Grant and Jefferson are on a journey. Though they have vastly different educational backgrounds, their commonality of being black men who have lost hope brings them together in the search for the meaning of their lives. In the 1940’s small Cajun town of Bayonne, Louisiana, blacks may have legally been emancipated, but they were still enslaved by the antebellum myth of the place of black people in society. Customs established during the years of slavery negated the laws meant to give black people equal rights and the chains of tradition prevailed leaving both Grant and Jefferson trapped in mental slavery in their communities.
The struggles of Grant and Jefferson share a common theme, man’s search for meaning. Grant has the advantage of a college education, and while that may have provided some enlightenment, he remains in the same crossroads as Jefferson. Grant sees that regardless of what he does, the black students he teaches continue in the same jobs, the same poverty and same slave-like positions as their ancestors. Grant has no hope of making a difference and sees his life as meaningless. Though Jefferson’s conflict is more primal, it is the same as Grant’s struggle. Jefferson is searching for the most basic identity, whether he is man or animal. It is this conflict of meaning and identity that bring Grant and Jefferson together.
In this book, Ernest J. Gaines presents three views to determine manhood: law, education and religion. Jefferson has been convicted of a crime, and though he did not commit it, he is sentenced to death as a "hog" a word that denies any sense of worth or fragment of dignity he may have possessed in a world ruled by oppressive white bigots. Jefferson is at an even greater loss as he has no education and after the conviction he doubts that God can even exist in a world that would send an innocent man to his death. It is clear that Jefferson does not believe he has any value. " ‘I’m an old hog. Just an old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas’ " (83).
Though Grant may have had some advantages compared with Jefferson, his position in life was not significantly better than Jefferson’s. Grant knows that if he had been the black man sitting in the courtroom, he too would have been convicted. In his powerful opening to the novel, Grant says, "I was not there yet I was there...
... middle of paper ...
...rong tell them im a man" (234).
Jefferson died with dignity and Grant returned to Bayonne believing he could make a difference. It is not clear that religion, a belief in God, made the difference for either of them. It is clear that as they struggled with the issue of a higher power, they did discover that the meaning of their lives was not attached to the white man’s beliefs and myths, but rather came from inside themselves. To the end, they both struggled with whether or not there was a God. As they end their journey together, Jefferson is at peace and becomes a hero in his community. Though Grant cannot be a hero, he does find his place and returns to the schoolhouse with new hope and a vision for making a difference, if not for himself, for his students. He doubts himself at times, but he gains determination for his students. "Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe. They must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave" (Gaines 251)
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
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