In the American Novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines confronts the societal contribution of racism and discrimination in the lives of African Americans, specifically in regards to young Jefferson, who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. However, protagonist Grant Wigins, in light of all of the injustice, helps Jefferson become an example of positive change in the African American community, denying the habitual cruelty of the past.
Jefferson is a simple-minded, black, young adult who was unfortunately caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He is seen in a store with two others, who were responsible for shooting a white storekeeper for money and alcohol. In attempt to flee the situation, Jefferson is caught, charged with murder, and wrongly convicted to die by the electric chair. A good friend of Jefferson’s mother, Miss Emma, in hearing the all-white jury call him “a hog”, becomes determined to see Jefferson transform his mindset and self-image from a hog into the strong black man that he is. In an attempt to do so, Tante Lou, Jefferson’s grandmother, and Miss Emma persuade an African American school teacher, Grant Wiggins to help Jefferson die with pride and dignity (Sullivan).
Grant’s intelligence and respect as a teacher among the people in the community is affected by his bitterness towards the racially unjust in the town, making him resentful and depressed. The impoverished state of the African Americans leads to a downward spiral of injustice, racism, and lack of education. Grant’s desire to flee the impoverished community and start a life for himself is firm in his mind as he considers the circumstances and the never-ending cycle of injustice. As Grant gets to know Jefferson, he soon realizes that Jefferson has become the poster child of African American oppression. This reality begins to take root in the life of young Jefferson as he wrestles with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, accepting the reality of dying a hog. Jefferson refers to his race to explain why he has such a limited capacity. For him, being asked to stand on his own two feet as a man is a lot to ask, even though he is twenty-one years old. It shows how much racism can affect whether or not people can imagine a different life. Jefferson fully accepts this fate when he eats on all fours only using his face in the cell, fully accepting a hog as his new identity. This displays Jeffersons’ dire need to be shown the man he was from the beginning (Sullivan).
Even in the midst of Grants bitterness, he begins to realize the potential of racial, impoverished, and educational change in the future. The realization compels him to accept the responsibility of encouraging Jefferson and coax him out of an isolated state, in order to be the poster child for positive change in the history of generational injustice. Grants intentionality towards Jefferson in jail reminds Jefferson of the support that he has from the African American community and the realization that he is not a hog. Grants encouragement allows Jefferson to begin to understand that he is a human again, which compels Jefferson to be brave in the face of injustice, even on the brink of death. This sense of responsibility to Jefferson allows Grant to reflect on his own life and for the first time, claim responsibility for the future of the town, and for himself. His role as a teacher not only plays a significant role in the students of the community, but a role in being an agent of change in the culture of the unjust community as a whole.
Throughout the visits, Grants obligation becomes a passion as he begins to be taught by the one he is teaching. As Grants visits become regular, he begins to understand himself, and his words towards Jefferson begin to resonate in his own heart as well. As Grants hard heart begins to soften, he begins to accept his responsibility as a black man in a predominantly white community who have constantly kept african Americans under their feet. Throughout the months leading up to the execution date, Jefferson, Grant, and the community learn the importance of standing again in the midst of racial and impoverished circumstances. Miss Emma’s encouragement towards her son Jefferson allowed him to stand tall and walk on his execution date without fear of dying a hog. Her consistent meals and persistent dialogue in the face of Jefferson’s isolation always symbolized her motherly unconditional love. Her sense of strength was like an anchor in the life of Jefferson, allowing him to stand firm and strong in the roughest of storms and know that she was fighting for him all along. The young men were able to regain their hope and strength again, recognizing their true worth and dignity (Gaines).
