Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stylistic Elements in Bontemps's "Black Thunder"

1968 Beacon Press Edition
At the beginning of February, I did a few posts on Arna Bontemps and his relation to Ernest J. Gaines. Today, I want to look at another one of Bontemps's works, Black Thunder (1936), and briefly examine how it relates to Gaines's A Lesson before Dying stylistically. Black Thunder tells the story of a failed slave rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800. It chronicles the lead up to the revolt, the revolt itself, and Gabriel's capture and execution. When it appeared in 1936, the novel received favorable reviews; however, it did not garner much in regards to sales. In the introduction to the 1968 edition, Bontemps argues that "the theme of self-assertion by black men whose endurance strained to the breaking point was not one that readers of fiction were prepared to contemplate at the time" (xv). Gabriel's "self-assertion," and his survival with dignity even in the face of capture and execution, can be seen, thematically, in relation to Jefferson's "awakening" in A Lesson before Dying and his own "self-assertion" as a man at the end of that novel. I do not wish to explore this element today; instead, I want to briefly look at section right before the rebellion.

The final chapter in Book One "Jacobins," shows Criddle, Ditcher, a mulatto boy, Mingo, Blue, Old Catfish Primus, and Juba preparing to follow Gabriel and overtake Richmond. The chapter only constitutes about four pages, and each of the characters mentioned above gets his or her own little section within the chapter. They do not appear in the space; the third person omniscient narrator moves from one character to another showing each one's preparations. Criddle's movements begin the chapter. He enters Marse Prosser's stable at night, and no one pays any attention to him. He finds a loose board in the floor then removes a "hand-made cutlass" and begins to sharpen it. Next, Ditcher can be seen leaving his cabin and speaking with the moon and a neighbor about the upcoming events. Close to morning, a mulatto boy fishes by the creek and converses with his "mammy" about the upcoming rebellion. The free African American Mingo thinks about his position as a "free" man who owns his own business. However, his wife and children remain slaves. He locks up his shop and thinks back to his wife being whipped mercilessly. After working in the fields, Blue speaks with his mule and contemplates his impending freedom, daydreaming about "riding in a public stagecoach with a cigar in his mouth" and drinking freely in a tavern (79). Next, Old Catfish Primus speaks with another man about conjure and protection for the rebellion. Primus gives the man a "fighting 'hand'" (79). Juba, Gabriel's lover, concludes the chapter. She prepares Araby for the ride to come; Gabriel enters, checks to see if everything is ready, then leaves to prepare for the night ahead.

Gabriel Prosser
The above chapter reminds me a lot of chapter 30 in A Lesson before Dying. There, Gaines changes the point of view from first person (Garnt and Jefferson's Diary) to third person. The chapter details the entrance of Gruesome Gertie into Bayonne for Jefferson's execution. It chronicles citizens reactions to the truck entering town, the chair being removed from the truck, and the chair being set up. There are sections from the Sheriff and Paul, as well as sections from ordinary African American and white citizens. Some shopping in stores and some working in the courthouse. While the novel focuses on Grant's perspective, the shift in chapter 30 allows for a broadened view of how the community relates to the events surrounding Jefferson's execution. For me, this chapter has always been interesting because in the midst of Grant's narrative we see into the heads of others, not through Grant's eyes but through a detached narrator's perspective.

When I read that chapter in Black Thunder, I could not help but recall chapter 30 in Gaines's book. Both let us, as readers, see into the heads of characters as events unfold around them. This is nothing new, of course. What makes it unique, to me, is the fact that Gaines's novel switches its point of view for only one chapter, near the end, and that Bontemps's, while told in third person, takes the time to highlight character's thoughts and preparations for the upcoming rebellion.

For the next post, I want to look at another unique characteristic I picked up on in Black Thunder. As I said earlier, the novel is told from the third person perspective, but the narrator periodically moves in to characters' minds and shows how they think and perceive the events. This technique, which employs stream of consciousness, reminds me of some sections of Toomer's Cane.  

Do you see these stylistic elements in other modernist texts? In other texts in general? What are some examples? Let us know in the comments below.

Bontemps, Arna. Black Thunder. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968. Print.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Migrant and Washington in Jean Toomer's "Cane"

"When one is on the soil of one's ancestors, most anything can come to one" (17). This line, from Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), immediately made me think of Ernest J. Gaines and the land he writes about. As I reread Cane last week, I couldn't help but think about the Toomer's descriptions the South and the North and Gaines's descriptions as well. I have written about Toomer and Gaines before, so I will not touch on that aspect in great detail here. Instead, I would like to take the time to write about two specific vignettes ("Seventh Street" and "Rhobert") from the Washington section of Toomer's masterpiece. These two sketches open up the second section of Cane and both highlight the hustle and bustle of the urban space that many African Americans encountered during the Great Migration.

"Seventh Street," a prose poem, begins and ends with a four line verse that sums up both the means of advancement and the speed within the urban landscape. Unlike the South, where "[t]ime and space have no meaning in a canefield," the North buzzes with people moving too and fro, always being propelled by money and time. The verse that opens and closes "Seventh Street" sums this up perfectly. Toomer writes,
Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks. (39)
The languid, sonorous sounds that constitute the southern section of Cane give way at the opening of the northern section to movement through the sights and sounds of the metropolis. Farah Jasmine Griffin notes, "Assonance and consonance further enhance the sense of motion, but the repetition of the harsh double consonants gg and zz . . . speed the passage towards a swift conclusion" (65). These aspects of "Seventh Street" create an image of movement and harshness that does not appear in the southern section.

