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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Quotes


Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair.

Defense attorney, Chapter 1

At Jefferson's trial, his own defense attorney dehumanizes him by comparing him to a hog. He is expressing the white point of view that a person like Jefferson—black—is not really a person, but a commodity, a dumb animal without the things that make people human. This statement is the only thing Miss Emma hears at the whole trial. Jefferson will internalize the hog metaphor and Miss Emma will recruit Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson he is not a hog, setting an unlikely relationship into motion—which will transform both Grant and Jefferson.


I tried to decide ... Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be.

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 6

Facing two white men of authority, Mr. Pichot and Sheriff Guidry, Grant Wiggins, the narrator, knows they find him suspicious because of his education. In their worldview, a black man with an education is dangerous thing, something that contradicts their myth of black inferiority. Grant is highly aware of his educated speech and the words he uses in front of these men. He is unwilling to lower himself by speaking in the vernacular they expect him to or to use the incorrect grammar they expect, but he knows it is a delicate balance: without the right amount of fawning and demonstrating his own internalized inferiority, they will be hostile toward his requests. This is a big internal conflict for Grant.


Good, good, you want to learn? Good, good, here is the burden.

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 8

Grant Wiggins paraphrases the words and attitude of his own teacher, a bitter, disillusioned, racist mulatto named Matthew Antoine. Tante Lou instructed Grant to pursue the education that would set him apart. But education is a double-edged sword. The end of ignorance means facing the full horror and weight of the burden. It is a burden Antoine has been bitterly shouldering, the whole time berating his cowardice for not just running away. These words echo Grant's experience and predict it: his education makes him stand apart from the community, conflicted.


"You love them more than you hate this place."

Vivian Baptiste, Chapter 12

Grant Wiggins tells Vivian he wants to run away, and tries to get her to flee with him. Vivian, always the voice of responsibility and maturity, grounds Grant by reminding him this is just a fantasy. He is free to go, circumstantially, but his own mind and heart won't let him—despite his frustration and bitterness with his position and the community, there is a love underlying it that is greater, that keeps him rooted. Grant responds, "Is it love or cowardice?" He quotes Matthew Antoine's words at Vivian, Antoine who always said he was a coward for not running away. Grant needs to learn the heroic thing is to stay and go through the community's pain along with the community—not that it is a failure of strength to do so.


Every moment ... he's going to know he's in jail ... This ain't no school, and it ain't no picnic ground.

Sheriff Guidry, Chapter 17

Sheriff Guidry is annoyed because Miss Emma has put pressure on his wife, who has put pressure on him, to allow visitors to meet with Jefferson in the dayroom, where they can all sit, rather than the cell, where they cannot. Both the sheriff and his wife find this request unreasonable, and think visitors should take turns standing. Emma, however, reminds the wife of all she's done for the family, and, while she is upset, she reluctantly agrees to speak to her husband. Sherriff Guidry consents, but not before drilling Grant—suspicious this is Grant's idea. He agrees to let Jefferson into the dayroom, but only if he wears shackles—as if he were a dangerous, unpredictable animal needing to be caged. The sheriff doesn't want Jefferson to have any experience other than being subjugated and controlled. He is actively working against Grant and Jefferson's spiritual growth; the shackles symbolize white power, which attempts to keep blacks from rising up and transcending the worst of circumstances.


How do people come up with a date and time to take life from another man? Who made them God?

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 20

After Grant Wiggins learns the date for Jefferson's execution has been set for shortly after Easter, he reels with the implications. There is no justice here, only the hypocritical pretense of it. He wonders how the white people can have the effrontery to do something that properly belongs to God. Grant's mention of God is significant, because he is conflicted about his belief. This echoes the sentiment expressed by Jefferson in his journal, that God just works for white people.


What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years.

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 21

Speaking to Vivian, who says Irene is in love with Grant, Grant explains the love and hold his community has on him in a larger point of view. There is a heavy burden on him: the community expects him, as an educated man who has been out in the world, to be the one to lead them out of the conditions that have guided their lives of subjugation, the legacy of slavery. Grant doesn't feel up to this; he says the trying will break him. But he does admit if Jefferson can "stand," it will go a long way toward changing this.


As long as none of us stand, they're safe ... I want you to chip away at that myth by standing.

