Thursday, June 26, 2014

Grant Wiggins and Booker Wright

Grant Wiggins, in A Lesson before Dying, must play the role of a subservient African American in a racist community that continually works to make sure he understands his place within the social structure. For instance, when Grant goes to see Henri Pichot he must enter the house through the back door. When he goes to Pichot's house to visit with Sheriff Guidry regarding whether or not he can visit Jefferson, he must enter in the back door and the men make him wait two and a half hours in the kitchen before gracing him with their appearance. Upon entering the kitchen, Edna Guidry greets Grant, "smiling and coming up to [him] with her hand out. She stopped a good distance back, and [he] had to lean forward to shake her hand" (44). Later, when Henri and Sheriff Guidry enter, Grant begins to think to himself: "I tried to decide just how I should respond to them. Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger I was supposed to be" (47). Grant must navigate the space and determine whether or not he will submit to the social hierarchy or resist it through not conforming to its set of rules. Grant decides to wait and see how the conversation with Guidry will play out because "[t]o show a lack of intelligence would have been a greater insult to [him]" than to insult the men by showing too much intelligence. Immediately, Guidry asks Grant if he has been waiting long, and Grant responds by stating that he has been waiting for two and a half hours. Grant thinks, "I was supposed to say, 'Not long,' and I was supposed to grin, but I didn't do either" (47). This is just one example of the thought process that Grant must go through in his interactions with whites. His Tante Lou has taught him to be a man and to never go in the back door; however, circumstances have dictated that Grant must acquiesce to the rules around him and "play" the game so that Sheriff Guridy will allow him to see Jefferson in the prison.  

Grant works to resist against this position, occasionally omitting a "Mister" here and there and using correct diction when those around him expect an "inferior" diction. These small actions provide a space for resistance; however, Grant must still maintain his role as subservient in the society, in part to survive. Grant's struggles, and resistance, can be seen throughout much of African American literature. Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" elaborates on the outward appearance and the inner turmoil that racism produces. In the 1966 NBC News report Mississippi: A Self Portrait, Booker Wright spoke about this turmoil. After reciting the Lusco's menu, he begins to talk about the way customers treat him in the restaurant. Some call him by his name, others don't, and some call him nigger. All the time, however, he must stand there and grin, always keeping a smile even though he cries inside. Booker says he endures all of this because he wants a better life for his children. In many ways, Booker typifies Grant's experiences and thoughts in A Lesson before Dying. After the interview aired, white customers did not want Booker to serve them, a policeman pistol whipped him, his restaurant that he ran in the African American part of town shut down, and someone shot him dead in the early 1970s. When students ask if incidents like the ones that Gaines writes about were true, I point them to people like Booker Wright who lived through Jim Crow and segregation on a day to day basis and had to learn how to survive and navigate that society. 

I must say that I did not know anything about Booker Wright's story until I saw part of the NBC News' clip on an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown where he visits the Mississippi Delta. After that, I began to do a little research on Booker's story. His granddaughter started a blog, the Booker Wright Project, and two years ago she and Raymond De Lefitta told about their search for Booker in Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story. A short video of the film appears below.          

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

First Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute

Last Friday, the first annual Ernest J. Gaines Center Summer Teaching Institute concluded. The institute spanned five days, and participants met from 8:30-11:30 each morning. Teachers from Lafayette Parish and Evangeline Parish participated. During the institute, participants read and discussed four of Gaines texts: "The Sky is Gray," The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying. Along with the discussion of the texts, the participants were able to view items from the archives and discussed various ways to teach Gaines in the classroom. The pedagogical discussions yielded the best results. Soon, you will be able to access some of the participants' lesson plans through the Ernest J. Gaines Center's website. In conjunction with the center's library guide, these lesson plans will provide teachers with materials to teach Gaines' work, and the works of other authors, in the classroom.

Here is a brief list of some of the pedagogical techniques we discussed:
  • Have students construct a Google Map for the places in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
  • Have students write and recite a eulogy for one of the characters who passes away 
  • Have students edit, for grammar and content, part of Jefferson's diary in A Lesson before Dying
  • Have students rewrite a section of a book in a different point of view
  • Have students research references in the texts and present on them (i.e. Huey P. Long, Bienville, etc.) 
These are only a few of the items that we mentioned in the institute. Other ideas can be found on the Ernest J. Gaines Center's LibGuide. If you have any thing that you do in the classroom and would like to share it, please leave a comment below or email the center.

