Patrick Elliot Alexander is University of Mississippi associate professor of English and African American studies and cofounder of the University of Mississippi Prison-to-College Pipeline Program. In his lecture “Writing to Survive, Writing to Revive: Death Row, Willie Francis, and Imprisoned Radical Intellectualism in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying,” Alexander will revisit the Jim Crow–era plot of Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson before Dying in the more contemporary carceral context of its publication. Alexander’s lecture reconsiders the cultural significance of Gaines’s most acclaimed novel in light of its release during our post–civil rights era of racialized mass incarceration, an epoch in which reports of prisoner abuse have soared from within a profit-driven system of social isolation responsible for the punitive confinement of one in every ninety-nine US adults and more black men than had been enslaved in 1850. It is Alexander’s contention that in Lesson, Gaines—through his depiction of an astute critic of the justice system who also happens to be a wrongfully convicted black death row prisoner—introduces to the field of African American fiction what Dylan Rodríguez has theorized in critical prison studies scholarship as an imprisoned radical intellectual. By revisiting the extensive, largely unexplored process that Gaines went through to create this death-sentenced protagonist—including Gaines’s repeated requests while writing Lesson to visit with a man on death row at Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary); his witnessing of imprisonment on death row and the execution of prisoners as a young writer; and his prolonged reflection on the botched electrocution and re-execution of Willie Francis, a black adolescent from his home state of Louisiana—Alexander makes the case that Gaines’s novel amplifies the voices of a growing body of intellectuals behind razor wire who expose and oppose slavery’s vestiges in the prison system, vestiges that show up as racial bias, prisoner abuse, and premature death.
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