A Lesson Before Dying was set during the time of segregation. During this time black people were slaves and white people had all the power. It never crossed a black mans mind that he could ever be considered a hero. The two main characters, Jefferson and Grant, are having trouble understanding how to be men, and that the simple acts of kindness they perform can make them heroes. Before their heroism can be discussed, it is important to understand how the relationship between those two men began. Jefferson is a young black man who was wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder of a white man in a liquor store shoot- out. His lawyer told the jury he was too stupid to have committed a murder and that he was nothing more then a “hog.” Nevertheless, Jefferson was sentenced to death by electrocution.
He takes the “hog” comment to heart and no longer seems to care about anything or anyone around him. Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, does not want him to die thinking he is a hog. She wants him to die a man with dignity. Therefore, she seeks the help of Grant Wiggins, who she asks to visit Jefferson, and teach him how to be a man before he dies. Unfortunately, Grant is confused about his own life and what a man is supposed to be. Grant is a man who left his hometown to further his education at a university.
He resents his life because he came back and became a teacher, but he does not think he is making a difference with his students or people in his community because of the segregation that is still going on. He wants to run away from his problems. Even though he does not think he could make a difference, he still does Miss Emma the favor of going to visit Jefferson. While visiting Jefferson, Grant becomes his close friend. He realizes why Jefferson feels he is a hog and why Miss Emma wants him to die a man. Grants ends up being the only person Jefferson will open up to, so he tells Jefferson to give something back to his godmother and become a hero for her and their entire community. Rivera 2
With their background understood, now it is possible to understand why Grant does not consider himself a hero, but believes Jefferson can become one. Grant defines a hero as, “Someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men can’t and won’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them. A hero does for others. He would do anything for people he loves, because he knows it would make their lives better.” Grant feels he does not meet the definition of a hero because he has always done what everyone has expected of him, by doing nothing but teach.
He feels he has done nothing to prove his dignity or love for anyone. Grant hates his life and wants to live for himself, his women and nobody else. He has never decided to change his life. The reason Grant believes Jefferson can and will become a hero is because he can give his godmother the gift of standing and walking to the electric chair and die a man. Jefferson can prove to the white men that he is not just another black man and he is not a hog. He can prove that he has dignity, a heart and love for his godmother and his people.
In the end, both Grant and Jefferson are heroes. Grant performs a random act of kindness for Miss Emma and Jefferson faces his fate by walking to the electric chair a man. They both have done things for others and have done things other men “can’t and won’t do.” They are both above other men and have proven that they have dignity, a heart and love for others. Grant teaches Jefferson how to die a man and at the same time learns to become a man himself.