Thursday, February 26, 2015

Narrative Point of View in "Of Love and Dust"

In an unpublished speech given around 1969 in Marin County, California, Gaines speaks about the plot of Of Love and Dust and about the political milieu of the day. It is one of Gaines's most political speeches that I have read; however, I do not want to get into that aspect for this post. If you would like to see an example of it, there is a copy of another speech given around the same period that deals with the subject of politics, unwritten rules, and the history of racism within the context of Of Love and Dust. For this post, I want to focus briefly on a stylistic element of the novel, one that I have touched on before, the narrative voice. James Kelly narrates the novel, with interspersed second hand accounts thrown in here and there, specifically sections where Aunt Margaret relates to James what transpires between Marcus and Louise at the house. However, even Aunt Margaret cannot see into the bedroom when Louise and Marcus block the door.

Marcus and Louise's relationship starts out as a method of revenge for both of them. Marcus wants revenge on Bonbon for working him half to death and for loving Pauline, thus causing her to ignore him. Marcus decides that to get back at Bonbon he will seduce Louise. Louise wants revenge on Bonbon because he shows more love and affection for Pauline and their two children than he shows her and Tite. Louise continually tries to seduce various men in the quarters, but no one takes her bait until Marcus looks up at the gallery following Pauline's continued rebuffs of his advances.

Gaines has said that he struggles with writing from the omniscient point of view, and to that point, only two of his works use that point of view: Catherine Carmier and In My Father's House. Instead, the first person point of view comes easier to him, and when talking about Of Love and Dust, he mentions that F. Scott Fitzgerald's deployment of it in The Great Gatsby by having Nick Carraway as the narrator served as a model for James Kelly in his own novel.  During the unpublished speech mentioned above, Gaines talks about the first person narration in the novel and about the process of writing. He tells his audience that because he could not see inside of Marcus's and Louise's heads, he does not know what caused them to change their minds about one another. Instead, all he knows is that they did. Rather than just seeking revenge, as they initially set out to do, the two fall in love.
But when my two revenge seekers come together, something else happens to them instead. I don't know exactly what caused it. I suppose if I had written the novel from the omnicient [sic] point of view--that is, if I had followed my characters every where they went--even to the bed room, even to the bed--I would be able to explain to you whey they changed so. But since I told the story from another character's point of view, and since he was not allowed to enter the bedroom, he was unable to tell us, both you, the reader, and me, the author, how such a drastic change between my two young characters came about. But I do know this for a fact that after they had been with each other a while, instead of seeking revenge on the other man who had been forced by this society to hurt both of them, they fell in love and made plans to escape from South to North. That is a drastic change, I would admit, from their previous intentions; but nothing more drastic than my overseer's change of hear for the Black woman [Pauline] or the Black woman's change of heart toward my overseer. (5-6) 
This quote is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, it gives us insight into Gaines as a writer and the way that a work of fiction comes into being. He states that he cannot exactly explain why the two fall in love, they just do. Because Aunt Margaret can't see into the bedroom, she does not know what occurs within. All she knows is that she hears loud noises then nothing. Even when the door opens, she only sees feet and naked bodies, nothing more. The path to love for Marcus and Louise is not spelled out for Gaines because he does not delve into their minds; he remains outside looking in, from the community's perspective. Likewise, the reader does not know what happens either because all of the information we get is from Margaret or others in the quarters.

In many ways, the scenes where Aunt Margaret hears Marcus and Louise in the bedroom recall Nick's leaving Daisy and Gatsby alone to reconnect. Unlike Aunt Margaret, Nick does not hear the conversation; he just "walk[s] out the back way . . . and [runs] for a huge black knotted tree" and stands there while the two lovers talk within his house (93). When Nick returns, Daisy and Gatsby do not notice him at first; they sit on opposite ends of the couch stare at one another "as if some question had been asked or was in the air" (94). Nick notes that Gatsby looks different, glowing, and the trio make their way next door to Gatsby's mansion.

