Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Changing Land in Catherine Carmier

From the very beginning of Catherine Carmier (1964), technological advancements and their effects on the rural African American community can be seen. When Brother comes to town in order to pick up Jackson from the bus station, he begins to speak with two Cajuns about Jackson's return. During their conversation, Fran├žois and Paul mention that they are waiting on their new tractors. Fran├žois informs Brother that everyone has new tractors now and that with them they could complete their work very  quickly: "Knock it all out in one day like that"  (6). Later, in chapter twenty-nine, the narrator, discussing Raoul's  fears, mentions that the technological advancements in agriculture, specifically tractors scare him. Being "the only colored farmer” left holding out against the Cajuns, “[h]e was going to give them hell before their tractors plowed dirt in his face” (134).



The land, and the changing of the land, plays a prominent role within Catherine Carmier. The introduction of tractors and other machinery only helps to exacerbate the already dwindling farm area available to the African American community within the novel. When talking about why Bud Grover gave the Cajuns the best farm land even though they are a tier below the whites in the social hierarchy, Madame Bayonne informs Jackson, “White is still white” (73). Continuing, she informs Jackson that Bud Grover gave the Cajuns the best farm land over the “Negroes” because they produced more crop. They can do this partly because they have the best land but also because they work together. These advantages allowed them to produce more crops which allowed them “to buy more equipment” that would allow them to work the land even faster, thus producing more crops for Bud Grover (74). The increase of Cajun land, amongst other factors, led to a change within the community of the Quarters. As Jackson and Madame Bayonne walk through the corn fields, Jackson notices that the Washington’s used to live in a space where crops now reside. Madame Bayonne tells him that they moved to Baton Rouge and the Cajuns own the land now. She goes on to tell Jackson, “Houses don’t sit between houses any more; now they sit between fields” (77). The Washingtons moved to Baton Rouge, others moved to New Orleans or the North. Still others joined the military and left. In fact, some of Gaines’ friends tried to convince him to stay in the military instead of getting out and becoming a writer.

All of these factors play in to the deterioration of community and the changing landscape. In A Gathering of Old Men (1983), all that are left on Marshall Plantation are the old and the very young. Gaines discusses this very fact in a short speech about the novel that can be found in the archives. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Gaines sees change as inevitable. It will occur; however, there are certain things that he truly wants to preserve on the land. One of these is the cemetery where his ancestors are buried. In A Gathering of Old Men, the fear of the cemetery being plowed under becomes a serious threat. Telling Mapes why he decided to stand, Johnny Paul and the other men begin to talk about the past. He informs Mapes that he can’t see anything but the weeds behind the plantation, but Johnny Paul and the others see much more. They see their lives, their community. Part of that community is the graveyard. Johnny Paul tells Mapes, “I did it for them back there under them trees. I did it ‘cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn’t do it, one day that tractor was go’n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was” (92). The physical proof of the Washingtons and other families moving in Catherine Carmier has disappeared. All that remains are the memories of Jackson, Madame Bayonne, and the others in the Quarters. The cemetery remains a physical representation of the people who lived on and worked the land. It is a tangible place that can be seen and serves as a locus for the shared memory of the community.

This is only one theme from Catherine Carmier that continually appears in Gaines’ work. I have not even scratched the surface of this topic in Catherine Carmier, let alone in Gaines’ oeuvre. Catherine Carmier explores, as Thadious M. Davis puts it, “the dichotomy between condition of modern plantation life and the values inherent within the people living in the plantation system” (276). This dichotomy becomes apparent when thinking about the ways that the landscape has changed since Jackson left for California. In the next post, I will talk about the teacher figures that appear in Gaines’ work. Jackson serves as introductions to these characters.         

Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Print. 
Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print. 
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Print.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gaines and the Struggle to Become a Writer

1964 cover
Catherine Carmier (1964), on first glance, comes across as a Romeo & Juliet type of story. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Published when Gaines was 31, the novel provides an essential starting point to understand Gaines' work. Catherine Carmier provides readers with the major themes and character types that they will see all the way through Gaines' oeuvre. Mary Ellen Doyle even states, "This last novel [A Lesson before Dying], especially, reminds one--with significant differences--of the first" (203). I will discuss the themes and character types that begin in Catherine Carmier in the next blog post. Here, I want to talk about Gaines' determination to succeed as a writer and to have his first novel published.


