Miss Emma proposes that Grant go to the jailhouse with Lou and Ambrose as often as possible, and though Grant doesn’t want to spend time with Ambrose after their argument in the previous chapter, his aunt’s encouragement makes him agree. Immediately before the group’s first visit, Grant goes to Bayonne and buys peanuts, pecans, and a small notebook and pencil. When he arrives at the jailhouse, Lou, Ambrose, and Emma are already waiting, though he doesn’t explain that he was late because he was buying things for Jefferson. He sees that Emma isn’t angry with him, and this satisfies him.
Grant still isn’t exactly sure how to reach Jefferson, so he tries the same thing that worked in the last chapter: bring pecans. In earlier chapters, Grant would have argued with Lou and Emma about being late; the fact that he doesn’t, and is content to know that he was right to be late, shows that he’s more concerned about Jefferson’s happiness than winning arguments with other people.
At the jailhouse, Paul isn’t present; instead, the chief deputy escorts them to the dayroom without saying anything. Grant asks where Paul is, and when the chief deputy replies, he calls him “Mr. Paul,” reminding Grant how Black people are supposed to address white people.
Paul is a rarity: a respectful, non-bigoted guard in an institution steeped in bigotry and disrespect. In contrast, the chief deputy’s behavior reminds us that this is the case: his demand that Grant call Paul “Mr. Paul” is a demand that Grant verbally recognize his inferiority to all white people, Paul included.
In the dayroom, Jefferson doesn’t respond when Miss Emma shows him the food she’s brought, but he answers Grant when Grant greets him. The group eats gumbo together, and Grant almost forgets to say grace before the meal; he notices that Jefferson remembers. Ambrose prays to God for salvation for all the sinners in Bayonne. Grant and Jefferson don’t say “Amen” to any of this, but Emma and Lou do. The meal begins, but Jefferson doesn’t eat, although he at least says “no” to Miss Emma when she asks if he’s hungry. Grant asks Jefferson about the pecans and peanuts he brought, and Jefferson says that he’s eaten some of them.
We begin to get a better feeling for Jefferson’s thoughts and feelings, even before he begins writing in his notebook. This shows that Jefferson is growing up—in a sense, progressing from hog to child to man. Even if Grant doesn’t agree with Jefferson’s religious beliefs, he’s happy to see Jefferson behaving like an adult.
As the others eat and watch, Jefferson and Grant stand up and walk slowly around the dayroom, with Jefferson in shackles. Grant tells Jefferson that he should be a friend to Miss Emma, and asks him if he’ll eat some of her gumbo; Jefferson gives a slight nod. Grant next tells Jefferson about heroism. A hero, he says, devotes himself to other people and gives no thought to himself. Grant says that he himself is not a hero, although he teaches children; he’s only become a teacher because it was the one career path available to an educated Black man. He’s taught the children reading, writing, and arithmetic, but nothing about dignity or self-worth. Jefferson, Grant says, can be a true hero by refusing to be a scapegoat for the white men who have sentenced him to death.
Grant’s definition of heroism hinges on individual sacrifice: giving up things so that other people can be happy. While he insists that he is a selfish man, Grant has shown many signs of unselfish behavior recently: he’s spent his own money on the radio, bought Jefferson a notebook and pencil, etc. This suggests that while Grant educates Jefferson, he’s inadvertently teaching himself to be a better person. This process of self-improvement is intimately tied with fighting racism: it’s a racist myth that Black people can’t change, that Black people are lazy, that Black people are “animals”, and this is the myth Jefferson must disprove.
As they pace around the dayroom, Grant tells Jefferson more about what he wants him to do. White people believe in the myth of their own superiority to Black people, he tells Jefferson. If Jefferson were to die like a man, it would help to prove that Black people aren’t inferior to white people, and thus that Black People shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens, as they are by Sheriff Guidry. He tells Jefferson that white people feel safe with Reverend Ambrose, but that he doesn’t want them to feel safe with Jefferson, without explaining what he means by “safe.”
Grant’s reasons for teaching Jefferson are both personal and public. He wants to help Jefferson become a better man, but he also wants Jefferson to accept his status as a symbol and use it to fight the racist white people. It is important that Grant is explaining this all to Jefferson because it shows that it isn’t that Grant wants to use Jefferson as a symbol. Instead, he wants Jefferson to accept and use his own status as a symbol. The nature of the “fight” that Jefferson is making with white people is hard to describe; certainly it doesn’t make white people any less powerful or racist. Yet it perhaps establishes the beginning of a foundation for change, proving that Black people are fully human and fully capable of great acts of courage.
Grant sees that Jefferson has been crying softly as Grant has been speaking. Nevertheless, Grant tells Jefferson that he needs Jefferson to be strong. In this way, Grant will find a purpose for himself. He makes an analogy: in his spare time, Farrell takes rough pieces of wood and polishes them until they are smooth and beautiful. Human beings are like these rough pieces of wood; they must become the prettier, more perfect thing they have the potential to be. Thus, Jefferson must become a better man, and in the process bring joy and pride to Emma, Lou, Ambrose, and the entire Black community. As Grant explains all this, Jefferson continues to cry. Grant thinks that he has touched Jefferson, even if he isn’t sure exactly how. Perhaps Jefferson is crying, Grant thinks, because he feels himself to be “part of the whole.” With this thought, he and Jefferson sit down to have some of Emma’s gumbo.
Grant’s analogy is important because the rough piece of wood already contains the beautifully polished final product. By the same logic, Jefferson, despite seeming rough and “unpolished,” already contains a moral, courageous being inside of himself: it’s Grant’s job to remind Jefferson of the basic rules of right and wrong. The process of self-education implied in Grant’s analogy is closely tied to a process of interpersonal connection. Thus, Jefferson cries because he feels himself surrounded by love and affection, and recognizes that he loves the people who have come to visit him. And with this realization, Jefferson finally accepts the food that Miss Emma has brought him. He sits down and eats with others. He rejoins the community.