A Lesson Before Dying

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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Lesson Before Dying, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism Theme Icon

From its first page, A Lesson Before Dying portrays a racist society in 1940s Louisiana. Bayonne, Louisiana is a plantation community in which the descendants of slaves work on the same plantations where their ancestors worked; while they are paid for their labor, they’re paid far less than white workers. The legal system is similar. While it’s true that a black person in the era of slavery would never have received a trial at all, Jefferson’s murder trial, the novel implies, is little better: the all-white jury never takes Jefferson’s defense that he did not commit the crime seriously—it treats Jefferson as guilty until proven innocent. The racism inherent in the trial is perhaps made most obvious by the defense attorney whose job it is to represent Jefferson. This attorney urges the jury to acquit Jefferson on the grounds that Jefferson is more similar to a hog than to a man, and deserves mercy for that reason. It is the defense attorney’s comparison of Jefferson to a pig that causes Miss Emma, Jefferson’s grandmother, to approach the schoolteacher Grant to ask him to help Jefferson to die like a man rather than like a hog. (Note the possibility that Jefferson might appeal and overturn the verdict against him is never even considered; it’s simply out of the realm of possibility in the racist world of the novel). The novel can be seen as depicting the struggle of not just Jefferson, but also Grant and other black characters, to live or even to die like humans – with dignity and self-respect – in a brutally racist world.

At the same time, the novel also shows how the black characters in A Lesson Before Dying have themselves absorbed the racist ideas of which they are the victims. For instance, Vivian is lighter skinned than most of the black people in Bayonne, which immediately attracts the interest of the other black characters. And, later, Grant thinks to himself that mulattoes—people of mixed racial heritage—despise dark-skinned black people as much as white people do. Even though mulattoes are equally the victims of racism—banned from white bars and restaurants, forbidden from holding high-paying jobs—they try to act more like whites in their hatred of darker-skinned people.

In part, Grant agrees to Miss Emma’s request that he “educate” Jefferson because he wants Jefferson to fight racism. As Grant puts it, Jefferson will challenge the racists who sentenced him to death when he walks into the courthouse like a man. Grant’s advice is truer than he knows: as Henri Pichot’s bet makes clear, white racists are counting on Jefferson killing himself before he’s electrocuted. We can assume that Jefferson’s pride and courage on the day of his execution displeases Pichot and upsets his racist beliefs, if only a little.

Ultimately, one man’s behavior can only alter a racist society so much, but in the novel Gaines suggests how racism might be fought in the long term. He suggests this first in the way that Jefferson matures and comes to serve as a dignified representative of his people who commands respect. He also suggests how racism might be fought through the friendship that develops between Grant and Paul Bonin, the white deputy guard at the jailhouse where Jefferson is being held. During Grant’s visits, Paul gradually develops respect for Grant and Jefferson, and wants to believe that Grant will succeed in his mission to help Jefferson become a man. After Jefferson is executed, Paul shakes Grant’s hand and says that he’d like to be a friend to Grant. If racism is a collection of false information about other races, then, the novel suggests, the antidote is education and mutual understanding, of the kind that Paul gradually receives while watching Grant and Jefferson.

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Racism Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in A Lesson Before Dying related to the theme of Racism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

Related Characters: The defense attorney (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Jefferson's defense attorney offers an incredibly cynical argument in a last-ditch effort to keep Jefferson from being sentenced to the electric chair for the crime of killing a shopkeeper. Basically, the attorney is saying: "He's guilty, but he's not even human, so it's not right to execute him for the crime he committed." In the end, the attorney's arguments have no effect on the result of the case: Jefferson is sentenced to death, setting in motion the events of the novel. As Gaines shows us later on, Jefferson is deeply traumatized by his own attorney's words: he comes to think of himself as a mere "hog," unworthy of any love or respect.

It is crucial for us to notice that Jefferson's own defense attorney, not his prosecutor, is the one who makes such a racist argument and has such a negative impact on Jefferson's self-esteem. This suggests an even bigger point: during this era, the institutions that are supposed to support all Americans, such as courts, schools, etc., actually wind up keeping Black Americans in an oppressed state and suppressing their dignity.