When he moved to Vallejo, California in 1948 to be with his mother and his step-father, Gaines entered a library for the first time, by accident. His step-father didn't want him hanging around the street corners, so Gaines went to the YMCA first. There, he laced up a pair of boxing gloves and fought someone who knew how to box. The other pugilist punched Gaines in the mouth, and at that point, Gaines "took the boxing gloves off with the teeth that were not loosened, and went to the library" ("Auntie," 22). The library opened up numerous worlds to Gaines. He read the French and Russian writers who described the peasants in their own countries. He came across other authors as well. However, none of the books they wrote contained his people from Southern Louisiana. Not seeing his people in the novels, Gaines decided he would write about them and the land where they resided, providing them with a voice. Discussing his desire to become an author in "Auntie and the Black Experience in Louisiana," Gaines talks about why he chose to write about the area where he grew up instead of writing about New Orleans or San Francisco. The passes is worth quoting at length:
So I thought that it was about time that I did my own book about that little place that I had come from. After writing in long hand what I thought was a book, I then begged my mother to rent me a typewriter. She did, not because she thought I would become a writer, or that she wanted me to become a writer--she did it to keep me quiet. My step-father made a trip home from the Merchant Marines that summer--the summer of 49--and each time he passed by me pecking at the typewriter, he would say to himself, but loud enough for me to hear: "That boy going crazy there, yeah." My friends wanted me to play softball or football, and when I did not show up to the park, they would come by the house to see what was going on. They laughed when I told them I was writing a book. When I read them a part of what I had written, they said, "No, if you're going to write, write about us here. Lay off that plantation stuff everybody's trying to forget. If you're going to write about the South, at least write about New Orleans." But New Orleans was not my home; I lived a hundred miles from New Orleans. Oscar, in Pointe Coupee Parish, was my home and I had someone there who I would never deny [Aunt Augusteen]. ("Auntie," 22-23)    
With all of this in mind, why write about Oscar, Louisiana and not New Orleans, especially while others like Richard Wright wrote about urban Chicago and James Baldwin wrote about New York? Why drudge up the past when moving forward is what mattered? Why should we concern ourselves with individuals who lived not in the cosmopolitan city of New Orleans but in the farmland of Oscar? We should care because their stories matter. Gaines saw this from the beginning. He did not see the people that he knew in the history books or novels that he read for school. Unless Gaines wrote about them, they would remain nonexistent to the public. They would be buried in the unmarked graves behind Riverlake Plantation and eventually removed in the name of agricultural progress. This, in a nutshell, is why we have Catherine Carmier and Gaines' later works.

Undated Meal List
After completing the novel in 1949, Gaines sent it off to a publisher in New York. He waited to hear what fortunes The Little Stream would bring him so that he could send money back to Louisiana. No fortunes came; instead, the manuscript returned, rejected by the publishing house. Gaines went to the incinerator in the back yard and burned The Little Stream. The novel that originated that summer would not see the light of day until 1964. During the time between the initial rejection and the publication of Catherine Carmier, Gaines attended San Francisco State College, went into the military, and continued writing, even having a few short stories published. He read more and wrote more. After graduating from college in 1957, Gaines gave himself ten years to become a writer. He would write in the morning and work at jobs that he didn't necessarily like in the afternoons. He survived on around $175 a month.


Even though Catherine Carmier appeared in 1964 and won the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Prize, it did not sell well. Gaines didn't receive some independence to write until he garnered a small book contract in 1966. Part of the novel's lackluster sales had to do with movement towards a more militant stance regarding African American literature. While some argue that Gaines lacks the "militant" angle, it can be seen in his writing and interviews. In 1975, he told Tom Carter that the last thing Southern whites wanted to see was humanity in African Americans: "I knew the way to show that humanity was to do something positive. Some guys get angry and go to a punching bag. As they're jabbing at it they're developing their muscles; they're getting sharper. I try to use the anger in a positive way, to create a lasting punch, one that will have a longer effect than just screaming or calling somebody an MF or son of a bitch" (84).