The narrative point of view in both novels provides us, as readers, with implied explanations for what occurs. What exactly do Marcus and Louise talk about after they make love? Does the act resemble, as it did in my head, the scene in Invisible Man where IM has sex with the white woman then shames her by writing on her body in lipstick? Or, is it like the scene between Madge and Bob in Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go when Madge tries to get Bob to "rape" her? The sounds Aunt Margaret hears makes me think of these scenes, but I cannot say for sure that anything like the scenes described above happened. What do Louise and Marcus talk about before he jumps out of the window and heads back down the quarter? All Gaines knows, and I know, is that they fall in love. How that happens, we can only speculate. What that says though, it what Gaines's speech resonates with: love is the answer to the problems we experience. Possibly I will write about the rest of Gaines's speech at another point. As for now, what do you think about Gaines not letting us see how Marcus and Louise change their opinions and fall in love? What are some other novels that are similar in this manner?

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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Crying in "Of Love and Dust"

Back in July, I wrote about the act of crying and manhood in Gaines's works. After rereading Of Love and Dust, I noticed that for all of his vibrato and posturing Marcus cries, and in so doing, he shows his manhood. After coming in from the fields at noon on Saturday, Sidney Bonbon stops Marcus and James as they bring the corn to the crib. Bonbon tells Marcus that the boys who typically unload the corn have taken ill, and that they cannot do it. So, Bonbon orders Marcus to unload the corn after lunch, denying him any rest until the next day. After giving his orders to Marcus, Bonbon glances across the yard, and Marcus stands "trembling" (80). His fists tighten, and James worries that Marcus may do something stupid like jump Bonbon. Instead, Bonbon's ignoring of Marcus leads him to lean against the trailer and start crying: "He cried so deep and fully, his whole body was shaking" (80).

When the pair make it to the store for Marcus to have lunch, he continues to cry, and even refuses to take the food that James offers him. Marcus just sits next to James and cries, tears streaming down his face. James finally gives up after Marcus slaps the food out of his hand and walks away down the quarter. Following this scene, Marcus attempts, one last time, to win over Pauline and fails. He decides, then, to go after Bonbon, the representation, and source, of his suffering on Marshall Plantation. To do this, he concocts a plan to seduce Louise, Bonbon's wife; however, after seducing her, Marcus falls in love and plans to run away with her, to the North. During this whole ordeal, James and the rest of the community in the quarters fears what will happen when, not if, Bonbon finds out about Marcus' plan.

Eventually, Marshall meets with Marcus to discuss a plan that both rid him of Bonbon, who has dirt on Marshall, and allow Marcus to presumably runaway with Louise. During the meeting, Marshall tries to convince Marcus, indirectly, to kill Bonbon; however, Marcus declines to go that far. Marshall changes the subject and looks at the trailers filled with corn next to the crib and tells Marcus that the he can unload them the next day because the kids are still sick. At that moment, Marshall leaves and Marcus remains: "Marcus felt his eyes burning: he was crying" (189). In both instances, Marcus encounters the men who keep him subjugated to their rules and desire. In both cases, Marshall and Bonbon break Marcus and cause him to cry. Marcus, even though he puts up a strong facade, does not shy away from shedding tears. He opens up to James near the end as well. In order for Marcus to succeed, he must be broken, and that occurs with Marshall and Bonbon.

There are other characters who cry throughout the novel, and it plays a large role. Aunt Margaret says that she hears Louise cry while she is with Marcus and she has never heard Louise cry with Bonbon. This is presented as a positive attribute of Louise and Marcus' relationship. As well, Tite and Margaret both cry. What do these instances say about the shedding of tears? What are your thoughts about this subject in Of Love and Dust, other Gaines's novels, or other novels in general? Does crying, as Gaines presents it, show a lack of manhood?

Gaines, Ernest J. Of Love and Dust. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979. Print.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Suffocating Dust in Gaines's "Of Love and Dust"

Just as most of his stories and novels, Gaines's Of Love and Dust opens with a sort of journey. Instead of the main protagonist involved in the trek as in James' trip to Bayonne in "The Sky is Gray," James Kelley stands on his porch and sees a truck flying through the quarter kicking up dust everywhere. Gaines' second novel is intricate, and I would argue, his best. I could sit here and write numerous posts about it, and I have already written a couple: "The White Eagle" and "The Great Gatsby and Of Love and Dust." For this post, I just want to look at the opening of Gaines' 1967 novel. The novel begins:
From my gallery I could see that dust coming down the quarter, coming fast, and I thought to myself, "Who in the world would be driving like that?" I got up to go inside until the dust had all settled. But I had just stepped inside the room when I heard the truck stopping there before the gate. I didn't turn around then because I knew the dust was flying all over the place. A minute or so later, when I figured it had settled, I went back. The dust was still flying across the yard, but it wasn't nearly as thick now. I looked toward the road and I saw somebody coming in the gate. It was too dark to tell if he was white or colored. (3)
The word "dust" appears in four of the eight sentences in the opening paragraph of the novel. Granted the word shows up in the title, but four mentions in the first 128 words warrants attention. What does the repetition of this one word mean?