One idea that arose out of our prolonged discussions revolved around other texts to incorporate in relation to Gaines and African American literature. Throughout his writing, Gaines talks about the residual effects on slavery on both African Americans and whites. For example, in A Lesson before Dying, when Grant speaks with his former teacher Matthew Antoine, Matthew tells him, "You'll see that it'll take more than five and a half months to wipe away--peel--scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those [students'] brains in the past three hundred years" (64). Later, when Grant is speaking with Vivian about manhood in chapter twenty one, Grant tells her that all Miss Emma "wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everythng that has been going of for three hundred years" (167). These are only two example from one novel. During the institute, we talked about this aspect of Gaines writing and brought in Brother Ali's "The Travelers" from his 2009 album Us. The song tackles the Middle Passage and expounds upon the continuing psychological effects of the "peculiar institution." Brother Ali has mentioned that part of the inspiration for the song came from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. These texts, in relation to Gaines' continued comments about the residual effects of slavery, would be a good way to begin a discussion in class.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain

Twenty-five years ago next month, the city of Rochester, New York dedicated the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain. One day, Midge Thomas needed a drink of water in Rochester. Upon entering a restaurant, the proprietor charged her ten cents for water in a disposable, plastic cup. Being charged for the small drink of water sparked Midge to action. As the president of the Freddie Thomas Foundation, Midge approached Rochester's government about a public drinking fountain in the downtown area. The city government agreed, and on July 30, 1989, they dedicated the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain in downtown Rochester's Liberty Pole Plaza

In the previous post, I discussed how Gaines became inspired by Miss Jane's Oak Tree. Here, the text that Gaines created from that inspiration becomes the inspiration for someone else. Midge and the foundation chose to name the fountain the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain because at the end of the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Cicely Tyson, as Miss Jane, drinks from a "whites only" water fountain as a form of protest. This does not occur at the end of the novel; however, Jimmy Aaron enlists one of the Hebert girls to drink from the fountain in Bayonne. 

Even though the scene does not occur in the novel, it does occur in the movie. Talking about the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain, Midge informed reporters that "[Miss Jane's] story fit right into our project. . . She took that drink--the fountain will symbolize humanity, liberty, and equality" (article in Gaines' papers). Miss Jane embodied these attributes, and they can be seen in the symbol for the Freddie Thomas Foundation and the fountain above. Next month, nearer to the celebration, I will post more information about the fountain and about Freddie Thomas.

Will all of this information, can anyone answer why Rochester, NY serves as a fitting place for the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain?      

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Miss Jane's Oak

Miss Jane's Oak Tree 1960s
Talking about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, Miss Jane Pittman begins to talk about Native Americans and their respect for nature and its strength. In the middle of this discussion, she thinks about "an old oak tree up the quarters where Aunt Lou Bolin and them used to stay" (155). The old tree "up the quarters" became more than just another tree to Miss Jane. It became an avenue for her to communicate with the past and with nature itself. She says:

That tree has been here, I'm sure, since this place been here, and it has seen much much, and it knows much much. And I'm not ashamed to say I've talked to it, and I'm not crazy either. It's not necessary craziness when you talk to trees and rivers. But a different thing when you talk to ditches and bayous. A ditch ain't nothing, and a bayou ain't too much either. But rivers and trees--less, of course, it's a chinaball tree. Anybody caught talking to a chinaball tree or a thorn tree got to be crazy. But when you talk to an oak tree that's been here all these years, and knows more than you'll ever know, it's not craziness; it's just the nobility you respect. (155) 
Near the end of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, as Miss Jane and the rest of the people in the quarters head to the front to listen to Robert Sampson discourage them from demonstrating, Miss Jane passes the old oak tree and addresses it:
"Well, Sis Oak, look like another one of them crazy meetings." Yoko said: "One of these days that tree go'n answer you back and go'n break your neck running down them quarters." I told Yoko, I said: "I got news for you, Yoko, she talks back to me all the time." Yoko dead and gone now, said: "Now I know you crazy." And me and Yoko just killed ourself laughing. (232) 
Oak trees can live for a long time. For example, the Seven Sisters Oak in Mandeville, LA is reportedly around 1,500 years old. Other oaks have symbolic significance, like the Emancipation Oak on Hampton University's campus. Both of these aspects of oak trees are important, especially when considering the reverence that Miss Jane gives to the oak tree she communes with. Her "sister" tree has seen a lot, and Miss Jane knows that it will outlive her and everyone she knows, carrying on for future generations. In many ways, Miss Jane is the oak tree for the community.