As some African American authors such as Amiri Baraka saw literature as purely protest, eschewing style for content, Gaines saw that style as well as substance needs to be considered. As he heard about the violence during the 1960s, especially in the South, Gaines said, "I would sit at my desk until I had written the perfect page" because through writing the perfect page "I would show the Bull Connors and the Faubeses, and the Wallaces and the Thurmans that I could do anything with those twenty six letters that they could, and I could do it better than any of them could" ("Auntie," 26). By taking this stance, Gaines inspired other writers, among them Alice Walker. In a 1969 letter housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center, Walker discusses the influence of Gaines' short story "The Sky is Gray" and his use of dialect on her writing. She also mentions that after reading Of Love and Dust and Bloodline from noon till six in the morning she is "only sorry not to have Catherine Carmier to read now." Later, in a 1971 letter to Dial Press after the publication of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, she writes a postscript, "If ever Catherine Carmier is re-issued (the only Gaines fiction I haven't read), I hope I will be one of the very first to know." Even in 1971, Walker could not find a copy of the novel. Later, it would be reissued, translated, and widely available a people throughout the world recognized Gaines work.

Carter, Tom. "Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 80-85. Print.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Print.

Gaines, Ernest J. "Auntie and the Black Experience in Louisiana." Louisiana Tapestry: The Ethnic Weave of St. Landry Parish. Eds. Vaughn B. Baker and Jean T. Kreamer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 1983. 20-29. Print.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Year of Anniversaries


The picture above is one of the display cases in the Ernest J. Gaines Center. It contains items representing four of the major anniversaries related to Gaines and his work this year. From left to right in the case you will see a first edition copy of Catherine Carmier (1964) and a notebook containing one of the first drafts entitled "Barren Summer." Next, there is a first edition copy of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), a pamphlet celebrating the opening of the Miss Jane Pittman Fountain, and a Miss Jane Pittman Fountain pen. In the center is the National Medal of Arts award that Gaines received in 2013 and immediately below is a two page grant application for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman where Gaines outlines what the novel will be about. On the right is the promotional booklet for HBO's 1999 film version of A Lesson before Dying and a photo and write-up from CBS's 1974 film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

The four anniversaries are:
  1. The 50th anniversary of the publication of Catherine Carmier (1964)
  2. The 40th anniversary of the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
  3. The 25th anniversary of the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain in Rochester, NY (1989)
  4. The 15th anniversary of the film version of A Lesson before Dying (1999)
Over the next few posts, I will take the time to discuss these anniversaries and their significance, not only to Gaines as a writer but also to culture as a whole. So, stayed tuned, and remember, join in the discussion below in the comments.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Power of the Word

A few years ago, I taught at an "alternative" school in rural North Louisiana. I've grown to dislike the term "alternative," but that is what it was. While there, I continually dreaded going to work, for various reasons. However, I grew to understand, even more than I already did, that my role as a teacher involves much more than just presenting students with facts and figures. It involves helping students navigate the paths laid out before them. This isn't always easy, especially if I never had to navigate the same paths myself; however, that is where books come in. Books, specifically fiction, provide an escape from reality and also a connection with it. They provide opportunities to learn about the world around you and maps to help you navigate that world. 

Words have power. In a 1983 interview, Gaines said, "I love words, I love looking at words, I love those 26 letters. In my writing, I try to develop character. That way I can learn something about your own character from reading. Millions of people have read Miss Jane or seen the movie, and whether they know it or not, I think that little old lady has done something to their lives" (New Wings, January 1983). In fact, after the publication of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, news outlets and others kept asking to interview Miss Jane. Gaines' character became a "real" person to the readers. They connected with her in a way that made her come out of the graveyard and live. 


