In 2016, the Knox County Public Library brought the NEA Big Read to their community in Knoxville, Tennessee, with a month of book discussions, events, and activities centered around Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Their community was so inspired by the program that in 2017, one of their partners (the University of Tennessee Libraries) published a collection of essays reflecting on their NEA Big Read program. Titled “Toward Justice: Reflections on _A Lesson Before Dying,” the collection brought together essays and artwork from individuals across the Knoxville community. Today, the editor of the anthology and the Coordinator of Library Marketing & Communications at the University of Tennessee, Robin Bedenbaugh, shares a little bit about the journey behind the project.
Reader with copy of A Lesson Before Dying. Photo courtesy of the Knox County Public Library.
During Knoxville’s NEA Big Read of A Lesson Before Dying, the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theatre included the dramatic adaptation of the novel in their season. The theater company’s then-managing director, David Byrd, had lots of ideas for attracting an audience for whom the theater was a new experience. David approached me, wanting to know what the library could do to further the community conversation inspired by A Lesson Before Dying. It seemed only natural for us to collect and preserve some of the themes and points of view that emerged from that conversation. Publishing a book was both appealing and—because the UT Libraries has its own online imprint—feasible. We were able to make the book freely available online, as well as issuing a small print run. My staff have experience editing and designing publications, but this was the first book we have produced from concept to hard copy.
Call to action
We placed a Call For Papers in the University’s e-newsletters to students, faculty, and staff and sent a personalized invitation to each speaker and panelist featured at a NEA Big Read event and to each person who led a book discussion at one of the Knox County libraries. We received a range of responses—from students, university faculty, and community leaders. A Theatre student who acted in the campus production of A Lesson Before Dying explained how staging and nonverbal communication were used to convey racism and changes in characters’ attitudes. A public health professor used the character of Jefferson to explain social determinants of health and disease.
Clarence Brown Theatre’s performance of A Lesson Before Dying. Photo taken by Mary Pom Claiborne.
The NEA Big Read moved several of our essayists to reflect on their first experiences of racism, recent public tragedies of unarmed black men shot by police, or the partisan response to “taking a knee.” One community leader, Ralph Hutchison, wrote a particularly eloquent essay filled with poignant evocations of racism’s pernicious effects. We made it the lead essay of the collection. We wanted to draw readers into the text by quoting one of his passages, so we decided to incorporate pull-quotes at the beginning of each essay.
“No apology, no matter how sincere, can reconcile generations of brilliant children denied an education; no reparations, no matter how generous, can restore Emmett Till to his mother; no prayer for forgiveness, no matter how heartfelt, can retroactively recognize the dignity denied generations of women and men. . .”
–Ralph Hutchison, Toward Justice: Reflections on A Lesson Before Dying
We also paired each essay with a student’s artwork. We were fortunate to be able to illustrate our book with drawings and paintings created by art students from the local magnet high school. As a class assignment, each student created an artwork in anticipation of attending one of the matinee performances of the play; they created a second work following their theater experience.
Painting by Savannah Covington, Austin-East Magnet High School.
Several of our essayists had been panelists or book discussion leaders during NEA Big Read events; others had attended those events. Obviously, the subjects that arose during the NEA Big Read were still burning issues for each of them . . . sufficiently so that months after the final Big Read event they felt inspired to sit down and compose essays for our book. We were gratified by the truly heartfelt essays we received. We have received some positive comments on our book, but I think the true test will be the response we get to our next Call For Papers. We have put out a call for responses to the NEA-sponsored community reading that followed A Lesson Before Dying, Knoxville’s 2017 NEA Big Read with Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven.
Readers gathered at a book discussion for Knoxville’s 2016 NEA Big Read. Photo courtesy of the Knox County Public Library.