Ernest J. Gaines was born on a Louisiana plantation in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. He began working the fields when he was nine, digging potatoes for fifty cents a day. He spent most of his childhood with his aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, a determined woman who had no legs but who managed to take care of her family. Gaines considered her the most courageous person he ever knew. At age fifteen, Gaines moved to Vallejo, California, where he joined his parents, who had moved there during World War II. In Vallejo, Gaines discovered the public library. Since he could not find many books written about African-Americans, he decided to write his own. A few years later, he enrolled at San Francisco State University and took writing courses at Stanford University.
In 1964 Gaines published his first novel, Catherine Carmier. He published the novel Of Love and Dust three years later, followed by a short story collection entitled Bloodline (1968) and another entitled A Long Day in November (1971). He received little attention for these efforts, but felt happy about his progress as a writer. In 1971 Gaines completed one of his most famous novels, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The novel follows the life of a fictional woman, Jane Pittman, who is born a slave and lives to see the black militancy of the 1960s. After the critical and financial success of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines published several more novels on the topic closest to his own heart: the black communities of Louisiana. The most successful of these was A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and, in 1993, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Gaines’s novel investigates the difficulties facing blacks in the rural South during the 1940s, but the historical context of the novel spans almost a century. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era commenced in the 1880s and continued through the turn of the century and up until 1964. This era contained the systematic destruction of black farmers in the South at the hands of resentful whites who sought to undermine black entitlement to property, animals, financial support, and even wages. The Jim Crow Era also brought with it severe segregation laws that affected every area of life and the development of white racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized black -communities.
As a result, between one and two million black farmers left the South during the first Great Migration from 1914 to 1930, in search of work in northern cities where factory owners promised, but never provided, high-wage jobs. In the 1940s, with the outbreak of World War II, a second Great Migration brought black farmers from the rural areas in the South to the urban, industrial areas—primarily in the northern and western United States—in search of higher-paying jobs in the burgeoning industrial economy. The second wave of migration from the rural countryside to the cities brought greater success, if only relatively. Between 1910 and 1970, more than six million blacks left the South.
A Lesson Before Dying highlights the tension inherent in the lives of African-Americans during the 1940s. Gaines highlights how the pull away from the South divided blacks from their heritage and their roots, stranding them in a world where, it seemed, one had to look, talk, and act white in order to succeed. At the same time, however, remaining connected with one’s roots—with the rural South—meant having to live in a world fraught with Jim Crow laws and racial segregation (which remained in existence until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Racial violence and hatred pervaded all sectors of American society, but were felt most acutely in the rural South.