In general, this is the single most important quote in the novel; the one to which Grant and Jefferson will keep returning. Grant's project is to convince Jefferson that the attorney is wrong: i.e., Jefferson is more valuable than a hog, because he is a human being with dignity, self-respect, and responsibility. Furthermore, by establishing the depth of racism in Louisiana at this time, the quote reminds us of the deeply-ingrained prejudices that Grant and Jefferson are fighting against.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“What can I do? It’s only a matter of weeks, a couple of months, maybe. What can I do that you haven’t done the past twenty-one years?”
“You the teacher,” she said.
“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach— reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Miss Emma Glenn (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote establishes the setup for the plot of Gaines's novel:  Emma is trying to convince Grant to teach Jefferson, recently sentenced to death, self-respect in the face of societal racism and dehumanization. At this point in the novel, Grant is pessimistic about his project: he doesn't think he can possibly bring Jefferson any kind of enlightenment or self-respect. In part he believes that it is impossible to impart such lessons in just a few weeks, but more profoundly Grant believes that he himself is unable to teach such lessons, or that such lessons can be taught at all.

Grant is sure that he'll have little success with Jefferson, because he doesn't really believe in the power of education to begin with: years of working in a poor black school have convinced him that none of his lessons really matter in the end, because none of these lessons address the root causes of the black community's pain and suffering. Instead of genuinely helping his students, Grant's work as a schoolteacher just reinforces his subservience to the racist white establishment in Louisiana. Even when Grant is teaching his students how to read and write (empowering them, one might think), he feels that he's just obeying "white folks," and may be preparing his students for a lifetime spent obeying "white folks," too.

Grant's cynicism here shows us that the arc of the novel is twofold: on one hand, Jefferson will have to learn to respect himself; on the other, Grant will have to learn that he can make a difference with his teaching—in other words, he'll have to learn some self-respect, too. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

Before I left for the university, my aunt sat me down at the table in our kitchen and said to me, “Me and Emma can make out all right without you coming through that back door ever again.” I had not come through that back door once since leaving for the university, ten years before. I had been teaching on the place going on six years, and I had not been in Pichot’s yard, let alone gone up the back stairs or through that back door.

Related Characters: Jefferson (speaker), Tante Lou, Miss Emma Glenn, Henri Pichot
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

As a young man, Grant had to work for Henri Pichot, a bigoted, unfriendly white man who treats all black people with condescending disrespect. Like so many African Americans of the era, Grant resents his employer’s racism, but has no choice but to continue working for him: his financial neediness is a prison. It’s for this reason that Grant’s aunt encourages and helps him to educate himself. As his aunt Tante Lou sees it, education is a way out for Grant; a way for Grant to support himself without sacrificing his dignity or suffering the humiliation of working for a man like Pichot.

It’s hard to deny that Tante Lou has a point: as a schoolteacher, Grant has more autonomy and dignity than he would as Pichot’s servant (although, as we see, he still has to be subservient to white superiors). But the irony of Grant’s situation is that he’s only able to become an educated man because of his family’s hard, humiliating work for Pichot: in other words, he’s only able to become semi-independent because his loved ones become especially dependent on Pichot.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Edna turned back to me. “Grant, please tell Emma how sorry I am about Jefferson. I would do it myself, but I’m just too broken up over this matter. I ran into Madame Gropé just the other day; Lord, how sad she looks. Just dragging along. Poor old thing. I had to put my arms round her.” Edna drank from her glass.

Related Characters: Edna Guidry (speaker), Grant Wiggins , Jefferson
Related Symbols: Food and Meals
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Gaines gives us a window into the personality of Edna Guidry, one of the few white characters in the novel who shows sympathy for black people. Edna knows that Jefferson is going to be executed for his supposed crimes, and she seems to grasp at least some of the injustice in this: she recognizes that Jefferson’s death is going to affect the lives of other people, such as Miss Emma and Tante Lou. It’s surely not a coincidence that Edna, one of the only compassionate white characters in the novel, is also a woman: Gaines implies that Edna’s own position of subservience to white men makes her sympathetic to black men and women who are also subservient to white men.

