Teaching the Works of Ernest Gaines, an NEH Summer Institute Reflection

I have only taught Gaines’ short story “The Sky is Grey” one time. It was my first semester teaching, and I barely remember what happened during that specific class period. I am not sure why Gaines has not returned to my courses. Ironically, whenever acquaintances ask me to recommend a piece of African American literature to read, I nearly always suggest one of Gaines’ novels. Why? Because he is an amazing writer who captures a regional piece of black life in his works while also providing insights on national issues.

Gaines 1.jpg
The man in the beret, also known as Ernest J Gaines. Portrait by NOLA artist, Adrian Fulton.

Recently I discovered that knowledge of Ernest Gaines or reading him in an American literature classroom is largely regional. Colleges in the South are a bit more attentive to Gaines’ work than those elsewhere due to his Louisiana focus. Gaines’ work has a solid stake in the canons of southern American literature and African American literature. As an undergrad, my English department used the Heath Anthology of American Literature which includes Gaines’ most anthologized short story “The Sky is Grey.” As I later discovered, however, the Norton and Bedford anthologies of American literature do not include any works by Gaines. Most of us are familiar with discussions about canon formation, and these discrepancies are another example of its instability and limits.

This past month, I was fortunate enough to attend the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute “Ernest Gaines and the Southern Experience” at the Ernest Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. I spent four weeks with teachers and scholars from a variety of fields and varied kinds of interest in Gaines. Within this group, many have taught several of Gaines’ novels. Here, I will be sharing some of their insights with you that emerged throughout our discussions.

Most Beloved by Institute Participants

Of Love and DustWhile not entirely unanimous, Of Love and Dust (1967) was the group’s favorite. A literary love story without a happy ending. What’s not to love!? In true Gainesian style, the narrator plays with storytelling, memory, and imagination as he recounts the events on a post-WWII plantation that “hires” (exploits) indentured, convicts. This is his second novel and begins his work exploring formal imprisonment of black male bodies. The writing and imagery of this novel is quite powerful. Gaines calls on language to do a lot of work in his writing, and there is paragraph after paragraph across this novel that can be interrogated over and over again with some good, old fashioned close reading.

Most Critically Acclaimed

From banned books lists to required reading lists, neo-slave narrative The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) is probably the most taught of Gaines’ novels. The biggest challenge of teaching this text is also its biggest reward: the narrative spans 100 years. From slaver to reconstruction to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement, the events of Miss Jane’s 110 year life told as an oral history depicts various forms of protest and community resilience. Although Gaines’ texts do not fall into the overt protest novel category, most evolve forms of protest and place different faces on that protest, like Miss Jane’s. What does protest look like outside of the 1960s experience? This is perhaps a very easy conversation to enter into with students today through a discussion of what protest looks like in the age of social media.

A few of the discussions we had around The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman place the novel in one of my favorite approaches to teaching minority literatures: as historical recovery or historical revision. When teaching this novel, explore Cicely Tyson as Miss Janewith students the gap that it fills. How have black women in particular been erased from the Civil Rights Movement? How were the power structures from slavery upheld and recreated through the share cropping system on plantations? How did the speed of change in rural communities compare with that in urban spaces?

Another approach is to consider the way Gaines plays with genre here. For decades, and maybe still today, some readers were under the impression that Miss Jane was a real woman. What does it mean that the word autobiography is in the title, even though the text is labeled as fiction? What if this novel was taught in a course focused on the concept of autobiography as fiction and non-fiction–alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), James Weldon Johnson’s fictional Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Harriet Jacobs’ Narrative of the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and other slave narratives?

Most Easily Accessible for Students

A Gathering of Old Men (1988) was discussed as the most easily accessible to students. It appeared to be the most widely taught by institute participants. Multi-vocal narratives are fun! This novel spans less than 24 hours, constructing an account of elderly black men taking a stand together after a white man is killed. This novel looks more closely at age with concern to who gets left behind on these dying plantation spaces than his other works. These features make it a text that can be pulled apart and pieced back together by intro level classes through upper division classes.

A Gathering of Old MenFor teaching this novel, bring in a Gaines interview where he discusses race relations and tensions in Louisiana to help students understand the different groups at play in the novel; this becomes even more vital when teaching it outside of the state. There are two gatherings in this novel: the main one of the black men in the quarters, and the brief glimpse into the Cajun family’s assessment of how to respond. Have students juxtapose this short scene of the Cajun family with the rest of the novel. What are the differences between the gatherings? Why must both of them happen? Who is in control of each?

