After the Civil War ended, many blacks and whites, especially in the South, continued living as if nothing had changed with regards to the oppression and poor treatment of African Americans. Narrator Grant Wiggins, of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, possesses a similar attitude toward race relations. Through his experiences with a young man wrongly accused of murder, Grant transforms from a pessimistic, hopeless, and insensitive man into a more selfless and compassionate human being who can see the possibility of change in relations between whites and blacks.
Grant Wiggins, one of the few black men of the time to have a college education, lives with his aunt on a plantation just outside Bayonne, Louisiana in 1948, and teaches at the all-black school held at the all-black plantation church. Considering the poor relations between blacks and whites at the time in which the story is set, it comes as no surprise that Grant sees tension frequently in his community – not only through the ways in which persons of various races treat one another, but also in the justice, or lack thereof, served in court cases. The white authorities accuse Jefferson, an innocent student Grant taught a few years prior, of first-degree murder. During the trial, Jefferson’s state-appointed defense lawyer pleads for the jury to have sympathy on Jefferson as he is a hog and does not possess the intelligence to commit the crimes of which he is accused. Because the whites dominate the society, the court finds Jefferson guilty as charged and the judge sentences him to death by electrocution. Upon hearing the verdict, Miss Emma, Jefferson’s aunt, resolves to persuade Grant to teach Jefferson that he is, in fact, a man – not a hog – and to get him to walk like a man when he goes to the chair to die for the crimes he did not commit. Rather than allowing Jefferson to fall victim to the white-dominated society, Miss Emma wants Grant to help Jefferson rise above it and prove his value as a person.
For the majority of the novel, Grant denies that he can help Jefferson in any way at all. When his aunt and Miss Emma request that Grant go talk to Jefferson to teach him that he is a man, Grant explains, “It is only a matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months – but he’s already dead…All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this…There’s nothing I can do anymore, nothing any of us can do anymore” (14). Before receiving extreme pressure from his aunt to comply, Grant goes so far as to refuse to even attempt to help Jefferson. With this attitude that “There’s nothing [he] can do anymore,” Grant can, in fact, do nothing. Even though Grant correctly recognizes the fact that Jefferson will die in a short while, he fails to acknowledge the possibility of working through the injustices to make a difference. Grant, himself, feels stuck in his environment – he is “just running in place” there – yet he feels a sort of responsibility for his people and an attraction to the town, and cannot bring himself to leave (15). In order to “try to keep the others from ending up like” Jefferson, Grant wants to help his students, but he fails to respect them (14). If Grant has a bad day, he takes out his anger on his students, slapping them on the back of the head for playing with an insect, or sending them to the corner for an hour for writing a sentence crooked across the board. Though Grant may have good intentions – he feels responsibility for the state of the town and desires to help his people – his cynicism prevents him from accomplishing such a task wholeheartedly; he remains unable to help anyone.
The attitude of running and gaining no ground that Grant portrays for the majority of the novel comes about primarily as his response to the environment in which he grew up, the environment he has known for nearly the entirety of his life. The fact that Grant grew up in the South, in and of itself, makes a bold statement about the quality of his relationships with whites while he grew up. Grant provides more detail on his childhood, explaining that he grew up working as an errand boy for Henri Pichot, owner of the plantation at which Grant teaches. His entire life he has had to treat whites with an ultra-high level of respect, with much more dignity than whites give him. When Grant finally leaves Pichot’s plantation in order to attend college, his aunt, who worked in the kitchen at the plantation, tells him, “Me and Em-ma can make out all right without you coming through that back door ever again” (19). Grant makes it a goal to rise above the alienation from his white-dominated society, and yet finds he is making little ground, mostly because he wishes to break the societal standard that “white is right,” but finds it more difficult than he expects.