Now, back to that school in North Louisiana. I brought books from home to the school, and one of those books was Gaines' A Lesson before Dying. Looking at most of the students there, I could see that they wanted something. What that something was, I don't know. One student in particular, a student who thought deeply, provided the others with a sort of compass for the period he was there. At some point, I gave him a copy of A Lesson before Dying. Soon after, I asked him if he had read it. He said he was really enjoying it.  The next day, however, he received a second infraction then left the school. for good If a student had multiple infractions, he or she would be removed from the school and expelled for the year.I don't know what effect, if any, Gaines' book had on this young man. I'd like to think that it had some effect, but I can't be sure.


Teaching can be both a rewarding and heartbreaking endeavor at the same time. I've experienced both of these poles on numerous occasions. While I don't know what happened with the student at the school in North Louisiana, I do know what happened to a student I taught in college. A group of middle school student from Shreveport came to the center. The students were taking the day to visit three universities in Louisiana and UL Lafayette was one of them. While touring the center, one of the chaperons approached me and asked if I remembered her. I told her I didn't. She went on to inform me that I had taught he in her freshman composition class at UL Monroe. In that class, I asked the students what there major was and why. Hers was pharmacy. After seeing her writing, I asked her if she ever thought about going in to English as a major. She said she remembers thinking at the time, "This guy doesn't know me. Why would he suggest that?" The next semester, she changed her major to English. Now, she has her MA in English, teaches at the university, and  may pursue her PhD. Even though it was a writing class and not a literature class that affected her, I would say that the overall idea of words as power holds true.    

I'll conclude with this quote from James Baldwin on books, and I would add writing as well. I think it encapsulates the way I feel about them and the way we should view them. "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." 


Thursday, July 17, 2014

"I was crying."

A Lesson before Dying concludes with a simple, three word statement from Grant: "I was crying" (256). Gaines' works deal with manhood, and the achievement of manhood. A Lesson before Dying focuses on Jefferson gaining the strength to walk like a man, and not a hog, to the electric chair. The novel even traces Grant's movement towards manhood. What does crying have to do with the stereotypical view of manhood that society and the media has concocted for us? If we go by the constructed prescription of manhood, crying has nothing to do with it. In fact, crying represents the opposite of manhood. Speaking with John Lowe in 1994, Gaines said, "I think that we think that being a big tough guy, like a football player, or a bully, is being a man" (321). However, this is not the case according to Gaines. Manhood involves taking responsibility: "This is the responsibility of man; taking responsibility for the whole, all humanity, is what I think manliness is" (321). Thinking about Grant in this aspect, he starts to, throughout the novel, take responsibility for the whole. The novel concludes with him in front of his students after Jefferson's execution. He knows that he has a responsibility to the community and to those students to not let Jefferson's death be in vain or forgotten.

Gaines' short story collection Bloodline (1968) can be read partly as a short story sequence that traces the growth of a boy through manhood, even though characters do not repeat in the stories. Crying can be seen throughout the stories, and the majority of the time the ones crying are either boys or men. In "A Long Day in November," Sonny cries when he pees himself at school, and Eddie cries when Gran'mon shoots at him: "We all run out on the gallery, and I see Daddy out in the road crying" (35). Eventually, Eddie realizes that in order to get his wife back he must grow up. He burns his car and Gran'mon says, "I must be dreaming. He's a man after all" (71). Near the end of the story, Amy forces Eddie to grow up and take responsibility for Sonny's education by going to the school and speaking with the teacher. Eddie's crying works towards his realization that he needs to take "responsibility for the whole," not just for himself.

James, in Bloodline's second story "The Sky is Gray," tries his hardest not to cry because he believes it shows weakness and will lower his mother's perception of him. He knows that he must be strong not only for himself but for her as well. At the beginning of the story, he says,
Gaines with James Bond III (Jimmy in film)
I make 'tend I ain't [sacred of ghosts] 'cause I'm the oldest, and I got to set a good sample for the rest. I can't ever be scared and I can't ever cry. And that's why I never said nothing 'bout my teeth. It's been hurting me and hurting me close to a month now, but I never said it. I didn't say it 'cause I didn't want act like a crybaby, 'cause I know we didn't have enough money to go have it pulled. (84) 
Later, as Jimmy and his mother leave the dentist's office, the sleet begins to really fall. Jimmy says, "I look at Mama standing there. I want stand close 'side her, but she don't like that. She say that's crybaby stuff. She say you got to stand for yourself, by yourself" (105-106). Throughout the story, Jimmy learns to stand by himself. He learns to take responsibility and how to mature into manhood. The only time he physically cries is when his mother whips him for not killing the birds. Even in this instance, his crying occurs during a lesson that his mother is trying to teach him, how to stand by himself.

