Why is Jefferson on trial?

At the beginning of the novel, Grant reflects on the circumstances of Jefferson’s alleged crime while explaining to the reader that despite not being physically present at the trial, he knew what the verdict would be. Two men, Brother and Bear, offer Jefferson a ride to a bar, and upon Mr. Gropé’s refusal to sell them alcohol on credit, Brother and Bear attempt to rob the store. Mr. Gropé shoots them, although not before Bear can shoot him as well. As an innocent bystander to the deaths of two Black men and one white man, Jefferson fails to run, takes a quick drink to clear his mind, and steals money from the cash register. The white police officers assume Jefferson is guilty when they discover him to be the sole survivor of the incident, and the government ultimately sentences him to electrocution.

How does Grant’s relationship with Jefferson change throughout the novel?

When Miss Emma and Tante Lou initially propose that Grant visit with Jefferson, he is extremely resistant and views the idea of turning him into a man as a futile task. Grant explains that he tried to teach Jefferson when he was his student, and he does not even know himself what it truly means to be a man. Despite his initial doubts, Grant is eventually able to get Jefferson to open up to him. He emphasizes the need for Jefferson to believe in his own humanity, the importance of supporting loved ones, and the idea of what makes someone heroic. For Grant and the Black community more broadly, Jefferson’s transformation represents the possibility of defying the oppressive stereotypes under which they have suffered for centuries. 

What does Jefferson learn from Grant?

By the end of the novel, Jefferson’s interactions with Grant ultimately teach him that he has the power to shape his identity regardless of what others think of him. Jefferson feels completely worthless after hearing his defense attorney call him a “hog,” and he allows this racist, dehumanizing image to take over his life. Grant eventually helps him reconnect with his sense of humanity, however, by emphasizing how many people care about him, bringing him a radio, and enabling him to express himself through writing. Jefferson comes to face his execution with a dignity that no white man would have expected, allowing him to feel empowered and find salvation in death.