These words, written for Grant in Jefferson’s diary, portray his learned lesson and how he understands precisely what his life and his death signify. Jefferson was a sullen, withdrawn man, believing himself to be no better than a hog, and who lived a life of submission, acting out like an animal and disrespecting people who loved him. Nonetheless, Jefferson grew into a respectful and loving person, who acknowledges that to be a man means to reciprocate love. A Lesson Before Dying portrays the generalized idea within the community that African American people are inferior, therefore, have no dignity or honor.
Jefferson’s newly found dignity confounds white expectations that he will die as he has lived, an ignorant hog. By the end of the novel, Jefferson understands that by dying like a man, he will defy the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just of murder, but also of being African American. He knows that by refusing to bow down in his final moments, he will make his community proud. For these reasons, he walks to his execution resolute, and onlookers say he is the strongest man in the room. “Tell them he was the strongest man in that room today”(Gaines, 256).
The effect that Jefferson’s execution had on the community and the lesson it conveyed upon it is portrayed when Grant claims, “I want you to show them the difference between what they (the white community) think you are and what you can be” (Gaines 191). Jefferson’s execution becomes symbolic and the community will long remember it, so he asks that his final moments make an impact on the whole society. With Jefferson’s dynamic last impression the whole community learns the most important lesson of all, Jefferson’s death with dignity marks the beginning of acknowledgement of human equality.
Racism and discrimination of African Americans has never been portrayed so vividly and severely as in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. One must acknowledge the symbolism encompassed by the title, this lesson; that is expected to be learned solely by Jefferson, the unjustly convicted African American, is accepted by a wider range of characters. As Grant struggles to impart a sense of pride to Jefferson before he must face his death, he learns an important lesson as well: heroism is not always expressed through action, sometimes the simple act of showing identity is sufficient.
In Jefferson’s attempt to accept his upcoming death, he struggles to comprehend the significance of his execution and how it has gained him a sense of respect he had not previously attained. Lastly, one must recognize the most symbolic lesson learned throughout the novel, that of the racist community who come to see Jefferson’s execution as a beginning of black empowerment.
Work Cited Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage Books 1993.