A Lesson Before Dying: An ART(202) Op-Ed

R. Dwayne Betts for The Big Read:

The District of Columbia is the tale of two cities. One is cloistered around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, arguably the epicenter of power in the entire world; the other, represented by streets like 4000 South Capitol teems with people trying to make it, struggling against the violence and poverty that people on the outside looking in believes defines them. The paradox? At the moment, both places are defined by what the black men that run them do.  President Barack Obama is the graduate of two Ivy League schools, author of two books and has been sighted clutching a copy of Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems. The nameless young brother in Southeast doesn’t walk around with those credentials yet, but the Big Read is trying to close some of the gap.

What if you walked down any street in the city and saw young folks clutching Ernest J Gaines novel A Lesson Before Dying? Call it bold. In a city struggling to keep a library open in each public school, there is a plan to encourage each citizen to pick up the same book. This idea that books matter, and can matter to the lives of regular folks, if only they had a platform to begin a conversation around them. Call it needed. The idea that an entire city reading the same book lays the foundation for a future where literature is woven into conversations on trains and buses, in taxi cabs and in the hallways of federal buildings and tenements.

This year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will bring Ernest J Gaines 1994 novel A Lesson Before Dying into public conversation. The National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) began The Big Read three years ago, each year sponsoring communities as they declare a single book to be worth reading by the entire city. A wild ambition, The Big Read argues that good books have lives of their own, and are able to affect more lives as they are read and discussed more.

A Lesson Before Dying can be argued to be about how to live once you know you’re dying – but it’s also about how to live.  A young black male finds himself in handcuffs, accused of a crime that’s both foolish and heinous, a crime that means he’ll spend the bulk of his life in prison – how does he live knowing the rest of his days will be in jail? On some level, the answer to that question doesn’t interest us. We don’t want to be in the shoes of the child who has left a community scarred, who will have to live with the death of his victims forever.  But what if we could imagine that long walk to a jail cell, to an electric chair, before the crime was committed? Would it change conversations we have? Would it change the way we thought about living before we had to think about it in the context of dying?

While the District of Columbia is seeing its population increase, seeing its pull to businesses and young professionals strengthen – there is still a violence, steady and sure, that permeates the city.  For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about Ernest J Gaines A Lesson Before Dying and trying to figure what it means to have many of the citizens of the District of Columbia reading the book together. This book alone won’t make the District a city without the vast gaps in wealth and educational opportunities and access that exist now, no more than the electing of President Obama lowered the incidence of black on black crime; yet, the Big Read, like the President’s election, proposes to start a series of conversations that can bridge gaps. That’s what we walk away hoping is the outcome of a hold city reading one book together, a series of conversations to change a series of lives.

—Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor are they endorsed by DCCAH.

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