Thursday, October 30, 2014

Aunt Augusteen Jefferson

Miss Augusteen Jefferson
In 1971, Gaines dedicated The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to three people: his grandmother Mrs. Julia McVay, his stepfather Mr. Ralph Norbert Colar, Sr., and his aunt Miss. Augusteen Jefferson. All three individuals had a profound impact on his life, but in this post, I would like to speak about the impact that Gaines' aunt Augusteen had on him. Last post I discussed the symbolic nature of the butterfly in A Lesson before Dying and how when Gaines and his wife, Dianne, were walking through the cemetery a butterfly kept returning to the same spot, again and again. Gaines does not know where his aunt is buried, and Dianne intoned that the butterfly appeared to be alighting on the same spot as if to point out the place were her body resides.

After Gaines' mother and stepfather left for California during World War II, his Aunt Augesteen looked after Gaines and his other siblings back in Louisiana until he followed his parents to California. Of this woman, Gaines continually mentions that even though she could not walk she performed all of the tasks necessary to raise Gaines and the rest of the children under her care. She would slide down the steps of the house and work in the garden. She would cook, clean, and do all of the housework needed. When she needed to discipline Gaines, she would whip him. Gaines says, "She could whip hard. I had to go out and break the switch, bring it to her, kneel down, and get my whipping" (50-51). Since she could not go to other people's houses easily, the people in the quarters would come to her house and gather on the porch to talk, and talk, and talk. Gaines would serve them coffee and listen, taking in their stories and speech.     

Along with listening to the people on the porch talk, Gaines read and wrote letters for the people in the quarters. His aunt "made sure" he did this for them. This experience gave Gaines, as Patrica Rickels says, "a feeling for the flavor of their language" and provided him with the sound of the people he wanted to capture (121). Talking about these experiences, Gaines mentions,
I would go to these people and read their letters for them and write their letters for them. In most cases they didn't know how to form the letter. They'd give me a little piece of paper, you know those small, yellow tablets and pencil and say, "Tell Viney" o r"Tell Clara I'm all right. we're doing ok., and the garden's all right." Something like that. Then I would have to form the letter. I'd just write it, and re-write it, and re-write it until I got it right. Then I'd read it back to them. (Rickels 121) 
Writing those letters, in a way, served as an apprenticeship for Gaines' literary career. They provided him wit the opportunity, just as his aunt's porch did, with getting "the sound of my people talking" down on paper. This, of course, is what we see in his novels.

I want to conclude this post briefly with a quote from Sister Mary Ellen Doyle in regards to whether or not Gaines' Aunt Augusteen is in fact a direct correlation to Miss Jane Pittman or not. Gaines continually states that his Aunt is not Miss Jane; however, his Aunt did serve as the moral model for characters like Miss Jane and Aunt Fe in "Just Like A Tree."  As Doyle puts it,
Augusteen Jefferson was the moral model of Jane Pittman and other older women in his fiction; like Jane, she embodied that element of life in the quarters that chiefly caused "J" Gaines to become Ernest J. Gaines the writer--oral tradition. Because Miss Augusteen could not walk, the folk came to her for the visits and long conversations that were their principal recreation. J served them tea or lemonade; he also sat and listened to them talk of old times. (16)
The influence of Aunt Augusteen can be seen throughout Gaines' career. As Doyle puts it, her influence helped to move him from being a precocious young boy to the writer and man he is today. She has served as an inspiration for Gaines, and continues to do so, because she showed him how to have dignity and moral strength.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Print.
Ingram, Forrest and Barbara Steinberg. "On the Verge: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 39-55. Print.
Rickels, Patricia. "An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 119-136. Print.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Butterfly

I have already posted about the execution of Jefferson and on the disrespect that Grant receives in A Lesson before Dying. These pots leaned more towards the emotionally draining aspects of the novel that make the reader reflect on the racism that inhabits this world and the ability to overcome that oppression. With this post, I would like to draw your attention towards a scene near the end of the book that, while containing heavy emotions, creates an uplifting image among the anguish of the final pages. This small scene may appear innocuous at first, but it contains a lot of symbolism for the novel and for Gaines himself.