And yet, in spite of Edna’s sympathy for Jefferson, she’s not nearly as compassionate as we might expect her to be: note that Emma is still drinking from her glass as she speaks to Grant, and that she’s supposedly too “broken up” to talk to Miss Emma herself. Put another way, Edna is concerned, but her concern also seems a bit like a performance to make herself feel like a good person. Her concern doesn't drive her to action; it's just a condescending concern. Perhaps it’s fair to say that Edna is a naturally kind and loving woman, who’s nonetheless partly blinded by the bigotry of her society. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t quite conceive of Jefferson as a full human being who’s deserving of her sympathy.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Dr. Joseph Morgan
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Dr. Joseph Morgan, the school superintendent, is an old, grumpy white man who plainly dislikes black people, and regards black students as second-class citizens, barely human beings at all. Here, he’s inspecting the black children in Grant’s classroom. But instead of spending lots of time examining the children for their intelligence or creativity, Morgan chooses to focus on their physical healthiness. Morgan's behavior immediately implies that black children are subpar thinkers, and that they’re more like animals who need to be examined for physical defects—in other words, playing into some of the oldest and most offensive stereotypes about minorities.

The scene is narrated from Grant’s perspective, meaning that the indignity and absurdity of the moment are crystal clear. (It doesn’t get any more sarcastic than Grant complimenting Morgan for his “humanitarianism.”) But Grant isn’t just being sardonic: by comparing Morgan to a slave master, he’s also making a serious point: very little has changed for black people in the United States since the days of slavery 100 years ago. Although the black community has gained the semblance of freedom and independence in this time (for example, black children can go to school), it’s still under the thumb of powerful white people, like Morgan, who consider blacks to be barely human.

Chapter 8 Quotes

It was he, Matthew Antoine, as teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Matthew Antoine
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

The old schoolteacher Matthew Antoine is one of the most interesting and complicated characters in this novel, and in this scene, Grant tells us about him. Antoine is a "mulatto" man, half-black and half-white. Although he’s been tasked with teaching black schoolchildren, Antoine doesn’t have any of the enthusiasm or affection one would usually associate with a schoolteacher. On the contrary, he thinks that his schoolchildren have nothing but misery and poverty ahead of them, and their education in his classroom won’t get them anything in life.

In a way, the “ghost” of Matthew Antoine haunts Grant throughout the entire novel. Grant is terrified of becoming like Matthew Antoine: becoming an old, bitter schoolteacher who hates himself and hates what he does. In part, Grant’s fear reflects his racial anxiety about his relationship to his community. Grant’s higher education and relatively privileged position as a schoolteacher distances him from the black community, without endearing him to white people like Dr. Joseph Morgan. In other words, one could argue that Grant thinks of himself as being “half black, half white,” just like Matthew Antoine; he's caught between two worlds, and doesn't fully belong to either one. Grant knows that he’s wrong to be so cynical about his profession and the future of his children, but he can’t help it—without a strong community behind him, or any evidence that things will actually improve for his students, he can’t help the fact that he’s growing more like his old teacher.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it,” I told my aunt. They were looking at the fire, and I stood behind them with the bag of food. “The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen. The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me. Now going up to that jail. To watch them put their dirty hands on that food. To search my body each time as if I’m some kind of common criminal. Maybe today they’ll want to look into my mouth, or my nostrils, or make me strip. Anything to humiliate me. All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school. Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be. But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it.”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Tante Lou
Related Symbols: Fire, Heat, and Warmth, Food and Meals
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Grant lays out the paradox of his mission to educate Jefferson. Grant has worked very hard under the assumption that education will “save” him—that it will free him from his dependence on racist white people like Henri Pichot. But now, Grant’s training as an educator has once again made him subservient to Pichot and his racist friends: Grant is forced to beg before Pichot in order to continue visiting Jefferson in his cell. Furthermore, Grant’s aunt, who’d always worked hard to make Grant independent, is now pressuring Grant to be submissive to Pichot once again.

