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.
Racism Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”