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CHAPTER ANALYSIS AND SUMMARY - A Lesson Before Dying
Granted stared at Miss Emma in the rear-view mirror as they drove to visit Jefferson in the jail in Bayonne. She was not looking at anything in particular, just thinking. At about two o’clock they pulled up to the courthouse and waited for a deputy to help them. Miss Emma had brought food and clothes for Jefferson, and both she and Grant emptied out their pockets to show they were trying to smuggle in anything else. A deputy walked them up the stairs and down the corridor, past rows of prisoners who asked for money, to Jefferson’s cell, where he locked them inside.
Jefferson lay on his bunk staring at the ceiling. Despite Miss Emma’s many attempts to talk with him, he just lay there in silence. She took the basket and began to lay out the food, hoping that would get his attention. But Jefferson only muttered “It don’t matter” (Page 73) and continued to stare up at the ceiling. Ignoring his godmother’s pleas for him to eat, Jefferson asked if they knew when the state was going to execute him. Jefferson looked at Grant and asked if he was with them, if he was the one who was going to jerk the switch. Miss Emma didn’t understand, but Grant understood perfectly. Finally, Jefferson turned his back to them and faced the gray concrete wall. He refused to talk anymore. Miss Emma began to cry as Grant put his arm around her and led her out of the cell.
Grant dreads the process of entering the jail because the ‘security
checks’ because he must subject himself to whatever the Sheriff requires - food
check, emptying pockets, even a strip search if they choose. He sees this process
as a way of breaking him down into what Antoine calls ‘the nigger you were born
During this brief interview, Jefferson and Grant make an eerie yet important connection. Miss Emma does not understand when Jefferson asks if Grant will be his executioner, the one who will jerk the switch. Grant, however, recognizes the terrible meaning and has to look away.
The next few visits were exactly the same. Miss Emma packed a big basket of food, they walked down the corridor past the other prisoners who asked for money or food, Jefferson would ignore them for an hour, and Miss Emma would leave crying. On the fourth visit, Grant pulled up to the house to pick up Miss Emma, but she wasn’t waiting for him. His Aunt Tante Lou informed him that Miss Emma’s health would not allow her to go today, and Grant should go alone.
When he entered the house he saw Miss Emma looked fine. Then he realized that the two women had planned this from the beginning. They had decided to make him responsible for visiting Jefferson and trying to lift his spirits. Angry at finding himself in this position, he lashed out at his aunt. He thought the reason she sent him to university was so that he could avoid the type of humiliation he endured every time he visited the prison. Antoine had told him the white man would make him a nigger, and now he felt his aunt was helping them do exactly that. Aunt Tante Lou felt sorry for that, but Grant had to go because there was no one else.
Grant’s family looks to him for leadership because he’s a university graduate and the community teacher. As such, he also bears certain responsibilities towards the people in the quarter. This is one of the reasons he cannot make himself leave. As his aunt tells him, if he were to leave “there is no one else” to help give the people hope, to pull them out of poverty and ignorance.