Human Dignity in A Lesson Before Dying

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Grant and Jefferson, two black men with disparate educational backgrounds, join forces on a journey to seek the purpose of their lives. Despite living in a small Cajun town called Bayonne in the 1940s, where black people were legally emancipated, they remained enslaved by societal beliefs that confined them. The continued influence of pre-Civil War customs overshadowed the supposed equal rights granted by law, trapping both Grant and Jefferson in mental bondage within their communities.

The struggles of Grant and Jefferson revolve around a common theme – the search for meaning. Grant, who is educated, finds himself facing the same dilemmas as Jefferson. Despite his education, Grant realizes that the black students he teaches are trapped in a cycle of poverty, limited opportunities, and a life reminiscent of their enslaved ancestors. Grant feels hopeless and believes that his actions won’t make any difference. On the other hand, Jefferson’s struggle is more primal but still linked to Grant’s own battle. Jefferson is grappling with a fundamental question – his very identity as a man or an animal. The conflict surrounding meaning and identity is what ultimately brings Grant and Jefferson together.

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Ernest J. Gaines explores three perspectives – law, education, and religion – in his book to define manhood. Despite being innocent, Jefferson is condemned as a “hog” to be executed, stripping him of any worth or dignity he may have had in a world dominated by racist white individuals. Lacking education, Jefferson feels even more lost after his conviction, questioning the existence of a God who would allow an innocent man to die. It is evident that Jefferson sees himself as worthless, stating, “I’m an old hog. Just an old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas” (83).

Grant acknowledges that if he were the black man on trial, he would have faced the same fate as Jefferson, despite his seemingly advantageous position in life compared to Jefferson. At the start of the novel, Grant strongly expresses that although he was not physically present at the trial or aware of its verdict, he already knew what it would be. This indicates that his college education has not altered his status within white society. He is still required to feign ignorance and conceal his knowledge, conforming to a submissive role as a black individual. This becomes apparent in his interaction with Mr. Guidry, where Guidry challenges Grant’s assertion and expects him to speak incorrectly.

In their quest for empowerment, Jefferson and Grant relied on three main aspects: law, education, and religion. Despite being beyond their control, the law did not hinder their efforts. Instead, it was through education that the two men discovered a platform for dialogue and self-discovery. However, it was their pursuit of religion and a deeper sense of purpose that allowed them to shift their focus from white society’s opinions to their own self-worth and God’s perception of them. This change in mindset led them to form a strong bond and understand the importance of resisting societal expectations that deemed them inferior. In a conversation with Jefferson, Grant explains how the notion of white superiority is merely a myth that undermines the shared humanity among individuals. Challenging this myth poses a threat to white society’s belief system – something they fear immensely (192).

Grant encouraged Jefferson to rise above societal expectations imposed by white society, leading Grant to reassess his own identity. This new perspective made Grant believe that if an uneducated black man like Jefferson could become a hero to the black community, then he himself could also make a difference in the lives of his students in Bayonne. Both Grant and Jefferson saw potential for breaking free from the myths surrounding their lives and inspiring others. Grant acknowledged needing Jefferson’s guidance to find purpose in his life and expressed a desire to escape his current situation and make a meaningful contribution, no matter how small. By using Jefferson as a role model, Grant believed he could help his students challenge and overcome society’s misconceptions. He told Jefferson, “You can be bigger than anyone you have ever met” (193).

This new perspective gave Jefferson the strength to face his execution with dignity. It allowed him to view himself as a human rather than a despised animal. Although some may see it as a small victory, it meant a lot to Jefferson because it made the judge’s degrading comments meaningless. Dying with dignity brought him inner peace and forced white men to acknowledge and respect him, despite being called a hog. Towards the end, Paul, a white deputy, compassionately declares that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room today. He wants Grant Wiggins to tell this declaration inside the schoolhouse and hopes that it will be accepted by the black children there. The trust in these words would be reinforced by their origin from a white man.

However challenging it may have been to confront his own mortality, Jefferson found empowerment in the process. He held the belief that if he could face death with grace and dignity, not only would he bring pride to his grandmother, but he would also be seen as a strong figure by the black individuals in his community. As he neared the end of his life, Jefferson’s final words were a testament to this resolve, as he declared, “Tell Nannan I walked. And straight he walked” (254). In his diary, Jefferson’s last entry conveyed his message of bravery and self-respect – “good bye Mr. Wigin, tell them I’m strong, tell them I’m a man” (234).

Both Jefferson and Grant faced the question of whether their lives were influenced by a higher power. Despite their uncertainties about the existence of God, they realized that their meaning and purpose in life did not rely on the beliefs and myths of the white man, but rather originated from within themselves. Jefferson ultimately attains peace and becomes a hero in his community, while Grant, though unable to achieve hero status, regains hope and a vision for making a difference, particularly for his students. Grant acknowledges moments of self-doubt but gains determination for his students. He recognizes the importance of belief as a means to free the mind and potentially the body, stating, “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).

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Human Dignity in A Lesson Before Dying. (2019, Apr 14). Retrieved from

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