- "Make Him a Man":Black Masculinity and Communal Identity in Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying
As many critics have noted, Ernest J. Gaines's novels comprise an extended treatise on black male identity in the United States. Yet the novels do not produce one static viewpoint; instead, they demonstrate Gaines's struggle with the question of black masculinity over the course of his lifetime. His earlier novels, such as Catherine Carmier, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and In My Father's House, represent the difficulties black men face while constructing their masculine identity in the face of structural and individual racism. But with each new novel, Gaines increasingly focuses on his vision for a different black masculinity based in social negotiation. A Gathering of Old Men, for example, presents black men banding together to demand their manhood against white oppression and racism. Gaines's latest novel, A Lesson Before Dying, offers an even more cohesive vision of black manhood and its potential for radical change.
The title of Gaines's latest novel stands enigmatically over the text. The reader opens A Lesson Before Dying with several questions to answer: What lesson? Who teaches the lesson? Who learns the lesson? Who dies? Within the first few chapters, these enigmas seem to be easily resolved: the lesson teaches how to be a man, and it will be taught to Jefferson by Grant Wiggins before Jefferson dies in the electric chair. These easy answers, however, prove not to be the whole story, as Gaines problematizes the question of manhood throughout the text.1 Gaines reproduces rural southern life in the 1940s, then sets up the real issue: what does it mean to be a black man? In answering this question, critics of the novel have divided into two camps: those who see Gaines's answer as defining an individualist masculinity and those who see him as promoting a communal sense of identity.2 However, critics on both sides must contend with the other side's formulation. This essay will argue that the tension between the individual and the community is vital to Gaines's construction of black masculinity, as he offers us a vision in which individuals must socially construct their individual identities through the locus of communal connections. [End Page 61]
The traditional definitions given in the novel's first few chapters, definitions rooted in an individualist, phallocentric model, do not work for the African-American male; as bell hooks notes, they do "not interrogate the conventional construction of patriarchal masculinity or question the extent to which black men have historically internalized this norm" (89). In an attempt to reverse these ideologies, Gaines defines a different black masculinity in A Lesson Before Dying, a communal, socially constructed masculinity. This new masculinity is a more dynamic system in which reciprocity and responsibility play major roles. Given a South that dehumanizes and oppresses African Americans through the legacy of slavery and the oppression of Jim Crow, Gaines realizes that African-American males must define their manhood against a white patriarchy determined to emasculate them. John Roberts argues, "Because his fiction focuses on the peculiar plight of black Americans in the South, Gaines must consider an additional level of significance—the strong communal bonds characteristic of southern black folk culture" (110). Gaines, however, is concerned with the transcendence of this plight even as he recognizes the inherent cultural and historical contingencies that shape human interaction. Gaines suggests that African-American males define their individual masculinity through a collective enterprise that involves the communal bonds of which Roberts speaks; as bell hooks notes, "Changing representations of black men must be a collective task" (113).
Representing the Tradition
"I was not there, yet I was there": Grant Wiggins opens the narration of A Lesson Before Dying with this enigmatic sentence, one which, in a sense, encapsulates our reading experience as well as Grant's predicament (Gaines 3). Grant is not at Jefferson's trial, yet he recognizes that his experiences with the United States' repressive legal systems give him a common frame of reference with Jefferson. The reader who opens Gaines's novel is "not there" in...