Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Grant arrive at the Pichot plantation. They enter through the back door and inform the maid that they wish to see Mr. Pichot. Miss Emma was the cook here for most of her life, just like her mother and grandmother before her. Grant’s aunt washed and ironed, and Grant ran errands. When he left for college, he vowed never to enter this place through the back door again. After some delay, Henry Pichot and Louis Rougon enter the kitchen. Miss Emma asks Pichot to convince his brother-in-law to allow Grant to visit the prison and educate Jefferson. Pichot hesitates, and Miss Emma reminds him of all the years she spent working for his family. Pichot asks Grant what he expects to do, and Grant responds truthfully that he does not know. Grant carefully avoids being disrespectful, making sure to lower his eyes when necessary. After some cajoling, Pichot agrees to speak to his brother-in-law.
After dropping off Miss Emma, Grant informs his aunt that he will eat in town, which insults her. He drives to Bayonne. After crossing the railroad tracks and making his way down a poorly lit road into the black section of town, Grant stops at the Rainbow Club where Thelma Claiborne, the owner’s wife, prepares his dinner. At Grant’s request, his lighter-skinned girlfriend Vivian arrives. She sits with Grant and they talk quietly. He offers to take her and her children far away from the town, but she considers the idea unrealistic and threatens to leave the bar if he continues to speak about it. She asks him why he has not left town for good, and he replies that he wants to be with her. She calls him a liar, because he once left the town to stay with his parents in California. When Vivian asks him why he returned, Grant avoids the question. She reminds him that they cannot be so open about their love for one another until she finalizes her divorce. While dancing, Grant tells her about Jefferson’s sentence. Angry and afraid, Grant wonders if he can teach Jefferson how to die when Grant himself doesn’t know how to live.
The next morning, Grant returns to the plantation school where he teaches black children through the sixth grade. His school is in a church, and his desk is a table normally devoted to the Sunday collection. Grant teaches only five and a half months out of the year, because his students work in the fields the rest of the time. In a foul mood, Grant punishes his students for the slightest offenses, though they try to avoid upsetting him. After a few hours, he steps outside and surveys the homes near his school. He knows many details about the troubled lives of their inhabitants. When he returns to his classroom, he finds a student playing with an insect. He sneaks up behind the young boy and slaps him hard across the back of the head with his ruler. Furious, Grant finds himself telling the class about the task Miss Emma has set for him. He explains how Jefferson will die and says he must make Jefferson into a man, which is exactly what he is trying to do with them. Toward the end of class, a small man enters the church and informs Grant that Mr. Henri Pichot wishes to see him.
The main conflict of A Lesson Before Dying lies within Grant himself. Even though Grant struggles to manage in the racist white society, his primary struggle is with his own mind. As he says to Vivian, he cannot face Jefferson because he cannot face himself and his own life. Vivian exposes Grant’s conflicted nature by bringing up the fact that he left the South in the past but eventually returned. Grant feels repulsed by the environment in which he grew up, but somehow he cannot bring himself to leave. Despite his statement that Vivian’s presence is the reason that he remains in Bayonne, Vivian knows that there are larger issues at play here. The novel shows that Grant’s pride and self-centered qualities prevent him from truly appreciating the people with whom he lives. When he finally learns how to view his family and friends positively, he becomes able to live in the South with strength and courage.
Undoubtedly, however, Grant is not completely responsible for his inability to overcome his inner conflict. Life in the South during the time of Jim Crow segregation was harrowing for blacks and Grant’s vacillation between cynical confidence and despair results from his daily struggle against the forces of racism. Here, Gaines paints Grant’s visit to Henri Pichot as a humiliating experience. Grant, Tante Lou, and Miss Emma have to enter Pichot’s house through the servants’ entrance in the back and then must wait awkwardly until Pichot deigns to see them. They talk to Pichot as servants to master, careful to appear respectful and able to appeal only to his sense of duty and generosity for help. Moreover, as Pichot oppresses blacks by making them serve and beg, the town of Bayonne oppresses them by segregating them to the back of the town. White families own the plantations and fields, and black families work them. White men run the jails, and black men rot in them. White women bear white children, and black women care for them. Gaines shows that the blacks are not only segregated, but they receive meager resources, such as electricity. The road to the black section of town is noticeably darker than the main streets with -streetlights.
The inequities of racism also divide blacks from each other. Although Grant is inextricably bound to Tante Lou and Miss Emma, he is also distanced from them. He feels pressured by Tante Lou to conform to the racist expectations of the whites. He drives the women to Pichot’s, yet he cannot stand living as they do, constantly submitting to white authority. He refuses Tante Lou’s food in order to show his resentment and disapproval of her behavior. Grant feels both a connection to and a detachment from his pupils. He wants them to thrive, to transcend the low-class work for which they have been slated, but he expresses frustration when they do not exhibit the concentration that will help them thrive. To the extent that he wants his students to succeed and identifies with their plight, Grant is on their side. Just as his aunt angers him, however, his students anger him. He deals with them harshly, punishing them for tiny offenses and making them afraid. Although he cares for them, he frequently seems disgusted by them and convinced that they cannot make anything of themselves.