A Lesson Before Dying


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 1940?s 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, man?s 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 Jefferson?s conflict is more primal, it is the same as Grant?s 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. " ?I?m 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 Jefferson?s. 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 Grant?s visit to Mr. Guidry the first time. " ?She doesn?t, huh?? Sam Guidry asked me. He emphasized doesn?t. I was supposed to have said don?t. 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 earth?and that?s 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