As part of his upbringing in the quarter, as Grant refers to it, he, too, attended the school at which he now teaches. Grant’s teacher, Matthew Antoine, bombarded the students with the attitude Grant now holds. Grant recalls, “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” (62). Common knowledge tells any person that children are gullible – since they have not been exposed to as much of the world and the evil present in society, they expect people to always look out for them, to always tell them what is true. Thus, when Antoine drilled such a statement about the lowliness of blacks into the children’s minds, they believed it. Antoine treated the children no better than the rest of society did – he only served to make them more aware of their socially inferior status. Then, when Grant first takes over Antoine’s job as teacher at the school, Antoine comments, “It doesn’t matter anymore. Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter” (66). As Grant develops into a young man, Antoine’s lies from both Grant’s childhood and early adulthood stick with him and act as a barrier he must overcome in order to change his perception of race relations and his pessimistic attitude.
Grant’s exposure to blatant racism does not end when he grows up. Rather, it continues on – whites continue to treat Grant as their inferior. During Grant’s childhood, Pichot got in the habit of treating him as a lower breed of human. He continues this disrespectful treatment throughout Grant’s adulthood. Grant visits him several times in the novel in order to persuade him to talk to his brother, Sheriff Guidry, about a number of issues, including receiving permission for Grant talk to Jefferson. Each time Grant visits, he must stand and wait for significant amounts of time before Pichot actually comes out and talks to him. Once Pichot finally comes out to talk, Grant explains, “He looked over her head at me, standing back by the door. I was too educated for Henri Pichot; he had no use for me at all anymore” (21). Pichot resents Grant because Grant has gone off to college and received a degree. From Grant’s perspective, in Pichot’s mindset, Grant has defied the stereotype of a little submissive black boy in that he has surpassed Pichot in intelligence. At the same time, Grant still feels the pressure of the societal standard that blacks should always submit to whites as he has always done.
Rather than facing and standing up to the societal problem of racism, of unequal treatment, Grant flees from his troubles. Like many people today, Grant frequently drinks as a means of escape. Rather than helping to solve his problems, the alcohol amplifies them. Grant even fights some Mulattos at the Rainbow Club who state that Jefferson should have been put to death sooner. In addition to alcohol, Grant turns to his relationship with his girlfriend, Vivian, to escape from the conflict he has within himself over the relationship between blacks and whites in society. When with Vivian, Grant frequently brings up the topic of running away, leaving all the problems behind, and beginning a new life elsewhere with Vivian. Vivian, in a way, recognizes Grant’s attempt to escape his problems and points out the fact that “We’re teachers and we have a commitment” (29). In his blindness, Grant fails to recognize the huge commitment he has to the school, to his community, to his entire race. Grant responds, questioning, “Commitment to what – to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live like other people?” (29). Vivian points out that Grant, as a teacher, has committed himself to helping out the next generation of people who will inhabit the quarter. Partially because he does not want to, and partially because he wants to “feel [he’s] living,” Grant denies he can have an influence at the school and instead, wants to escape.
Grant does not escape from his problems forever. As he receives pressure from his aunt to follow her wishes, Grant reluctantly begins to meet with Jefferson, his constantly pessimistic attitude prevents him from perceiving the changes that begin to take place in Jefferson. Grant points out, “Vivian said things were changing” and then questions, “But where were they changing” (151). Though one could see Grant’s question as a skeptical question, it more likely reveals the first steps, albeit small ones, toward a change in Grant. Rather than simply blowing off Vivian’s statement, Grant contemplates it, seeking out an explanation that could prove it true.
Though Jefferson responds to Grant in a negative manner at first, as Grant’s visits continue, the two bond together. For possibly the first time in Grant’s life, he shows sympathy for someone beside himself. Grant begins asking Jefferson questions such as, “How are you?” “You need anything?” and “Do you like fruit?…Ice Cream? Funny books?” (169-170). Though all these seem like simple questions, the fact that Grant actually asks them and allows Jefferson to answer in any way he pleases, in contrast with his strict treatment of the students in the beginning of the novel, reveals the beginning of drastic changes in Grant’s outlook on life and his situation as a black man living in the South in the late 1940s. Additionally, Grant describes Jefferson’s response to this latest visit, explaining, “He looked at me, not as he had done in the past, in pain, with hate. He looked at me with an inner calmness now. Was it the ice cream?” (171). Grant clearly sees a change in Jefferson, but he holds on to his skepticism, doubting his influence on Jefferson, attributing the change in Jefferson’s attitude to the thought of the pleasure of eating an entire bucket of ice cream.