In the third story from Bloodline, "Three Men," Procter Lewis can be seen crying after he decides to take Munford's advice to not let Roger Medlow bail him out of jail. Procter says he got up on the bunk and looked out at the stars. While looking at the heavens, he says, "I felt my throat hurting. I felt water running down my face. But I gripped my mouth tight so I wouldn't make a sound. I didn't make a sound, but I cried. I cried and cried and cried" (151). Even though he cries in his bunk, the paragraph ends with Procter affirming that he "wanted to stand. Because they never let you stand if they [bailed] you out" (152). Procter takes Munford's advice and goes to the pen standing so other will see him as an example. He takes "responsibility for the whole."

This post will possibly turn into something more down the line, but for now I hope it provides you with a little idea concerning manhood and the achievement of it in Gaines' writings. Please leave any thoughts on this topic or on previous topics in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest. Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976. Print.
Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Lowe, John. "An Interview with Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 297-328. Print.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pulp Novels and Ernest Gaines?

When reading African American pulp novelists such as Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines of the late 1960s and 1970s, one would be hard pressed to find any similarities between their novels of urban life and the works of Ernest J. Gaines. However, upon digging deeper into these authors' oueveres, one finds that they both mined the South for part for their work. Iceberg Slim does this in Mama Black Widow (1969), a novel that traces Otis Tilson's life in Chicago. Before arriving in Chicago, Tilson's family worked as sharecroppers in the South. For Donald Goines, one of his final novels, Swamp Man (1975), takes place entirely in the South. It tells the story of George Jackson, an African American youth who lives in the backwater swamps with his grandfather. At the beginning of the novel, George's sister Henrietta returns home from college to visit. Henrietta's return, however, is not a joyful occasion because on her way home from the bus station in town the Jones brothers stop her and brutally rape her, turning her into a child in a woman's body. George sees this act of violence and vows to kill all four of the Jones brothers. Two years later, after the Jones brothers keep victimizing Henrietta, George enacts his revenge and ultimately dies in the process. Looking past the graphic description of Henrietta's rape, which takes place over two chapters, and the over-the-top stereotypes of both whites and blacks in the South, Swamp Man contains similarities to the Southern fiction that Gaines has produced throughout his career.

One of the main similarities can be seen in Henrietta's trajectory. She has been to college in Atlanta and returns home, albeit just to visit. For Henrietta, education provides an escape from the life that she experiences in the Deep South. She hopes, eventually, that George will follow in her footsteps and leave as well. She sends him books and problems to solve and is always amazed that he solves them without any formal education. Zeke, one of the Jones brothers, even comments that "George speaks like he's a Yankee or somethin'" because he reads books all of the time (36). The brothers also point out that they think Henrietta views herself as better than them. Sonny-Boy says, "[T]hat fuckin' bitch is still stuck-up as hell! Gets off the bus like she owns this here town, sees us sittin' here, then got the uppity not to speak" (25-26). In many ways, both George and Henrietta resemble the educated African American who returns in Gaines' work such as Jackson and Grant. While this type of character is not unique to Gaines (Toomer, DuBois, and others have the same trope), it is interesting that an author who consistently writes about the urban chooses the returning, educated African American as a character type when writing about the South.

Another similarity occurs near the beginning of the novel. When George realizes that his sister may be attacked on her way home from the bus station in town, he approaches his grandfather and says that he needs to take the shotgun with him in case he has to fight off her attackers. After asking for the shotgun, the narrator states that "[George] didn't want to look into those eyes because the boy was ashamed of his grandfather. Ashamed of the way his grandfather cringed when the whites were around. The old man couldn't help himself. He just shook. But the old man didn't tremble from fear. Instead, he shook from inner rage, a feeling of frustration because he knew he was helpless" (20).  Jefferson, the man who tries to keep Henrietta from walking home, mirrors the grandfather in his fears and rage. While talking to Henrietta, he tells her that he can't walk her home because the Jones brothers would kill him and rape her: "Ain't nothing I can do but die, and I just ain't ready to die" (31). After the rape, both men regret not acting, but it is too late. Psychologically beaten down George's grandfather and Jefferson are not anomalies in Southern literature or African American literature. Looking at them, though, in relation to Gaines, one can see similarities to the characters in A Gathering of Old Men.

