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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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What is Mr. Antoine's perspective on life for his students in "A Lesson before Dying"?

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We learn about Mr. Antoine through Grant Wiggins's memories and his actions as a teacher. Grant Wiggins begins the novel by feeling as though he is above Reverend Ambrose and his student, Jefferson. Part of this inability to connect with his pupil is because of the interactions he had with his own teacher, Mr. Antoine.

Mr. Antoine believes that he is better than his students because of his lighter skin. In chapter 8, Grant remembers Mr. Antoine saying,

Don't be a damned fool. I am superior to you. I am superior to any man blacker than me.

His argument, almost convincing himself of his superiority, demonstrates his internal struggle with his Creole lineage as well as the struggles against racial stereotypes and prejudices that are often internalized in society, even within the African American community.

Grant believes that his education will separate him from his community; this education teaches him to look down on and despise his community instead of trying to make their lives better. This displeasure for the uneducated members of society is why he believes himself to be superior to the reverend and Jefferson. However, his desire for self-betterment through education angers Mr. Antoine. As a teacher, Antoine seeks to humiliate and ridicule his students. Instead of using his education to inspire and build up his students, he continuously tells them that most of them will end up dying young:

It was he, Matthew Antoine, as a teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.

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