The vignette continues its movement through the cityscape by bringing the reader/migrant face to face with the underworld of the urban environment. "Seventh Street is," the reader hears, "a bastard of Prohibition and the War. A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black red-dish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington" (39). These opening sentences ooze with numerous images of what an African American migrant to the North, around the time of World War I, would encounter. Prohibition, which of course led to crime, returning soldiers, and the proliferation of jazz all await the incoming migrant. Sexual verbs constitute the movement of the reader down "Seventh Street," words like thrusting, breathing, shed, pouring, etc. populate the space. Along with this imagery, the city also becomes infused with an African American presence. The narrator says that black and red blood thrust themselves into the "whitewashed wood of Washington." While the southern section ends with death in "Blood Red Moon," the northern section sees migrants rising from the blood-stained soil of the South to the promises, false or real, of the North.

The second vignette in the northern section, "Rhobert," comments on the materialistic, consumerist pull of the North to new migrants. "Rhobert" focuses on a man who becomes constricted and suffocated by his material possessions. The house resembles "a monstrous diver's helmet" that extricate the life out of him by continually constricting around his head (40). Rhobert's "house is a dead thing that weights him down" (40). It drags him into the mud where he wiggles to free himself but ultimately perishes. At the end of "Rhobert," the narrator says that after Rhobert sinks into the ground we should "build a monument and it in the ooze where he goes down," and the monument should be "of hewn oak" (41). The urban leads to Rhobert's demise, but he returns, figuratively in death, to the South. The monument is made of oak and his mourners sing "Deep River" as he perishes underneath the ground. Throughout the northern section, the characters reflect back to the South, continually returning figuratively to the space.

The North, and the drive to acquire material things like the house, subsume Rhobert and his life. Griffin points out that we should view "Rhobert" in relation to Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song that chronicles the African American migratory experience to the North, and specifically to Washington. "Bourgeois Blues" epitomizes the struggles that African Americans endured when moving North, and it highlights the "Promised Land" of the North was not all it was cracked up to be. The narrator of the song attempts to find housing for him and his wife, but the white property owners turn them away. Even though America is "the land of the free and the home of the brave," no one will provide a place to stay. To acquire that space, the migrant must purchase it, and that creates other problems. "Rhobert" purchases a house, and that purchase drives him to death. There is more that could be said here, and I am not quite sure, at this point, what that may be. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

I would like to end this post with a video of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson sing "Cane" (1978), a song based off of Toomer's novel and specifically off of "Carma" and "Karintha."

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. "Who set you flowin'?": The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975, Print.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Confederate Battle Flag and Its Portrayal in Gaines's Work

The horrendous events in Charleston, SC, last week at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cannot be erased from our collective consciousness. Following the attack on the church and the killing of nine innocent African American victims, debates over a continued symbol of hate and prejudice arose. That symbol, of course, is the Confederate Battle Flag which flew at full staff over the Confederate Soldier Monument near the State House. The pole lacks a pulley system, and in order to remove the flag, it has to be approved by two thirds of the state legislature. Approval by any part of the state legislature appears absurd, but two thirds means that nothing can be done to the flag in question unless sixty six percent of the elected officials in the legislature approve it. The flag stands for the South, yes, but it stands for the South that oppressed and kept others in chains to benefit its own avaricious desires. It stands for a South that labeled Africans and later African Americans as chattel, property that could be treated however the owner saw fit. It stands for a Jim Crow society that decided "separate but equalaccommodations for African and Anglo Americans. It stands for a reminder of a South that continually saw African Americans and others as inferior to themselves and strove to maintain its power through violence, intimidation, and coercion. 

For today's post, I just want to show a couple of examples where the Confederate Battle Flag appears in Gaines's works and the characters's reactions to it. Reading through Gaines's works, the flag flies above the courthouse in Bayonne, and various characters encounter it. In "The Sky Is Gray," the eight year old narrator James does not know what to make of the flag. As his mother, Octavia, walks him through the streets of the town, he stares up at the courthouse and sees the flag at the top. "We come up to the courthouse, and I see the flag waving there," James says, "This flag ain't like the one we got at school. This one here ain't got but a handful of stars. One at school got a big pile of stars--one for every state" (93). Even though James doesn't realize its meaning, he differentiates the flag from the United States flag that hangs in the classroom in the quarters. James does not comprehend that the flag represents hatred, oppression, and subjugation and flies as a symbol of what some wished still existed. This is James's only contact with the Confederate Battle Flag in "The Sky is Gray." 

Grant, in A Lesson before Dying, discusses the flag in more specific terms. From the very beginning of the novel, the segregation of African Americans and whites becomes evident. Speaking about Jefferson's trial, Grant comments that Miss Emma "never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement" (3). When grant comes to the courthouse in Bayonne himself, he describes it by saying, "A statue of a Confederate soldier stood to the right of the walk that led up to the courthouse door. Above the head of the statue, national, state, and Confederate flags flew on long metal poles" (68-69). Grant understands what the Confederate flag represents because he has lived in its shadow everyday of his life. Like Miss Emma, he must go to the fountain and bathroom in the courthouse's basement, he must wait endlessly for Henri Pichot to speak with him, and he must endure other forms of subjugation as well. Grant knows these things, but he feels he does not have any power to change them. Through teaching Jefferson, and his own students, he works to rectify the situation and to escape the shadow casts by the flag that waves above Bayonne's courthouse. 