Gaines has stated that while authors such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and others wrote about the urban environment, he wanted to focus on the rural South to provide a voice for those who did not appear in the texts about the urban. In 1972, Gaines said, "Since Wright's Native Son came out the books about the cities, the big city ghettoes, have sold. I would say most of your publishers are interested in that kind of book by a Black more than he is interested in a book by a Black about any other subject. Wright established almost a blueprint and it has been the most popular seller to a white audience" (Beauford 23). I guess that is partly why I find Goines' turn to the South so interesting. You have to remember that Swamp Man appeared in 1975, that's four years after the book publication and one year after the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a novel that takes place entirely in the South and works to correct the stereotypes of African Americans in Southern fiction. You must also keep in mind that Goines, and Slim, wrote for money, aesthetic, and political reasons. Gaines' and Goines' reasons for writing, while possibly overlapping, were/are disparate. I'm not sure what to make of all of this so far, but I find it fascinating that urban, pulp novelists turned to the South for some of their writing. What other pulp novels by writers who tend to focus on the urban North focus on the South either in part of the novel or in the whole thing? Let us know in the comments below.

For more information on African American pulp novelists, see Justin Gifford's Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing (2013).    

Beauford, Fred. "A Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 16-24. Print. 

Goines, Donald. Swamp Man. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 2005. Print.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

University of Houston-Downtown's "Read Out" for A Lesson before Dying

Posters at the "Read Out"
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to take part in the University of Houston-Downtown's Center for Critical Race Studies' "Read Out" for A Lesson before Dying. The event brought together university professors, college students, high school and middle school students, librarians, and other community members. Participants heard encouraging words about the importance of books, education, and defining yourself from Dr. Vida Robertson and Dean DoVeanna Fulton. After these introductory words of encouragement, the participants broke into small groups for discussions on the novel.

I had the opportunity to walk around to the various groups during this period, and what I heard inspired me regarding the power of the written word. A professor and college student volunteers led each group, and each one had its own unique dynamic. One group encountered more a of a lecture type setting while another could be seen sitting around in a large circle discussing how the participants either define themselves or let others define them. Among the varying settings, students and group leaders broached important topics that arose throughout the novel and how those topics relate to their own day-to-day experiences. One group talked about the setting of the novel, the late 1940s in the Jim Crow South, and how the setting occurred less than 100 years after the "end" of slavery in the United States, seeing the residual effects that slavery has had on our society. Another group talked about defining yourself, and the group brought up the defense attorney's comments where he calls Jefferson a "hog" from the beginning of the novel. Along with these topics, one of the groups discussed the issue of colorism in the novel and that led to them speaking about whether or not colorism still exists or not and whether or not anyone had experienced it. Finally, one group spoke about the creation and destruction of myths and mentors, helping students understand that others work to define them and to comprehend the importance of figures in their life that they can look up to for support and guidance.