Additionally, it may be beneficial to assign students a specific character to track the back story and action of throughout the novel because there are so many narrators and characters who are important but don’t get their own chapter. The point behind this approach would be having students develop an understanding of the gathering. What is its purpose for the old men? Why do they choose to take a stand at that moment?

Most Timely relative to the Prison Industrial Complex

Over the past 10 years, 38 communities featured A Lesson Before Dying (1993) as their chosen National Endowment for the Arts Big Read text. This novel explores the wrongful conviction of one of its main characters, Jefferson, as he awaits his execution. We discussed possible textual pairing, including Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life (1845) and Malcolm X’s Autobiography (1965) for an approach that highlights literacy transformations. In the case of Gaines’ Jefferson, the literacy transformation happens through a series of journal entries he makes as he writes his way towards manhood/humanhood while incarcerated.

Another suggested textual pairing was with Claude McKay’s sonnet “If We Must Die” (1919). The trajectory of this sonnet mirrors the narrative progression of the novel. First, discuss with students the dehumanization that McKay rejects in the first line of the sonnet: “If we must die–let it not be like hogs.” Like McKay’s poem, Jefferson is literally compared to a hog at the beginning of the novel and eventually must decide what actions will allow him to die as a man, not the animal he is told he is. A Lesson Before Dying

An important aspect to consider is: How do we teach students that Jefferson isn’t just a victim thrown into the prison industrial complex? Yes, he is a victim, but he also makes choices that lead to his circumstances. He has agency, and it is just as important that we do not entirely remove that from him when critiquing the system. We can balance this by using his diary/journal entries that appear in the last 1/3 of the novel. Through these entries, we can have students look at how he questions his place/role in the world. Through his writing, he arrives at the idea that he is a part of a much larger humanity beyond himself and the town.

Other questions to explore with students: How does the retelling affect us as readers? How does memory work? How does that change the story? How does Jefferson’s writing it with the knowledge that Grant is going to be reading it ultimately filter the content of the journal?

A Place for Gaines in the FYC Classroom

There are mixed feelings about teaching literature in the composition classroom. I generally do not include literature in my comp courses, but one of our participants with a rhet-comp background explored the possibilities of including Gaines in her first-year composition course that focused on race. She constructed an assignment sequence (still under development) that has students analyzing the role of  race in various contexts.

Jefferson’s journal entries from A Lesson Before Dying could prove fruitful for those who assign literacy narratives to their first-year composition courses. On the other hand, shorter pieces of fiction might be more appropriate for classrooms not focused on literature. Luckily, Gaines has two short story collections that open up many possibilities: Bloodline (1968) and Mozart and Leadbelly (2005).

Top Tips for Teaching Gaines

  • The South isn’t the just the South; Louisiana isn’t just New Orleans. We know that regions are often over simplified and characterized too generally. Each state in the US has a complex individual history that impacts regional writers. It is important that students understand Louisiana’s complex history from pre-colonization through today. Who are the indigenous peoples of Louisiana? Who are the free people of color? Who are the Arcadians/Cajuns? Who are the Creole (how has the term evolved in Louisiana throughout the centuries)? What did the colony look like under Spanish rule? What did the colony look like under French rule? Who How did race function in the Louisiana colony? All of this state specific history is vital to teaching the complex race, class, and power structures at work in the 20th century setting of Gaines’ fiction.
  • The Pastoral vs the Industrial. Most of Gaines’ fiction is set sometime between the 1940s and 1970s with characters remembering or recalling early time periods. Most of his fiction is also set on sharecropping plantations in Louisiana as mechanization (i.e. tractors) replaces poor black laborers. He interrogates both the past and the future by considering the contentious space of the South and the plantation during Jim Crow. He does not romanticize the pastoral or the industrial; each is flawed and takes different types of tolls on all involved. Beware students’ desires to wholly praise or condemn the concepts.
  • Recurring Characters. If you teach more than one of Gaines’ texts, it quickly becomes clear that part of his project is re-imagining different paths for the same character across his fiction. There are somewhat stock characters like a minister or an older Aunt that plays a similar role, while they are still clearly nuanced. Then there are his main characters, like Marcus from Of Love and Dust, Proctor from “Three Men”, and Jefferson from A Lesson Before Dying, who share similar stories they play out entirely differently based on the choices of the characters.

Give Gaines a try in your classrooms, and let us know how it goes!

Advertisements

One thought on “Teaching the Works of Ernest Gaines, an NEH Summer Institute Reflection

Join the conversation! What do you have to add?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s