Wednesday, July 9, 2014

University of Houston-Downtown's "Read Out" for A Lesson before Dying

Posters at the "Read Out"
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to take part in the University of Houston-Downtown's Center for Critical Race Studies' "Read Out" for A Lesson before Dying. The event brought together university professors, college students, high school and middle school students, librarians, and other community members. Participants heard encouraging words about the importance of books, education, and defining yourself from Dr. Vida Robertson and Dean DoVeanna Fulton. After these introductory words of encouragement, the participants broke into small groups for discussions on the novel.

I had the opportunity to walk around to the various groups during this period, and what I heard inspired me regarding the power of the written word. A professor and college student volunteers led each group, and each one had its own unique dynamic. One group encountered more a of a lecture type setting while another could be seen sitting around in a large circle discussing how the participants either define themselves or let others define them. Among the varying settings, students and group leaders broached important topics that arose throughout the novel and how those topics relate to their own day-to-day experiences. One group talked about the setting of the novel, the late 1940s in the Jim Crow South, and how the setting occurred less than 100 years after the "end" of slavery in the United States, seeing the residual effects that slavery has had on our society. Another group talked about defining yourself, and the group brought up the defense attorney's comments where he calls Jefferson a "hog" from the beginning of the novel. Along with these topics, one of the groups discussed the issue of colorism in the novel and that led to them speaking about whether or not colorism still exists or not and whether or not anyone had experienced it. Finally, one group spoke about the creation and destruction of myths and mentors, helping students understand that others work to define them and to comprehend the importance of figures in their life that they can look up to for support and guidance.

After the group discussions and lunch, I had the opportunity to speak with the participants gathered. I spoke broadly on the Ernest J. Gaines Center, Gaines' influences, his global prominence, the land he writes about, and some historical context for the novel. Throughout the day, the participants received much more than just a book discussion. They were able to experience how a novel that takes place in the past can affect and speak to us in our own present lives. Ultimately, the "Read Out" showed participants that books truly do create an "identification" with the character(s), to borrow a term from Kenneth Burke. Dr. Robertson told the participants that all writing is, at its core, a political act, and I would say a rhetorical one. Gaines himself even says as much. When talking about what he wants readers to get out of works, Gaines says:
Number one, I would want the black youth to say, "Hey, I am somebody," and I'd want the white youth to say, "Hey, that is part of me out there, and I could understand myself truly if I can understand my neighbor, if I can understand the person around me." That's the only way one can understand himself, if he can understand other things around him. You know Donne's "No man is an island" and "Don't ask for who the bell tolls"--every little piece of things around us makes us a little bit whole. I mean we can go through the world being half people, and most of us do that most of our lives. But in order to understand more about ourselves and the world, we must understand what's around. So that's what I'd want: the white kid to understand what the black kid is, and the black kid to understand who he is. (Gaudet and Wooton 215-216)
Dr. Robertson concluded by reading Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," a poem he wrote after World War I and in response to the Red Summer of 1919.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousands blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the grave?
Like me we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Poster at "Read Out"
Challenging the students to define themselves and to think about the communities they inhabit and how to give back to those communities, the event allowed participants to explore Gaines' novel on another level than just textual. It provided a space for the novel to work as a text of rhetorical persuasion and a call to action. Ultimately, this is what all good works of literature do, and the "Read Out" showed that this is what A Lesson before Dying does.





Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooton. "An Interview With Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. 200-216. Print.

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