has lead to the environments they live in to be some of the worst in the country. Many Americans are lucky to not be a minority or to live in a community like Jefferson lived in, but that doesn’t mean that the racism we see in the novel is restricted to it. Unfortunately many of the issues Jefferson faces in the novel can be seen today, which is why this book matters to today’s current socio-economic climate in inner cities and slums of the nation. This novel is one of the few looks we get into the lives of African Americans during the time after the American Civil War and how their treatment is now manifested in their culture. By seeing this point of view we can further break down race barriers and people’s perception of race stereotypes, bringing everyone to understand each other. Although the novel is fictional, the story told could not be more true and is a harrowing ode to the state of society not only in the 1800s but also to the state of society today.
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