Miss Jane's Oak Tree ca. 2007
With all of this said, the tree that Miss Jane talks to it based on an actual 400 year old oak tree that sits beside La. 416 in Pointe Coupee Parish. Gaines used to walk by the tree on his way to the grocery store, and it inspired him, partly, to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In 2008, a car ran into a limb that was twelve feet in circumference that fell from the tree. Because of this the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) considered cutting the tree down. Once this happened, the community, Gaines, and fellow professors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette stepped in to protest the tree's imminent demise. The DOTD agreed to have the tree checked to see if it was healthy, and after the inspection, they determined that the tree was healthy. The limb that fell had a defect. So, instead of removing the tree, they trimmed the branches that hung over the road.

"Miss Jane's Oak Tree," the one she speaks with in the novel and the one that inspired Gaines, endures, standing tall even after everyone else and many other things have disappeared through the passage of time. It represents, as Miss Jane says, "nobility."   

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Great Gatsby and Of Love and Dust

Ernest Gaines has made his indebtedness to various authors known throughout the years, and some of these authors have already been discussed on this blog. One author that pops up purely for the influence of style on Gaines' writing is F. Scott Fitzgerald. When listing authors who taught him about writing, Gaines often mentions Fitzgerald. He says that The Great Gatsby is a good novel; however, he also says, "I don't care for Fitzgerald, but I love the structure of Gatsby" (Blake 144). That structure can be seen, partly, in the way that Fitzgerald ends each chapter, something Gaines does in works like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. On another level, Fitzgerald's influence on Gaines can be seen in Of Love and Dust where Jim Kelley narrates the story instead of Marcus. Discussing this decision in 1976, Gaines said, "I needed a guy who could communicate with different people" (Tooker and Hofheins 107). That guy, of course, would become Jim Kelley. Jim could communicate with Bonbon, Aunt Margret, and Marcus; he could navigate those relationships in the same way that Nick could navigate his in Gatsby. "Fitzgerald used Nick," according to Gaines, "because he could communicate both with Gatsby and the real rich" (107). This can be seen in the way that Nick talks with Daisy and Tom and how he speaks with Gatsby.

While the aspect of having a narrator who can communicate with all of the sides involved in the plot appears in both novels, I would go a step further and say that Nick Carraway and Jim Kelley make good narrators because they both admire their subjects, Jay Gatsby and Marcus respectively, and attempt to show the human side of each of them. In the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, Nick states, "No--Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men" (6-7). Nick, throughout the novel, paints Gatsby as a sympathetic figure. He portrays Gatsby as a man who, while Nick may have "disapproved of him from beginning to end," warrants admiration, and Nick admires Gatsby through the end, even becoming the only person in New York, really, to do anything after George kills Gatsby (162).

Jim, like Nick, disapproves of Marcus' actions and the way he goes about them. Jim tells himself, early in the novel, "One of these days I'm going to stop this, I'm going to stop this; I'm a man like any other man and one of these days I'm going to stop this" (43). Even though Jim thinks this, he doesn't do anything about it. Marcus becomes, in essence, the motivation for Jim to finally act and leave at the end of the novel. Near the end of the novel when Jim tries to catch Marcus before he confronts Bonbon, Jim says, "No, I didn't blame Marcus any more. I admired Marcus. I admired his great courage" (270). For Jim, Marcus becomes an inspiration because he actually stands up to Bonbon and decides to "stop this." Both narrators, Jim and Nick create sympathetic portraits of Marcus and Gatsby. They both allow the reader to see the nuances of each character. If Marcus narrated Of Love and Dust, we would most likely just get "The hell with it, let the world burn; I don't give a damn" (Tooker and Hofheins 107).  

