How long have you been at the Ernest J. Gaines Center?
Once I got past the initial awe of being in his presence, conversation became easier. We would speak about baseball, literature, or food. Hearing stories about Juan Marichal or Hank Aaron always made my day. Hearing him talk about literature, his own writing and that of others, always taught me something new. Hearing him speak about shrimp po-boys, well, just made me hungry.
Gaines has taught me a lot of things. Specifically, he has solidified my thoughts regarding art and the multitudinous ingredients that go into the creation of a piece of literature, a painting, a song, or anything. Gaines speaks about Vincent Van Gogh inspiring him. He speaks about Modest Mussorgsky. He speaks about William Faulkner. All of these influences, and more, had a part in the finished project, whether they appear noticeable or not. For me, the interconnections between all of these things and Gaines's work highlights that life, and art, does not exist in an insular bubble. Everyone, and everything, converses together in one way or another. Today, we need conversation and dialogue on numerous issues, and to me, Gaines provides an avenue to begin some of those conversations.
Along with highlighting the interrelatedness of art, Gaines has also taught me history. He has shown me the lives of individuals (African American, white, Cajun, & Creole) in Louisiana. When most people think bout Louisiana, the "exotic" New Orleans comes to mind. Gaines, unlike many other authors who write about Louisiana, does not focus on New Orleans; in fact, the city rarely appear sin his works, and no action takes place there. Instead, Gaines focuses on the lives of rural Louisianians, similar to the ways Arna Bontemps does in regards to the central Louisiana region. Gaines writes about a people who do not, as the editor in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman points out, "Do not appear in the history books." I would not have known about people like Miss Jane, Copper Laurent, Mathu, Lou Dimes, Candy Marshall, Grant Wiggins, Tee Bob Samson, or others without Gaines's work.
With everything going on in the nation today, I feel that Gaines's work serves a specific purpose. Reading Gaines, it becomes easy to separate the contemporary from the past that Gaines presents. For instance, A Lesson before Dying takes place in 1948, so a reader can look at the novel and say, "That's a terrible story, but it's in the past. Today we don't have to worry about someone like Jefferson experiencing the same trials and tribulations." However, if we look at what has occurred recently, this sentiment does not hold a lot of water. Was Trayvon Martin like Jefferson? I think Gaines shows us that even though slavery ended, "officially," in 1865 and Jim Crow ended during the 1960s, we still have a long way to go.
Gaines's importance comes from the fact that he does not shy away from showing that the "rules," these unwritten laws that work to keep wealthy whites in power and African Americans, and I would even argue poor whites (think Sydney Bonbon and Gil Boutan), in subjugation still exist. They may not appear on the books, but they remain. Matthew Antoine, Grant's former teacher, tells him that no matter how hard Grant tries he cannot scrape away three hundred years of slavery and hate when teaching his students. The students exist in the shadow of the past, and until we confront that past, head on, we will continue the cycle.
Do you have any final thoughts about your time at the center?
The Ernest J. Gaines Center has been a part of my life for the past three years. I never would've thought, when I first picked up Gaines's work, that I would have the opportunity to work at the center and to explore his works in the ways that I have done over the past couple of years. Looking back, I think my time can be summed up by Aunt Clo's description of Aunt Fe in "Just Like a Tree." The story, told from multiple points of view, tells about the last night Aunt Fe spends in the quarters before her family moves her North. Every section carries the narrative forward, except for Aunt Clo's. Her section poetically compares Aunt Fe to a tree being "jecked" out of the ground and dragged to the North. After removing the tree from the ground, one looks into the hole created and sees the taproot remaining. For me, the center is that taproot. I may leave, but a part of me will always be a part of this place.