When Django and Dr. King Schultz ride into Daughtrey, Texas, near the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), the white townspeople freeze, staring in shock at an African American riding a horse next to a white man driving a carriage. Django does not drive the carriage, as would be expected of an African American servant or slave. Django rides through the streets on a horse, dressed as a frontier cowboy, not as a slave. As a doctor and his female patient head into the streets, the doctor takes a second look at Django, points, and queries, “Is that a nigger on a horse?” Django and Schultz continue through the street while the citizens stare at them dumbfounded. Eventually, Schultz asks Django,” What’s everybody staring at?” Without turning his head to address Schultz, keeping his eyes on the townspeople, Django responds, “They ain’t never seen no nigger on a horse before.”

This short scene presents a brief, but powerful, illustration of the horse as a symbol of power and authority that the ruling society denied African Americans. I point to this scene because it makes me think about two texts by Ernest J. Gaines. As I reread his novels in preparation for the NEH Summer Institute “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience,” I keep getting drawn to couple of novels that present the horse in a symbolic nature of manhood and citizenship. The first instance occurs in Of Love and Dust (1967) and the second occurs in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971).

Perhaps one of my favorite covers for any book is Tim Gaydos’s cover for the 1979 paperback edition for Of Love and Dust. The cover, pictured above, shows an African American male picking picking corn while a white overseer straddles a horse and watches him work. The image provides a microcosm of the book’s narrative while highlighting the power structures that exist for the majority of the novel. The overseer’s position places him above the worker and highlights that he has the power in the scene because does not work in the field pulling corn. Instead, he observes and makes sure that the worker does his job and maintains his position of subservience.

In the novel, the scene from the cover plays itself out. After Marshall bonds him out of jail, Marcus works in the fields under the watchful gaze of Marshall’s overseer Sydney Bonbon. Every time Bonbon enters the fields, he rides his horse, shifting his weight one or the other in the saddle to maintain his position. Occasionally he descends, but when he watches Marcus work, he typically observes him while leaning over the pommel of the saddle. The first time that Bonbon comes to the field to observe Marcus, he rides behind the worker, so close that Marcus can feel the horse’s hot breath on his neck. James, the narrator says, “And there was that black stallion about six inches behind Marcus-and power Marcus feeling the horse’s hot breath on the back of his neck” (37).
Bonbon’s position of power, spatially speaking, in this scene comes from his position above Marcus. Gaines draws even greater symbolic nature to the horse a little later in the same scene. For a paragraph, James sinks in to the mind of the horse as Bonbon rides him and the two wait for Marcus to start picking the corn and put it in the sack. Here, Gaines draws an implied correlation between the horse and Marcus. James says, “[The horse] didn’t mind carrying Bonbon (he was born to carry man), but he would rather move with Bonbon or two like Bonbon than stand with one Bonbon in the hot sun” (38-39). With the phrase “he was born to carry man,” James invokes Nanny’s comment to Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Nanny tells her that African American women are the mules of the world.
Marcus doesn’t achieve his manhood through riding a horse; however, he does achieve manhood through his actions at the end of the novel, his ability to stand up for himself in the face of white oppression from characters like Bonbon and Marshall. While Marcus’s manhood does not come from his horsemanship, Joe Pittman’s masculinity can be seen in his ability to train wild horses, doing what other men can’t do. Joe becomes a frontier man, riding horses and existing equally amongst his other horse breakers when he takes Jane to live with him on a horse farm near the Sabine River.
For Joe, breaking horses became a way to show his manhood in a society that denied him that right. When he goes to Mr. Clyde to get money so him and Jane can pay Colonel Dye and leave his plantation, Jane’s says, “[Joe] said it wasn’t easy; some colored men had to speak up for him. Then he had to prove to Mr. Clyde how good he was. Clyde picked one of the wildest horses he had. He broke the horse, true, but he was shoved up he had to lay up awhile before he could start back home” (87). Here, Joe had to receive recommendations from others before Mr. Clyde would take him on. Even when Mr. Clyde decided to trust Joe, he gave the man a wild hose and the horse laid him up. Even though Joe tamed the horse, the horse injured him.
When Jane fears that a horse will kill Joe, she visits Madame Gautier to interpret her dreams; the “hoo-doo” woman tells Jane that manhood cannot be found in conquering the horses. Gautier tells Jane that she can’t stop Joe from riding the horse because “That’s man’s way. To prove something” (97). Joe rides horses to prove his manhood in the eyes of he whites who subject him to oppression. Later, Gautier reiterates that if the horse doesn’t kill Joe something else will. She says, “I have told you the horse is just one. If not the horse, then the lion, if not the lion, then the woman, if not the woman, then the war, then the politic, then the whiskey. Man must always search somewhere to prove himself. He don’t know everything is already inside him” (99). Even though Joe seeks acceptance and manhood through the horse riding, he does not find it there. Joe is a man, but he is not a man in the same way that Ned Douglass is.
Perhaps this is why Marcus does not appear on a horse in Of Love and Dust. The horse presents an image of power and manhood, but it is not tribe manhood. Instead, that manhood that leads to equality comes from within, as Gautier says. What are some other novels, short stories, plays, or poems that contain references to African Americans and horses? Let me know in the comments below.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.

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

Note: The clip below is also from Django Unchained. It shows Stephen, a character that is similar to Bishop in Of Love and Dust and Uncle Robin in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. Here, Stephen asks the same question that everyone else has asked, “Who dat nigga on that nag?”

1 Comment on “Horses, Manhood, and Power in Ernest J. Gaines

  1. Pingback: Everett K. Ross “Emperor of Useless White Boys” in Christopher Priest’s Black Panther | Interminable Rambling

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