Earlier in the novel, Grant recalls leading the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag in his classroom in the quarters. There, the students stood and addressed the Stars and Stripes. "The flag," Grant recalled, "hung limp from a ten-foot bamboo pole in the corner of the white picket fence that surrounded the church" (emphasis added 33). The key words here are "hung limp." While the Confederate flag, and others, "flew" above the courthouse, indicating movement and agency, the flag hanging on the bamboo pole along the fence only hangs limply, not moving at all. Past the limp flag, Grant "could see smoke rising from the chimneys in the quarter, and beyond the houses and the chimneys [he] could hear the tractors harvesting sugarcane in the fields" (33). As the flag dangles, listlessly, on the pole, Grant sees beyond it to the people who occupy the quarters and to their impending displacement to agricultural expansion. In this instance, the flag appears powerless because it does not move, failing to provide power to those who pledge their allegiance to it.  

There are other instances where the Confederate Battle Flag appears in Gaines's works, but the ones discussed above are two of the main ones. Gaines does not delve into the historical context of the flag, he lets it wave above the courthouse as a symbol of what African Americans had to endure in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. He confronts the flag, and the past it represents, in his writing by showing that those who lived under its reign survived with dignity and power. Others, like Frank Laurent and Miss Jane's mistress, pleaded for it to remain. As Miss Jane's mistress watched the Confederate soldiers march away from her plantation, she cried, “Sweet, precious blood of the South; sweet precious blood of the South” (5).  She does not want her way of life to end, and those who argue that the Confederate Battle Flag represents a heritage of the South, as Lindsey Graham notes in the clip below, resemble her in some way. 

The clip is from John Oliver's Last Week Tonight where he discusses the flag and the debate surrounding its presence in South Carolina and the South in general.  What are your thoughts on this topic? Let us know in the comments below.    

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. "The Sky is Gray." Bloodline. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976. 83-117. Print.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Gaines and Visual Art: Depicting Social Landscapes in "A Gathering of Old Men"

Today's blog post comes to us from the Ernest J. Gaines Center's Summer Research Fellow from Cal State LA Katharine Henry. Her previous post, "'Deep in You:' Encountering Gaines," was the June 2, 2015 entry.  In today's post, she speaks Gaines's reference to Pieter Brueghel in A Gathering of Old Men. For further information on Gaines and visual art, see our post on Gaines and Van Gogh from June 5, 2014.  

In Jeanie Blake’s 1982 interview with Ernest J. Gaines, the author describes writing the massacre scene in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as “a [Pieter] Brueghel painting scene, a very violent scene” (141). One year later, A Gathering of Old Men is published and much of the novel’s violence is psychological with physical abuse chronicled after the fact. Marshall plantation’s brutal Cajun farmer, Beau Boutan, is shot before the novel begins. Once his younger brother, star LSU quarterback Gil Boutan, learns of his death, Gil’s close friend and fellow athlete, Sully, drives them to the crime scene where eighteen old black men with shotguns await the Boutan family patriarch, Fix, to take swift revenge. Sully describes the scene of these men gathered in Mathu’s yard as surreal, “Something like looking at a Brueghel painting. One of these real weird, weird Brueghels” (Gaines 118). Where Gaines aims for “the reader to hear the sounds of people being clubbed to death, to hear how the small animals and birds leave” (Blake 141) in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Bruegel is useful for thinking how the old men gathered in Gaines’s subsequent novel commemorate their silencing and vocalize an alternative communal narrative of survival and transcendence.  

The Brueghel family was talented, spawning four generations of Flemish painters that began with the most famous, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This eldest Brueghel, who later changed his name to Bruegel, produced art in the 16th century, crafting bizarre, masterful landscapes of ordinary peasant life. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) and The Wine of St. Martin’s Day (1565-1568) are two oil paintings that encapsulate his fascination with mass gatherings of people. The crowding of people and their small scale conveys the public as a chaotic, while coherent, organic machine akin to an ant colony. Musicians, nuns, upper class men, bakers, old and young alike, the impoverished and the disabled all pursue their individual missions on Bruegel’s canvases. The disorder of these gatherings creates a whole, complete vision of European society during the Renaissance. Four centuries later, Gaines’s old men with “Cataracts. Hardly any teeth. Arthritic. Old men. Old black men…Who have been hurt…Tired old men trying hard to hold up their heads” are not the clamored folk of Bruegel’s artworks, but their contradictory testimonies explaining why and how they killed Beau, similarly bolster their collective strength (Gaines 137). Each confession while not the “real” story the sheriff seeks, is just as true, adding a layer to the oral patchwork of American history from the post-emancipation to the post-Civil Rights movement eras.