In the final pages, Grant leaves his students praying for Jefferson in the schoolhouse and goes outside to meditate about what is happening downtown and awaiting news on Jefferson's execution. Grant says:
Several feet away from where I sat under the tree was a hill of bull grass. I doubted that I had looked at it once in all the time that I had been sitting there. I probably would not have noticed it at all had a butterfly, a yellow butterfly with dark specks like in dots on its wings, not lit there. What had brought it there? There was no odor that i could detect to have attracted it. There were other places where it could have rested--there was the wire fence on either side of the road, there were flowers just a short distance away in [Henri] Pichot's yard--so why did it light on a hill of bull grass that offered it nothing? I watched it closely, the way it opened its wings again, fluttered, closed its wings for a second or two, then opened them again and flew away. I watched it fly over the ditch and down into the quarter, I watched it until I could not see it anymore. (251-252)
Butterflies symbolize rebirth and resurrection, and immediately after describing the butterfly resting of "a hill of bull grass," Grant simply says, "Yes, I told myself. It is finally over" (252). The butterfly symbolizes Jefferson, after death, and his release from the oppressive society that ultimately killed him for simply being black. It also symbolizes a sort of unification between Grant and Jefferson. The butterfly finds Grant and perches itself next to him instead of a "wire fence" or across the road. Throughout the novel, Grant intones that instead of Jefferson sitting in a jail cell awaiting execution it could have just as easily been him.

While the butterfly plays an important role in the novel, this scene also plays an important role to Gaines personally as well. Walking through the sugar cane fields around River Lake Plantation with his wife, he showed her the cemetery where his ancestors and the community he left are buried. The cemetery, as I have explained before, is an important reservoir for Gaines. Gaines' Aunt Augesteen Jefferson is interred there; however, he does not know where she resides because there is no headstone to mark her grave. Gaines' aunt, as he has said repeatedly throughout his life, raised him till he left for California and inspired him tremendously. She could not walk, so she crawled everywhere. She did everything herself, and people would come to her house and sit on the porch an talk, and talk, and talk.

As they walked through the cemetery, Gaines and his wife noticed a butterfly that kept perching itself in a certain place. It would fly away then return. Upon seeing this, Dianne suggested that the butterfly kept alighting on that specific spot because that is where Gaines' aunt is buried. Eventually, Gaines retrieved a camera he had and took a picture of the butterfly. When working on This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me with Dr. Marcia Gaudet, Dr. Reggie Young, and Dr. Wiley Cash, the picture he took of the butterfly was the one picture he wanted in the book. It concludes the books and is displayed with the paragraph above from A Lesson before Dying.  

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Student and the Minister in "The Sky is Gray"

Throughout Gaines' works tensions arise around the topic of religion. One needs to only look at Jackson and Aunt Charlotte in Catherine Carmier or at Grant and Reverend Ambrose in A Lesson before Dying to see this. William R. Nash even argues that A Lesson before Dying brings about a sort of reconciliation in regards to Gaines' characters and religion when Reverend Ambrose and Grant work together to help Jefferson during his final. While I do not totally agree with this assessment, I do think that Nash brings up an interesting point, especially in regards to the anonymous minister in "The Sky is Gray." Nash notes that the unnamed minister in the story "is a big, powerful man with a massive body and expensive clothes" (349). Gaines portrays the minister as a preacher who only looks out for his own well being, unlike Reverend Ambrose whose stature and dress are small and worn, presenting him as someone who is more in touch with the community he serves.

The unnamed minister that James sees in the dentist's office, however, does not appear to serve the community in the same that Reverend Ambrose does. Upon observing the minister, James describes him by saying, "The man looks like a preacher. He's big and fat and he's got on a black suit. He's got a gold chain, too" (94). The preacher does not appear to be starving, unlike James and Octavia. Plus, he does not appear to be lacking in material possessions, unlike James and Octavia. The minister only appears to care about himself and what it takes for him to survive in a harsh and oppressive world. He tells the woman who asks him why God lets John Lee Williams suffer at the dentist's office that she should not question why God does the things that he does. Through this assertion, the minister asserts that the best way to make it is to not question anything and to look forward to the next life where the weak will be exalted. However, he undercuts this with his opulence.

