Chapter 30 is written in Grant’s point of view, along with many others. Grant describes Sidney deRogers, a local worker who’s on his way to mow the lawn at George Jarreau’s house. A black truck with a gray tarpaulin cover drives by him. deRogers later reports feeling cold when the truck drives by. At eleven o’clock, George’s wife, Lucy, tells Sidney to drive to the store to pick up some white thread. Sidney drives toward the store in Lucy’s car; before he reaches the store, he notices a crowd of people standing by the courthouse. Everyone is staring at the black truck. Sidney drives past the crowd toward the store. Inside, he tells a saleswoman that he needs thread; the woman tells him to find it himself and pay her back later.
The multiple points of view at work in this chapter allude to the gospels of the Bible—essentially, Gaines depicts a modern version of the crucifixion, with many different people offering their perspective on the event. There’s a sad poetry in the way people go about their ordinary lives, and yet are all vitally aware that Jefferson is going to die today. The progress of the black truck, which carries the electric chair within it, is akin to the progress of Jesus carry the cross on which he will be crucified.
Tante Lou spends the night with Miss Emma, as do many other members of the community. Lou stays there all night, while Ambrose leaves around midnight to get some sleep, knowing that Sheriff Guidry wants all witnesses to the execution to be present at the courthouse by eleven thirty. Vivian and Grant spend the night at the Rainbow Club—it’s both quieter and more full than he’s ever seen it. At eleven, Claiborne announces that the place is closing; he and Grant don’t look each other in the eye. Grant drives home alone. He stops by Miss Emma’s house, but doesn’t go inside, thinking that he has nothing left to say to her.
Grant’s moral character is still unclear—for all the care he’s shown to Jefferson, he’s still unwilling to visit Emma in her hour of need. In a sense, this is because he’s still afraid of showing his emotions and still reluctant to commit to his community. Grant’s alibi—that he has “nothing to say” to Emma—isn’t remotely convincing: he doesn’t have to say anything, but he could at least be with her, support her. The reality is that he doesn’t yet have the courage to build a bond with his community.
The next morning, Reverend Ambrose, who is to read Jefferson his last rights, wakes up and prays that God will give him the strength to do his job today. He eats breakfast and thinks about his duties: he is to read the 23rd Psalm. Meanwhile, Sheriff Guidry eats breakfast and prays that everything will go smoothly that day, thinking that he wishes this day had never come. He tells Edna, his wife, that he spoke to Grant earlier, and asked him if he would be a witness at the execution; Grant declined the offer, and Guidry said that he understood. Guidry also mentions that Reverend Ambrose asked to be a witness, and that the other witness will be Henry Williams, a local man who Guidry knows is not a troublemaker. Some members of Alcee Gropé’s family will also be in attendance at the execution. He doesn’t look directly at his wife as he tells her all of this.
Ambrose shows that, while he disagrees with Grant about the afterlife, he’s a man of great integrity and bravery. Guidry’s behavior is less clear: his hope for a “smooth” operation is clearly his professional desire trumping any compassion, yet his wish that this day never came is, perhaps, a show of compassion for Jefferson. Even white racists, Gaines suggests, are capable of remorse and compassion for people who aren’t like them. The man Ambrose gets to be a witness at Jefferson’s death, previously almost absent from A Lesson Before Dying (he was at the Christmas play, and that’s about it) makes us think of the person who, by all rights, should be at the execution: Grant. Grant is still unwilling to commit to his community: he still lacks the courage he’s taught Jefferson.
Melvina Jack is working at Edwin’s department store when the black truck drives by her. Juanita deJean, a white worker at the store, asks Melvina if she knows what’s in the truck; when Melvina says that she doesn’t, Juanita tells her that she will before the day is over. Melvina sees that the truck is parking near the courthouse, and she says, “No, no.” Juanita responds, “Yes, yes.” Melvina can barely stand as she sees an electric chair being taken from the truck. Juanita comments that she wishes the event could take place farther from school; Melvina knows she means farther from the white school, not the black school that is even closer by.
For all the compassion we’ve seen in the novel, Gaines reminds us that the color line continues to trump humans’ natural ability to feel sympathy. Thus, the white store workers are less interested in the execution, but more informed about it, than the black workers are. Juanita is clearly more concerned about the execution’s effect on white people than on the man being executed.
Fee Jinkins is a petty criminal who spends a month in jail during the time when Jefferson is to be executed. He cleans the sheriff’s office and the white people’s restrooms. He is cleaning when he sees men in suits bring the electric chair into the courthouse. One of the men carrying the chair says that it’s called Gruesome Gerty, and jokingly threatens to put Fee in it if he misbehaves. Another man carrying the chair says that the execution will occur between twelve and three that afternoon, and that anyone working in the jailhouse can leave during this time if they don’t want to see it. Someone whom Fee doesn’t know says that Christ was executed at the same time of day on a Friday; someone else says that two thieves were executed then as well.
