In the Book, "A Lesson before Dying"
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Recognizing Injustice and Facing Responsibility
Grant often criticizes his society. He bitterly resents the racism of whites, and he cannot stand to think of Jefferson’s unjust conviction and imprisonment. For most of the novel, however, he does nothing to better his lot. He sarcastically claims that he teaches children to be strong men and women despite their surroundings, but he is a difficult, angry schoolmaster. Grant longs to run away and escape the society he feels will never change. Like Professor Antoine, he believes no one can change society without being destroyed in the process.
Jefferson’s trial reinforces Grant’s pessimistic attitude. Grant sees the wickedness of a system designed to uphold the superiority of one race over another. He sees a man struck down to the level of a hog by a few words from an attorney. He sees a judge blind to justice and a jury deaf to truth. These injustices are particularly infuriating because no one stands up to defy them. The entire town accepts Jefferson’s conviction with a solemn silence. Even Grant stays silent, resisting his aunt and Miss Emma, who implore him to teach Jefferson how to regain his humanity.
During the course of the novel, however, Grant comes to realize that cynicism like his is akin to lying down and dying, and that even small victories can accumulate and produce change. Rather than looking at Jefferson as a hopeless stranger, or ridiculing him as someone who tries to make Grant feel guilty, Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits, thereby taking the first step toward improving that society.
Racism pervades the ethnically mixed town of Bayonne, a fact that might not surprise those familiar with the history of the South at this time. However, Gaines also portrays racism within the African-American community in the quarter. Mulattos avoid associating with full-blooded African-Americans, and Grant himself harbors some negative stereotypes about mulattos, speculating that they all work in bricklaying so they don't have to be around full blacks. The women who are considered beautiful in the quarter all seem to be light-skinned. Gaines takes care to emphasize that anyone can be racist, without minimizing the enormity of segregation by whites.