Looking at his dress, the minister displays a desire to succeed in this world while he can, but he also shows something more. The "gold chain" around his neck does not just appear as a symbol of material wealth. On a deeper level, it symbolizes the minister's adherence to a set of beliefs that others pushed upon him. The student questions these beliefs, telling the minister "[w]e should question and question and question--question everything" (95). The minister cannot question because he remains chained to the thoughts about religion that have whites have passed on to him, that those who suffer here in earth receive a greater reward in heaven and that slaves should obey their masters. This logic does not sit well with the student and the younger generation as a whole. Herman Beavers notes explains this scene succinctly when he writes, "When the young man asserts that the preacher's ignorance in exemplified by the fact that he believes in God because he's been told to do so by the white men, the preacher's only recourse is to strike the young man in the face and leave" (52).

The confrontation between the minister's views and the young student's views does not end when the preacher slaps the young man and leaves. After the violent incident, a woman begins to speak with the student and challenges his notion that he is not a "citizen." The young man tells her, plainly, "Citizens have certain rights. . . Name me one right that you have. One right, granted by the Constitution, that you can exercise here in Bayonne" (101). The woman then ends by telling the student that she hopes the next generation is not like him, relying solely on the head and "[d]one forgot the heart absolutely" (102). The student replies by saying that he hopes the next generation will not be like him because "[he] was born too late to believe in [her] God" (102). Hopefully, he ruminates, the next generation will have faith in something.

Beavers' comment on this scene is important because it suggests that in order to overcome the racial oppression facing the African American community in "The Sky is Gray" and throughout Gaines' work the heart and the mind are both needed. While listening to the student, James thinks, "When I grow up I want to be just like him" (100). To Beavers, this statement is important "because it is James who represents the likelihood of fusing intellect and emotion" (53). Even though we do not see the outcome of James' comment, he can be seen as the next generation that melds together faith and intellect to combat racism and oppression. In some ways, this could be what happens when Reverend Ambrose and Grant work together in A Lesson before Dying; however, instead of two people serving the purpose, James is an individual.

More could be said about not only this scene in "The Sky is Gray" but also about religion in Gaines' works. It is a discussion worth having, especially considering that in almost all of his works religion appears in one form or another because it is part of the period and the people he writes about. In the comments below, let me know what you think about Gaines' depictions and comments on religion in his works.

Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. "The Sky is Gray." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 81-117. Print.
Nash, William R. "'You think a Man Can't Kneel and Stand?': Ernest J. Gaines's Reassessment of Religion as Positive Communal Influence in 'A Lesson before Dying.'" Callaloo 24:1 (2001). 346-362. Print.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

50th Blog Post

Today marks the 50th blog post for the Ernest J. Gaines Center's blog. I did not plan it out this way, but it seems only fitting that the 50th blog post occurs right in the middle of the 50th anniversary celebration for Gaines' Catherine Carmier. For this post, I wanted to do something a little different, so instead of doing a typical post, I have decided to do a video post. In it, I discuss the importance of Catherine Carmier and our graduate assistant Jennifer Morrison and I talk about our favorite items from the collection.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Celebration Continues

Over the past few weeks, the center has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ernest J. Gaines' first novel publication Catherine Carmier. There have been film screenings of The Sky is Gray, A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. There has been a book talk with Dr. Reggie Young and Dr. Marica Gaudet on This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me: The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines, and there has been a reading from Song of the Shank author and 2009 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence winner Jeffery Renard Allen. The latter part of October and through November will see even more events to celebrate this momentous milestone, including a reading by Ernest J. Gaines on UL Lafayette's campus November 2 at 4:00 pm in Moody Hall 103. More information about upcoming events can be found on our website and Facebook page.

