Over the past couple of weeks, I have written some posts regarding the idea of surveillance in African American literature and music. During that time, I watched Dope (2015), a movie that deals with identity and society’s perceptions regarding individuals, in this case an African American teenager in Los Angeles who wants to go to Harvard and loves 90’s hip hop. In one scene, a group of drug dealers sit around watching clips of drone attacks in Afghanistan. Some of those present cheer and relish in the destruction and death caused by the drone misses. Others, though, view it as an inevitability that the government, if not already doing so, will employ drones to maintain surveilleiance on those it deems troublesome. That group, in the movie, includes minorities, and specifically African Americans in the Los Angeles “ghetto.”
After rereading Ernest J Gaines’s Catherine Carmier (1964), I continued to think about this topic of surveillance. Ostensibly, the book deals with Jackson Bradley’s return to Louisiana after getting an education in California. He returns to the quarters on Grover Plantation, and even though he does not encounter whites upon his return, other than the store keeper, he remains under constant surveillance by the white community because many of them fear that he has returned to lead demonstrations in the community, demonstrations that would undermine the white hegemonic power structure that keeps African Aemricans, Creoles, and even Cajuns in subjection throughout the novel.
From the very beginning of the novel, as Thadious Davis notes, characters watch “one another across racial lines” as the Cajun men at Claude’s store watch as Lillian and Jackson get off of the bus (277). As Brother speaks with the Cajuns outside of the store while he awaits Jackson, the narrator intones, “White people were suspicious and afraid of strange Negroes; and they were more suspicious and more afraid if they knew that those Negroes came from the North” (6). Even though Jackson returns only to try to find himself, the Cajuns (classified as White here) perceive something more, so they begin the novel by watching him and his actions. Throughout the novel, though, we only see there observation of Jackson in a couple of spots, always at Claude’s store.
The Cajuns become the eyes and ears for the whites who can only be seen in the novel as people removed from the action. We do not see Bud Grover, and the other whites only appear on the river, living their lives in luxury and idleness while the Cajuns, Creoles, and African Americans makes them money. The Cajuns, of course, provide the eyes and the ears for those like Bud Grover because, and Madame Bayonne says, even though Cajuns and landowning whites differ, “white still sticks with white” (73). As such, the Cajuns at Calude’s store keep on eye on Jackson when he returns.
Near the end of the novel, Jackson and Brother are at Claude’s store when Catherine and Raoul arrive. Jackson and Catherine speak with their eyes, and Raoul does not notice; however, once they leave, a couple of African American men start to talk about Jackson and Catherine. After one of the men tells the other one to say anything, Claude speaks “to keep the Negroes talking” (178). Claude knows what he doing, getting the men to speak so that he can maintain a watchful eye on the proceedings. Again, one of the men cautions silence, but the men appear to continue. As they keep talking, “[t]he two Cajuns at the far end of the porch looked at each other. One nodded to the other, and they moved closer to where the Negroes were talking” (178). Like Claude, the Cajuns use this opportunity to spy on those that they seek to keep in subjugation.
The above scene provides the impetus for the final showdown between Jackson and Raoul at the end of the novel, a showdown that the Cajuns and Whites hope will eliminate two negative elements: a possible demonstrator and a Creole who perceives himself as equal to whites. In order to initiate the battle, the Cajuns paid two African American men to tell Raoul that Catherine and Jackson we’re seeing g each other. The Cajuns paid the men $10 each up front and promised another $10 once they told Raoul. The men struggle with the thought of telling Raoul, but they ultmately decide that they have to do it because “they had taken the Cajun’s money, [and] they were afraid what might happen to them if they did not” tell Raoul anything (225). The Cajuns make sure that their plan will work by paying off the men, in increments, maintaining power over them by providing and withholding payment and the same time.
Alvin Aubert points to this conclusion and the Cajun’s role in it in his 1978 article on Catherine Carmier. In many ways, Aubert’s assertion about the fight signifying a need for a unified community falls in line with the way that Madame Bayonne views the relationship between the white landowners and the Cajuns. Aubert writes, “Some feel that the concluding circumstances call for Jackson and Catherine’s leaving together, but Raoul’s projective recovery from his spiritual defeat, requiring Catherine’s assistance, and in keeping with Gaines’s emphasis on the open future, appeared to be the right conclusion, in view of the symbolic meaning of the conflict: a divided black community in need of reunification in the face of a persistent traditional adversary” (72). Through this lens, the conclusion becomes a way to counter the concomitant gaze of the oppressor and a way to fight for equality. Aubert notes that the demonstrations in Bayonne at the end of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) provide a sort of culmination of this reconciliation when Jimmy Aaron asks the Hebert girl (a possible symbolic descendant of Raoul) to drink from the fountain. For me, Vivian and Garnt in A Lesson Before Dying (1993) present this culmination in a stronger manner because they both join together to benefit those in the community.
There is more here, of course. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments to below.
Aubert, Alvin. “Ernest J. Gaines’s Truly Tragic Mulatto.” Callaloo 1.3 (1978): 68-75.
Davis, Thadious. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009.
Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.