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A Lesson Before Dying and the Dehumanization of African American Men in Early to Mid-

Twentieth Century America

There is a historical precedent in the United States, and particularly in the American South, of
positioning African Americans as less human than whites, as partially or even entirely animal. This
tradition goes back to the nations founding and the three-fifths clause of the original Constitution,
which declared that each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of census-taking and
taxation. That idea of black inhumanity, however, was based on a less concrete idea of black
inhumanity which had permeated the white popular consciousness of the time. It is this largely de facto
bias which Ernest Gaines discusses in his 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which tells the story of
black schoolteacher Grant Wiggins as he attempts to turn black death row prisoner Jefferson, labeled a
hog by his defense attorney, into a man before the date of Jeffersons execution. As both Jim Crow
customs and policies and early to mid-twentieth century media portrayals of African Americans show,
the depiction of Jefferson as a hog is an emblematic portrayal of African American males at the time.
The institution of Jim Crow, which dominated the American South for the first half of the
twentieth century, was dependent on the idea that African Americans were less human than whites. A
pamphlet authored and published by the American Civil Rights Union, The Truth About Jim Crow,
gives some examples of rules governing social etiquette between black and white people in the Jim
Crow South, such as one stating that a black man could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a
white man because that implied being socially equal, and another stating that white people were
supposed to call black people by their first names, while black people were to refer to white people
with courtesy titles such as Mister, Missus, and Miss. As the pamphlet says, these rules were designed
to reinforce the notion of black inferiority; although not explicitly positioning black people as
inhuman, the customs of the Jim Crow South did position them quite intentionally as less human than
whites, social inequal and less deserving of courtesy.In A Lesson Before Dying, some other, unspoken
Jim Crow customs are exemplified. On one occasion, Wiggins pays visits to the house of white
plantation owner Henri Pichot in order to speak to Pichots brother-in-law, sheriff Sam Guidry, who
makes Wiggins wait in the kitchen for several hours before deigning to see him. When Guidry finally
appears, he asks Wiggins if he has been waiting long. Wiggins responds, About two and a half hours,
sir I was supposed to say Not long, and I was supposed to grin; but I didnt do either (47).
Guidry making Wiggins wait for two and a half hours in order to see him, despite the two having
agreed to meet at the time at which Wiggins first arrives, is a move designed to make clear Guidrys
power as a white man over Wiggins as a black man. This kind of treatment, as well as the expectation
of obedience and submission without complaint, is similar to the way in which animals are treated in
order to train them, revealing Guidrys, and, by extension, the institution of whiteness and white
supremacys, perception of not only Jefferson but of educated, intelligent, self-assured Wiggins as no
more than a domesticated beast. In addition to the positioning of African American men as animals via
discriminatory social mores, however, black men were also positioned in this way via various other
institutions, including those of popular culture.
Derogatory depictions of African Americans as subhuman or animal-like littered the media of
early to mid-twentieth century America, particularly, but far from exclusively, in the Jim Crow South.
Perhaps the most prominent example of such a depiction is that of the titular character in the original
King Kong, released in 1933. In Race and King Kong, a 2005 NPR feature which aired shortly after
that years remake of the film opened in theaters, correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates comments that
both the original movie and its two remakes feature a big, black ape who falls in love with a willowy
white woman, the racism of which has been commented on by numerous film historians and cultural
critics over the years. The history of comparing black people to apes is a long one, with its basis in the
idea that people of the African diaspora are more primitive than their non-black counterparts, especially
white people. Additionally, at the time that the original King Kong was released, fears about sexual
relations between black men and white women were particularly high, as evidenced by the case of the
Scottsboro boys, nine African American youth who were falsely accused of raping several white
women on a train in 1931, whose court case was widely and sensationally covered by American news
media. It would have been no stretch in the minds of contemporary viewers to perceive the fantastical
and simian King Kong as an ordinary black man preying on white women; the parallels both intended
by the filmmakers and perceived by the viewers reveal a widespread perception of African American
men as animalistic. Another example of the derogatory depiction of African American men by the
media and popular culture of early to mid-twentieth century America was the phenomenon of the
minstrel show, a form of entertainment in which white actors in blackface makeup would perform
sketch comedy and musical numbers in which, according to historian Bill Kemps article Popular
Culture Once Embraced Racist Blackface Minstrel Shows, African Americans were portrayed in the
most degrading terms childlike, superstitious, lazy, and unable to control their carnal urges. These
traits childishness and lack of impulse control in particular are also traits often used, more
rightfully, to characterize animals, such as the hog to which Jefferson is compared in A Lesson Before
Dying, with the popularity of minstrel shows depicting African Americans in this way illustrating the
ubiquity of such an animalistic portrayal of African American manhood. Despite this undeniable
evidence, however, some would still repudiate the idea that such a portrayal was truly emblematic of
depictions of African American males at the time.