With all of that said, I would like to take the opportunity in this post to share with you some of the interviews, video, and articles that have appeared regarding the celebration.

  • Patricia Gannon's September 21, 2014 article in The Advocate  
  • Megan Wyatt's September 27, 2014 article in The Daily Advertiser (contains video of Gaines reading from Catherine Carmier)
  • Kailey Broussard's September 30, 2014 article in The Vermilion
  • Interview with Dr. Matthew Teutsch and Ms. Jennifer Morrison September 15, 2014 on KRVS's Apres Midi
  • Interview with Dr. Matthew Teutsch September 16, 2014 on The Jim Engster Show
  • Interview with Dr. Matthew Teutsch October 2, 2014 on KLFY
Make sure you check back on October 22 for the center's 50th blog post. We have something very special planned. so you don't want to miss it. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Purpose of Writing

In the last post, I spoke, briefly, about "white privilege" and society's "rules." Today, I would like to continue that conversation some, focusing more on why Gaines, and others, chose to write. During the same class period I spoke about last post, we read Judith Ortez Cofer's "Myth of the Latin Woman." Cofer speaks about her encounters with individuals in England and in the United States and how they project their stereotypical images of Latin women upon her. In one instance, a man confronts her on a bus and begins to sing a song from West Side Story, At a reading in Florida, a white woman sitting at a table "mistook" Cofer for a waitress and asked her for a cup of coffee. When Cofer took the stage and read, the white woman could only duck her head and avoid eye contact with Cofer; she ultimately raised her eyes, causing Cofer to says, "when I willed her to look up at me, it was my victory, and she graciously allowed me to punish her with my full attention." Cofer's desire, through her writing, is to call attention to the stereotypes that many hold about Latin women and to change those perceptions by reaching one individual at a time.

Cofer concludes the essay with a poignant paragraph that talks about her desires to counter the misrepresentations she faces everyday. She ultimately argues that education and her parents gave her the opportunity to face these stereotypes and "books and art have saved [her] from the harsher forms of ethnic and racial prejudice that many of [her] Hispanic companeras have had to endure." Cofer continues by simply stating, "My personal goal in my public life is to try to replace the old pervasive stereotypes and myths about Latinas with a much more interesting set of realities. Every time I give a reading, I hope the stories I tell, the dreams and the fears I examine in my work, can achieve some universal truth which will get my audience past the particulars of my skin color, my accent, or my clothes." Essentially, Cofer uses her writing to enlighten others about her life and the lives of Latinas.

Many authors write for the same reason, to counter stereotypes and confront "white privilege." As part of "The Power of the Word" post back in July, I quoted James Baldwin who said, "You think your pain and 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." Books have the power to illuminate the realities of this world and to create empathy and understanding among readers. This is something that Gaines does in his writing as well. In 1986, he told Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton that is he was pressed to say who he writes for he would say, "I write for the black youth of the South. And if there were two groups, I'd say I write for the black and white youth of the South. Those are the people I would write for" (215). For the "black youth," he writes to show them that they are somebody, and for the white youth, he writes so that they can understand themselves and their neighbors. He concludes by intoning, "So that's what I'd want: the white kids to understand what the black kid is, and the black kid to understand who he is" (216). Essentially, Gaines wants to show the "universal truth" of human existence that Cofer voices in her essay.

Even looking at The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, we can see this drive in Gaines to write about those who may eventually be forgotten or who have be oppressed. When the teacher comes to speak with Miss Jane, Mary asks him why he wants to speak with Miss Jane. The unnamed editor tells her, "I teach history. . . . I'm sure her life's story can help explain things to my students" (v). Still confronting the teacher, Mary asks him what is wrong with the history books the students already have. He simply says, "Miss Jane is not in them" (v). He wants his students to see Miss Jane, her struggles and her joys, her survival. The on;y way to do this is for him to speak with her and transcribe what she says for his students to read. Her story will allow them to live together and see the "universal truth" of human existence.

