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A Lesson Before Dying Seminar

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Mike Genova

on 16 May 2014

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Transcript of A Lesson Before Dying Seminar

Grant, being a lost soul himself, feels that there is no hope for Jefferson or his students, as they are all victims of a racist and oppressive society. However, we see these attitudes begin to change as they embrace community and religion into their lives. Although Grant and Jefferson are very different characters, they share an initial identity as “broken men” or lost souls, who in turn learn many life lessons from each other.
Gaines's depiction of the children of the plantation: seeds of hope or lost souls?
- Grant and Jefferson feel trapped by the racist and oppressive attitudes that exist in Bayonne, Louisiana.
- Both men have developed a pessimistic and depressing outlook on life, feeling that they have no hope in determining their destiny or in making a change to their community. These feelings are passed on to the children of the plantation, who are also depicted as lost souls.
“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” (Gaines 192).
- Jefferson and Grant seek to destroy this myth to make Jefferson a hero in the community and create hope for the plantation children.
- Grant and Jefferson learn many lessons from each other, therefore it is not just Grant who does the teaching.
“All along Grant has recognized parts of himself in Jefferson, especially the futility of their positions. Now, though, Grant begins to see possibility. Grant's verbal confession that he needs Jefferson, because Jefferson represents his "need to know what to do with my life," suggests not only a reversal of roles but also an emotional breakthrough” (Carmean).

Lost Souls
- We see the transformation of Grant, Jefferson, and the students from lost souls to seeds of hope, as they learn to overcome the obstacles and suffering of the past in order to embrace the future.
The Transformation
into Seeds of Hope
“No matter how bad off we are…we still owe something” (Gaines 139). "lowly as I am, I am still part of the whole" (Gaines 194).
-It is this moral obligation to the community that provides both men with a sense of self-worth and pride.
- Jefferson appreciates the support from those around him and begins to embrace his community.
“This is the beginning of Jefferson's knowledge of a humanity learned only with the support of Miss Emma, Tante Lou, Grant, Rev. Ambrose, and countless others in the village” (Folks).
Grant realizes the impact that he has made when Jefferson tells him "... i cry cause you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody ain't never been that good to make me think im somebody ..." (Gaines 232).
- Jefferson is very thankful to Grant for teaching him, for listening to him, and for making him feel like a man.
Jefferson also realizes his role and obligation to his community when he states, “‘Me, Mr. Wiggins. Me. Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan's cross, my own cross. Me, Mr. Wiggins. This old stumbling nigger. Y'all axe a lot, Mr. Wiggins. ... Whoever car'd my cross. Mr. Wiggins? ... Yes, I'm youman, Mr. Wiggins. But nobody didn't know that 'fore now. Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by. Everybody thought that's how it was s'pose to be. You too, Mr. Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing else. I didn't either. ... Now all y'all want me to be better than ever'body else” (Gaines 224).
- Jefferson realizes his role and obligation to his community and recognizes that he must carry the cross as a final sacrifice for his community and those he loves, just as Jesus did.
A Lesson Before Dying
A Lesson Before Dying
, Gaines uses the characters of Grant Wiggins and Jefferson to depict the children of the plantation as lost souls and seeds of hope. The children share in the journey of Grant and Jefferson as they start out as lost souls who, through the powerful influences of religion and community, transform into seeds of hope.
- Jefferson, a twenty-one year old black man, is wrongfully accused of a murder he did not commit and is sentenced to death in the electric chair.
electric chair
“Do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull,...Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery … can plan anything? ...No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command.... What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen. Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (Gaines 7-8).
"Who am I?" "Do I know what a man is?" and "What will I have accomplished?" (Gaines 31).
- Jefferson's own defense lawyer calls him a "hog", which is very racist and offensive towards Jefferson since he is black. Jefferson takes this very personally.
- Miss Emma wants Grant to visit Jefferson and help him walk to the chair as a man. Grant is unsure about what he has to do or what he is supposed to say.
- Grant feels that any education he provides to his students is useless and will not have an impact on their future because they will always be looked down on by white people.
“What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything?” (Gaines 62).
- When Grant is faced with the task of turning Jefferson into a “man,” they both learn the importance of religion and community, and in turn discover the true meaning of manhood.
- Grant teaches Jefferson about self-worth and pride in order to overcome the myths relating to racism and oppression.
- Reverend Ambrose plays a crucial role in helping Jefferson understand and embrace Christ. He believes it is important to save Jefferson’s soul in order for him to truly become a man and a hero for his community. Even though Grant has turned away from the church, he encourages Jefferson to turn to prayer for comfort just as the community and his students have learned to embrace their faith.
- The children pray for him and dedicate their Christmas play to him
“Grant comes to understand the role of religion as a collective narrative of hope within a traditional community” (Folks).
By: Michael Genova
A hero is someone "who does something for other people ...
something that other men don't and can't do" (Gaines 191).
- A hero does for others and would do anything he could for the people he loves to make their lives better.
- The courage that Jefferson displays in walking to his death like a man and not a hog makes him a hero and leaves a legacy for the community, someone they can all be proud of as they mourn his loss. Jefferson’s heroic sacrifice creates hope once more for Grant and his students, as the community joins together and rises above its “brokenness.”
After Jefferson’s execution, Paul Bonin tells Grant to inform his students that Jefferson walked to his death as
the “bravest man in that room” (Gaines 256).
- Paul wants the students to know how Grant
succeeded in changing Jefferson from a “hog” to a “man.”