In "Of Snow and Dust," Matthew Spangler speaks about James Joyce's presence in Gaines A Lesson before Dying, something I have mentioned on this blog before. Discussing how "soot," "smoke," "dust", and other elements work to show a character's attitude towards his or her setting, Spangler addresses the opening paragraph. For Spangler, "Gaines's us of dust draws upon American cultural narratives of the wild, rural, pre-settled nation, particularly those associated with the American West and South" (112). Spangler claims Gaines's use of "dust" becomes "a symbol for paralysis and entrapment" (113). With this assertion, I wholeheartedly agree. In the novel,"dust" becomes synonymous with heat, sweat, work, grime, and oppression.

As James walks back down the quarter, he begins to think about the oppressive heat: "It must have been a good hundred. That dust was white as snow, hot as fire. The sun was straight up, so it didn't throw any kind of shadows across the road. You had nothing but hot dust to walk in from the time you left the highway until you got home" (82). The reflection of the sun off of the dust is white enough to blind him, and the heat is so unbearable that when he gets home he will have a hard time being able to relax, as he mentions earlier that he couldn't fall asleep on his bed because of the heat. The dust symbolically smothers and blinds the characters in the same way that the oppressive system that they live within does. The novel is full of characters "sweating," "squinting eyes because of reflections," "dirt caked faces," and "oppressive heat." It would take too long to mention them all.

To conclude, I want to quote a brief passage from the end of the novel. Here, James is relating Sun Brown's account of Marcus's death at the hands of Bonbon. James says, "Then [Sun Brown] saw a car coming toward him--no, he saw the dust. The dust was flying all over the quarter. In front of the dust was a car, coming up the quarter with no lights on" (274).  Sun Brown's account of Bonbon's car speeding through the quarters mirrors James's at the beginning. Before he sees the car, sun Brown sees the dust, flying all of the place; then, he sees the car in front of it. Unlike the opening paragraph, there is not mention of the dust clearing. Here, at the climax of the novel, the dust overcomes Marcus. He cannot escape the rules of the plantation and the Deep South by heading North with Louise. Instead, the suspended dust metaphorically suffocates him while Bonbon literally kills him with a farming implement (a scythe).

Next post I plan to talk about manhood in the novel. What are some other instances in the novel that show the landscape as a symbol of the subjugation in the novel? Are there other instances? What other works, like Joyce and Gaines, use landscape as this type of symbol? Let me know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. Of Love and Dust. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979. Print.
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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Irvin Mayfield Quintet Honors Ernest J. Gaines February 24

Ernest Gaines is fond of quoting Friedrich Nietzsche's famous line about music: "Without music, life would be a mistake." Music, as I have spoken about on this blog before is important to Gaines. He sees music as a soother and as a narrative form. Speaking about his admiration for Mozart and Haydn and how he listens to them to help him write, Gaines continues by saying, "And though Mozart and Haydn soothe my brain while I write, neither can tell me about the Great Flood of '27 as Bessie Smith or Big Bill Broonzy can. And neither can describe Louisiana State Prison at Angola as Leadbelly can" (27). It takes both forms of music to make the whole.

Jazz trumpeter and composer Irvin Mayfield will bring his quintet from New Orleans to perform selections from Dirt, Dust and Trees – A Tribute to Literary Legend Ernest Gaines, at UL Lafayette on February 24, 2015. When Mayfield premiered this multi-movement work in 2012 with his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, he commented on Gaines’s work saying, “His art is words and mine is music. This is the work that binds two artists together.”

The concert will take place on the UL Lafayette campus in Angelle Hall, Ducrest-Gilfry Auditorium, located at 601 East Saint Mary Boulevard in Lafayette, on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 7:30 pm. Doors will open at 7:00 pm. The concert is free and open to the public. To open the concert, Mr. Mayfield will perform with UL Lafayette’s Jazz Combo I, a group of students under the direction of Dr. Paul Morton. Mr. Mayfield and his quintet will then perform selections from Dirt, Dust and Trees, along with other pieces.

