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A Lesson Before Dying

October 14, 2007

Art truly imitates life. 

Today I saw an adaption of the Ernest J. Gaines novel "A Lesson Before Dying" at the Round House Theatre, in Bethesda, MD.  To say that the play was profound for me would be an understatement, it was surreal. 

In the story we see racially divided Louisiana in the 1940s, we see a black man on death row without guilt, but because the system did not allow the truth to prevail (the murders were the fault of a white store owner). I watched as the story unveiled the myriad levels of racism, self-hate, self-loathing and hope of our community was portrayed.  I looked out at one point and looked at the predominantly white audience and asked myself, "do they feel this? Do they understand this? Or, are they relieving their feelings of shared guilt?" The answer I’ll never know.

I sat in reflective silence as the young man relived the tragedy of his fate and could not help but veer off to today.  It’s still the same in Louisiana (Mychal Bell), in Florida (boot camp case), in West Virginia (Megan Williams); we could go on and on, but the fact remains the same.  Justice eludes the black man/woman because the truth does not prevail.  Why? Because the notion of white superiority, of whiteness as privileged continues to prevail in our justice system.

I’ll never know the true impact "A Lesson Before Dying" will have on that white audience, but what I do know is that the indictment against this countries justice system is that it has failed to escape it’s racist roots. Watching the play cemented for me the truth of Toni Morrison’s comment on the mission of Harold Melville’s work:

"To question the very notion of white progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as privileged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind, and to meditate on the fraudulent, self-destroying philosophy of that superiority, to ‘pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges,’ to drag the ‘judge himself to the bar’ – that was dangerous, solitary, radical work.  Especially then. Especially now"

Especially now…especially now.

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