Netherlandish Proverbs
In Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), Bruegel illustrates his theory of how private and public life continually melt into one another. No edifice, home or barn is safe from his paintbrush, each has an opening, porous to voyeurs and any figures, human or animal, that climbs in through every window and squeezes out from every crevice. Animals and humans dine alongside each other; the pastoral and urbanized blend smoothly. In the plantation quarters, private and public life are equally indistinguishable.  Cherry, who reflects upon the community cemetery, clearly articulates this, “Back there when I was growing up, people didn’t even mark the graves…They had all come from the same place, they had mixed together when they was alive, so what’s the difference if they mixed together now?” (Gaines 44)

Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus recasts the focus away from its mythic, epic title character in favor of the simple farmer and shepherd. These pastoral figures grace the foreground of the composition while Icarus is nearly lost from the painting, were it not for two nearly imperceptible legs splashing humorously in the water. Icarus’s fate is not a dramatic descent from the heavens but a humorous flop into the ocean where he is relegated to a miniature figure and appears to have sooner fallen off the nearby ship than to have fallen from the sky. While Bruegel selects a classical tale for his painting, his composition subverts the mythological narrative to validate human labor and harmony with nature as a worthier existence than a prideful rebellion against nature. In Gaines’s novel, the land is at the center of the community’s sense of identity and those who work it with their bodies, rather than with tractors, better recognize its value as a living organism all its own, not distinct from their human community. Johnny Paul declares he killed Beau because, “I’m the last one left…I just didn’t do it for my own people. I did it for every last one back there under them trees. And I did it for every four-o’clock, every rosebush, every palm-of-Christian ever growed on this place” (Gaines 92). Johnny Paul upholds the trees, plants, flowers, the dead and the living as equals to himself, worth his protection and self-sacrifice. Mapes, the white sheriff and witness to the gathering, is not the only audience for their testimony. Yank “wasn’t talking to us now. He was thinking back, back when he was a younger man,” Coot “was over by the garden fence, looking down the quarters toward the fields,” and Charlie is talking “Not to Mapes, not to us, but to himself” (Gaines 98, 103, 188). Johnny Paul also “wasn’t looking at Mapes, he was looking toward the tractor and the trailers of cane out there in the road” narrating to the land what it has already seen and knows (Gaines 88). His love letter to the land expresses that there is no distinction between the human and natural world and reaches its most intimate gentleness in his claim that he killed Beau, ‘To protect them little flowers. But they ain’t here no more’ (Gaines 90).

The Fall of Icarus
Like Johnny Paul, Yank ‘ain’t thinking ‘bout no progress’ as Mapes and Beau see it, but about how “progress” has lead to regression for blacks (Gaines 99). Johnny Paul most strongly identifies the limits of white knowledge and authority in his simple, powerful statement: ‘No, you don’t see’ (Gaines 88). This moment is the community’s sit-in, their demonstration in a time and place where the Civil Rights movement seems to have never touched fifteen years later—there are no references in the novel to the movement other than local bar owner Tee-Jack’s brief dismissal of “all that desegregation crap” (Gaines 152). The men do not march to a “Whites only” water fountain as one of Jimmy’s protestors does in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman but stand their ground for the younger, vulnerable, fearful men they used to be and for the old men that they are now. Uncle Billy, Gable, Mathu, Dirty Red, Johnny Paul, Yank, Tucker, Coot and others share stories of endurance that challenge how the law and the Old South—via Mapes and Candy, respectively—have viewed them as weeds.

Preceding Sully’s parallel of the gathering of old men to a Bruegel painting, he compares it to “that old TV play Twilight Zone…You would be driving through this little out-of-the-way town, and suddenly you would come upon a scene that you knew shouldn’t be there” (Gaines 118). There is a distinct bizarreness, perversion, and unnaturalness in Bruegel’s paintings—pigs carry knives, foxes sit at the dinner table ready to eat with a bib around their necks, human limbs peak out the crevice of one edifice while the rest of their bodies remain cloistered, eggs walk on tiny feet. The strangeness that Sully witnesses and connects to Bruegel is a conception of black self-defense as a foreign notion, which Mat echoes: ‘Anytime we say we go’n stand up for something, they say we crazy’ (Gaines 37). Akin to Bruegel’s figures who sprawl in every direction in constant movement, against the classical impulse towards order, the old men disband from the orderly and oppressive rules and reassemble into a community of their own making, not Candy’s army but a self-regenerative, dignified, self-sustaining community that boldly claims, as Charlie does, ‘I’m a man’ (Gaines 187).

Blake, Jeanie. “Interview with Ernest Gaines.” Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John
Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 137-148. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reflections of the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute

Last week, the Ernest J. Gaines Center, in conjunction with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), hosted the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute. In June 2014, the center hosted the inaugural institute with four participants from area schools. This year, the institute included nine participants from area schools and universities. One participant even came from Texas to take part. Participants read four of Gaines's works during the week: Bloodline, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying. Each day, participants heard from the center's staff and two Gaines scholars who are also Gaines scholars: Marcia Gaudet and Darrell Bourque. Participants also had the opportunity, each day, to look at items from the collection and to work on lesson plans that would incorporate their discussion and items from the collection into their lesson plans. These lesson plans will be available on the LEH's website soon. Midway through the institute, on Wednesday, the participants had the opportunity to head out to Oscar and New Roads, LA. There, they sat with Gaines in his house, explored the cemetery and the church, and had the opportunity to eat with Gaines at local restaurant.

