A Lesson Before Dying
Summary: Chapter 22
I want me a whole gallona ice cream.
Grant goes to the courthouse to see Jefferson. Paul reluctantly searches the package of food for Jefferson. When Grant enters Jefferson’s cell, the conversation goes much better this time. Grant asks Jefferson if he would like anything, and Jefferson responds that he would like a gallon of vanilla ice cream to make up for the rest of his life, when he never got enough ice-cream. Jefferson likes Grant’s offer to bring him a little radio.
Grant borrows money from people at the Rainbow Club. He goes to a little store uptown to buy a small radio. The white sales clerk wants to give Grant the floor model instead of a brand new radio, but Grant stands his ground and the clerk caves in. Grant takes the radio to the courthouse, receives the sheriff’s permission to give it to Jefferson, and gives the radio to Paul to deliver to Jefferson.
Summary: Chapter 23
When Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose go to see Jefferson, they have to visit him in his cell because Jefferson refuses to leave his radio. They find him lying down on his bunk, staring at the wall and listening to music. He does not say a word. When they return home, Tante Lou blames Grant for the problem. Reverend Ambrose says that the radio is a sinful influence on Jefferson. Grant becomes furious. Last Friday was the first time Jefferson had ever opened up to him, and Grant refuses to take the radio away from Jefferson and potentially undo whatever progress he has made.
Grant goes back to see Jefferson. He brings a big bag of nuts that his students gathered for Jefferson. When Grant asks Jefferson to meet Miss Emma in the dayroom next time, Jefferson consents. Grant offers to bring Jefferson a little notebook so that he can write down any thoughts that come to his mind, and Jefferson agrees to the plan. As Grant leaves, Jefferson asks him with some hesitation to thank the children for the nuts. Grant is overjoyed, and he feels as if he has found religion. Stifling his impulse to hug Jefferson, Grant squeezes Jefferson’s hand kindly and leaves.
Summary: Chapter 24
I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.
Grant joins Miss Emma on her next visit to Jefferson, bringing along a notebook and pencil. In the dayroom, Jefferson refuses to eat at first. Grant asks Jefferson to walk with him around the room. As they walk, Grant tells Jefferson that a hero does something other men do not do or cannot do. Grant says that he (Grant) is not a hero, but that Jefferson can be a hero. Grant tells Jefferson about the white myth that black people are not human. Grant says he cannot stand up to defy whites, and that the reverend will not stand up to defy them, but Jefferson can do it. Grant tells Jefferson that he needs him more than Jefferson needs Grant. As Grant speaks, Jefferson cries quietly at his side, and Grant begins to cry too.
Analysis: Chapters 22–24
Grant’s experience in the department store shows how a racist society is racist even in its smallest interactions. Black citizens must depend on the caprices of whites, and if whites, such as the saleswoman who waits on Grant, do not feel like being fair, black people have no recourse. Although black people are no longer physically enslaved, in many ways, they are spiritually enslaved. Grant’s refusal to bow down to the saleswoman’s shoddy treatment represents a victory for him. He insists that she give him a new radio, and in the end she agrees. This turn of events does not seem like an immense victory, but it is an important one. Gaines suggests that the cunning evil of racism is the way it pervades daily life and begins to seem normal. Tiny moments that make black people feel second-class add up to total oppression. Refusing to tolerate even minor shoddy treatment makes a difference.
In these chapters, Jefferson begins to take steps toward recovering his dignity by voicing and acting upon personal desires. He admits to Grant that he wants ice cream and consents to write his thoughts down in a notebook. A few days later, he asks Grant to thank his students for their efforts. These may seem like minor incidents, but they mark the end of Jefferson’s isolation. Until this point, he has refused to admit wanting anything. Since acknowledging his intelligent desires is a human action, Jefferson seems to be relinquishing his tendency to deny his humanity. Now he reclaims his humanity by admitting he wants things and by thinking of others’ feelings. The fact that Jefferson weeps following Grant’s eloquent appeal for Jefferson’s heroic strength shows that he has begun to listen to and internalize Grant’s thoughts and feelings.
Both Grant and Jefferson go through pivotal changes as they walk around the room. In contrast to his previous wild behavior, now Jefferson listens carefully to Grant’s words, looking up when asked to do so. He weeps as Grant talks, showing that Grant’s words have affected him. In contrast to Grant’s usual cynicism, depression, and disconnectedness, here he talks in emotional and straightforward language. To Jefferson, he speaks the raw emotions of his heart as he never speaks them to other people. He tells Jefferson of his own shame, his own failings, his own need for a hero. He admits he has always wanted to run from responsibility and has squandered his chance to make changes. He stops expressing anger at his family and fellow black community members and starts expressing anger at his society. Grant’s honesty and his inspiring words begin to convince Jefferson that he can stop acting like an animal and regain his dignity. If Jefferson and Grant have clashed in the past, now they become united in working toward one goal. Gaines stresses this unification with the image of the two men walking together.
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