While it’s certainly possible to see this situation from Grant’s point of view (it is unfair that Grant has to behave this way just to help his friend) it’s also clear why Lou is pressuring Grant. Humiliating though it is, begging is the only way Lou can accomplish the greater good of educating Jefferson. Furthermore, Grant's speech suggests that he's learned to value independence too highly: he thinks he can be independent not just from white people but also from his friends and family. By pressuring Grant to talk to Pichot, Lou is reminding Grant that nobody is truly independent: Grant owes a tremendous debt to the black people in his community. Strangely, begging before Pichot once again is the price Grant must pay for rediscovering this important truth.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“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’re 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. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

During his visit to Jefferson's cell, Grant tells Jefferson that he must act as a role model and a beacon of hope for the black community in Louisiana. But in this section, Grant goes further and tells Jefferson that he has another job. By standing proudly for his execution, Jefferson will prove to the racist white society of Louisiana that blacks aren't animals or second-class citizens.

Grant's explanation suggests that white racism in the South is a constant process, during which executions are a reminder of the black community's subservience and inferiority. Jefferson's execution, Grant implies, is designed to prove to whites that blacks are weak, thereby preserving a myth of white superiority. As a result, Jefferson can challenge white racism simply by standing proudly and going to his death without displaying fear.

Grant's explanation of the "myth" effectively answers the question that Grant himself posed earlier in the novel: What's the point of educating Jefferson? As Grant now recognizes, educating and empowering Jefferson has tremendous value for the entire black community. As a strong, empowered man, Jefferson can act as a "warrior" against racism, proving that whites' assumptions about his race are vicious lies.

Chapter 25 Quotes

I knew that like so many of the mulattos in this part of the state, they did bricklaying or carpentry, and possibly some housepainting. All this by contract. And all this to keep from working in the field side by side with the niggers. Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the niggers. They controlled most of the bricklaying business in this part of the state. Even took that kind of work from the white boys, because they would do it so much cheaper than the white boys would. Anything not to work alongside the niggers.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker)
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

At a bar, Grant notices a group of "mulatto" (mixed-race) men and muses about their relationship with the black community and the white community. Ironically, he notes, mixed-race people often despise black people even more than white people do. And yet "mulattoes" are just as alien to the white community as fully black people are: as far as someone like Henri Pichot is concerned, there's no real difference between someone who's half-black and someone who's full-black.

Grant's observations about the mixed-race men are important to the novel because they reflect Grant's own uncertain relationship with his community in Louisiana. One could even say that, metaphorically, Grant is racially-mixed. As an educated black man, he's been given access to resources usually reserved for the white community (such as higher education). Grant's education and training make him dislike his  black community in Louisiana: he considers his church ignorant and foolish, and he often treats his family with barely-disguised contempt. And yet in spite of his education and dislike for aspects of his black community, Grant certainly doesn't belong alongside white people in Louisiana. College education or not, he's identical to any other black man, as far as Pichot is concerned. Grant is trapped between two worlds, and he's not entirely comfortable with either one.

Chapter 27 Quotes

“She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bleed from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ’Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”

Related Characters: Reverend Moses Ambrose (speaker), Grant Wiggins , Tante Lou
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, Grant has treated the Reverend Moses Ambrose—the head of the black church in Grant's community—as a figure of ridicule; an impossibly naive man who encourages his churchgoers to accept their status as second-class citizens in the delusional hope that their submissiveness will get them into Heaven. But in this scene, Grant begins to see that Ambrose isn't as naive as he'd believed. In fact, in some ways, Ambrose is much more perceptive and cynical than Grant. Even though Ambrose doesn't know Tante Lou remotely as well as Grant does, he knows that she sacrificed her health and happiness while working hard to send Grant to college. Ironically, Ambrose is more "educated" about the realities of life than Grant the college boy.

Grant's clash with Ambrose is important because it dispels the myth of independence, a myth that Grant has subscribed to for most of his adult life. Grant believes that he survive on his own; that he doesn't need a family, a church, or a network of friends. As Ambrose makes clear, however, Grant's attitude of rugged independence is only possible in the first place because his aunt worked for years to send him to school. Grant has been lying to himself, patting himself on the back while trying to forget that he was totally dependent on his aunt. Tante Lou is then also a testament to the strength of black women: without drawing attention to themselves, they work hard for their loved ones.