Miss Emma and Tante Lou
Miss Emma and her lifelong friend, Tante Lou, are virtually inseparable. At times, they seem so close that it is difficult to tell which one is speaking. The women support each other and give each other the courage to continue on despite the hostile circumstances that surround them. Each has hope for the future and a deep, abiding faith in God that is nurtured and supported by their friendship. And each is determined to help Jefferson, believing that he represents an opportunity to provide a sense of continuity for the community. Although both women are outspoken, heavyset, and deeply religious, they are not portrayed as the stereotypical "mammy" or "Aunt Jemima" types of black women; instead, they are hard-working, dignified women who command respect. Miss Emma and Tante Lou are decidedly strong black women who love their families and care about their community.
Miss Emma provides the catalyst for changing an unjust and inequitable system. Although Grant is the "hero" figure who enables Jefferson to die with dignity, it is Miss Emma who sets things in motion. She is the one who persuades Grant to accompany her and Tante Lou to Henri Pichot's mansion, where she convinces Pichot to speak to his brother-in-law, Sheriff Guidry, to allow Grant to visit Jefferson. And in the end, although the men (Grant and Rev. Ambrose) get most of the credit for Jefferson's redemption and transformation, we know that it was Miss Emma's bold act that triggered the sequence of events culminating in Jefferson's ability to "stand." Likewise, it is Tante Lou who has always kept Grant on the morally straight and narrow path of life.
In a 1994 interview, Gaines pointed out that Miss Emma's years of service to the Pichot family is "symbolic of what the blacks have given to the South." Note that although Pichot is initially irritated with Miss Emma's insistence that he owes her a favor because of all she has done for his family, he reluctantly complies with her request because he realizes that she is telling the truth. Consequently, we can surmise that he feels obligated to help her since he cannot dispute her argument.
If we look at Miss Emma's role from a historical perspective, we can draw some interesting parallels between the fictional Miss Emma and the real-life activist, Rosa Parks. Like Rosa Parks, who set a precedent by refusing to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white passenger, Miss Emma sets a precedent by being the first black person to have coffee in Edna Guidry's living room. While Rosa Parks' defiant act sparked the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, which led to a series of challenges to segregation laws throughout the South, Miss Emma's act also sets in motion a series of events that have a profound impact on the entire black community. And while Rosa Parks' action sets the stage for the Civil Rights movement, which propelled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., into a leadership role, Miss Emma's action — supported by Tante Lou — sets the stage for Grant to assume a leadership role in his community. Neither woman sets out to make a political statement. She simply stands up for her rights and refuses to be intimidated or to accept injustice. Consequently, these women's actions illustrate that the personal is political (that true change must begin with personal commitment), and that one person willing to take a stand can have a profound impact on others. Their actions also provide a testimonial to Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he argues against those who would counsel blacks to wait patiently for change. As King points out, we cannot afford to wait while our brothers and sisters suffer.