In addition to the concert, Mr. Mayfield will spend three days on the UL Lafayette campus, listening to and playing with jazz students, speaking to music majors about the music business, meeting with an English class to talk about the use of literature in composing music, and familiarizing himself with the resources housed within the Ernest J. Gaines Center. The performance and residency are co-sponsored by three UL Lafayette offices: the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music, the Concert Committee, and the Ernest J. Gaines Center.

Irvin Mayfield, 37, is a Grammy and Billboard Award-winning artist with 15 albums to his credit. Mr. Mayfield is the founding Artistic Director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and currently serves as Artistic Director of Jazz at the Minnesota Orchestra. He is a professor at the University of New Orleans, where he also serves as Director of the New Orleans Jazz Institute. In 2009, Mayfield entered into a historic partnership with the Royal Sonesta Hotel and created Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, which brought "Jazz back to Bourbon Street" in the historic French Quarter. President George W. Bush nominated Mr. Mayfield to the National Council on the Arts and President Barack Obama subsequently appointed him to the same post in 2010. That same year, Mr. Mayfield received The Chancellor’s Award from the University of New Orleans (the highest ranking award given to a professor) and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Dillard University in 2011.

Novelist Ernest Gaines is Writer-In-Residence Emeritus at UL Lafayette, a MacArthur Fellow, and writer of several celebrated books including A Lesson Before Dying, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and A Gathering of Old Men. In 2008, UL Lafayette established the Ernest Gaines Center as an archive for Mr. Gaines’s papers and manuscripts and as a center for Gaines scholarship. The center formally opened on October 31, 2010, and since that time, it has hosted readings and lectures by Mr. Gaines, the Poet Laureate of South Africa Keorapetse Kgositsile, Ernest J. Gaines Literary Award winner Jeffery Renard Allen, Barbara Methvin Professor Dr. John Lowe from the University of Georgia, and many others. Along with these speakers, the center has served the community by hosting creative writing workshops for area students and teaching institutes for area teachers.  

Started in the fall of 2010, the mission of the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is to stimulate interdisciplinary research on the foundations and diversity of traditional music worldwide and to advance the preservation, instruction, and performance of traditional music with an emphasis on traditions that have developed in Acadiana. Students now have the opportunity to earn a B.A. in Music with a concentration in Traditional Music as well as a Music Minor with a Traditional Music emphasis. New classes and programs continue to be developed with involvement from musicians in the community.

Gaines, Ernest J. "Mozart and Leadbelly." Mozart and Leadbelly. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 24-31. Print. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

African American Crime and Detective Fiction Syllabus

Donald Goines

About a month ago I wrote a post entitled "The Short Story and Ernest Gaines Syllabus." Today, I would like to do something similar. However, instead of having the syllabus center around Gaines and his relation to the short story genre, I want to share with you a syllabus I constructed entitled "African American Crime and Detective Fiction." The syllabus below does not contain an exhaustive list of texts that could be included in this course. With that said, in the comments below, tell me what suggestions do you have for texts, critical or otherwise, that could be added to this course.

African American Crime and Detective Fiction

Course Description:

This course will cover African American crime and detective novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Beginning with the Harlem Renaissance, we will trace a path from Rudolph Fisher to more recent authors such as Walter Mosley and Attica Locke. Primarily focusing on the urban landscape, we will examine how these authors navigate the constricted spaces of the urban environment and how they work to control that environment through various means. As Otto Penzler states in the introduction to Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction by African American Writers, African American crime literature shows “the detective in a reasonably insular community, trying to solve crimes with black victims and committed, in all likelihood, by black villains.” This course will provide students with the opportunity to explore Penzler’s assertion and to see how that statement has either changed or remained the same throughout the years.  Beginning with Fisher, the course will trace the proliferation of African American crime and detective literature that saw an upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s through the first part of the twenty-first century.


