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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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What is Miss Emma's concern about the use of the word "hog" in A Lesson Before Dying?

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In trying to save him from being executed, his defense lawyer argues that Jefferson has no more sense nor intelligence than an animal - specifically a hog.  Miss Emma is deeply hurt by this blatant, racist negation of her godson's humanity.  She acknowledges that the defense lawyer is "just trying to get him off", but his allegation brings her pain that comes "from many years past". 

In his argument, the defense attorney creates a representation of racism in the extreme.  He addresses the jury heartlessly,

"Do you see a man sitting here?  Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes.  Do you see a modicum of intelligence?  Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan...anything?  A cornered animal...strike(s) quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa - that he can do - but to plan?  No...this skull here holds no plans.  What you see here is a thing that acts on command...why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this".

It is no wonder that Miss Emma is devastated by the defense's words.  His attitude is just another slap in the face in a long series of injustices and indignities that she and her family have had to endure as Negroes in the 1940s American South. Despite the defense's degrading argument, the jury still sentences Jefferson to death.  Miss Emma has raised Jefferson and loves him dearly.  Although she can accept the inevitability of his coming execution, she cannot accept the rude and blatant negation of his dignity.  She says,

"I don't want them to kill no hog...I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet" (Chapter 2).


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