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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Describe how Bayonne is segregated in A Lesson Before Dying.  

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A Lesson before Dying is a fictional work loosely based on a true story. It describes the plight of a falsely-accused young black man on death row and his struggle to regain his dignity. The main characters live in Bayonne, a fictional town in Louisiana. The story is based in a pre-civil rights world rife in discrimination.

Bayonne, a small town of six thousand people, is primarily a plantation community. The descendants of slaves who work on plantations are paid far less than their white counterparts. The African Americans either have inferior facilities as compared to the whites or have no facilities at all. There are visible symbols of segregation in the town that continually remind the blacks of their status as second-class citizens. The Jim Crow Laws (first introduced in 1875), influence every aspect of the lives of black men, be it education, politics, religion, or social life. If they violate the laws, they are jailed, beaten, lynched, or shot dead. Blacks can be incriminated for crimes that they did not commit, and the verdict is decided by an all-white jury and judge.

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We are given a very complete description of Bayonne in Chapter Four, which is when Grant first goes to Bayonne in the novel. As he drives to Bayonne, which is 13 miles away from the quarter, he thinks about his need to be with Vivian and also tells us about the segregation in Bayonne. Note how segregation is shown to be such an everyday part of life for the citizens of Bayonne:

There was a Catholic church uptown for whites; a Catholic church back of town for coloured. There was a white movie theatre uptown; a coloured movie theatre back of town. There were two elementary schools uptown, one Catholic, one public for whites; and the same back of town for coloured.

It is clear from the way in which there are two of everything for the whites and the coloured population that Bayonne is deeply segregated and constructed so that the two groups can remain separated. We are even told that the coloured section of the twon can only be reached by an "unlit road" which further separates the two groups of people.

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