Secondary Texts:

  • Response papers: These will be in the form of blog posts. I will set up a blog for the class, and you will post your responses there. Each post will require you to provide an answer to my prompt and to respond to other students' responses as well. We will discuss how to do this in a proefssional manner during class. (Teachers, see Shannon Baldino's "The Classroom Blog: Enhancing Critical Thinking, Substantive Discussion, and Appropriate Online Interaction" for a discussion of blogs in the high school classroom.)
  • Wiki: Students will be placed into groups of four. Each group will be required to construct a collaborative wiki with ________ components on an author and text that we read in class. 
    • Each student must write a paragraph describing the class discussion for that author. For example, if the class discusses narrative voice in Donald Goines, the response should talk about narrative voice and what the class said about it. 
    • The group must come up with five questions to think about based off of the class discussion or research. 
    • The group must construct an annotated bibliography of six sources. The annotations must be 250-500 words and contain a section stating the source's credibility, a summary of the source, a way to use that source in a research project. 
    • The group must construct a list of symbols/allusions/or other references in the stories. The number here will vary, but each entry must provide information about where it comes from (especially for an allusion) and what purpose it serves in the context of the story. 
    • The group must construct a review of the short story. The review must be between 500-1000 words. Remember, a review is not a summary. Some summary is necessary, but the thrust of the review should be about the story's meaning and importance. 
    • The group must construct a creative page. This page can be anything that you desire. For example, it could be a hand drawn map of the setting. It could be sketch of one of the scenes. It could be a Prezi talking about the author and the themes of the story. It could be a video discussion. This page is open to whatever you want to do.   

As stated at the beginning of this post, the readings above are not an exhaustive list of texts that could be used for this class. The ones that I chose provide an overview of African American crime and detective fiction drawing from both canonical and popular texts. I chose to do this because, as Justin Gifford says, "If we are truly invested in American and African American literary traditions and their larger relationships to cultural politics, popular movements, and social change, then black crime fiction presents us with a unique opportunity to redraw the very boundaries of what counts as the American canon and even cultural knowledge" (7). Considering canon formation, providing students with a wide swath of texts will give them insight, and allow them to challenge, the idea of canon formation in literature. Essentially, students could ask whether or not texts buy authors such as Goines, Jefferson, and Slim should be included alongside those by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. 

Along with questioning canon formation, two of the texts above (Gaines and Locke) do not center on the urban environment. What do texts like these do to the assumption that crime and detective novels typically take place in urban settings? How does the rural setting disrupt that assumption? With this in mind, I could have added Goines' Swamp Man to the list above. What other African American crime and detective novels take place outside of the urban environment? Could there be an entire course focused on that strand of crime and detective fiction? 

List of previous blog posts that may be of help with the readings in this course:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Irvin Mayfield and Ernest Gaines

On this blog, I have posted about how one artistic form of expression inspires another. I've talked about it with the influence of Modest Mussorgsky on Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; I've spoken about it with the influence of painters like Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya on Gaines and Ernest Hemingway respectively. Along with writing about these influence, I have taken the opportunity to discuss the atrocious act of lynching both as a visual representation and in literature in a couple of posts, most notably in "The Specter of Lynching." In that post, I explore the NAACP's 1935 exhibition entitled An Art Commentary on Lynching. I bring all of this up because today I want to talk about Irvin Mayfield and his upcoming visit to UL Lafayette on February 24.

In 2012, Mayfield debuted a jazz composition dedicated to Ernest Gaines and his work. The composition, entitled Dirt, Dust, and Trees: A Jazz Tribute to Ernest J. Gaines, draws from Gaines' work and life. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to hear two pieces from Dirt, Dust and Trees: "Angola" and "Dianne." Earlier, in 2003, Mayfield debuted Strange Fruit at Dillard University in New Orleans. The composition tackles the history of lynching, presenting a story set in South during the 1920s. The narrative involves Mary Ann, a white woman who is engaged to a banker's son, Charles. LeRoi, an African American gardener, works for Mary Ann's father. Mary Ann and LeRoi both knew one another since childhood; however, she never talked with him until he started working at her father's house. There, she noticed him, they began to speak to another, and after a while, they consummated their relationship. When Charles finds out about this, he beats Mary Ann and then runs to the sheriff to say that LeRoi raped and beat her. The law arrests LeRoi, and a mob begins to gather at the jail, talking about the last lynching and laughing about it. Even when Charles tries to call of the mob, the lynching proceeds. The mob allows LeRoi's father, a preacher, to speak to his son while LeRoi stands awaiting the noose to fall around his neck. After LeRoi's death, we learn that Mary Ann is pregnant with LeRoi's son, and she eventually allows herself to accept this and to live.

