African American Literature has spoken to me through the years with a raw courage, powerful truth, and characters that stand up off the page and demand I pay attention to what they are telling. The list is too long to pick and choose. How can someone walk away from captivating The Color Purple, Devil in a Blue Dress, Cry the Beloved Country, The Known World, Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Their Eyes Were Watching God and a list that beats with a shared heart, a known wisdom, a surety and certainty of what this life brings, holds, and eventually turns loose of. But for this purpose we're to pluck only one from the shelf so I turn and carefully pull Earnest Gaines from my shelf, run my fingers over A Lesson Before Dying and pull it down to the desk.
From the first line - "I was not there, yet I was there." Mr. Gaines takes the reader on a journey inside an innocent and unlearned man's heart as he waits to die, and the hesitant man that must teach him how to do so with dignity. In so doing, he shows us that if a man can die with his head up when he has been wrongly accused, perhaps more of us can live with dignity as well under the barrage of a multitude of hurts and betayals. Perhaps we can learn to champion the right causes, even when they appear hopeless, and to walk the earth more circumspect and with more awareness of our fellow man.
Jefferson, the character slated to die by electric chair, eventually picks up a pencil and begins in his very, uneducated but heartfelt way to tell the story of his life in all its numbered days. A story of immense depth and quality, Mr. Gaines captures the predjudice of the day, the unexpected kindness of people not trapped by those perceptions, the love of a woman, the ties of family, the frailties and strengths of the human heart.
I place it on my list of books to read before dying. More than once.