February 22nd, 2013
Paper #1 “A lesson worth living for”
In Ernest J. Gaines ‘A Lesson Before Dying,’ Grant and Jefferson both teach us crucial lessons about causing positive change in an oppressive community. In the novel, Jefferson, a young adult, was charged with the murder of two black men, and the old storekeeper of White Rabbit Bar and Lounge, Alcee Grope. During his trial, his defense attorney claims that Jefferson lacked the intelligence to plan a robbery or murder, and if convicted, it would be equivalent to putting a hog in an electric chair. Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, was bothered that Jefferson was compared to a hog. It then became her objection to find a way to have Jefferson die as a man instead. Tante Lou and Miss Emma requested that Grant Wiggins, the plantation’s educator, teach Jefferson how to become a man instead of a hog. While Grant teaching Jefferson how to become a man is the novel’s plot, it should be understood that it was the oppressive and racist environment that made both Grant and Jefferson feel disconnected from their family. As Jefferson and Grant show personal growth through there interactions together, we learn the importance of caring/sacrificing for the one’s that love you in order to understand the importance of community engagement. The racism that disenfranchises Grant’s community is clearly displayed by Grant’s own thoughts and experiences when visiting Henri Pichot, the land keeper. In the beginning of the novel, Grant Wiggins states, “I was not there, but yet I was there” (3). Grant was implying that while he might not have been at Jefferson’s trial, he already knew the outcome of the verdict. He understood that, regardless on how the defense attorney represented Jefferson, because Jefferson was black, he was going to be charged with murder. Also, When Grant went to go visit Mr. Henri at his house to see if Henri’s brother-in-law, the sheriff allowed Grant to visit Jefferson, they went “up the stairs to the back door” (18). Because Grant, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou are black, they had to enter through the back door instead of the front door. Going through the front door would have been disrespectful because it would have shown disobedience to the white community. These examples display the historical aspect of the 1940’s that while slavery was abolished, segregation and oppression was still heavily enforced. It’s this oppressive environment of the town that embitters Grant, which causes him to be cynical about Jefferson, and his commitment to his community. When Jefferson eventually agrees to meet with Jefferson, he is extremely frustrated. When Grant is at the bar with his girlfriend, Vivian, he says, “Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know- prove to these white men- that he’s not a hog but a man…do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m trying to find out how a man should live” (31). During this conversation with Vivian, it’s demonstrated that Grant is battling with his inner self. Grant suffers from his own insecurities about what it means to be a man. Grant lives in a routine life; he follows the white man rules, and then teaches language and arithmetic at the plantation. Grant is trying to understand his role in the oppressive society but that struggle leaves him with no sense of control over his life.
This lack of control Grant has in his life makes him want to run away from the south and leave his family and community. During another conversation with Vivian, Grant tells her they should just run away from the south, and Vivian responds, “We’re teachers, and we have a commitment (30,)” and Grant rebuttals with, “You hit it the nail on the head…to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live like other people”? (30). This further shows Grant’s views on the south. He see’s no future in staying at the south, as he calls it a hellhole. One of the most important jobs for a teacher is to