Overall, the institute provided lively discussion not just on Gaines's works but also on how to incorporate those works, and the themes he discusses, into the middle and high school classroom as well the university classroom. These discussions arose when the group thought about the importance of Gaines's work in relation to the recent incidents involving African American men and women in the news today. During the discussions, one of the questions that came up felt extremely important. A participant, who taught Gaines in her classroom last year, mentioned that her class was predominately African American. While teaching Gaines, white students in her class asked her why they were reading about the African American experience and used the term "reverse racism" to express how they felt. This anecdote reminded me of my own experiences teaching African American literature in the university classroom. Once, when teaching Langston Hughes, I had a student approach me after class to inquire, and to complain, about why we were reading so much African American literature. Truth be told, Hughes and others were a small part of the class.

What my encounter with that student and the participant's story showed me was that when people come face-to-face with the realities of their situation and place within society they either recognize it and work to make society better from their position or they completely reject the idea that they come from a position of driveler and claim that everyone has a chance at the American Dream. When talking about how to help students who reject the image they see in the mirror, we thought about approaching a text like Gaines through another angle. Gaines recognizes that while the African American experience is unique there are others in the world who have suffered for various reasons as well based on ethnicity or class. He writes about this in "A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity" and in Catherine Carmier. With that in mind, a teacher could have students think about Gaines's influences and how they affected his own writing. Russian, Irish, and American writers influenced Gaines. Turgenev, Tolstoy, Joyce, Steinbeck, Cather, and others wrote about the lower classes, and the peasants in their societies. When Gaines read those works, he saw similarities between the people he knew and the ones the other authors wrote about. What he did not see, though, was his own people, the African American community he grew up in rural Louisiana.

Another way to possibly approach Gaines's work, or other African American texts, with students who want to push back because they claim we reside within a post-racial society is to incorporate music. Historically, people viewed punk music as an "other," a subculture of outsiders. Having students enter into Gaines's work through a music that others ostracized and that created a community for its listeners is a way to think about how to help students understand the universality to Gaines's works. Bands like The Descendents, NOFX, Rancid, Reagan Youth, Misfits, Black Flag, Minor Threat, etc. would be good places to look. There are other ways to address students' reluctance to reading authors like Gaines, but these are just a couple we thought of.

Many other discussions took place during the week, but the one above is what really stuck out to me because it is something that I have thought about, especially when teaching Gaines in the region that he writes about. Doing that creates a whole new group of reactions to Gaines and his work. What are your thoughts on getting reluctant students, who feel you are representing one group too much, to understand that we need to read African American, Asian, Chicano, and other literature? How do you respond? I would like to know because this is something I think we all deal with at one point or another in the classroom, or in community talks, and it is something that needs to be addressed.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Kiese Laymon's "Long Division" and Words

While Mitchell S. Jackson's The Residue Years ultimately won the 2014 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, there were a few books on the short list for the award. One of those books was Kiese Laymon's Long Division (2013), a novel reminiscent, in some ways, to Octavia Butler's Kindred. Laymon's novel ostensibly takes place in 2013; however, characters oscillate between three different years: 2013, 1985, and 1964. The characters' movements through these varying years works to show that we should pay attention to our history and work to understand it; their time travel also highlights that even though things look like they have gotten better, a lot of the same issues still remain, just in varying ways. In this aspect, Laymon's novel treats some of the same themes that Gaines's work does, that of the changing, yet unchanging, times. I wrote about this last week in regards to In My Father's House.

Laymon's focus on language, and the use of it, should be seen as a discussion of the changing, yet unchanging, times. The 2013 section of the novel begins with the narrator City and LaVander Peeler preparing for a national contest entitled "Can You Use That Word in a Sentence," a contest that started "after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased" (7). The judges give contestants a word, and the contestants must provide "correct sentence usage, appropriateness, and dynamism" to advance (7). The contest presents an interesting scene because while it supposedly represents those who do not have representation at the spelling bee, it ultimately just parades African Americans, Mexicans, and others in front of a national audience to essentially, as Billy says in Gaines's novel, to give lip service to change while not necessarily adhering to it.  

Part of that change relates to words and language as well. Throughout the novel, the usage and role of specific words gets discussed. Typically, the discussion centers around derogatory words that cause hurt and pain when spoken or written.  When City gets called in to the principal's office at the beginning of the novel, he ruminates on why Ms. Reeves summoned him there. He concludes that LaVander Peeler told her that City "called him a 'nigger'--not'nigga,' 'negroid,' 'Negro,' 'African American,' or 'colored'" (13). I do not want to get into too much detail about the novel, but the "er" at the end of the word above struck me, especially when thinking about it in relation to what happens at the conclusion of the novel when LaVander asks a chained up white man to spell the word. The man spells it with an "er," and LaVander simply replies, "All things considered, I don't think that's right" (252).

City deduces that LaVander turned him in because earlier someone turned LaVander in for calling City a "faggot." After the incident, LaVander began to use the term "homosexual" when taunting City "because he knew Principal Reeves couldn't punish him for using that word without seeming like she thought there was something wrong with being homosexual in the first place" (13). City muses about other derogatory words as well and their semiotic meanings. Ultimately, I think that these thoughts about the role of words, their meanings, and the way the power they have to construct and form people's perceptions of others is partly at the heart of Laymon's novel. Words, and even the correct usage of words, becomes a way that the past remains the same, as I mentioned earlier.