The inspiration for Mayfield's opus came from a visit to an Atlanta museum in 2002. There, he saw an exhibit entitled Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. From there, Mayfield undertook the task to express the horrific history of lynching in a musical manner, much the same way that Billie Holiday did with the song "Strange fruit." The point is that Mayfield's opus arose out of a reaction to an exhibit in much the same way that say Gaines' work arises partly out of his experiences and interactions with music. The symbiotic relationship between the two serves to show that art, no matter the form, can find inspiration anywhere. Gaines has said that while he writes he listens to music in the background, whether it be jazz, blues, classical, or something else because it relaxes him and gives him a sense of rhythm. Speaking about jazz, he says,
Another thing especially in jazz music is repetition--repeating and repeating to get the point over--which I try to do in dialogue. I learned from music something that Hemingway also does and this is understatement. Certain musicians, like Lester Young, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists, could play around a note. For example, he didn't have to go through the old beat after "Stardust." He could give you a feeling of "Stardust" by playing around the note. (209)
Gaines does this, as he himself points out, in his work, specifically "The Sky is Gray." In that story, Octavia and James experience racism and oppression in a subtler manner than having it overtly expressed through continual contact with whites.

With all of this said, make sure you join us on Tuesday February 24, 2015 at 7:30 at Angelle Hall on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for a free performance by the Irvin Mayfield Quintet as they pay tribute to the life and work of Ernest J. Gaines. For more information, email us at or call at (337)-482-1848.

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, February 5, 2015

Sharecropping in Bontemps and Gaines

Following Reconstruction, Miss Jane talks about staying in the South, even with the oppression she would inevitably face, until she could find a place where she and Ned could live free of being subjected to subjection based on the color of their skin.  Eventually, Miss Jane calks the conditions after Reconstruction slavery: "It was slavery again, all right" (72). She mentions the fact that throughout the area there are no more "colored troops, colored politicians, or a colored teacher"; instead, only white teachers could be find and the "secret group[s]" became even more active (72). After the Civil War, sharecropping arose as a means of maintaining the agricultural output of the land and as means of keeping African Americans oppressed. Sharecropping involved a landowner supplying a farmer, typically an African American or a poor white, with land, tools, housing, seed, and other items necessary to farming the land. When the farmer harvested the crops, he would receive a portion of the crops to pay off the landowner, and the rest would go to the landowner. Through this system, landowners kept sharecroppers in perpetual debt, coming up with various fees that the farmer owed and making the farmer buy his or her goods through the plantation store using plantation money. The picture above is from the Ernest J. Gaines Collection, and it is River Lake Plantation store money.  

When trying to leave Colonel Dye's Plantation, Miss Jane and Joe Pittman experience the "slave-like" system discussed above. After numerous trips to Colonel Dye to tell him that they are leaving, the Colonel finally offers Joe and Miss Jane a prime piece of bottom land for Joe to sharecrop. Joe refuses, and the Colonel, who acts like he was losing his best friend at first, becomes furious. As he turns to leave, Colonel Dye speaks up, calling after Joe, "Ain't you forgetting something?" (85). The Colonel commences to tell Joe that he owes one hundred and fifty dollars before he can leave. Joe asks why, and the Colonel responds, "That hundred and that fifty to get you out of trouble when the Klux had you" (85). On top of providing tools, seed, food, housing, and other essentials, as the landowner, Colonel Dye could mitigate between Joe and the Klan. However, after leaving the plantation, the Colonel could not do a thing. The Colonel's persistence that Joe owes him $150 is, as Miss Jane hints at, a way for him to enact some kind of retribution on Joe for leaving. Joe and Miss Jane sell everything they have to pay the money, and then they leave for the Louisiana-Texas border. 

As mentioned in the previous post, Arna Bontemps' "A Summer Tragedy" also brings to light the horrendous conditions caused by sharecropping. Working the same land for forty five years, and not having anything to show for it, Jennie and Jeff decide to end their own lives by driving their car off a bridge into a river.  Driving to their watery grave, Jeff notices the bountiful crops of cotton, reflecting on what that meant. Thinking about the crops, his mind begins to drift towards Major Stevenson, the landowner. He thinks about the fact that the Major only supplied Jeff with one mule to work a thirty-acre plot of land. Jeff thinks, "It was an expensive notion, the way it killed mules from overwork, but the old man held to it" (140). In order to save money in the short term, the Major chose to supply Jeff with only one mule, causing Jeff to work the mule to death. Later, Jennie begins to waffle some regarding their plan. She asks Jeff how many bales of cotton he could get this year. For Jeff, the number does not "make a speck o' diff'ence" because not matter how much they get "[they] still gonna be in debt to old man Stevenson when he gets through counting up" (143). No matter what, the Major owns Jeff and Jennie, never allowing them to get a leg up. In essence, they are in a form of slaver, as Miss Jane says. 

