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Professor Wiggins, as he's called, is the most educated black man in the quarter. He's been to the university and come back home to teach at the same school that he went to growing up. This is a pretty awesome achievement, and most of the people of his community give him repeated past on the back for having such an awesome education and noble job.
Unfortunately, he sees his work as being useless. All he sees are the way that nothing ever changes and that three hundred years of slavery have brought his people's advancement to a grinding halt, maybe even a backslide. For some reason, though, he sticks around. His girlfriend, Vivian, thinks that it is because he loves the people in his hometown:
"I wish I could just run away from this place."
Vivian shook her head. "You know you can't."
[. . .]
"You know the answer yourself, Grant. You love them more than you hate this place." (12.88-95)
Grant's commitment to his community, even if it's something that drives him nuts, is really important for the message of the novel about change and commitment. It's not exactly a mushy "We Are the World" type of a message; it's a lot rougher and more complicated than that.
The novel has more to do with struggle than with solution: Grant is a great teacher (as Paul calls him at the end of the book), and not because all of his students go on to get Ivy League degrees and cure diseases. He's a great teacher because he stays in there, fighting the good fight, even as his students die or end up in jail, or end up picking cotton in the fields.
You could say that the novel's message is about being constant and persevering even when it looks like all your work is for nothing. It's no Rocky II, with a nice championship belt for Grant at the end. It's more like the original Rocky, where staying in the fight is more important than actually winning it. The figure of the frustrated teacher who doesn't end up saving the day, but stays around slogging after it even though he's not sure it's worth it or will be able to change anyone's life, is hard to get your mind around.
It's easy to discard Wiggins as a pessimist, or glorify him for making Jefferson into a man. But this novel is trying to show us, through Grant, that it's impossible to glorify or discard anyone. There's good in all of us, just in the same way that there's bad in all of us. Grant can be weak, cynical, and negative, but by just staying after it he is able to help bring about some change, however small. And that's just plain awesome.
Grant wants to get out of Louisiana. He complains about it, day in and day out, to his ladylove Vivian. But, for some reason, he just keeps hanging around. It seems like he is trying to win some kind of historical, psychological fight with the place. He was born on the plantation, and left behind when his parents went out to California, so maybe he feels like he's not good enough to get out. Or maybe, as much as it drives him nuts, it's his home and he feels a tie to it.
We get a hint as to what his beef with Louisiana is the day that his aunt makes him go see Henri Pichot to ask for help getting permission to visit Jefferson in jail. His aunt used to work for the Pichots, and she and Grant, who sometimes helped out with errands, were only allowed to use the back door to get into the house. They were never invited to sit down or into the front part of the house. And all because of the color of their skin. This goes way beyond bad manners. Where is that famous Southern hospitality, exactly?
When Grant goes to the Pichots after all these years he has to grit his teeth because he is so mad that he's back at the back door:
"I had not come through that back door once since leaving for the university, ten years before. I had been teaching on the place going on six years, and I had not been in Pichot's yard, let alone gone up the back stairs or through that back door." (3.16)
This trip back down memory lane is really not cool for Grant. It's seriously triggering. It makes him feel like, in all these ten years, he hasn't advanced an inch. Because he's physically back where he was ten years ago, he feels like he's psychologically back where he way ten years ago.
And really, that's his big problem with society—in all the years since slavery, he feels like society hasn't really progressed. Black people are still treated as inferior to white people, and are in many ways still living like slaves.
When his aunt keeps pushing him he takes his frustration out on her:
"Everything you sent me to school for, you're stripping me of it [. . .]. The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man's kitchen. The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me. Now going up to that jail. [. . .] Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I had stayed here, they were going to break me down to the n***** I was born to be. But he didn't tell me that my aunt would help them do it." (10.36)
Grant acknowledges that it was his aunt who tried to get him to make something of himself by going to school. But he believes that by making him go back into the Pichots' house, and visit Jefferson in jail his aunt is working on the white people's side.
It's obviously unfair of him to take out his anger at all of racism on his aunt, and we think that Grant knows it. But we also know that it's often easiest to take out our rage on the people closest to us, and that's probably what Professor Wiggins is doing here.
However, by the end of the novel, seeing Jefferson's example, Grant starts to see a way that even someone who is absolutely trapped and at the mercy of the system, someone on death row, can find inner strength and not let the outside world define him. Jefferson ends up defining himself. And that is what Grant realizing he needs to do for himself.
Which brings us to the switcheroo that Gaines pulls on us with the novel. We know that somebody is supposed to learn a lesson before dying, and we know that Miss Emma, Lou, the Reverend, and Grant all think that Jefferson's the one doing the learning.
But, as is often the case, the teacher becomes the student. Spending time with Jefferson forces Grant to take a look at his beliefs about education and society, and his desires to leave Louisiana behind forever.
For one thing, Jefferson already was Grant's student, back when he was at school. In other words, Grant already had his chance with Jefferson.
For another, Grant is being asked to make Jefferson into a man, and he asks over and over again whether that's even possible:
"Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he's not a hog, that he's a man. I'm supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?" (4.103)
This brings up one of the biggest conflicts that Grant has with himself: what is his role in his community, and what is he actually capable of? Making Jefferson into a man seems to Grant to be a miraculous act, something he is definitely not up to. However, and this is telling… he goes and visits Jefferson. He grumps and gripes about it, but he goes. That tells us that, for all of his bluster, Grant feels some sort of obligation and commitment to his former student, even if he isn't sure it's possible for him to help.
Grant claims that he wants to get out of Louisiana, but we find out that he already tried and came back. Vivian says that some people are able to pack up and leave, "but we can't… We're teachers, and we have a commitment" (4.71). Even though Grant talks back, trying to reject the commitment he has made to his students, we can see by his actions that he does feel some special bond with his community.
Finally, let's get back to that lesson we mentioned way back in the first part of this section. Somebody's learning a lesson before dying. We can figure that Jefferson is supposed to learn one about being a man, but what about Grant? What does he learn from Jefferson?
During their last visit, Grant tells Jefferson, "My eyes were closed before this moment, Jefferson. My eyes have been closed all my life. Yes, we all need you. Every last one of us" (28.97). Grant's eyes are open to the fact that transformation is possible. He used to be bitter and believe that nothing would ever change; now he has seen, before his very eyes, Jefferson turn into a man who stands up straight and tall.
Grant's own lesson before dying is that change is possible, even if it only happens so slowly that it's hard to see it.