What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
In Chapter 1, Jefferson’s defense attorney asks the jury to spare -Jefferson’s life by implying it would be cruel to kill a man no more intelligent or moral than a hog. He voices the ugly belief, held by many whites, that blacks are animals. Jefferson becomes haunted by the idea and begins acting like a hog, angrily refusing to talk and rooting through his food. Miss Emma realizes the impact the attorney’s words have on Jefferson and makes it her business to ensure Jefferson dies like a man, not like an animal. When Jefferson decides to die with dignity, he shakes off the jeering stereotypes pinned on him by whites. Furthermore, because the attorney expressed a stereotype about blacks held by many whites, when Jefferson acts nobly he acts on behalf of an entire oppressed community.
Matthew Antoine, Grant’s primary school teacher, was a defeated, bitter man whose attitude affected Grant’s perception of Southern society. In Chapter 8, Grant recalls visiting Antoine on his deathbed and hearing him say these words. Grant thought he could change things for the better through his teaching, and Antoine disagreed, saying even Grant’s best efforts would fail. Antoine’s belief in black failure has a firm basis in fact, for his society does make it nearly impossible for blacks to succeed. However, the belief also stems from his own racism. Antoine is of mixed race and frankly admits that he feels superior to blacks and inferior to whites. He also admits these notions of superiority are not natural, but created by society. Still, he suggests that after your own inferiority gets drummed into your head, it no longer matters if you are actually inferior or only treated as if you are.
Grant resists Antoine’s defeatism at first, but by the time the novel begins he has come to embrace it. He believes, like Antoine, that society forces blacks in the South to fail and that the efforts of one man can do nothing to change things. He also begins to feel that failure is inherent in blacks themselves, that it is not simply the effect of an oppressive system.
In Chapter 22, Jefferson expresses to Grant a wish to eat vanilla ice cream. This statement marks the first step of Jefferson’s recovery. Jefferson has spent the first half of this novel in a daze, asking for nothing and hardly speaking. He has expressed no personal desire, allowing people to feed him and move him around as if he is the animal his lawyer called him. With this simple desire for ice cream, he begins to act like a human again by expressing desire and personality. Jefferson’s request also illustrates the beginnings of his realization of self-worth. Jefferson says he never had the opportunity to eat a filling portion of ice cream in the past. Now, for the first time, he does not wordlessly accept his meager portion, but says he would like a larger share. Although here he talks about food, this desire for more will soon spread to include a desire for more respect.
During his visit to the jail with Miss Emma and Reverend Ambrose in Chapter 24, Grant walks with Jefferson and tells him that Jefferson’s death is mightily important. Grant knows that the community will remember the execution for a long time and that Jefferson’s final moments will have a powerful impact on many people. He wants to make that impact a good one, so he asks a very difficult thing of Jefferson: to die with absolute dignity. Grant wants Jefferson to show the white community that he is not an animal, as they think he is, but a dignified man, as he can be if he tries. This speech rouses the usually angry Jefferson, and he cries listening to it.
In Chapter 29, Jefferson writes these words to Grant in his diary. His farewell shows he understands what his life and death mean to his people: he wants Grant to bolster the black community by telling them that Grant died as a strong, brave man. He addresses his last words to the man who helped him change. Jefferson once lived a life of unthinking submission. After the trial he lived in anger, acting out like an animal in his cell and mistreating the people who loved him, but now he is thoughtful and courageous. He fills his diary with tender words for Grant, showing that to be a man means to reciprocate affection. Grant also learns about reciprocating affection, from the affection of Vivian and his family to the affection of Jefferson and the community.
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