For the past two weeks, my African American literature class has been reading and discussing A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. The book wrestles with the issue of Black human being. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a man?
In the story, a Black man is on trial for the murder of a white man. His defense attorney defends his client by arguing that his client is no man at all. He says, “What justice would there be to take his life? … Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” (8) The trial is pro forma and the Black man is deemed guilty and sentenced to die.
However, Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, is committed to making sure her godson dies understanding himself as a human being. To this end, Emma enlists the teacher, Grant, to bring the word of life and wholeness. This is not simply the salvation of one person, but the salvation of a community people who have summarily been dismissed as little more than hogs surviving on the scraps they are thrown.
The novel covertly addresses the need to decolonize the Black mind or, in the case of the United States, the need to liberate the enslaved mind. It further addresses a reality in which any Black person asserting an ember of humanity must offer a defense, an apology, for such an assertion since human being is understood by many in the dominant paradigm to exclude Black bodies.
Teaching A Lesson Before Dying causes me to think deeply about just how much Black people around the world apologize for or seek to obscure their humanity and esteem the humanity of others as more valuable, more civilized, and more to be desired than their own.
It’s amazing how many people go through their lives in a constant posture of apologizing for their very existence. They are always sorry for their success and their gifts; always sorry that their humanity makes lesser minds and lesser personalities uncomfortable or ill at ease.
In such cases, I am reminded that the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. When Jefferson is declared a hog, I too share that fate and am similarly dehumanized. Thus, I too much be restored, reformed, to humanity by one bearing the word, the truth.
From an early age, my gifts could not be easily hidden. Even under a bushel basket, the light of those gifts could illuminate the room. I need not do or say anything. I can simply walk into a room or a space and immediately people discern something about me. Some find comfort and some become uneasy. I honestly have not known what to do.
In the course of growing up, I was socialized to be uncomfortable with who I am and with my gifts. Yet, I’ve never been able to really stop being myself. Being whole means heeding the voice that says “Peace, be still!” The same voice that declared “I AM THAT I AM!” also declares “YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE!”
For some, my gifts are a blessing. for too many, they are a challenge or a blinding light. “Tone it down,” they say. “Wait your turn,” they say. “You make us uncomfortable,” they say. Be less. Be other. I have tried to be less or to be other, but I can never be less or other enough unless I simply cease to be at all which is not an option. God’s gifts have a way of shining through.
My attempts to obscure, tone down, or be other tend only to leave me frustrated, bitter, and depressed. At times, I have engaged in self-sabotage. It is a pitiful coping strategy; a prideful attempt to insert the toxin “I am not worthy” into my being, which God will have none of.
I’m not in competition with anyone. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s additive. God gave me all I need for God to use me and be manifested and glorified through me. My being diminishes no one. My developing and disciplining the gifts in me is for the Spirit to be active in transforming and restoring wherever I am and wherever I go.
This is prophetic. This is generative and creative, not subtractive. I run a race, but am not in competition with anyone. I simply wish to run with patience the race set before me so that my God will be glorified by my faithfulness.
God made us in our Black skin as who we are, fully human. Every apology, every attempt to be less than or other than is akin to slapping God in the face. In truth, the problem is not ours as Black people and I, for one, have wearied of feeling bad because others don’t get me or because my human being makes others uncomfortable.
I’ve always been too old for it and these days I am certainly too old for it. It’s time to actualize and to glorify God by living without apology into the gifts seeded in me and in us. As Claude McKay admonished, “If we must die, O let us nobly die / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain.”