Blake, Jeanie. "Interview with Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 137-148. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1995. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. Of Love and Dust. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979. Print.
Tooker, Dan and Roger Hofheins, "Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 99-111. Print.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The White Eagle

When Gaines started coming back to Louisiana and Baton Rouge to write and research, he would frequent the White Eagle (pictured above) in Port Allen. Seeing that Baton Rouge was a dry town on Sundays, Gaines and his friends would cross the Mississippi River to Port Allen and frequent the rough and tumble White Eagle. In "Mozart and Leadbelly," Gaines writes, "The White Eagle was a rough place, and there were always fights, but I wanted to experience it all. One novel, Of Love and Dust, and a short story, 'Three Men,' came out of my experience at the White Eagle bar" (26-27). 

Of Love and Dust and "Three Men" both focus on an African American character who kills another African American in a barroom fight. The only difference is that Marcus gets bonded out of jail and Procter Lewis doesn't. Gaines talks about the White Eagle in regards to the inspiration for Of Love and Dust by saying: 
I was in a nightclub once where I saw a knife fight between two boys, two blacks, young men, and the fight was stopped before either of them got really hurt. Now, I also know of an incident where a friend of mine got in a fight like that, and he killed a guy. Three guys jumped on him, and he killed one of them. He was sent to prison. He had been working for the white man, and this man could have gotten him out if he wanted to come out, but he said, "I'd rather spend my time because I killed this guy." So, he went to jail; he went to Angola, the state prison in Louisiana, and he spent five years. (Tooker and Hofheins 100)
The friend Gaines mentions, in a way, resembles Procter because he decided to stay in jail and accept his punishment instead of allowing the white man to bond him out. Munford continually tells Procter in "Three Men" to stay in jail because if he allows Roger Medlow to bail him out he'll be right back in the same situation soon. Talking to Procter, Munford tells him that Medlow could bail him out because white men don't care if he killed another African American. So, Munford implores Procter to go to Angola "saying, 'Go fuck yourself, Roger Medlow, I want to be a man, and by God I will be a man. For once in my life I will be a man" (141).

The institution of African Americans being "bonded" out of jail to work on farms and elsewhere occurred throughout the South during the twentieth century. Writing about Of Love and Dust and the institution of "bonding" people out of jail to work, John A Williams says, "One hears stories from time to time of plantations like this, cut off from the rest of the world where slavery--what else can you call it?--still exists." Essentially, that's what the practice was, a new form of slavery. For more information on the practice, see Douglas a. Blackman's Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Gaines, Ernest J. "Mozart and Leadbelly." Mozart and Leadbelly. Eds. Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 24-32. Print. 
Gaines, Ernest J. "Three Men." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 119-155. Print. 
Tooker, Dan and Roger Hofheins. "Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 99-111. Print. 


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Visual Art and the Art of Writing Fiction

Goya's Carretadas al cementerio
Gaines makes his literary influences known in his copious interviews. In conjunction with the authors who inspired him and taught him how to write, Gaines mentions that music and visual art also provide him with inspiration. He cites Mozart, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Mussorgsky for musical influences. On the visual side, Gaines mentions Vincent Van Gogh both in interviews and in essays. Talking about the models he emulated in 1986, Gaines said, "I also discovered how music can help, and as Hemingway suggested, paintings can help, just by going to a museum or art gallery" (Gaudet and Wooton 207). 

One needs to only read Hemingway to see the influence of visual art on his writing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an article on Francisco Goya's looming presence in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Specifically, Goya's The Disasters of War series can be seen. This series can be seen more directly, though, in Hemingway's short story "A Natural History of the Dead" from Winner Take Nothing (1933). The story describes, in gruesome detail, the ravages of war with mutilated corpses of humans and animals strewn across the fields decaying in the sun. Describing the sight of dead mules, the narrator says, "The numbers of broken-legged mules and horses drowning in the shallow water called for a Goya to depict them" (98). Later in the story, as a doctor examines a wounded patient, once in the daylight and once with a flashlight, the narrator intones, "That too would make a good etching for Goya, the visit with the flashlight, I mean" (103). Hemingway's descriptions of war in "A Natural History of the Dead," and in works such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, show the influence of artists like Goya who unapologetically displayed the ravages of war in his etchings.    

