I cannot tell you how excited I am to be a part of next year’s NEH Summer Institute, “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience.” The Ernest J. Gaines Center, in conjunction with the National Endowment of the Humanities, will host the summer institute in June 2016. The summer institute is a culmination of three years of work on programs geared towards bringing the works of Ernest J. Gaines and other authors to groups of teachers and scholars around the nation. During the summer of 2014, I, along with Jennifer Morrison, developed a week-long program for area middle and high school teachers. About five teachers participated in the institute, and they engaged in conversations surrounding Gaines’s works and how to incorporate those works into theirclassrooms. Last year, I worked with the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities (LEH) to provide a similar experience. Ten participants had theopportunity to study and discuss Gaines’s works and the chance to meet theauthor himself.
“Ernest J. Gaines and The Southern Experience” expands upon these previous two institutes. The program explores all of Gaines’s texts in relation to his influences, Louisiana contemporaries, African American contemporaries, and some of his literary progeny. In addition to Gaines, other authors covered include Ivan Turgenev, Ernest Hemingway, Lyle Saxon, Arna Bontemps, James Baldwin, Tim Gautreaux, Attica Locke, and more.. Twenty five college and university scholars, including three graduate students, will have the opportunity to engage in discussions about Gaines’s place in the literary canon, the role of protest in regards to literature, Louisiana’s place within discussions of race in the United States, and numerous other topics. Participants will hear from nationally renowned scholars such as John Lowe, Gary Holcomb, Richard Yarborough, Keith Byerman, Thadious Davis, Herman Beavers, Marcia Gaudet, and Maria Hebert-Leiter. Along with this, NEH summer scholars will be able to work with the archival material housed within the Ernest J. Gaines Center. This material includes manuscripts, correspondence, reviews, screenplays, and other items.
During a recent visit to Washington D.C., I went to the Library of Congress (LOC) and toured their exhibit entitled The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom. There, I could not help but think about Gaines’s work, its importance to the past, and its continued importance today. At the LOC, I saw a letter from Jackie Robinson, a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White, an excerpt from the NAACP’s report on Emmett Till’s murder, and the front page of the October 1, 1962, The Knoxville Journal. Seeing all of these items, and more, reminded me of Gaines’s importance during the 1960s and 1970s and today. I can’t help but go back to works by Gaines in light of recent events during these past few years. Gaines has said he writes for the black and white youth of the South to understand one another; I would argue that this statement expands to the world as a whole as well. That is why next summer’s NEH institute is important: because Gaines speaks not only to the past but also to the present.