This discussion can be summed up by briefly discussing the "Can You Use That Word in a Sentence" finals. City gets eliminated on the word "niggardly." City provides a sentence that attacks the judges and the system they are perpetuating, using the word colloquially. He says, "I truly hate LaBander Veeler sometimes more than some of y'all hate President Obama and I wonder if LaBander Veeler should behave like the exceptional African-American boy he was groomed to be by his UPS-working father, or the, um, weird, brilliant, niggardly joker he really is when we're the only ones watching" (38). City's sentence gets him eliminated because the term means "stingy, cheap," and he does not use it in that way. Now, when providing a suitable example of the word, the judges highlight the power of language and how, without even referring to the color of the woman being spoken about, they perpetuate stereotypes even when using the term correctly. Their sentence is, "Perspiration covered the children who stared incessantly at the woman in the head wrap since she insisted on being so niggardly with the succulent plums and melons" (38). The sentence oozes with stereotypes by referring to the woman in a "head wrap" who protects her "plums and melons." City knows the word provided a catch 22, and as he leaves the stage, he extols, "I mean, even if I used the word right, I still would've lost" before he goes on a vociferous tirade where he calls out the judges and the audience on their fears (38).

This post barely touches on the role of language and semiotics in Laymon's novel, but I hope it provides a little glimpse into the way we use words and how they have an effect on people. If you haven't already done so, I would strongly suggest picking up a copy of Laymon's essays How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (2013). (The title essay can be found here.) They are excellent, and extremely reminiscent of James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

Laymon, Kiese. Long Division. Chicago: Bolden, 2013. Print.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"The Tenant" in Gaines's "In My Father's House"

There are varying things I could discuss for today's post in regards to In My Father's House (1978). However, I think for right now I just want to focus on a stylistic element of the novel that caught my attention on this read through. Specifically, I became intrigued by the elements of mystery and suspense that permeate the first parts of the novel but also continue through until the end of the novel. These elements appear in relation to the mysterious character who knocks on Virginia Colar's door on a rainy, winter night.

The stranger knocks on Virginia's door, and when she opens it, she sees "a thin, brown-skinned young man standing before her in a wet overcoat" with a "scraggly beard" and "Army field cap" asking if she has any rooms available (3). Virginia questions whether or not she should entertain providing a room for the young man, but her conscience overcomes her because she does not know where else he will go. Even though by-law the white motel should accept him, she knows that they will not do it. After agreeing to rent a room out to the man, he provides Virginia with some information. He tells her he is from Chicago, and she doesn't believe him. He tells her his name, Robert X, and she thinks about which group of people use "X" for their last name. At this point, Virginia again questions her decision to let Robert stay, but she acquiesces by continuing to wonder where else he will go.

From the opening scene, we, as readers, are left asking who Robert X is and why he has come to St. Adrienne. People see him walking through town at all hours of the night, Virginia hears him screaming in his sleep, and he stands out in the cold and rain in various spots throughout the community. All of this arouses suspicion among St. Adrienne's inhabitants, causing them to continually ask why Robert X has come to town. Robert tells them that he came to St. Adrienne to attend a men's conference and to meet a man. Robert X's appearance creates a sense of mystery at the beginning of the novel, and the continued lack of references to him by the name of Robert X throughout the first few chapters adds to this. We learn his supposed name on the third page of the novel, but after that initial introduction, he becomes referred to as "the tenant" by the novel's narrator.

When Elijah meets Robert on the street in chapter two, the men begin to talk. Every time Robert speaks, "the tenant" or "he" follows the verbal words. The act of referring to Robert not by the name he provides but by a generic term such as "tenant" essentially erases his agency at this point of the story because the narrator does not even acknowledge that Robert has a name, even it is not his given name. What does this do? If we think about the rest of the novel, the erasure of Robert's agency plays in to the struggles of Robert/Etienne in the text. He fails to protect his sister, and he fails, ultimately, to accomplish his mission in St. Adrienne. The "tenant" does not act, he only causes people to question.

More could be said here, but right now I'm not completely sure what I could say. What are your thoughts on this topic? Why is it important that he only becomes "the tenant" and not Robert X or Etienne at these early stages? Let me know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. In My Father's House. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Gaines's "In My Father's House" and the Changing Times

Unfortunately, Gaines's 1978 novel In My Father's House is not one of his works that gets read very often in the classroom. In light of recent events throughout our country from Ferguson to Baltimore, In My Father's House should be read with an eye reflecting back on what happened during the Civil Rights Movement and with an eye towards what has occurred since then. The novel focuses on the "generational gaps" between fathers and sons created by the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial oppression in the United States over that past four hundred years. This is something Gaines mentions throughout his oeuvre, and it shows up in A Lesson Before Dying when Matthew Antoine talks to Grant about teaching the children in the quarters: "You'll see that it'll take more than five and a half months to wipe away--peel--scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past 300 years" (64).

