Summary: Chapter 30
On the morning before Jefferson’s execution, a black truck with a gray tarpaulin cover drives into town. Many people stop to watch it pass. It goes through the business district and pulls into the courthouse.
Vivian and Grant sit at the Rainbow Club the night before the execution. She tells him that from noon until she knows the execution is over, she will have her students kneel beside their desks. After saying goodnight to Vivian at nine o’clock, Grant drives around for a while and then goes to his aunt’s house. He notices a couple of cars parked in front of Miss Emma’s, but he does not stop.
At six-thirty the next morning, Sheriff Guidry sits down to breakfast, feeling nervous. He has never overseen an execution before. He tells his wife that he asked Grant if he would be present, but Grant shook his head. Guidry says Reverend Ambrose asked to attend the execution and Guidry said yes. He also asked the Reverend if one more person from the quarter would like to attend. At eight, Guidry goes to the courthouse and supervises the unloading process. Henry Vincent, the official executioner, tells the sheriff that the prisoner must be shaven. Guidry asks Paul to do it, and Paul reluctantly agrees.
Jefferson remains quiet as Paul shaves his head, ankles, and wrists. As Paul leaves, Jefferson asks him to deliver the notebook to Grant and to keep the radio for himself. Paul says he cannot keep the radio, but he promises to give it to the other inmates. He accepts Jefferson’s gift of a marble. Jefferson asks Paul if he plans to attend the execution and Paul says yes.
Summary: Chapter 31
As the hour of Jefferson’s execution approaches, Grant steps outside the schoolhouse. He remembers old friends, classmates, and baseball teammates. Many of his friends have died, mostly as a result of violence. Grant stifles tears for Jefferson, saying that there will be too many more like him, and he cannot cry for all of them. He thinks of calling Vivian or the Reverend. He thinks Reverend Ambrose is courageous for using the white man’s God as a source of strength. Grant wonders if he has caused Jefferson to lose faith in God and asks Jefferson to forgive his foolishness if he has robbed him of faith. Grant says he puts his faith in Jefferson.
At ten minutes before noon, Grant lines up his students and asks them to kneel. He goes back outside. He wonders what Jefferson is doing at this very minute and asks himself why he is not with Jefferson, or inside praying with his students. Angry, Grant says that he refuses to believe in the same God worshipped by the jurors that convicted Jefferson. Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose believe in God because it frees their minds and gives their bodies a chance to be free. Grant says he knows this because “he knows what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.”
At last, Paul’s car approaches the church. Paul parks his car nearby and brings Jefferson’s notebook to Grant. Paul says that as Jefferson walked toward the electric chair he exuded more strength than any man in the room. He tells Grant he considers him a wonderful teacher for helping Jefferson, but Grant says that he did very little and that maybe Jefferson caused the change. Or, he says sarcastically, maybe God changed Jefferson. Paul offers Grant his hand and asks to be his friend. Grant takes the hand. When Grant goes back to his students, he faces them and cries.
Analysis: Chapters 30–31
Like the first chapter in the novel, Chapter
Before dying, Jefferson completes his transformation into a dignified, compassionate, exemplary human being. When Paul enters the cell to shave Jefferson, he notices that Jefferson stands up immediately and that the radio has been turned off. Before, Jefferson’s bunk and his radio allowed him to isolate himself. He used to lie on the bed and listen to the radio in order to block out the world. In leaving these props behind, Jefferson shows that he wishes to face reality. Of all the people involved in the execution, only Jefferson faces the event unflinchingly. He becomes even more strongly identified with Christ in these last chapters. He seems to convert Paul, who says Jefferson was the “strongest man in the room.” Grant addresses his thoughts to Jefferson in the final chapter as if praying to Jesus Christ for forgiveness or assistance. Grant asks Jefferson to forgive him and says, “My faith is in you, Jefferson.” For Grant, Jefferson has become a hero to emulate in times of despair.
Gaines does not impose a tidy transformation on Grant, who persists with his sarcasm, fear, and self-loathing until the last page of the novel. Although he despises himself for it, he cannot muster up the courage to attend the execution, and he cannot muster up the humility to kneel and pray with his students. He refuses to cry for Jefferson, asking himself if he wants to start weeping for all of the persecuted black men and women in the world. When Paul visits and makes heartrending overtures of sorrow and friendship, Grant hardly answers him. He expresses outrage at the whites’ God, and he provokes Paul’s disapproval by saying sarcastically that perhaps God helped Jefferson.
Still, much in Grant has changed. He risked emotional pain by reaching out to Jefferson. He begs Jefferson’s forgiveness for possibly allowing him to lose faith in God. He grudgingly accepts Paul’s overtures, agreeing to shake the proffered hand. He gives Jefferson credit for becoming strong and good. He cries at the end of the novel, allowing himself to weep for Jefferson even if it might mean he has to start weeping for all black people, and allowing himself to feel the emotion he has repressed throughout the novel.