These are not, of course, the only instances of sharecropping in African American, Southern, or American literature. Lyle Saxon has a discussion about it in Children of Strangers for instance. What are some other novels, short stories, or plays that discuss sharecropping in the South after the Civil War through the mid-twentieth century? How are their depictions of sharecropping similar or different to Gaines' and Bontemps'?

Bontemps, Arna. The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1973. Print.
 Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Arna Bontemps and Ernest Gaines Continued

Arna Bontemps African American Museum
Last Thursday, I wrote about Arna Bontemps' "Why I Returned (A Personal Essay)." How do Bontemps' experiences compare with those of Gaines as a young man. In many ways, they are similar. Gaines left Louisiana at the age of fifteen in 1948. Like Bontemps, Gaines migrated to California; however, unlike Bontemps, Gaines remained in California, settling eventually in San Francisco. It took Gaines a long time to even think about returning to the South or Louisiana. Eventually, he began returning to Louisiana in the early 1960s after James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi. Unlike Bontemps, Gaines does not talk about the tensions between "folk heritage" and whether or that heritage should be presented in his works. Instead, in interviews, he talks about the conditions in the South, as Bontemps does as well.

Bontemps' father chose to move the family to California after an incident with  men one Saturday evening. Coming home with his pay and presents for his wife. Bontemps' father encountered two drunk white men. One of them, with slurred speech, muttered, "Let's walk over the big nigger" (5). His muscles tensing up, Bontemps' father began calculating all of the possible outcomes of the encounter. Even though he knew the two men didn't pose a threat to him, a number of questions raced through his mind: "Was something brewing? Racial tension again? . . . But was this the time for a showdown? Assuming he could handle the two-on-one, what then?" (5) If he assaulted the men, he would be chased down and become the victim of mob vengeance, regardless of the provocation" (5). After calmly stepping aside, Bontemps' father made his way home. On his walk home, he came to the decision that would change his family's lives forever.

Bontemps' father decided to move his family to California, eventually settling on San Francisco as their home. Bontemps does not mention any personal racial confrontations between himself and whites while he lived in Louisiana, partly because he was only three when he left. Instead, he talks about spending time with his grandmother in the back yard. Upon settling in California, he starts to pick up on the conversations his father has with his mother, grandmother, and others. He says, "I began to pick up comment about the place we had left, comment which had been withheld from young ears while we were still in Louisiana" (6). As he grew, Bontemps picked up in their conversation, and in some ways, I picture him sitting around the house on a Sunday afternoon much like the narrator in Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" who fell asleep listening to his parents and others talk about the South and things that he did not comprehend yet.

Like Bontemps, Gaines moved to California at an early age. Even though he was about ten years older than Bontemps was when he left Louisiana, Gaines does not, very often if at all, mention experiences with racism that he encountered before leaving Louisiana. Just as Bontemps recalls walking with his grandmother in the back yard and picking pecans, Gaines talks about sitting on the porch listening to the older people and writing letters for them. In many ways, Bontemps' and Gaines' decision to focus on the community they grew up in instead of the society that would oppress them says a lot. The community, whether that be familial or literal community, provided each with a form of protection, shielding them from the racism outside. Gaines draws on this in Bloodline where the first story, "A Long Day in November," is told from a six-year-old boy's point of view. The boy experiences life in the quarters, surrounded by those who love him and have his best interests in mind. The second story, "The Sky is Gray," sees the encroachment of the outside world on the community when James and Octavia go to Bayonne.

There is more that could be said here. Perhaps I will have one more post on Bontemps and Gaines. Specifically, I want to think about Bontemps' "A Summer Tragedy" and Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. What other authors have similar narratives to those of Bontemps and Gaines, leaving the South and either returning or not? Let me know in the comments below.

Bontemps, Arna. The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1973. Print.