In the short speech pictured above, Gaines ends by stating why someone should read about Miss Jane. He says:
 To anyone who might ask why should I read about someone who did not fight war, make laws, marry a great politician or Statesman or writer, or doctor, I would say read about Miss Jane because she survived with strength, dignity, love and respect for men, God, Nature, baseball, and vanilla ice cream, during the most demanding hundred years of American history.
There are numerous authors who espouse these same sentiments. In the comments below, tell me who some of the authors are that have inspired you to see the world in a different manner?  For a great piece on the power of books, see the video below of Malcom Mitchell, UGA wide receiver, and the book club he participates in.


Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Gaudet, Marcia and Carol Wooton. "An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 200-216. Print.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Societal Rules and Privilege

A couple of weeks ago, I had my students read Don Kulick and Thais Machado-Borges' article "Leaky." The article talks about Brazil's openness regarding plastic surgery and definitions of beauty. Part of the argument is that middle class Brazilians undertake plastic surgery, in part, from their desire to obtain a level of whiteness that the upper class has. The authors put it this way, "[M]odifying your body in Brazil is fundamentally about displaying your wealth. But since money is associated with race (a well-known Brazilian proverb is 'O dinheiro embranquece'--'Money whitens'), changing one's body is about approximating whiteness" (120-121). This reading, along with others that we read for the week, led one student to approach me during the break to ask a question about the texts. Essentially, the student pointed out that the texts had a feminist leaning (we were in the gender section of the reader) and that they pushed against the the construction of whiteness as an indicator of beauty and white privilege.

At one point, the student asked, "Why should I feel guilty for this?" The question didn't strike me as odd. It is actually something that I expect students to ask. Speaking with the student, I told him that while we have no power to determine the color of our skin upon birth and in life, we have the power to counteract the history of elevating whiteness at the expense of others. Even though he may feel guilty about all of this, I informed the student that most people don't even get to that point because they don't realize that such a thing as "white privilege" actually exists, or they downplay it. The student's acknowledgement, whatever the reaction to that acknowledgement, constitutes the first step in working to rectify the problem that has evolved over the past 400 years in this nation.

Gaines tackles the subject of "white privilege" throughout his works. Typically, the discussion appears either in the memory of slavery and 400 plus years of oppression. Elsewhere, the conversation revolves around the "rules" of society. For example, in "Book III: The Plantation" in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Tee Bob wants Mary Agnes, a Creole schoolteacher, to love him. Tee Bob eventually tells his friend Jimmy Caya about his feelings for Mary Agnes. Jimmy informs Tee Bob that he doesn't have to wait for Mary Agnes to love him; instead, because of his "white privilege" and the "rules" of society, all he has to do is take her. Jimmy tells him:
If you want her you go to that house and take her. If you want her at the school, make them children go out in the yard and wait. Take her in that ditch if you can't wait to get her home. But she's there for that and nothing else. (183)
Tee Bob did not choose to be born into a society that allowed him the "privilege" of taking Mary Agnes whenever he so desired. However, he does realize that he loves her, but he does not know how to counter the "rules" that have been place before he came into the world.

After Tee Bob kills himself, Jules Raynard drives Miss Jane home. In the car, he tells her that Tee Bob wanted to love Mary Agnes despite the societal rules. Mary Agnes knew they could not exist together because "she knowed the rules" (205). The "one drop African blood" in her veins would not allow him and her to be together as man and wife (205). This is the crux of Gaines' Of Love and Dust (1967) as well.Jules even tells Miss Jane, "We all killed [Tee Bob]. We tried to make him follow a set of rules our people gived us long ago" (204). Like my student who asked why the readings cause a feeling a guilt, Tee Bob felt the same way. He did not make the rules. He did not choose to be born into the "right" strata of society. However, he must conform to the rules. He does acknowledge the problems, but since everything around him tells him he can't change the rules, he feels helpless.

Unlike Tee Bob, my student has the opportunity to dismantle the "rules" that hold up the idea of "white privilege." No, the student did not choose to be white. Yes, the student does realize that whiteness comes with certain advantages. This means that the student can either accept those advantages and move on, or the individual can strive to inform others of the disparities that "white privilege" breeds and work to counter it throughout life.