In his next visit with Jefferson, Grant brings some pecans and other nuts the school children gathered together for him. Grant’s attitude appears to be continually changing as he and Jefferson bond together more and more. Grant explains to Jefferson, “I want to be your friend. I want you to ask me questions. I want you to say anything that comes to your mind – anything you want to say to me” (185). Jefferson sits there sullen, somewhat unresponsive, giving nothing more than a nod in response to Grant’s questions. As Grant stands up to leave though, he looks at Jefferson’s face and sees pain – no hate, only pain. Jefferson stammers, “Tell-tell the chirren thank you for the pe-pecans” (186). At Jefferson’s response, Grant is overjoyed. He recalls, “I caught myself grinning like a fool. I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him. I wanted to hug the first person I came to. I felt like someone who had just found religion. I felt like crying with joy. I really did” (186). Grant shows more emotion here than he has anywhere else in the novel – he equates his joy with someone who has just found religion. Interestingly, Grant left religion behind at college when his studies became more important than it. Perhaps this joy Grant finds fills the void left by his loss of religion. Clearly Grant notices a change in Jefferson – he begins to see that he can do something to help him – but Grant still has more changes to undergo.
At this point, though Grant, himself, has clearly changed drastically, he still attempts to hide from his problems. Despite his joy that comes from his success with Jefferson, Grant gets in the aforementioned fight with the Mulattos while celebrating at the Rainbow Club. Rather than understanding the fact that hatred has not ceased to exist, that not everyone feels as ecstatic about Jefferson’s progress as Grant does, Grant fights these Mulattos. After the fight, Vivian takes Grant to her place. Grant walks to the door to leave after they argue, but he cannot bring himself to open the door and walk out. Grant explains, “Through the screen I could see outside into the darkness, and I didn’t want to go out there. There was nothing outside this house that I cared for. Not school, not home, not my aunt, not the quarter, not anything else in the world” (210). In addition to Grant’s uncompassionate attitude that causes him to feel he has nothing he cares for besides Vivian, Grant’s fear of facing what the world has keeps him from walking through the screen door. Vivian again, acts as an escape for Grant; he turns to her when he feels too weak to face the world.
In his last visit with Jefferson, Grant has a discussion with him. Though Grant asks most of the questions, Jefferson turns around and teaches Grant a lesson. Grant pushes his desire that Jefferson walk to the chair as a man, even if only to make his aunt and Grant happy. When Jefferson asks, “What I got left, Mr. Wiggins – two weeks?”, Grant responds saying, “I think it’s something like that – if nothing happens” (224). Jefferson responds strongly, saying, “Nothing go’n happen, Mr. Wiggins. And it ain’t ‘something like that.’ That’s all I got on this here earth. I got to face that, Mr. Wiggins. It’s all right for y’all to say ‘something like that.’ For me, it’s ‘that’-‘that,’ that’s all…I’m go’n do my best, Mr. Wiggins. That’s all I can promise. My best.” (224-225). In essence, Jefferson and Grant switch roles – Grant, the teacher, learns a lesson from his student, Jefferson. With Jefferson’s statement, Grant realizes that he, himself, could not face death as a result of his skin color, as Jefferson is about to do. Jefferson’s profession of his intent to do his best to walk as a man to the electric chair makes Grant realize that he has held back, not done his best because he thinks his actions are futile. Grant realizes that the entire black community needs Jefferson to stand where they cannot.
On the day of Jefferson’s execution, Grant cannot bring himself to watch Jefferson die, so he hears the details of the event from Paul, a sympathetic white deputy, who explains, “He [Jefferson] was the strongest man in that crowded room” (253). When Paul attempts to congratulate Grant on his success with Jefferson, Grant denies his role in Jefferson’s transformation; Grant denies Paul’s comment that he is a great teacher. Grant’s failure to accept Paul’s statements as truth reveals Grant’s transformation into a selfless, compassionate, and optimistic man. Grant realizes he has made mistakes and does not desire to be esteemed higher than he believes he deserves. Paul expresses his desire to befriend Grant, thus breaking the barriers of race and reaching out to Grant. Grant returns to his classroom, crying, a changed man.