As we discussed Ernest J. Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray” during the NEH Summer Institute a couple of weeks ago, one of the participants, Dianna Shank, pointed out the ambivalent use of the pronoun “they” throughout the text. At first, this did not necessarily strike me as anything warranting further exploration since the narrative comes to us from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy. However, reflecting back on Hemingway’s use of sparse, yet layered, language, I could not help but think that more existed beneath that simple, third person plural pronoun.
Recalling Albert Cluveau’s statements to Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), I realized that Gaines places a lot of emphasis on the word “they.” When Cluveau tells Jane that he is going to assassinate Ned, she asks the man who wants her “son” dead. Cluveau simply responds by telling her “they” do. Here, the “they” obviously refers to the wealthy, white landowners who want to maintain power and certain status quo, and Ned, through his community activism and teaching, attempts to disrupt that power structure by education and action. The mysterious “they,” in turn, get Cluveau, a Cajun, to do the dirty work of assassinating Ned for them. In this instance, the “they” exists an an invisible, all-seeing eye that continually surveys the land it rules. We can also think about this in relation to Gaines’s first novel Catherine Carmier (1964) where the only white characters are the “idle white rich” riding their speedboats out on the river while the Cajuns, Creoles, and blacks interact with one another.
In “The Sky is Gray,” which originally appeared in the early 1960s in Negro Digest, it would be easy as a reader to overlook the use of “they” by the narrator and chalk it up to nothing more than a young boy’s way of retelling a story about him and his mother going to town to see the dentist and the travails they encounter. I have written about Gaines’s use of understatement to highlight Jim Crow segregation in this story before, and reading back through it, the use of “they” serves a similar purpose, especially during the scene when Octavia and James get on the bus to Bayonne.
The only indication of Jim Crow segregation occurs when James states, “When I pass the little sign that say ‘White’ and ‘Colored,’ I start looking for a seat” (91). After this initial signal, James precedes to use “they” at least four times in the next five paragraphs. Each of these instances causes us to think about who the indeterminate “they” refers to since there are no clear antecedents in James’s narration. Using the sign in the bus as a clue, James recognizes, even at this early age, an invisible power that keeps him and his mother in the back of the bus while whites ride in the front. He tells us, “They got seats in the front, but I know I can’t sit there, ’cause I have to sit back of the sign” (91). “They” forces James to the back of the bus, segregating him and his mother.
The next two paragraphs begin with the word “they.” In the first, James says, “They got a lady sitting ‘side my mamma and she looks at me and smiles little bit” (91). From the previous paragraph, we can infer that the lady is black. She offers James a piece of gum and he refuses because of his toothache. The next paragraph starts, “They got a girl sitting ‘cross from me” (91). Again, who does the “they” refer to? James could’ve just said, “There is a girl sitting ‘cross from me,” but he doesn’t; he uses “they.” In all of these cases, “they” refers to the white landowners and power structure that keeps James and Octavia subjugated. While the above references refer simply to the bus, James, whether consciously or not, extends the power of the invisible “they” beyond the bus to the entire community.
Driving to Bayonne, James looks out at the gray river and sky, and as he does, he notices that “[t]hey got pool-dos on the water” (91). Here, the “they” refers not to a body of water. Why? Again, thinking about Catherine Carmier, the whites own everything, including the water on the river where they idle white rich ride their boats. This same reference appears in A Gathering of Old Men (1983) as well. I will discuss this in more detail in the next post.
James uses “they” at other times in the story, and a possible exercise would be to have students see where these instances occur and the rhetorical maneuvers employed in its usage. Where do you see other instances? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Gaines, Ernest J. “The Sky is Gray.” Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 81-117.