In another class here at Denison, American Violence, our studies are focused on the death penalty. One of our main points of study for the first half of the semester is of the novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest A. Gaines. In the novel, Jefferson, a black man is sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit. He was guilty only by association with men who robbed a convenience store, which ended in a gun fight wherein both the store owners and the perpetrators died. As a poor, uneducated black man, he was found guilty easily. The jury was filled with white men, who saw Jefferson as inferior to themselves, as unimportant as a hog (a symbol of ignorance in the novel). As such they had no qualms to find him guilty even when the result would lead to his death. Despite the defense attorney’s tactic to make the jury feel as though Jefferson wasn’t even worth enough to be convicted, the jury disagreed and found Jefferson guilty of robbery and murder. As Grant relays to the reader in the book, the Jury did not take long to come to a conclusion; “The judge commended the twelve white men for reaching a quick and just verdict” (Gaines 8.)
According to Derrick Bell, the death penalty has huge racial disparities. Minorities hold forty-two percent of death row inmates; and thirty-four percent are black. Those who are poor and belong to a racial minority are much more likely to be convicted of a crime than white Americans. Most of the death penalty convictions were done for those who affected a white victim, as opposed to someone of a minority. According to Bell, a person is more likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white, as opposed to any other race. This places a huge disparity on society’s value and favoritism of specific races. With concern to Jefferson’s case, there was very little evidence against him. The white community saw him as a flaw for being uneducated, poor, and black. Though Gaines story takes place in rural south 1940, the issue is still relevant now. Since more blacks are in prison than whites, it is clear that the problems that face Jefferson and Grant in Gaines’ fictional story are relevant for today’s society.
For example, in the same class we have personally talked to a death row inmate named Keith Lamar. Lamar was convicted and sentenced to prison at the age of nineteen for a murder that he openly admits to. Whilst in prison, he was accused of leading a riot, which lead to multiple deaths of both guards and inmates. Lamar claims to have had no hand in this crime. More information on Lamar’s case can be found here. Despite his circumstances Lamar insists on educating himself from inside prison walls. He took his education into his own hands, citing books for his survival in prison, especially authors like Gaines. Reading and connecting with fictional characters gave him a better sense of his own morality. Not only does Lamar educate himself, but he has made it his life’s goal to educate others. His main objective is to dispel the myth, as he describes it, that the people incarcerated, and specifically death row inmates, are not human.
I found the talk my class had with Keith Lamar and the novel which covered Jefferson’s executions very relevant to our class. In both situations, the men found were products of their environment and their fates were partly inevitable. Lamar contemplates the issue of guilt and responsibility. He claims to be guilty of murder and of selling drugs, but does not hold responsibility for creating the society that left him with no other choice. This is a testament to the covert nature of race and its nature in society and institutions.