There is, of course, more that could be said here. Please, remember to carry on the discussion below. For now, I would like to conclude with a verse from Brother Ali's "Letter to My Countrymen." The video of the song is below.

We don't really like to talk about the race thing
The whole grandparents used to own slaves thing
Pat ourselves on the back in February
Looking at pictures of Abe Lincoln and the great King
But the real picture's much more embarrassing
We're still not even close to really sharing things
The situation of oppressed people
Shows what we feel it means to be a human being
What does it mean to be American?
I think the struggle to free is our inheritance
And if we say it how it really is
We know our lily skin still give us privilege
Advantages given to the few
That are built into the roots of our biggest institutions
That's the truth in life we got to choose
Do I fight in the movement or think I'm entitled to it
This is not a practice life
This is the big game we got to attack it right
Each one of us is headed for the grave
This old crooked world won't be saved by the passive type
This is a letter to my countrymen
Not from a Democrat or a Republican
But one among you that's why you call me brother
Ain't scared to tell you we're in trouble 'cause I love you 

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Kulick, Don and Thais Machado-Borges. "Leaky." One World, Many Cultures. Eds. Stuart Hirschberg and Terry Hirschberg. Ninth Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2015. 115-125. Print.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Salt and Pepper in the Same Backfield

I apologize for not not following up the "James Meredith and Ole Miss" post with one on Gil and Cal from A Gathering of Old Men as I said I would. This post will focus on "Salt and Pepper" from Gaines' 1983 novel. Speaking about the violence and prejudice that appears in a novel set in the 1970s, Gaines says, in a 1991 interview, that racism and oppression still exist. He continues by using Gil and Cal as a symbol of progress and hope in the novel. His comments are worth quoting at length:
Another one of the themes running around this story is the idea of working together. The football players are very important in the novel. The only way you can really do things and the only way we are going to be Americans is that we have to work together. While many of the other characters in the novel are trapped in the past, the only ones who live in the present are Salt and Pepper.They're the ones living in the present and they're the ones who must make American work. We've got to block for each other and do all kinds of things to get to the goal. The football players are a symbol for how we must do this together. (Saeta and Skinner 250)
While Gil and Cal represent progress, Cal appears in the novel only once. As Gil prepares to leave LSU after getting word of his brother's murder, Cal tries to console Gil and tries to figure out what happened. At this moment, Gil turns his anger upon Cal: "Then suddenly [Gil] just turned against Cal. Out of the blue, he looked at Cal like he suddenly hated him. It surprised the hell out of both me [Sully] and Cal" (113). Gil leaves, and all Cal can do is just stand "there looking hurt" (114). After this encounter, Cal does not enter the novel again, except as a character removed from the action.

Ultimately, while Gil and Cal represent progress, there is something sort of unsettling about Gil and his role in the groundbreaking duo of "Salt and Pepper." When speaking with his father Fix, Gil continues to intone that if the family does anything to retaliate against the murder of Beau it will hurt his chances of becoming an All American. Here, it feels like Gil's dreams and desires supersede his family as well as Cal.However, this is all part of Gil's awakening, as Sister Mary Ellen Doyle says, because even after Gil rejects Cal and "has accepted rejection himself can he begin fully to see that what he does on the football field has wider implications than his own fame and glory" (184). Russ, the deputy who Mapes sends to Fix's house to keep him and his men there, says as much to Gil.

Upon leaving, Gil tries to decide whether or not he should play in the game against Ole Miss. Russ stops him and convinces him that he should, telling Gil, "Tomorrow you can do something for yourself, and for all the rest of us" (150). Russ begins by saying what Gil can do for himself then he moves on to what he can do for the country and for the next generation of Cajuns in South Louisiana. Russ tells Gil that millions of people will see the game on TV, and most of them will be pulling against LSU because "Salt and Pepper" are in the same backfield; however, that makes Gil and Cal that much more important. Gil doesn't respond to this argument, and Russ move on to argue how Gil can help his family: "You want to do something for your dead brother? Do something for his son's future--play in that game tomorrow" (151). Gil then asks about how this help Fix, not realizing that Fix possibly can't be helped. Russ concludes by reinforcing that Gil can help Tee-Beau, the country, and himself by playing in the game.

