Human Dignity in A Lesson Before Dying
Grant and Jefferson are on a journey. Though they have vastly different educational backgrounds, their commonality of being black men who have lost hope brings them together in the search for the meaning of their lives. In the 1940s small Cajun town of Bayonne, Louisiana, blacks may have legally been emancipated, but they were still enslaved by the antebellum myth of the place of black people in society. Customs established during the years of slavery negated the laws meant to give black people equal rights and the chains of tradition prevailed leaving both Grant and Jefferson trapped in mental slavery in their communities.
The struggles of Grant and Jefferson share a common theme, mans search for meaning. Grant has the advantage of a college education, and while that may have provided some enlightenment, he remains in the same crossroads as Jefferson. Grant sees that regardless of what he does, the black students he teaches continue in the same jobs, the same poverty and same slave-like positions as their ancestors. Grant has no hope of making a difference and sees his life as meaningless. Though Jeffersons conflict is more primal, it is the same as Grants struggle. Jefferson is searching for the most basic identity, whether he is man or animal. It is this conflict of meaning and identity that bring Grant and Jefferson together.
In this book, Ernest J. Gaines presents three views to determine manhood: law, education and religion. Jefferson has been convicted of a crime, and though he did not commit it, he is sentenced to death as a “hog” a word that denies any sense of worth or fragment of dignity he may have possessed in a world ruled by oppressive white bigots. Jefferson is at an even greater loss as he has no education and after the conviction he doubts that God can even exist in a world that would send an innocent man to his death. It is clear that Jefferson does not believe he has any value. ” Im an old hog. Just an old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas ” (83).
Though Grant may have had some advantages compared with Jefferson, his position in life was not significantly better than Jeffersons. Grant knows that if he had been the black man sitting in the courtroom, he too would have been convicted. In his powerful opening to the novel, Grant says, “I was not there yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be” (1). Even his college education has not elevated his position in the eyes of the white society. When he was talking with white people, he was expected to act stupid and hide his education and assume the subservient role of a black. As in Grants visit to Mr. Guidry the first time. ” She doesnt, huh? Sam Guidry asked me. He emphasized doesnt. I was supposed to have said dont. I was being too smart” (48).
Of law, education and religion, one had to empower Jefferson and Grant. The law was clearly outside their realm of influence. However, education opened the door for Jefferson and Grant to share dialogue and to explore who they were and how they could be empowered. It was religion, their search for a greater meaning and a higher power, which allowed them to begin to think not of what white men thought of them, but rather what God and what they thought of themselves. With this new way of thinking, they forged a bond and both began to understand the simple heroic act of resistance in defying the expectation of white society that they were members of a lesser race ” Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? I asked him. A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they are better than anyone else on earthand thats a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth ” (192).
Grant encouraged Jefferson to live beyond the stereotype white society had imposed on him. In doing that Grant began to see himself differently. He began to believe if this uneducated black man could become a hero to the black community then certainly he could return to Bayonne and help children believe in themselves. He gradually began to think that he also could escape the myth and help his students escape it with him. He could use Jefferson as a hero to encourage them. ” I need you, I told him. I need you much more than you could ever need me. I need to know what to do with my life. I want to run away, but go where and do what? Im no hero: I can just give something small, thats all I have to offer. It is the only way we can chip away at the myth. Youyou can be bigger than anyone you have ever met ” (193).
This new way of thinking which discounted the centuries old myth enabled Jefferson to believe that he was not a hog, that he indeed was a man, a man who would walk with dignity to his execution. Though this may seem as a minor triumph to many, to Jefferson it meant that the angry and demeaning words of the judge had no meaning. His ability to die with dignity not only gave him peace, but it made white men pause and show respect for the man labeled the hog. At the end the white, deputy, Paul says,
” I dont know what youre going to say when you go back in there. But tell them he was the bravest man in that room today. Im a witness, Grant Wiggins. Tell them so. Maybe one day you will come back and tell them so. It would be an honor ” (256).
This white man wanted to make the statement so it would be powerful and would be believed by the black children sitting inside the small schoolhouse. That a white man would say it would make it true in the eyes of the children.
However difficult facing death may have been, it was also empowering to Jefferson. Jefferson believed that if he could walk with dignity to his death, he would not only make his grandmother proud, but that he would also be as a strong man by the black members of his community. His last quote before dying was ” “Tell Nannan I walked.” And straight he walked ” (254). The last words in Jeffersons diary share his message of courage and dignity. “good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man” (234).
Jefferson died with dignity and Grant returned to Bayonne believing he could make a difference. It is not clear that religion, a belief in God, made the difference for either of them. It is clear that as they struggled with the issue of a higher power, they did discover that the meaning of their lives was not attached to the white mans beliefs and myths, but rather came from inside themselves. To the end, they both struggled with whether or not there was a God. As they end their journey together, Jefferson is at peace and becomes a hero in his community. Though Grant cannot be a hero, he does find his place and returns to the schoolhouse with new hope and a vision for making a difference, if not for himself, for his students. He doubts himself at times, but he gains determination for his students. “Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe. They must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave” (Gaines 251)
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.