In My Father's House begin with Etienne/Robert X returning to St. Adrienne to confront his absent father turned Civil Rights leader Philip Martin. Initially, the narrative focuses on the mysterious character of Etienne who arrives in town on a rainy night during the winter. Once there, his behavior causes the community to question who he is, why he is there, and why he acts the way he does. They find out that his appearance in St. Adrienne has to do with Philip Martin. Martin is Etienne's father, in name only. Etienne comes to St. Adrienne to kill Martin because he feels that Martin has neglected him, his siblings, and his mother. After this revelation, the narrative shifts to focus on Martin and his struggles to mend the gap between Etienne and himself as he struggles to confront his past and maintain his leadership of the movement in St. Adrienne. While this is only a brief summary of the novel, it provides you with an indication of the novel's focus on mending the gaps created by the abominable institution of slavery in this country.

The novel shows, as does other post-Civil Rights novels by Gaines, that the strides made during the mid-twentieth century in regards to voting rights and other actions caused a shift in the forms of subjugation from legally sanctioned Jim Crow to other forms of containment. Billy, a young man that Martin picks up while driving around Baton Rouge, expresses these thoughts in his discussions with Martin. Billy explains that even though strides have been made in regards to Civil Rights things remain the same, if not worse. Speaking on this, he tells Martin,
Niggers can vote. Vote for what? Voting can't fill your belly when you hungry. Another nigger sit up there in the capital. Doing what? Another one go up to Washington. For what? They put another couple on television to broadcast news--them the changes you talking about? I'm talking about changes that keep white men from coming into South Baton Rouge and shooting down our people. If it happen, we pick up guns, we pick up torches, and we hit back. That's the changes I want to see. (163-164)
Billy embodies the feelings, I would argue, of the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. Even with strides in regards to things like voting rights, the situation remained the same. According to Billy, there may be some "token" African Americans in government and on television, but that does not accomplish anything according to Billy. He goes on to speak about the changes occurring in regards to agriculture and how those changes affect the people's relationship with the hegemonic system that works to keep them down. He says, "Go over all this place--empty fields, empty houses, empty roads. Where the people used to be--nothing. Machines. Every time they build another machine that takes work from the people, they hire another hundred cops to keep the people quiet" (168). Since they cannot work the land, the African American population Billy speaks of either left or remained struggled to find employment. While the sharecropping system worked to maintain control of the community, with that gone, what remained? For Billy, "cops" became the system's answer to maintaining "quiet."

Billy vocally espouses his beliefs, but in A Gathering of Old Men, the same ideas provide an undercurrent at the end of the novel. As the men wait at Marshall Plantation for Fix to arrive and lynch someone, the old men do not get the opportunity to stand up to him. Instead, they confront Luke Will, a new representation of racism and subjugation that contrasts with Gil and Cal in the novel. Discussing the anticlimactic nature of the novel, Gaines told Mary Ellen Doyle in 1983, "So Fix's kind of vigilante vengeance is dying out, but there will be the new Luke Will type. The Luke Wills are in the police department. Fix is seventy or eighty and can't shoot straight, but Luke will do it for him" (168-169). The "separate but equal" segregation of Fix and Jim Crow may not exist anymore, and because of this, Luke Will's form of subjugation does.

I could not help but think about recent events while reading In My Father's House, specifically when reading Billy and Philip's conversation in the car. Gaines's post-Civil Rights novels deals with these issues, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. In light of the incidents that have been occurring throughout the nation, we need to read Gaines in conversation with them because he provides us with insight into how the events in northern, urban cities affect people in southern, rural places like St. Raphael Parish. What are your thoughts? What are other aspects of Gaines are relevant to recent events? Share in the comments below and make sure you check out and add to the Baltimore Syllabus for resources regarding the events in Baltimore.

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. In My Father's House. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

‘Deep in You:’ Encountering Gaines—Katharine Henry

Today's blog post comes to us from the Ernest J. Gaines Center's Summer Research Fellow from Cal State LA Katharine Henry. She will be with us at the center helping to transcribe manuscripts, conduct research, and encounter Gaines's works. In today's post, she speaks about her initial encounters with Gaines and his work. 

Katharine's Picture of the Miss Jane Pittman Oak

"Deep in you, what you think? Deep in you?" (A Lesson Before Dying 100)

My first encounter with Ernest J. Gaines’s literary work was earlier this year with A Lesson Before Dying (1993). In my undergraduate and graduate studies, I deeply admired the works of William Faulkner who became a gateway for my strong desire to explore more literature written by Southern authors, especially in Louisiana, a place whose astounding natural beauty was quite different from my native California desert and immediately captured my admiration. During my frequent travels from one “LA” (Los Angeles) to another (Louisiana), I was captivated by the unique culture of Acadiana and thrilled to discover another treasure in the region: a profound and extraordinary writer living near New Roads, Louisiana. Born and raised in Louisiana until he left at the age of 15 for California, Gaines returned decades later following what he stated as, “this Louisiana thing that drives me” (Rowell 87). I thought it special that I might have this small fact in common with Mr. Gaines, that we have moved back and forth between California and Louisiana. Turning the pages of A Lesson Before Dying, I was immediately drawn to its deceptively simple narration, vernacular dialogue and its compassion, each ingredient endowing the work with poetic power. Hungry for more stories like these, I pursued Gaines’s masterful storytelling through Catherine Carmier (1964), Of Love and Dust (1967) and Bloodline (1968).

