A Hero Within

Everywhere you turn society today seems to be keen on portraying African Americans as a scapegoat to white societal issues and inadequacies. Ernest Gaines exemplifies this idea in the novel A Lesson Before Dying in which a young black man, Jefferson, is sentenced to trial and execution for what can be considered a “wrong place and wrong time” incident. Grant, who is an educator in the community, plays the role of a cynic and buffer between Jefferson and the rest of the community.
He begins this novel as a somewhat worn out empty husk of what his full potential can fully allow. In a society that is dominated by white people in a post slavery pro-racist world very few opportunities present themselves for African Americans, such as Jefferson or Grant, that allow for growth and fulfillment of one’s existence. As the novel progresses Gaines provides the right elements to allow for self-fulfillment and growth for both characters that lead to life changing epiphanies and ultimately allow for a hero figure to rise.
Although almost opposite in composition both Jefferson and Grant lack elements that allow them to feel whole and truly live. As individuals both struggle to live in a world that seeks to oppress causing each to barely live, but through their combined experiences and shared struggles, each are able to break the chains of oppression and rise to their ultimate potential. Grant begins the novel feeling distanced from the other members of the black community while at the same time feeling intrinsically bound to them.

He feels pressured to conform to a society in which white people are superior and give little to no privilege to blacks. This idea is furthered as Dr. Joseph visits Grant’s school and compliments his students mentioning that they are a “good crop”, insinuating that the black students are subhuman or objects for a slave type of work. Although Grant’s inadequacies leave him feeling conflicted, hollow, and helpless to do anything but run away, he often remembers the pride and excitement surrounding black heroes such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis as they stood up to the white men and society.
A hero as seen through Grant’s eyes is “a man who does something that other men do not do or cannot do. ” Although Grant believes he is not a hero, he believes that Jefferson can embody the idea of a hero and that he can stand up to defy the white people proving that African Americans are human too. Grant continues by explaining to Jefferson while crying that he (Grant) needs him (Jefferson) more than Jefferson needs him. The crying and showing f helplessness marks the first transition for Grant towards the hero he can become and shows the character’s positive growth. This transition also marks where the individual struggles between Jefferson and Grant end and unification towards the embodiment of heroism begins Grant continues to embody the idea of a hero and show character progression while drinking at the Rainbow Club by standing up for Jefferson, when it would have been much easier to ignore the situation and derogatory comments.
Grant’s passion and inability to sit back while the mulatto bricklayers demean the idea of Jefferson promotes the hero within, by standing up for the weak and doing something when others would not. Even though a fight breaks out and Grant is knocked unconscious, it is still another positive step towards the inner fulfillment he desperately needs. Grant also embodies a non-traditional hero in the sense that he keeps his loved ones, Vivian, at arm’s length at all times.
This typically is done to protect the loved ones from impending harm; however this differs because in this instance it stems from his own inadequacies and lack of conviction in himself. Although Grant lacks the ability to see his true inner potential, others such as Tante Lou have shown positive encouragement and ultimately given everything in the belief that Grant can be great. In this instance Tante Lou has kept hidden the fact that she works incredibly long hours and works her fingers to the bone, just to send Grant to college.
These outside positive factors have helped pave the pathway so that one day Grant can find his inner hero and live up to his full potential. Another important transition into Grant’s heroic path is the belief in himself which stems from an important connection with Jefferson whom he felt provided an idea he lacked, wholeness. Grant explained to Jefferson that he felt lost and needed Jefferson to believe in something so that someday he (Grant) can look to Jefferson as an example and start believing in himself.
Through Jefferson, Grant has learned to stop hiding behind his own fear and inadequacies. This marks the change in status for both men as Jefferson for the first time exemplifies strength, which is shown in his posture and offer to provide Jefferson food. Grant steps back from a teaching role and exemplifies a student role in which he feels inadequate, realizing that perhaps his opinions and cynic views on life have been wrong. This is an important point in the book because it marks the final transition into the fulfillment of both men’s existence. At this point he reader has seen both characters come full circle and grow from empty husks into in depth complex people, both of which can be considered as heroes. On Jefferson’s last night Jefferson apologizes to Grant for crying when he realized that Grant would not be at the execution, stating that nobody had ever been as good to him as Grant had been during his incarceration. This kindness shown by Grant once again exemplifies the hero role as doing something that other men do not do; in this case it was treating Jefferson as a man, a human, and as an equal.
Finally Jefferson’s diary shows how Jefferson has grown into his potential and indicates that his faith is placed not in God but in his friendship with Grant. His finding of faith is the last part needed by Grant, to fully believe in himself and become the man Tante Lou and everyone else knows he can become. Although both individuals started on a path of isolation, cynicism and were shown as empty husks of their true potential, they each found fulfillment and growth.
Even though it was unintentional both Jefferson and Grant grew from the experiences provided by the other and were finally able to break the chains holding them back to fulfill their potential as heroes. Upon the epiphanies that each had based on the others actions and conversations, both characters were able to grow and accomplish what individually they could not. Even though in the end Jefferson was still put to death, this book shows that two men who have nothing in common can create something so great that it shakes the very foundation on which they are built. This can apply to present day society as well as to society in the past.

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