Miss Emma, also known as “Nannan,” is Jefferson’s godmother, and her thoughts and actions serve as the main catalyst for the novel’s plot. A deeply religious woman who cares about the legacy that her godson will leave behind, she is the one who first proposes that Grant meet with Jefferson. She has faith that Jefferson can die honorably despite the demeaning, prejudiced assumptions that the white men of the court have made about him. While Miss Emma is an older woman who may initially seem sweet and innocent, she has keen social skills that allow her get Jefferson the help he needs. She first partners with her best friend, Tante Lou, in order to get Grant involved in her mission. Grant may resist the idea of becoming associated with what he views is a hopeless case, but Miss Emma knows that Tante Lou will set him on the right path. She even manages to maintain her innocent guise by repeatedly emphasizing that Grant does not need to go visit Jefferson if it will be a burden to him, allowing any resentment to fall on Tante Lou rather than herself. Miss Emma also uses her social skills to get permission for Grant to visit Jefferson in prison. She appeals to Henri Pichot, the head of the white family she served for many years as a cook, and asks him to speak to the sheriff on her behalf. While Mr. Pichot initially dismisses the idea, Miss Emma reminds him of how dedicated she has been to his family. This reminder, which Mr. Pichot cannot deny, ultimately persuades him and highlights more broadly the sociopolitical debts owed to Black communities.

Despite the strength and determination that she shows in her efforts to connect Jefferson and Grant, Miss Emma begins to struggle as she watches her godson suffer. She does everything she can to show Jefferson how much she loves him and values him as a person, bringing him home-cooked food and new clothes during each visit. Jefferson largely ignores her displays of affection, however, and this lack of acknowledgement takes a significant emotional toll on her. Given Miss Emma’s hope that Jefferson will walk to his death as a man, his apparent inability to engage with others on a personal level signals to her that he may fail. The tears that she sheds after each visit to the jail soon transform into physical symptoms, and although Grant initially suspects that she may be overexaggerating her illness, it nevertheless complicates her efforts to visit Jefferson. Grant argues that Miss Emma’s deteriorating condition is even more of a reason for Jefferson to show her love in return, and this perspective ultimately empowers Jefferson to meet his end with dignity. Although Gaines does not offer the reader any insight into how Miss Emma copes with Jefferson’s death, his transformation surely makes her proud.