After the inspirational death of Jefferson, it was only a catalyst of change for Grant to continue to fight for the oppressed. The lens he once looked through was broken as he picked up a lens of hope and change for the unfair standards between white and black students of the community. He began to establish change in black education that the white people lacked, by demonstrating what it means to be a man. Grant represents a reciprocating teaching of strength and dignity to the rest of the broken community by distilling aspiration and identity into the hearts of the children and the community again. “ But what she wants to hear first is that he did not crawl to that white man, that he stood at that last moment and walked. Because if he did not, she knows that she will never get another chance to see a black man stand for her'(Gaines). After Jefferson’s execution, Miss Emma’s wish came true when Paul, a white cop, tells Grant of the bravery he had never seen in the execution room as he stood tall like a true man. The ending displays the alliance between both black and white, proving the importance of standing tall in the midst of injustice.
Groundbreaking and thought-provoking, I chose The Second Sex as my second book for this essay. The Second Sex is one of the first bold attempts to address the role of women in society and the history behind that role. Today, almost seventy years later, it is still considered one of the most influential books regarding gender equality and women’s equal rights. De Beauvoir states in her book, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Beauvoir). Therefore, making the argument throughout the text that men structurally oppress women by labeling them as the “other” sex, and non-essential. De Beauvoir explains that it is instinctual for people to view themselves in competition with others, but in regards to gender, males take it a step further and see women as absolutely inferior, even to the point of denying her the human rights that she is entitled to. This book takes a closer look at the reason why men have a complex of superiority, and where it originates from. De Beauvior addresses biological, environmental, and historic factors in the book, and point out that there are distinct differences between men and women. But, these differences still do not provide the rationale for the inferior treatment of women. Historically, men and women had different roles that were clearly defined, and not broken. Men were the intellectuals and financial providers, whereas women were to take care of the home, the children, and the physical and emotional needs of her husband. This stereotype that has been carried on through the years affects women’s psychological development and produces generations of women who truly believe they are inferior to men. This division between genders and the roles assigned to them places men in a position of economic, sexual, and social power (Johnson). While history tells a story of origin, De Beauvoir makes the point that it is only a reflection of past injustices and skewed attitudes, which can be fundamentally changed as our society progresses forward and improves.
De Beauvoir also discusses how myth takes a role in our conceptions of women. Women are often symbols of life, sexuality, and fertility; and while there is nothing wrong with that, it can often overshadow and rob women of their individuality. The ability to reproduce isn’t part of a woman character, but simply a function of her body. The potential of bringing life into the world is a blessing, but a woman does not find her worth in her ability to conceive. The Second Sex follows the stages of female youth, and explains how girls are molded into feminine creatures from the moment they are born, through their upbringing. Girls are trained to be passive, obedient, and often dependent on a male figure. These attributes are considered “lady-like”, and if you want to be seen as respectable, you blindly accept these traits as your own. From an early age, society reaffirms these expectations and does not give girls equal opportunity to be independent and pursue an individualistic life. If you are to achieve your aspirations, you have to work twice as hard as men and still accept the womanly duties that are expected of you.
As an adult, females are expected to take on multiple roles: wife, mother, and entertainer (Beauvoir). No matter how hard a woman tries, juggling these roles can inevitably lead to feelings of inadequacy and great frustration, and places significant emphasis on her ability to nurture and reproduce. As a woman begins to approach old age, these abilities are taken from her and she feels she has lost her identity. De Beauvoir insists that “a woman’s situation is not a result of her character. Rather, her character is a result of her situation. Her mediocrity, complacency, lack of accomplishment, laziness, passivity—all these qualities are the consequences of her subordination, not the cause” (Beauvoir).
De Beauvoir concludes the book by stating she believes that women need to be financially independent, or have the means to do so, to be happy and fulfilled in life. The emotional, physical and financial dependence on men that society pushes on women leads to unhealthy codependency that leaves a woman feeling inadequate and unfulfilled. Instead, she should fight to be seen as an equal, and work hard to achieve her goals.
Just like the examples in Chapter 10 of our textbook, Race in America, these two books depict a picture of inequality between both race and gender. While the criminal justice system and social system may fail us at times, we must demand respect and the human decency we all deserve. It is essential to push on and pursue equal treatment for all people, despite the color of their skin or their sexual identity.