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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Ernest Gaines bases many of his stories on his memories of childhood. He was born on January 15, 1933 on the River Lake Plantation at Oscar, Louisiana during the middle of the Great Depression. Like the schoolchildren in Lesson Before Dying, he worked in the fields digging potatoes. He was raised by his aunt Augustine Jefferson, whom he considers one of the most courageous people he ever knew. This may explain why he gives the hero the name ‘Jefferson’.
The Gaines family
moved to Vallejo California when he was fifteen years old. While in Vallejo he
discovered the public library and took and interest in reading. In the 1940’s
novels about African-Americans were hard to find, so Ernest decided to write some
of his own. His first novel, Catherine Cormier, was published in
1964. In 1971 he published one of his most famous novels, The Biography
of Miss Jane Pittman, which was a critical and
financial success. The work follows the life of a fictional Jane Pittman and encapsulates
the black experience in America.
Mr. Gaines has written many other novels about rural black communities of Louisiana, including his most successful work to date, A Lesson Before Dying (1993). He now lives in San Francisco, California.
LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
Readers of A Lesson Before Dying should understand the series of laws that created the segregated society described in the novel. After the American Civil War, Southern state legislatures enacted the Jim Crow laws, a series of codes that legalized separation of blacks and whites. The Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson (1896) decided that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional. This led to the exclusion of blacks from white restaurants, hotels, bathrooms, theaters, rest stops, drinking fountains, and schools. Blacks had their own institutions, which were usually of inferior quality.
By WWI, even places of employment were segregated, and it wasn’t until after World War II that blacks made any progress toward equality. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown versus Board of Education that racially segregated school facilities were unconstitutional. Following this, Blacks used a variety of protest methods, including sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and legal suits to hasten the demise of discrimination, which eventually resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.