Celebrating Black History Month at the VCU Libraries
Reviewed by Ngoc-My Guidarelli, Cataloging Librarian
A young man named Jefferson was accused of killing a white tavern keeper during an attempted hold up which also involved two other black men. Jefferson happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and of the wrong skin color. The time was the pre-civil rights period, the place, the segregated south, and Jefferson was a poor and uneducated black man. During the trial, a well-meaning public defender, in the hope of exculpating his client, claimed that Jefferson was a hog, and as such, was incapable of discerning right from wrong. This offensive remark so deeply affected our protagonist that he behaved like a pig in jail. His godmother, Miss Emma, decided to enlist the help of the plantation teacher, Mr. Wiggins, to make her son a man before he went to the electric chair. The latter was extremely reluctant to help because he only knew how to teach "reading, writing, and arithmetic". Besides, as an educated person, he did not want to deal with white men who often sought to humiliate him. According to him, matters of the soul should be best addressed by a minister. After many visits to the jail, Mr. Wiggins finally broke through Jefferson's wall of silence. His offering of a radio, a notepad and pencil to help Jefferson open up during his final days paid off at last. Jefferson walked to his death standing tall, "on his two feet, like a man" as his godmother had wished. The teacher was supported all along this arduous rescue of a soul by the love of his colleague, Vivian. The author made several references to the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ which parallel Jefferson's own execution on a Friday after Easter. Like Jesus, Jefferson was preceded in death by two robbers. A Lesson Before Dying seems to imply that Mr. Wiggins taught Jefferson how to be a man. The end of the story reveals quite the opposite. The condemned man has inculcated to both black and white communities the values of faith and love.