It’s “gruesome” to see how cavalier and jocular the guards are when they bring the electric chair into the courthouse. It’s as if the constant presence of death has desensitized these men to death, but it also seems unlikely that they would be behaving this way if the condemned man was white. The guard’s conversation about Christ and the two thieves also makes the stakes of the execution explicit. Jefferson, in his behavior, has the chance to show himself a Christ or a thief. Showing himself to be a Christ could profoundly change the way these white guards view him, and blacks in general.
Clay Lemon works at Weber’s Café and Bar and Bait Shop, running errands for Felix Weber, the owner. He is walking to the bank when he hears a loud noise. Inside the bank, he finds a white man and woman complaining about the noise, which they say is coming from the courthouse. The man and woman talk to a clerk, who tells them that her child asked about who was going to be killed; the clerk told the child that an “old bad nigger” was going to die, and the next day, the child had forgotten all about the incident. When it’s Clay’s turn to go to the clerk, he’s forgotten what he’s come to the bank for; the clerk irritably asks if he’s from Felix’s, snatches the check he’s brought out of his hands, and gives him change in return for it.
Gaines here continues to show the society of racism in Bayonne. The clerk’s story about what she told her child, and her child not even remembering it, shows how racism is passed down from one generation to another. To the child, Jefferson’s unjust execution isn’t even something to remember. Gaines is not sugar-coating the situation. Jefferson’s death is not going to magically transform anything. But the juxtaposition of the clerk and her child’s racism has stunned Clay Lemon, and perhaps that is a beginning. Gaines also includes these details to challenge readers to be better people themselves.
Paul stands in the sheriff’s office in the jailhouse discussing the execution with Sheriff Guidry and two special deputies, Claude Guerin and Oscar Guerin. The executioner’s name is Henry Vincent. Vincent tells Paul that he must shave Jefferson before the execution, so that there’s not a hair on his head, his wrists, or his legs; Paul says that Jefferson barely has any hair on his body to begin with. Sheriff Guidry assures Vincent that Paul is up to the task, but also that he’s nervous, since this is his first execution. Guidry tells Paul that he should find the prisoner named Murphy and release him from his cell so that he can shave Jefferson.
It’s confusing that the sheriff would enlist another prisoner to shave Jefferson—surely a more trustworthy person could do that job. But maybe this is the point—Guidry, racist to the end, doesn’t want to shave a black man. Ultimately, Guidry is one f the most complicated characters in this novel—inspired by his wife, he seems to show at least some remorse for his behavior to Jefferson, but he also continues to display racist behavior.
Paul carries a safety razor and pair of scissors to Murphy’s cell and tells him that he must shave Jefferson; Murphy is confused, but agrees, and Paul sends him to get a piece of soap and some warm water from the shower room. Paul then goes to Jefferson’s cell with Claude, and tells Jefferson that Murphy will need to shave his hair. Paul can see that Jefferson hasn’t slept the night before. He also notices his blue denim shirt, his notebook, which is lying by the wall, and his radio, which is off. As the three of them wait for Murphy to return, Jefferson asks Claude about Miss Bernice and little Roy, Claude’s wife and child; Claude is reluctant to respond at first, but with Paul’s encouragement, he answers Jefferson—they’re both fine.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Jefferson’s shirt is blue. Blue is a highly evocative color in Christian iconography—it’s the color most often associated with the Virgin Mary, and thus a symbol of Christ. Jefferson’s behavior toward Claude shows his calm, even Christ-like bravery. He has only hours left to live, but he shows concern about others—even the family of the white guard who will escort him to his death. Claude’s hesitance to interact with Jefferson likely stems from both racism and discomfort about connecting with a man about to die. Paul, who also earlier in the novel was not connecting with Jefferson, has moved past: he respects Jefferson as a person, and treats him like one.
Murphy returns with the soap and the water; he goes to work shaving Jefferson’s head, cutting holes in his pants and shirt, and shaving his ankles and wrists. As Murphy works, Jefferson sits on his bed, as if in a trance. When Murphy is finished, Paul motions for Claude and Murphy to leave the cell. As Paul locks the cell door, Jefferson asks Paul to give Grant his diary and Pichot his knife and gold chain; Paul says that he will. Jefferson gives Paul a long look and asks him if he’ll be at the execution that afternoon. Paul nods and says that he will.
Here, Gaines clearly alludes to the crucifixion: Jefferson sustains “wounds,” of a sort, on his head, hands, and feet, just as Jesus did on the cross. It’s important that Jefferson establishes a bond with Paul before his death, showing that even unlike people—a black prisoner and a white prison guard—can form a connection based on trust, respect, friendship, and even love. It also again marks Paul as a witness of Jefferson who can bring word to others, just as St. Paul carried the word of Christ to the world.