- "Mr. Joe Louis, help me":Sports as Narrative and Community in Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying
Jeffery Folks, in noting the communal function of the Christmas/Easter religious symbolism in Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying, argues that Gaines's "use of language is grounded in a historical community in which the layers of implied meaning are clearly understood" (265). Indeed, the events described in the novel take place between October and April, unfolding alongside the annual, timeless, and symbolic cycle of the religious calendar around which the inhabitants of Bayonne, Louisiana, organize and give meaning to their communal lives. Yet Gaines also takes pains to situate his narrative into a more specific chronology—between October 1948 and April 1949. We know that only because Grant Wiggins, the story's narrator, tells us "Jackie Robinson had just finished his second year with the Brooklyn Dodgers" (Lesson 87). Grant, himself, is twenty-eight or twenty-nine that fall, approximately Robinson's own age in 1948, and we know that because he tells us he was seventeen at the time of the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling championship fight. These are A Lesson Before Dying's only outside references to a specific chronology, a defined historical setting, and they are not spelled out for the reader, who is just expected to "know." The references come from a generation of African Americans who might still weave their personal life stories around the chronology of pioneering black sports heroes, athletes who not only battled to win on the playing field, but who faced far greater battles off the field against racism and economic exploitation: anecdotal evidence of which one finds incorporated into other African-American literary classics including August Wilson's Fences, Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Story, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. To expand Folks's comments, then, one might add that these sports narratives also represent for Gaines and his readers, along with the inhabitants of Bayonne, Louisiana, another, parallel level of communal language. They serve not just to celebrate sports heroes' success; they are exemplum, to use the medieval word, survival stories about keeping one's dignity in a world determined to prove once and for all that such dignity is impossible. Such stories were told in [End Page 129] bars and barber shops, over back fences and in front of water coolers, reenacted by children in schoolyards, and repeated by those who heard them on the radio. This essay takes such iconic sports narratives as its point of entry; I will argue that Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying incorporates the trope of sports narratives in shaping community cohesion and values into its thematic structure to reinforce its "lesson," of living with dignity even when facing a world which refuses to allow it.
Like all great novels, A Lesson Before Dying can be approached from any number of perspectives. It is a study of community, an examination of religious faith, a coming-of-age story. It is a story that tells us something about the racism that still spreads its shadow across the political and social landscape of America. It is also a novel about education. After all, its narrator and his fiancée are both teachers; many of its crucial scenes are located in classrooms; its title—A Lesson Before Dying—suggests that it may be teaching us something; it historically engages what Carter G. Woodson has labeled "the mis-education of the Negro" in ways that remind us of the Booker T. Washington-W. E. B. Du Bois debates or novels like Nella Larson's Quicksand, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, or Du Bois's The Quest for the Silver Fleece. Can one expect the state of Louisiana, circa 1948, to do anything but train its black youth to be, as Grant's cynical ex-teacher Professor Antoine puts it, "the niggers [they] was born to be" (65)? But, perhaps more importantly (and more universally) it is about our values. How do we learn them? Who teaches them? How must we live? How must we face the inevitability of our death?