By Ernest J. Gaines
A black man in the South of the (not-so-united) States of America finds himself in the middle of a shootout in a store that leaves one white man (store owner) and two black men dead. His own defense describes him as a ‘hog’ to the jury who sentence him to death by execution. The story is of another black man, an ‘educated’ black man, a teacher – who is tasked with turning the convicted into a ‘man’.
A book about deeply rooted injustices, but also about seeking and reclaiming dignity, love, resistance and triumph.
A few excerpts that stood out to me – and some deeper analysis, if that’s what you’re looking for.
We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience.
Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?
I tried to decide just how I should respond to them. Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be. To show too much intelligence would have been an insult to them. To show a lack of intelligence would have been a greater insult to me.
And besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.”
His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? his eyes said. They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don’t you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew what my eyes knew.
No matter how educated a man was (he meant me, though he didn’t call my name), he to, was locked in a cold, dark cell of ignorance if he did not know God in the pardon of his sins.
How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?
They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is a convenient date and time.
We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle-which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.
These old people, you know—all music except church music is sinning music.
It was the kind of “here” your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of “here” that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of “here” that said she wished you had it and didn’t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then “here” it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?”
I took the money without looking at her. I didn’t say thanks. I knew she didn’t want to hear it.
Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth – and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.
I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Nothing else – nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’ And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so.
Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the niggers…Anything not to work alongside the niggers. Dumb as hell, but prejudiced as hell. They had no other place to go to do their drinking—they would not dare go to any of the white clubs—so they would come here and bring their prejudiced attitude with them.
‘You think you educated?’
‘I went to college.’
‘But what did you learn?’
‘To teach reading, writing and arithmetic, Reverend.’
‘What did you learn about your own people? What did you learn about her—her ‘round here?’ he said gesturing toward the other room and trying to keep his voice down.
I didn’t answer him.
‘No, you not educated, boy.’ He said shaking his head. ‘You far from being educated. You learning your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself.’
‘Don’t you turn your back on me, boy.’
‘My name is Grant,’ I said.
‘When you act educated, I’ll call you Grant. I’ll even call you Mr. Grant, when you act like a man.
‘You think a man can’t kneel and stand?’
‘You think you educated, but you not. You think you the only person ever had to lie?’
Yes, you know. You know, all right. That’s why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings–yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ‘Cause reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie. When you tell yourself you feeling god when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that ‘cause they have pain too, and you don’t want to ad yours—and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bled from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ‘Cause she never wanted you to see it.
And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”
‘Reverend Ambrose say I have to give up what’s down here.’
‘He meant possessions, Jefferson. Cars, money, clothes—things like that.’
‘You ever seen me with a car…with more than a dollar in my pocket…more than two pairs of shoes…then what on earth I got to give up, Mr. Wiggins?
‘You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions –and that is love…’
‘Walk like a man. Meet her up there.’
‘Y’all asking a lot, Mr. Wiggins, from a poor old nigger who never had nothing.’
Yes, I’m youman, Mr. Wiggins. But nobody didn’t know that ‘fore now. Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by. Everybody thought that’s how it was s’pose to be. You to, Mr. Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing else. I didn’t neither. Thought I was doing what the Lord had put me on this earth to do…Now all y’all want me to be better than ever’body else. How, Mr. Wiggins? You tell me.’
‘And like Reverend Ambrose say, then I’l have to give up this old earth. But ain’t that where I’m going, Mr. Wiggins, back in the earth?’
My head down, I didn’t answer him.
Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him— and I will not believe.
Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body the chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room…He was the strongest man there…We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked’. And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.