Like Hemingway, Gaines draws inspiration from visual art. Later in the 1986 interview, Gaines explained, "Just look at paintings and see how you can describe a beautiful room with only two or three things, without having to go through everything in the room. Right now I'm thinking of Van Gogh's painting called 'Vincent's Room' [Bedroom in Arles]--it's a room where he used to live and sleep--and how he could do it so well with only two or three things or pieces of things" (207). Van Gogh painted three versions of Bedroom in Arles, each with slight variations. Reading through Gaines' work, as well as Hemingway's (look at "Homage to Switzerland"), repetition and sparseness play a role. Think about the dialogue of both authors or the repetition of phrases, stated in slightly different ways.  

Elsewhere, in "Bloodline in Ink," Gaines states that Van Gogh attracted him more than Modigliani's nudes, in part because of Van Gogh's depiction of country and peasant life. "I like The Potato Eaters," Gaines says, "and the worker's shoes and the people sowing wheat in the field. All this reminded me of home--Van Gogh did, not Modigliani" (42). Just as Gaines' literary influences created vivid depictions of peasants, the visual artists that inspire Gaines do the same thing. In an 1885 letter, Van Gogh wrote about the painting, saying:
 You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and--that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours--civilized people. So I certainly don't want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why. 
Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters

Gaines, Ernest J. "Bloodline in Ink." Mozart and Leadbelly. Eds. Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young. New York: Vintage, 2005. 37-44. Print.
Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooton. "An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines.   Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 200-216. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. Winner Take Nothing. New York: Collier Books, 1986. Print.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

James Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

Manuscript of Joyce's "The Dead"
Sitting in the Rainbow Club and watching the old men the other end of the bar reenact the exploits of Jackie Robinson, Grant Wiggins in A Lesson Before Dying begins to think about his experiences in college while also keeping in mind Jefferson sits in a jail cell downtown awaiting his execution. Specifically, Grant begins to muse about a little Irishman who lectured at his university (originally Southern in the early drafts). The man spoke about other Irishmen such as William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and JamesJoyce. Grant remembers that he sat and listened to the man as “he told us how some Irishmen would weep this day at the mention of the name Parnell” (89). Moving on from Charles Stewart Parnell, “the little white man” discussed James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” from Dubliners, saying that “[r]egardless of race, regardless of class, that story was universal” (89).

After procuring an anthology with the story in it from a white university library (originally LSU) with the help of a sympathetic professor, Grant began to read the story, looking for the universality that the lecturer spoke about. He did not see that universal message until years later when he “began to listen, to listen closely to how [my people] talked about their heroes, how they talked about the dead and about how great the dead had once been” (90). Grant started to listen and to look at the heroes that the people in his community admired. He sees the old men at the bar idolizing Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis just as the men in Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” idolize Parnell. Grant thinks about a boy in Florida who cried for Joe Louis to save him and wonders if Jefferson will call on Jackie Robinson.

First page of
The Short Biography of Miss Jane Pittman
This passage, within the context of the novel, gives background into Grant’s position and mindset as a teacher returning to the quarters to educate the children. While this is important, it does much more than illuminate Grant’s character. Grant’s experiences call to mind Gaines’ reason for writing. Speaking with Jerome Tarshis in 1974, Gaines said, “I can read Joyce; I’d read Dubliners before I’d read the novels. ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ I think is one of the greatest short stories that I’ve ever read. It’s the most universal of his work; it’s the kind of thing I’d like to do, the barber shop type of thing: you get together and everybody talks” (77). The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman began this way. In the original draft, people gather around and discuss Miss Jane and her life after her burial. Told from multiple points of view, the story becomes like the men reminiscing about Parnell.

For an essay that examines Gaines and Joyce together, see Spangler, Matthew. “Of Snow and Dust: The Presence of James Joyce in Ernest Gaines’s ‘A Lesson Before Dying.’” South Atlantic Review 67:1, 2002. 104-128. Print.

Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Tarshis, James. “The Other 300 Years: A Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines, Author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 72-79. Print.