After the group discussions and lunch, I had the opportunity to speak with the participants gathered. I spoke broadly on the Ernest J. Gaines Center, Gaines' influences, his global prominence, the land he writes about, and some historical context for the novel. Throughout the day, the participants received much more than just a book discussion. They were able to experience how a novel that takes place in the past can affect and speak to us in our own present lives. Ultimately, the "Read Out" showed participants that books truly do create an "identification" with the character(s), to borrow a term from Kenneth Burke. Dr. Robertson told the participants that all writing is, at its core, a political act, and I would say a rhetorical one. Gaines himself even says as much. When talking about what he wants readers to get out of works, Gaines says:
Number one, I would want the black youth to say, "Hey, I am somebody," and I'd want the white youth to say, "Hey, that is part of me out there, and I could understand myself truly if I can understand my neighbor, if I can understand the person around me." That's the only way one can understand himself, if he can understand other things around him. You know Donne's "No man is an island" and "Don't ask for who the bell tolls"--every little piece of things around us makes us a little bit whole. I mean we can go through the world being half people, and most of us do that most of our lives. But in order to understand more about ourselves and the world, we must understand what's around. So that's what I'd want: the white kid to understand what the black kid is, and the black kid to understand who he is. (Gaudet and Wooton 215-216)
Dr. Robertson concluded by reading Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," a poem he wrote after World War I and in response to the Red Summer of 1919.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousands blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the grave?
Like me we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Poster at "Read Out"
Challenging the students to define themselves and to think about the communities they inhabit and how to give back to those communities, the event allowed participants to explore Gaines' novel on another level than just textual. It provided a space for the novel to work as a text of rhetorical persuasion and a call to action. Ultimately, this is what all good works of literature do, and the "Read Out" showed that this is what A Lesson before Dying does.





Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooton. "An Interview With Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. 200-216. Print.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Willie Francis and Jefferson

Willie Francis
The Autumn 2005 issue of the Southern Review and the book Mozart and Leadbelly (2005) both contain Ernest Gaines' essay "Writing A Lesson Before Dying." Quotes from the essay come from Mozart and Leadbelly. In the essay, Gaines talks about the process of writing the 1993 novel. Originally, Gaines wanted to set the novel in the early 1980s. However, after speaking with Paul Nolan about the Francis case, Gaines' vision started to change. Gaines writes, "There were so many similarities [between the Francis case and his previous works]--the work, religion, the food that people ate, everything. The case Paul recommended could have happened in the parish where I grew up" (53). Looking at Gaines' other works, this comment comes as no surprise. Francis resembles characters like Proctor Lewis in "Three Men" and Marcus in Of Love and Dust; the only difference, however, is that Jefferson dies in the electric chair at the end of the novel. Proctor and Marcus both have the opportunities to get bonded out of jail, Jefferson does not.

When thinking about Francis' case, Gaines says, "If I put the story in the forties, there was so much material I could use. . . . I could use the church school for background, the church where generations of my folks had worshipped and where I had attended school my first six years. I could use the crop as background. . . I knew the food the people ate, knew the kind of clothes they wore, knew the kind of songs they sang in the fields and in the church" (54). In essence, as stated earlier, the Francis case could have occurred in the parish where Gaines grew up. Along with talking about these items, Gaines also discusses Gruesome Gertie and its reputation, explaining how it traveled from parish to parish and how the generator caused it to be heard all over town.

Gruesome Gertie
Looking at the Francis case and Jefferson, some striking similarities arise. The state accused both men of murdering a white man, both had state appointed attorneys who did not really defend them, both were nearly illiterate, both were judged by a jury of twelve white men (no women or African Americans), both were condemned to die in the electric chair, and both wrote narratives about their experience (Francis' "My Trip to the Chair" and Jefferson's diary in chapter 29). One read through Francis' pamphlet solidifies the similarities even more. Francis says he wanted ice cream for his last meal, a priest told him to "stand like a man," he says the sheriff and deputies treated him well, and he concludes by stating, "Mr. Montgomery says that in writing this I may have helped someone, somehow. I hope so" (16). Jefferson's diary, and the mere fact that he walks to the chair upright, accomplishes the same things that Francis hoped his pamphlet would.



For more information on the Willie Francis case and A Lesson before Dying, look at Jason Stupp's "Living Death: Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying and the Execution of Willie Francis" in Demands of the Dead: Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States (2012). In 1982, the DePaul Law Review carried Arthur S. Miller and Jeffrey H. Bowman's "'Slow Dance on the Killing Ground': The Willie Francis Case Revisited."