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 24

Grant Wiggins speaks to Jefferson in the dayroom, as Grant walks with Jefferson in shackles. He explains how white power and black subjugation is maintained by the idea, the myth, that white people are better than anyone else, and black people lack humanity and dignity. Grant is saying what needs to change is black people need to stop internalizing this idea. He calls on Jefferson to be the hero who can, through his own actions in the short time remaining, help to discredit this myth. If someone in Jefferson's position—severely underprivileged, uneducated, and disenfranchised, and in fact imprisoned and awaiting his execution by white people—can demonstrate dignity and self-worth, it shows the whole black community can and will send a powerful message to black and white alike.


"I need to know what to do with my life ... I need you to tell me, to show me."

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 24

Grant Wiggins becomes vulnerable with Jefferson and in essence tells him Jefferson is Grant's teacher, not the other way around. Grant needs a hero—a living, breathing hero. This is a powerful thing for Grant to say to Jefferson, because Grant has shown Jefferson the only friendship he has ever known. This request gives Jefferson a compelling mission, and adds meaning to his remaining days, allowing him to reclaim his humanity and rise toward his potential.


What is love? ... Give me some answers ... I don't know what you mean by love. That bed? The cane field?"

Vivian Baptiste, Chapter 26

Vivian Baptiste is upset because Grant Wiggins, by fighting the mulattos at the Rainbow club, has put her in a compromising position, which could upset the stability of her life. Though he constantly remarks on his love for her, saying she is all he cares about and the most important thing to him is doing well in bed with her (something that's been affected by his stressful work with Jefferson), Vivian points out this is not love—this is fantasy. She asks Grant to look deep inside, to consider that his actions, not his words, define him. Love is consideration, not sex in a bed or a cane field. Love is difficult work that means putting aside one's own desires and fears to do the right thing for the beloved.


And He never said a mumbling word ... That's how I want to go, Mr. Wiggins.

Jefferson, Chapter 28

Jefferson continually understands his own situation by referring to the story of Christ's life and death. Christ, not Jackie Robinson, is the hero Jefferson keeps in his mind as he thinks about how he wants to face what is before him. His vernacular expression of Christ's willingness to accept the sacrifice he must make embodies the dignity and grace of a man who stands up and does not challenge fate, does not run or cry or beg. Jefferson understands this as the epitome of dignity and the task he is being called to do, and he in fact does it: accepting his execution calmly, obediently, and with politeness toward the men who oversee his preparation for the chair.


Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan's cross, my own cross ... This old stumbling nigger.

Jefferson, Chapter 28

Shortly before his execution, Jefferson expresses what Grant Wiggins is asking him to do. Grant has handed him the burden Matthew Antoine spoke of and has appointed him as the sacrificial symbolic figure who will, through his own bearing of the burden of his unjust death, raise up and give a hint of salvation to his community. The shocking language puts it all into perspective: he is being asked to do something unlike anything else ever done in his life.


You been so good to me mr wigin an nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im sombody

Jefferson, Chapter 29

Here, Jefferson writes in his journal, addressing Grant Wiggins and thanking him for spending time with him, talking to him, and bringing the community to him. He alludes to the healing power of being valued in relationship. This is something he never before experienced, and it is key to a sense of humanity. Through his relationship with Grant, Jefferson learns he is a worthy human being with the same greatness inside him as the best of those in his community. He feels like a "somebody" instead of a nobody.


What about tomorrow? What happens after today? Nothing will ever be the same after today.

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 31

As Grant Wiggins spends the morning of the execution alone, outside in the quarter, he realizes he doesn't know what to do next. The execution is a dividing point in his life: before and after. In this way, Jefferson echoes Christ: in the Christian narrative, life is not the same for humanity before Christ as it is after his life and death. Grant is at a loss; the thing consuming all his energy is almost over with. He has been changed, and so has Jefferson, and he doesn't know how to take what he has been through and apply it to move forward. He can no longer relate to his students with the same angry frustration he did before, nor retreat into the same escape fantasies, nor scoff at religious faith as a lie or delusion. Grant's entire world has shifted, and he faces the unknown future with anxiety.


They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body ... I am a slave.

Grant Wiggins, Chapter 31

Grant Wiggins wrestles with the idea of faith and belief as he sits alone outside in the plantation while Jefferson's execution happens. Grant cannot make sense of a God who would allow such an injustice as Jefferson's execution. In the face of this, Grant defiantly proclaims he refuses to believe. But he has come to understand why his community values faith so much, and why Miss Emma regards the salvation of Jefferson's soul just as important as Jefferson's standing like a man. In order to achieve physical liberty, a person must first have a free mind, and religious belief liberates the mind from the messages of the oppressor. Without this, Grant realizes he is shackled—a slave to his own internal conflicts, anxieties, and lack of self-worth.

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