When I consider one of the most powerful underpinnings of Gaines’s works thus far, I recall Reverend Mose Ambrose in A Lesson Before Dying. Concerned with the soul of Jefferson, a young death row inmate whose execution is set the second Friday after Easter, Rev. Ambrose emerges out of the darkness of Miss Emma’s kitchen to ask Grant Wiggins about Jefferson. He asks Grant, “What’s he thinking? What’s he thinking deep in him? Deep in you, what you think?” (100). There are levels of depth, not just deep, but deep deep, and those private ideas and desires that dwell within Grant, Jefferson and so many of Gaines’s characters are frequently in conflict with their community’s immediate needs for security. In Of Love and Dust, Marcus Payne is at war against the world once he is bailed from jail by a wealthy plantation owner and exchanges the imprisonment of his cell for indentured servitude. In return, Marcus seeks revenge on his unyielding Cajun overseer Sidney Bonbon and for whomever else may suffer in that scheme, he cares not. But when his vengeful plans to take Bonbon’s wife, Louise, materialize, his impulse towards her evolves immediately into a feeling the novel challenges us to accept as love. Marcus imagines and plans for a life lived with and for Louise, her daughter Tite and himself as husband and father. With Marcus we find that isolation is not the means to self-validation. Stripping ourselves from all people and things to recover a bare, authentic, solitary self is a fiction. Rather, getting to the soul, ‘deep in you,’ requires community with others so that Rev. Ambrose’s challenge to Grant, “You think a man can’t kneel and stand?”, proves itself true (A Lesson Before Dying 216).

The mode through which many of Gaines’s characters take a stand in their newfound dignity is through acts of love. While violence is at the start of Jefferson’s and Marcus’s journeys, Jefferson’s movement towards a love of self allows him to recognize that he is no hog and that he can stand, walk to and sit in the electric chair, fulfilling his godmother’s insistence, “I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet” (A Lesson Before Dying 13). The possibility of transforming the rules that place Jefferson in jail, Grant in the schoolhouse, Marcus on the plantation, and Louise on the porch into circumstances of love underlie Gaines’s self-described interest in exposing how one endures—and might still find possibilities to flourish—under pressure (Rowell 91).

Communities and individuals under an almost intolerable pressure are at the core of Gaines’s dramas. His work illustrates how the ways society sees us, and forces us to see each other, fails to be a language in which we can accurately describe a human person. One particularly powerful example is the mystifying and unsettling relationship between Bonbon and his black mistress Pauline Guerin in Of Love and Dust. Their affair begins forcefully and violently but Bonbon and Pauline quickly fall in love and have been in love for years. Marcus is baffled, as readers are, asking how she could love him. His anger that he cannot have Pauline for himself and his inability to understand her feelings manifests itself in savagery, he knocks her to the ground and denunciates her, “You white man bitch” (Of Love and Dust 98). Reenacting a denial of her agency akin to Bonbon’s initial cruelty, Marcus’s denunciation of Pauline is echoed twenty-eight chapters later when he recounts his youth where he observed that white man have their “number one nigger” who receives special treatment at the expense of other black men and women (250). For Marcus, Pauline holds this role as Bonbon’s mistress and mother to his twins. And she leverages their relationship and is promoted from a field hand to a more comfortable duty as cook in the big house. Her advancement results in the firing of Marcus’s godmother, Miss Julie Rand, who worked on the plantation for 40 years.

Pauline is Bonbon’s pawn and yet this coincides with the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the novel tells us in so many ways that the couple really is in love. Jim Kelly, the young narrator who is trusted and respected within the community, observes how intimate their feelings are. We can be skeptical of each character’s perspectives while simultaneously acknowledging that Marcus simplifies Pauline and Bonbon’s bond in ways that the narrative complicates for readers. In the novel we find that white and black communities accept that black female bodies are the property of men and tolerate sexual violence and yet cannot imagine interracial love. The rules dictate that men can do anything to black women but love them. When Bonbon leaves the plantation and Pauline follows so that they may live together as husband and wife, how do we come to terms with Marcus’s paradigm now? It seems insufficient to working through this complex relationship, especially when Pauline does not see herself as the passive, abused woman that Marcus demonizes her as. We are witnesses to what happens when one begins to see themselves as more than what society first allowed them to be—when Pauline loves Bonbon and endures Marcus’s violence, when Bonbon loves her and becomes the laughing stock of the town and when Louise leaves Bonbon to pursue a life with Marcus at the risk of her father and brothers forcefully dragging her back to her home. Perhaps we might consider the possibility that each person transforms a relationship that the rules deemed should have remained wholly exploitative and violent, into one of care? It’s a challenging and necessary discussion. We become Louise on the porch of her home, staring out to consider the agency and humanity of others at the same time they question and consider her own.

Gaines is a brave writer, writing with critique and compassion in equal parts, asking his readers to think deep about the apparatus which Jim calls “this big thing that said Yes” (Of Love and Dust 269) and which Munford Bazille in “Three Men” calls “they” (140). Yet rather than succumb to the doom inherent in facing this giant, Gaines writes with humanity about the “little people” who endure, acknowledge their participation in the making of tragedies and learn to kneel, stand, walk and sit with dignity like Jefferson (Of Love and Dust 258).

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
 ---. Of Love and Dust. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979. Print.
 ---. “Three Men.” Bloodline. 159-220. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. Print.
Rowell, Charles. “This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 86-98. Print.

Katharine's Picture of Trees Surrounding Area Where
The Overseer's House Was on River Lake Plantation