In A Lesson Before Dying, we meet Jefferson, a black man who is accused of murder. Jefferson is a simple kindhearted man who swears he is innocent. He goes to trial and his lawyer argues that Jefferson is nothing but a poor man who is hardly more worthwhile than a hog; Jefferson doesn't have what it takes to plan a crime like this. One night, Jefferson followed two men to a liquor store. The two men got into an argument with the store clerk and they started shooting at each other. All were killed except Jefferson, which made the police believe he was the culprit. Jefferson's Aunt Emma asks Grant, a fellow black man who is a teacher, to help her see Jefferson in jail.
Once the two of them get to the jail, they realize that Jefferson is just lying on his cot, staring at the ceiling. Emma can't get Jefferson to respond to her. He just lies there, saying nothing. Emma is desperate to have him talk to her but he won't. Grant is just standing there waiting for something to happen.
"He turned toward her. His body didn't turn, just his head turned a little. His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? his eyes said. They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don't you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew that my eyes knew."
The first visit to the jail is a solemn one. Jefferson knows that he is going to die and wants to know when. Jefferson is remembering what his lawyer said about him. He thinks of himself as a hog, just like his lawyer said. His aunt wants Grant to help her get Jefferson to realize he is an important man who matters.
Grant goes through his own journey throughout the novel. At first Grant is a selfish man whose heart has been hardened by his own dealings with inequality. Grant agrees to help Emma begrudgingly at first, but as the story progresses we see Grant come to terms with his own demons while helping Jefferson realize his own worth. This is an amazing story about race, friendship, and the power of one's own self worth.