The South, repatriated ex-slave Ned Douglass lectured his Louisiana neighbors in Ernest J. Gaines’s novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is “yours because your people’s bones lays in it; it’s yours because their sweat and their blood done drenched this earth.”
The latest U.S. census confirms that the grandchildren of the Southern diaspora are going home: American blacks are returning to their ancestral region. The revenants include novelist Gaines, 78, who now makes his home on the plantation on which his people have lived and died since the days of slavery. As a boy, he picked cotton on that land. He also wrote letters for his mostly illiterate elders, a training in dialect and dialogue worth a dozen MFAs.
Despite years in San Francisco exile, Gaines has placed all his fiction in rural Louisiana, never venturing even as far as New Orleans. “I picked my own back yard—and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “After all, Yoknapatawpha County was good enough for Faulkner,” with whose volumes Gaines’s masterwork, A Lesson Before Dying, deserves kinship.
“My folks have lived in the same place for over a hundred years in Pointe Coupee Parish in South Central Louisiana. I can’t imagine writing about any other place,” Ernest Gaines says. “Everything comes back to Louisiana.”
Including its native sons.
Gaines is said to have pictures of Faulkner and Booker T. Washington on his walls. His characters sometimes kick against what they view as Washington’s conciliatory, even acquiescent, advice, but they live the classic Washingtonian injunction to “cast down your buckets where you are.”
Booker T.’s harshest black critics were condescending graduates of elite colleges who were embarrassed by their Southern brothers and sisters in the sticks. In contrast, Washington, writes Robert J. Norrell in his rich Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, “had an emotional connection to the unlettered freed people of the rural South and a deep appreciation of their speech, music, humor, and religiosity.” Washington’s annual Tuskegee Negro Conferences brought together black farmers and teachers, for he insisted that the “uneducated” men and women of the countryside possessed wisdom and talents that no book could impart.
Ernest Gaines had his own model of rural endurance: Miss Augusteen Jefferson, his crippled great aunt. “Until I was fifteen years old, a lady raised me who never walked a day in her life,” he says. “She crawled over the floor as a six month old child might do.” Miss Augusteen cooked, washed, sewed, gardened, and whipped miscreants, without benefit of ambulation. “My aunt never felt sorry for herself,” Gaines says, and one doubts that with the memory of that fortitudinous woman, the adult Gaines spent much time on the usual writerly whining about being blocked or broke.
Gaines, who says he talks to God “between rows of sugarcane,” has restored the tumbledown church of his youth. He and his wife also care for the cemetery in which sleep his people, his community—those who make up his past and his imagination. His colleagues Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young describe an annual rite at the Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery in Cherie Quarters, Oscar, Louisiana: “[I]n late October of each year, when pecans cover the cemetery grounds, shortly before All Saints’ Day, [Mr. and Mrs. Gaines] lead a gathering of family members and friends … in a special beautification ceremony dedicated to honoring the dead by cleaning their final resting places and offering them a gift of communion from the living.”
The recovery of abandoned cemeteries and neglected graves is a noble act of African-American cultural patriotism evident today in, for instance, the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project. Among the grandest such efforts was the 1973 journey of Alice Walker to a weed-choked cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida, burial ground of the great novelist and folklorist (and Taft Republican) Zora Neale Hurston, whom Ernest Gaines says is “the only Black writer who has influenced my work.” (Hurston, who called FDR “the Anti-Christ” and Truman “the butcher of Asia,” had spirit and she had genius, which is why no one still knows quite what to make of her.)
“I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South, and I expect to be buried in the South,” said Booker T. Washington.
He was. So was the resplendent Zora, and so was Miss Augusteen Jefferson, whose unmarked grave is in the cemetery her great-nephew tends. Mr. Gaines is receiving the Cleanth Brooks Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers this spring—for his novels, to be sure, but his homecoming and ancestral piety merit awards all their own.
**From the May 2011 issue of The American Conservative (www.amconmag.com). Subscribe!
This raises a lot of interesting (to me, at least) questions about place and “ancestral” homes. Plantation (and slave) owners also lived on that land. Is the land “theirs,” too? The bones are there, if less of the sweat and blood. Does some of that matter more? Or does proximity to and longevity in a place confer the same level of “ownership” to all?
Also, how ancestral is ancestral? We’re about as far removed from the founding of Levittown as the founding of Levittown was from the Civil war. A generation or two from now, will the people of suburbia claim that Sunburn Acres is their ancestral home? And what would that mean? Suburbia has customs and, I would daresay, traditions. These might be customs and traditions we don’t like. But to say that suburbia is “placeless,” which I hear a lot, seems different than the claim that “suburbia is a place I find distasteful.”
Lots of places have cultures and traditions that are awful. Like, say, southern plantations. But if those can be a “place,” why can’t Levittown?
Suburb houses rarely pass from one generation to the next – not to mention the millions of people who don’t stay put for one generation. A whole lot of people used FHA loans to trade up on their suburban houses 5 or 10 years later. Someone could build a community anywhere, its just harder to do when people (neighbors or generations) move constantly. Then you throw in cookie cutter architecture, construction materials that don’t last near as long, and a generally lousy aesthetic and people don’t have the affective draw to their roots either.
My wife grew up in a wonderful neighborhood that was kind of suburban. But people had BBQs, maintained trees and flowers in the median, kids played outside together, and the houses were generally brick and distinctive from one another. A lot of suburbs don’t foster that feel, perhaps its the kids addicted to screens.
Outstanding post, Bill. I read Gaines’s ‘Gathering of Old Men’ last year (loved it) and this prompts me to read more of him.
By the way, don’t know if you’ve run across Paul Kingsnorth’s “Real England: The Battle Against the Bland,” but if not you should definitely give it a go. He reminds me of a Brit version of you.
Having recently broken my loose fatwa against fiction by reading the great Manlio Argueta’s “Cuzcatlan, Where the Southern Sea Beats”…about the peasant life in Salvador, I think I’ll move on to your recommended “A Lesson Before Dying”. After all, the deep dirt Delta is constantly tugging on my sub-conscious. I seem to have come around late to the notion that it is in fiction perhaps, where localism finds its greatest voice. In addition to having a bad attitude, I’m a slow learner.
Excellent points regarding architecture and all the rest. But they also make me wonder. As shoddy as suburban construction might be today, I presume a 10-year-old house on a cul-de-sac in Faux Woods Brook development outside of Everywhere USA is a good deal nicer than the housing Gaines’s family endured. And yet they endured.
Seems to me that the only way to induce people to stay put is to make it impossible for them to do otherwise.
Given a choice, people tend to pick up stakes. Is this an element of modern society, or a permanent part of the human condition?
Thanks, Rob; I’ll check out Kingsnorth’s book.
Kingsnorth seems to be very much a Front Porch type of guy, even if his porch happens to be across the pond.
I got “A Lesson Before Dying” out of the library over the weekend and am greatly looking forward to starting it.
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