Many doubt the idea the African American males were portrayed as animalistic in early to mid-
twentieth century America. This is evidenced by, among other things, the sheer number of rebuttals to
the position of NPRs Race and King Kong which show up when one Googles the title of the
aforementioned piece. Though the arguments of such rebuttal pieces vary, the general idea thereof is
the same: liberals are overreacting, making broad generalizations out of a problem that isnt even there.
But King Kong is not the only piece which demonstrates the institutional dehumanization of African
American males which took place during the early to mid-twentieth century. In addition of all of the
works cited and explained above on the subjects of Jim Crow and minstrel shows, a 1995 analysis of A
Lesson Before Dying, Philip Augers A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest
Gainess A Lesson Before Dying shows how an institutional portrayal of black men as subhuman or
animalistic not only existed, but was necessary in order for the events of the analyzed book to unfold.
Auger analyzes the role of the the socially dominant system of inscription, [the] white-supremacist
patriarchy in deeming Jefferson a hog, as well as the role of black community and its institutions in
restoring Jefferson to manhood, arguing that the roles such institutions played in A Lesson Before
Dying were roles they were fated to play, given that it is in the mythologies and ideologies social
institutions produce that the foundations for definition and identity are created. It is not only Gaines
and Auger, however, who shared this view that it was institutions responsible for a widespread
portrayal of African American males as animals. Black poet Claude McKay, most famous for his poem
If We Must Die, also intimates that the institution of whiteness perceives and portrays African
Americans as subhuman when he urges his fellow African Americans to defy the expectations of the
mad and hungry dogs by facing them like men and dying nobly rather than like hogs so that then
even the monsters we defy/Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! By contrasting the
expectations of the dogs or monsters, who represent white people and whiteness, with humanity,
McKay, like Gaines and Auger, supports the idea that the portrayal of black men as animalistic in
works like A Lesson Before Dying and King Kong was, in fact, emblematic of portrayals of black men
in early to mid-twentieth century America and particularly in the Jim Crow South.
The portrayal of Jefferson as a hog by his white defense lawyer is representative of white portrayals
of African American men as whole in early to mid-twentieth century America, as is evidenced by the
rules and customs of Jim Crow and by popular media such as King Kong and minstrel shows. It was
this perception of African Americans and black men in particular which allowed white supremacy to
maintain such a strong hold in both culture and politics well into the twentieth century. What is
worrisome today is the reemergence of white supremacy in both the cultural and political spheres and
what this might say, if one considers it, about the portrayal of African American men today.
Works Cited:
Auger, Philip. A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gainess A
Lesson Before Dying. The Southern Literary Journal. UNC, vol. 27, no. 2 (1995). 74-85.
Print.
Bates, Karen Grigsby. Race and King Kong. NPR. 22 December 2005. Web. 28 April 2017.
Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson Before Dying. Alfred A. Knopf. 1993.
Kemp, Bill. Popular Culture Once Embraced Racist Blackface Minstrel Shows. Pantagraph. 11
November 2012. Web. 28 April 2017.
McKay, Claude. If We Must Die. Web. 29 April 2017.
The Truth About Jim Crow. American Civil Rights Union. 2014. Web. 28 April 2017.