What is the setting in A Lesson Before Dying?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The setting is a small town in the South called Bayonne in the 1940’s.

Bayonne, which is named after a town in France, is a Cajun town.  It represents many small towns in the South during the mid-twentieth century, when racism was rampant.  Bayonne is representative of many small Southern towns, divided and unequal.

Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. Approximately three thousand five hundred whites; approximately two thousand five hundred colored. … There was only one main street in Bayonne, and it ran along the St. Charles river. (Ch. 4)

Most of the people in Bayonne are Catholic, but there are two separate Catholic churches—one for blacks, and one for whites.  Everything is separate.  The main industry is the cement plant, and there is a hog butcher, we are told.  It is definitely not a wealthy town.  It is tiny, it is divided, and as we are told from these numbers, there are twice as many whites as blacks.  The main street is only six blocks and only has a few stores.  The movie theater is only for whites.

The black quarter is where the blacks live.  Their school is the church.  They have essentially nothing.  The students use the pews as desks.

The students either got down on their knees and used the benches as desks to write upon, or used the backs of their books upon their laps to write out their assignments. (Ch. 5)

The inequality of this community was common in the South.  Jefferson being sentenced to death when he was only in the wrong place at the wrong time is a perfect example of the worst of the inequality.  Justice does not exist for the blacks, just like education does not exist.  Jefferson cannot read and write, and cannot defend himself.

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