A “white deputy is reaching out to the black teacher and the young black prisoner, extending to them the empathy, understanding, praise, recognition, congeniality, and friendship that Grant and Jefferson have never previously experienced in their relations with white people” (Piacentino)
- Jefferson’s death has already had an impact on those around him by helping to overcome the racist and oppressive attitudes in Bayonne.

Grant “must accept his ability to teach, to make a difference; and he must accept his role as witness himself to the possibility of transformation. He must now be a believer, in himself, in learning, in love, and in the community they can engender. His manhood depends on it” (Byerman).
- Paul Bonin compliments Grant for being a good teacher to Jefferson, making Grant realize that he has also experienced a transformation which he must now share with his students.
With Jefferson’s help, Grant and his students have also become seeds of hope. Grant acknowledges his true calling and his obligation to his students and his community. He recognizes that to be a teacher in the truest sense of the word, one “has to believe” – believe in community, believe in faith, and believe in a renewed hope for the future.
Faced with the harsh realities of a racist and oppressive society, the children of the plantation persevered through the hardships of 1940s Louisiana. Gaines uses the characters of Grant Wiggins and Jefferson in his depiction of these children and their destiny in life. At first, Grant feels like a “broken man,” unable to truly make a difference in the lives of Jefferson and his students. Through the powerful influences of religion and community, we witness their transformation from lost souls into seeds of hope. “Out of this traumatic history can come a different future. That change, however, requires witnesses to both the past and the possibilities for transformation. A Lesson Before Dying is an assertion that people ... must be part of the community being created” (Byerman).
The community demonstrates their connection with Jefferson through their prayers and visits, and also when people from town pitch in to buy him a radio. Grant’s students purchase a Christmas gift and dedicate their Christmas play to Jefferson, showing their constant support for Jefferson throughout his journey. These actions reveal how,
along with Grant and Jefferson, the
students also begin to embrace faith
and community, and thus share in the transformation into seeds of hope.
Thematic Connection:
- Similar to the short story,
The First Day,
where the mother, with the help of those around her, is able to overcome obstacles in order to help register her daughter for school so that she can have a bright future. In a similar way, Grant must face his own obstacles and is supported by those in the community in order to help Jefferson realize his self-worth and become a man. In turn, Grant also develops a renewed hope for his students.
- Relates to the movie,
The Green Mile
. In the end, John Coffey didn’t run from his execution when he had the chance to, had no fear, knew it must happen, and died for what he believed in. This is similar to Jefferson who demonstrates his heroism by walking to the electric chair as a man and provides a renewed sense of hope for the children of the plantation.

The students rose “with their shoulders back. I went up to the desk and turned to face them. I was crying” (Gaines 256).
- Jefferson’s transformation and his final sacrifice has created a sense of pride for the children as they stand with “their shoulders back.”
- Grant has changed from a bitter and pessimistic person to a thoughtful and caring teacher, sharing his true emotions with students. This change has come from the realization that he can have an impact on his students as he now considers them seeds of hope.

“Morgan’s visit reaffirms Grant’s belief that no matter what he teaches, his students will continue to be field-workers, and it sharpens Grant’s growing awareness of the connection between his students and Jefferson” (Carmean 119).
- When Dr. Joseph Morgan, the school superintendent, comes to visit, he inspects the student’s hands and teeth as if they were slaves.
- This makes Grant realize that Dr. Joseph does not value the black student’s intellectual achievements, making his role as a teacher appear more pointless. It also reinforces how these children are looked down on by the white people.
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