There is more to Gil in the novel, but this provides a good starting point for discussing not just Gil's role but also the role of sports in the novel. Football, and other sports, serves as a tool that bring together social change. Just take a look at Jim Brown for an example of this in the NFL or Jerry LeVias at SMU (a video of him is below). In the comments, let's continue this conversation. How do you see sports affecting social change? How do sports play into other novels, not necessarily those of Gaines or other African Americans?

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Print.
Saeta, Elsa and Izora Skinner. "Interview with Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 241-252. Print.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"No, I won't let them harm my people."

Upon first reading A Gathering of Old Men, Candy presented a conundrum for me. At first, I wanted to appreciate her desire to protect Mathu from Mapes and the inevitable appearance of Fix and his men. However, her continued comments regarding Mathu and those gathered at Marshall Plantation caused me to have a different view of her. Speaking with Miss Merle early in the novel, Candy tries to remind her interlocutor that Fix has continuously caused problems for the African American community on Marshall Plantation. Candy tells Miss Merle that Janey can remind her about "what Fix has done to these people around here" (19). After telling Miss Merle this, Candy emphatically states, "I will not let Mapes or Fix harm my people" (emphasis added 19). Candy continues by exclaiming, "No, I won't let them harm my people. . . . I will protect my people. My daddy and all them before him did" (emphasis added 19). In the span of five sentences, Candy refers to Mathu and the others on Marshall Plantation as "her people."

Candy's phrase, "my people," struck me when I first encountered it. Even though slavery had ended close to 110 years before the events in the novel take place, the 1970s, Candy still sees Mathu and the others as "her people." She "must" protect them, making sure that neither Fix nor Mapes harms them. Through this stance, Candy maintains a position of authority that becomes reminiscent of slave owners who saw their slaves as property and of being incapable or protecting themselves. I am not saying that Candy is completely like a slave owner; however, her paternalistic stance towards Mathu and the others is worth interrogating. In fact, Gaines editor, Dorthea Oppenheimer, specifically asked Gaines about Candy's role in the novel. She wrote, "Candy: what's her role? She's the last of her line. She's an old fashioned type of slaveowner, although she thinks she's very modern and liberal. She finds out these men have minds of their own and doesn't like it."

Even at the end of the novel, after everything has happened, Candy still cannot let go of "her people." When the trial ends, she asks Mathu if he needs a ride home. He declines, saying that Clatoo is there with the truck and "he would go back with Clatoo and the rest of the people" (214). Candy waves to Mathu and the others then searches for Lou's hand, for comfort. When asked about this scene and whether or not Candy undergoes a "learning process" throughout the book, Gaines responds:
I really don't think she understood [why Mathu left with the people]. She knows she needs Lou for support; that's why she reaches for his hand when Mathu leaves. But Mathu's turned his back on her, and I don't think she knows why. Lou tells her in the car; that's why she slaps him, because she doesn't want to understand. In another draft, she gives a big speech, "When you needed medicine, who went to the store? When you went to the doctor, who took you? When you were hungry, who fed you? And they must all say, Yes, Candy did it. I cut that out, but I hope people can still get the feeling of her role. (Doyle 171)
Holly Hunter as Candy in the film version
What is her role? Is she the "old fashioned type of slaveowner" that Oppenheimer mentions? Does she learn about herself and the community as Sister Mary Ellen Doyle suggests when she asked Gaines about Candy? Is she really progressive in her thoughts? These are all questions that should be explored because Candy provides an interesting type of character in A Gathering of Old Men, one that feels like she is helping but is ultimately hindering the progress of those she "loves and cares for." What do you think? As usual, add your own comments below.

Doyle, Mary Ellen, S.C.N. "A MELUS Interview: Ernest J. Gaines--'Other Things to Write About.'" Conversations withe Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 149-171. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Print.