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.

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