Gaines, Ernest J. "Writing A Lesson Before Dying." Mozart and Leadbelly. New York: Vintage Books, 52-62. Print.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Willie Francis and Gruesome Gertie

On May 9, 1947, Willie Francis sat strapped to Louisiana's traveling electric chair Gruesome Gertie for the second time. A little over a year earlier, Francis sat in the same chair. That time, however, the chair's operator, after a little too much to drink, could not hook up the chair to the portable generator correctly. So, Francis, receiving an initial electrical shock, failed to perish. One year later, and after a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, Francis once again approached the chair in St. Martinville, LA, sat down, and awaited the shock. This time, the chair performed its duty and Francis died.

Francis' case, which Gilbert King wrote about in The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South (2008), contains so many irregularities, apart from the botched execution, that it illuminates the problems that inhabited the judicial system in the Deep South during the mid-twentieth century. 


Accused of murdering Andrew Thomas in November 1944, Francis did not receive adequate council to mount a defense. Nine months after Thomas' murder, police in Port Arthur, TX picked up Francis and charged him with trafficking. They dropped that charge, after finding out that Francis did not have anything to do with it, then they kept him for a little while longer. During that time, Francis confessed to the November 1944 murder of St. Martinville pharmacy owner Andrew Thomas. The above confession, in Francis' handwriting, is from that incident. Francis admitted to killing Thomas again in the police car back to St. Martinville as well.

 During the trial, Francis' defense did not call any witnesses, contest the fact that the murder weapon became lost in transit to ballistics testing in Washington D.C., that fingerprints could not prove Francis' involvement, and they did not counter Thomas' neighbor who reported seeing a car with headlights in front of Thomas' house when she heard gunshots. Francis, as a fifteen year old African American male at the time of the murder, did not own a car or have easy access to one. The defense did not mention any of this. Instead, they just said they did not have any comments. 

Francis, between his two executions, produced a pamphlet entitled "My Trip to the Chair." The pamphlet recounts Francis' first trip to Gruesome Gertie's lap and what transpired afterwards. He does not talk about the murder of Andrew Thomas, but he does talk about being at peace and gaining the ability to stand like a man on his way to death. He concludes the pamphlet by saying, "Mr. Montgomery [who wrote the pamphlet] says that in writing this I may have helped someone, somehow. I hope so" (16). 

What does all of this have to do with Gaines? In the next post, I will discuss Willie Francis' influence on Gaines and A Lesson before Dying      






Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Lesson before Dying and the History of Racism

Valerie Babb, in "Old Fashioned Modernism: 'The Changing Same' in A Lesson before Dying," talks about Ernest Gaines in the modernist tradition. Defining modernism, broadly, "as a severing with traditions of the past and a quest for new forms of expression," Babb argues that Gaines fits this definition and that along with breaking from traditional forms, "modernism [and Gaines] also embraces a break with accepted history" (250, 251). To show this, Babb quotes, at length, from Jefferson's defense attorney at the beginning of the novel. The defense attorney says:
Gentlemen of the jury, look at him--look at him--look at this. Do you see a man sitting here? Do you see a man sitting here? I ask you, I implore, look carefully--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--can plan--can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa--yes, yes, that he can do--but to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. Ask him to name the months of the year. Ask him does Christmas come before or after the Fourth of July? Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose, to quote one passage from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying 'man'--would you please forgive me for committing such an error? (7-8)
In his comments, the defense attorney basically lays out all of the socially constructed tenets that whites used to keep African Americans in a subservient position. The novel strives to repudiate these myths, and to "break with accepted history." Near the end of the novel, Grant asks Jefferson if he knows what a myth is. Grant elaborates and says, "A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth--and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myths" (192).


The defense attorney's speech is at 5:06 in the clip above. While looking at the modernist impulses in Gaines' work is important, the defense attorney's speech above can be used as a pedagogical jumping off point for the history of the oppression of African Americans in the country and in Louisiana. Gaines deftly presents historical arguments regarding race in a succinct paragraph. He moves from phrenology, to "uncivilized" Africa, to African Americans as commodities for work (think slavery), to African Americans as "uncivilized" because they do not know poetry, to the government's "systematic denial of political enfranchisement to African Americans" (Babb 253).

Below, you will find a list of books that will provide more information in regards to the history of racism in the United States and the world.
There are other books that talk about the history of racism. If you know of any that others should look in to post them in the comments and I will add them to this list.