“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
Far be it from me to assume I can fully appreciate a novel about the post-slavery southern black man’s experience, but I can say that I was deeply moved while reading A Lesson While Dying. It serves as a glimpse into the reality of life in a systematically, fundamentally repressive culture where an intelligent, capable man, known to us as Grant, can grow up fully unaware of his worth until he’s confronted by it in comparison to an impoverished youth half his age and a fraction of his learning. As a teacher being challenged to install a sense of value in this young man, Jefferson, in light of his impending execution for a crime he is falsely convicted of, Grant finds he must also confront his own self-judgement and disillusionment in order to succeed with his charge.
This novel speaks to so many issues – racism, the death penalty, religion, sex – but as most things I read tend to speak to me where I am in my own life, the most powerful message to me was that of self-worth. In what ways am I unaware of my own value? How might I not be noticing the ways the society in which I function is critiquing me, tearing me down, and holding me back? Like Jefferson and Grant, am I accepting labels that belittle me in order to avoid the pain or fear that would come with rejecting them? It can be so difficult to peel back the layers of everyday life and the standards of our culture to see the lies underneath. As women specifically, we are so constantly bombarded with the messages of our society (women must be sexy in all activities! females must climb the ladder of power to be of worth! all while having babies and Pinteresting the shit out of things!), that I find that I have to make a conscious effort to tune out all those voices. I truly think that we each have access to a true Voice, which I believe to be of a divine nature, that discerns for us that which is worth working for and clinging to in our one precious life.
Doing the work of listening to that Voice is tiresome, intimidating, and even lonely at times. You may find yourself distancing yourself from people or places that have been familiar, and as such, comforting. You may have to decide to turn away from a direction that your educators or employers are saying is the only acceptable way to go. You may even find yourself devaluing everything your society and culture has told you is the point of your life. But the truth is, when you ask, that Voice will never fail to tell you when you are chasing after the beautiful and the immeasurable, the things of kindness and growth and peace. And you may find yourself, like Jefferson, able to stand and walk with dignity right until the end of your story.