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The narrator, Grant Wiggins, begins his story with a flashback to the trial of Jefferson, an African-American youth, for the murder of Alcee Gropé, a white storekeeper. During the trial, Jefferson tries to explain what happened the day of the murder. He says that he accepted a ride from two older acquaintances, Bear and Brother, who hoped that Jefferson could lend them some money to buy a drink. Jefferson had no money, so they went to Gropé’s store, hoping he would give them some wine on credit. Gropé refused, and Bear, already drunk, attacked the storekeeper. A scuffle ensued, with Brother, Bear, and Gropé dead. Jefferson, unsure what to do, took a bottle of whiskey and some cash from the register and tried to run away, but two white men entering the store caught him and took him to the police.
In the opening section of A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines establishes the environment of extreme segregation and prejudice in which his characters live. He offers a detailed description of Bayonne and its businesses, driving home the extent to which the very geography of the region has been disfigured by racism. In contrast, very little segregation is mentioned in the small community outside Bayonne, where most of the novel takes place. However, despite the fact that “the quarter” seems like a safe haven from the overt prejudice in Bayonne and Baton Rouge, it is still the location of the novel’s most heinous atrocity—the racially motivated arrest and prosecution of Jefferson. Even in a mostly-black community where racism is not as obvious as in the cities, its effects still pervade society.
Alcohol plays an important role for many of the characters, and even early in the novel, its disastrous impact on the black community is apparent. Jefferson is unable to construct a solid defense largely because he was drunk and cannot remember the day of the murder. Less dramatically, Grant Wiggins drinks brandy to distract himself from his problems, and his drunkenness leads him to concoct wild schemes to elope with Vivian, rather than developing a concrete plan to save money and move North like he wants to.