A Lesson Before Dying: Top Ten Quotes

“What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentleman? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
p. 8 Jefferson’s attorney, having compared his client to a child, a fool, and a beast during his defense, closes his statement to the jury with this sentence, the only sentence from the entire trial that stays with Jefferson’s godmother. The comparison of this young black man to a hog drives much of the novel’s plot because it makes necessary the “lesson before dying” that Jefferson must learn.

“I don’t want them to kill no hog . . . . I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.”
p. 12 Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother (nannan), expresses this desire to Grant, reminding him “You the teacher.” She imposes a task on the unwilling Grant: to teach Jefferson that he is a man and that he must die like a man, not a hog.

“We’re teachers, and we have a commitment.” “Commitment to what—to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live like other people?”
p. 29 This is the first explicit statement of Grant’s desire to run away, to escape his community and the heavy burden it lays on him. Vivian says, “We’re teachers,” but Grant is not committed to his students or their families. The Rainbow Club is a place where he can hide in the semi-darkness from the people who look to him for a leadership that he feels neither willing nor able to provide. Grant’s desire to escape and unwillingness to commit to his community motivates one of the novel’s central conflicts.

“You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away peel;scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years. You’ll see.”
p. 64 Matthew Antoine, Grant’s teacher and mentor, makes this claim when Grant visits him before taking his job as teacher in the quarter. Antoine does not believe that his teaching achieved anything, and he does not believe that Grant can, in the short time he has with his students, change the mindset in which they have lived and moved for centuries—the mindset of a slave.

“How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? . . . Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. . . . They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime . . . . Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.”
p. 157: These thoughts crowd Grant’s mind after the sheriff tells him Jefferson’s execution date. Not only do these thoughts state a major problem of the novel, but they also mark a shift in Grant’s attitude toward Jefferson. He now feels allied with Jefferson—this is what “they,” the class in power, do to “us,” the class out of power, in this society

“They look at their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their brothers—all broken. They see me—and I, who grew up on that same plantation, can teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. I can give them something that neither a husband, a father, nor a grandfather ever did, so they want to hold on as long as they can. Not realizing that their holding on will break me too. That in order for me to be what they think I am, what they want me to be, I must run as the others have done in the past.”
p. 167 Grant tries to explain to Vivian why “they,” the women in the quarter, love and need him and how the burden of their love threatens to crush him. His fear of being destroyed by generations of need is what keeps him from committing himself wholly to this community, to his aunt’s hopes and Emma’s needs and his students’ potential. He fears losing himself in trying to satisfy an insatiable need.

“I want you to chip away at the myth by standing. I want you—yes, you—to call them liars. I want you to show them that you are as much a man—more a man than they can ever be. That jury? You call them men? That judge? Is he a man? The governor is no better. They play by the rules their forefathers created hundreds of years ago. Their forefathers said that we’re only three-fifths human—and they believe it to this day.”
p. 192 Grant gives Jefferson this call to action as they walk together in the day room. Now Grant understands why Emma so deeply wants Jefferson to die as a man, not as a hog. He can become a hero to his community by not allowing an unjust system and a discriminatory society to break him. If he accepts this challenge, Jefferson is living and dying for a reason—for those he loves.

“You think you the only one ever felt this way? You think I never felt this way? You think she never felt this way? Every last one of them back there one time in they life wanted to give up. She want to give up now. You know that?”
p. 216: Reverend Ambrose speaks sternly to Grant, holding onto his shoulder and forcing him to face the idea that he’s not the only one who dreams of escaping responsibility and fears never being able to change things for the better. When Grant understands that he’s not unique, that others share his yearnings and doubts, then he’ll be educated. Then he’ll “act like a man.”

“good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this”
p. 234: These are the last words Jefferson writes in the notebook that Grant gave him.

“We all stood jammed together, no more than six, eight feet away from that chair. We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he look at the preacher and said, ‘Tell nannan I walked.’ And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.”
p. 254: This speech comes from Paul Bonin’s account of the execution and is evidence that Jefferson learned what he needed to know about living before he had to give up his life. Paul is deeply moved, as readers can tell from the memorable phrase he says three times: not “He walked straight,” but “Straight he walked.”