Last post, I wrote about the appearance of the pronoun “they” in Ernest J. Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray.” In that story, “they” appears as a reference to ownership and power in the community that seeks to keep James and Octavia is subjugation so the invisible white landowners can maintain their position at the top of the social ladder. As James looks out of the window of the bus, he sees a pool-doo on the water and claims that “they” have it there. Here, the pronoun becomes one of ownership, causing the water, where fish and fowl provide sustenance, to become a space with an owner who restricts access to it. Think about Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” here and the swimming hole.
This type of ownership of not just workable land but of bodies of water becomes more pronounced in Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Here, the river, which once provided a space for everyone to fish and get food from becomes restricted because wealthy whites buy the land along the river, thus causing access to the water to become limited. The river becomes a contested site, much like the land. At two points in the novel, people reference the river and the reduction of their access to it.
Near the beginning of the novel, Chimley talks about how he could fish the whole river; however, now that whites have expanded their reach, only a small spot remains where him and Mat can fish along the banks. He tells us, “We got just one little spot now. Ain’t like it used to be when you had the whole river to fish on. The white people, they done bought up the river now, and you got nowhere to go but that one little spot” (27). Unlike James’s description in “The Sky is Gray,” “they” has a direct antecedent to “the white people.” Chimley laments the loss of space along the river, and when him and Mat hear about what is about to transpire at Marshall Plantation, they decide to finally confront not just the loss the land but also the physical and psychological injustices they endured at the hands of a system that sought to maintain power by any means necessary.
Later, as everyone is gathered at Mathu’s house, Corrine speaks up and comments on the river. She tells Sheriff Mapes and those congregated there, “That river. . . Where the people went all these years. Where they fished, where they washed they clothes, where they was baptized. St Charles River. Done gives us food, done cleaned us clothes, done cleaned us soul. St. Charles River–no more, though. No more. They took it. Can’t go there no more” (107). Like Chimley, Corrine laments the loss of the river, and while we get a clear antecedent for Chimley’s “they,” Corrine’s final “they” does not have a clear relation to anything in her brief comments. Like James, the “they” becomes the invisible, overarching power of the system.
In response to Corrine, Mapes turns the tables some and lets her know that he is in the same situation as her, Chimley, and Mat. He tells them, “I can’t do what I used to do on that river myself” and fish and hunt (107). He even goes so far as to highlight that Fix, who the people gathered at Mathu’s want to confront, suffers from the unidentifiable “they.” Rather than blaming Fix for the lack of access to the river, someone else deserves the blame. Mapes states, “You blaming Fix for that, too? Then you blaming the wrong person. He’s as much victim as you are. That’s why he’s back on that bayou now, because they took that river from him, too” (108). Mapes’s observations fall flat, though, because as Beulah responds that Fix lived on the river and did his fair share of the dirty work. However, as we learn later, the “they” hired Fix and his crew out to perform their dirty work.
Through the river, Mapes links the black and Cajun communities together through the fact that both have suffered at the hands of the “they.” Gil comes to the same conclusion when confronts Candy after coming home from LSU. Standing in front of the representative “they,” Gil tells her, “You never did like Beau. . . You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. You’re folks had a break, mine didn’t, that’s all” (122). While Gil does not explicitly link his struggles with those of the men and women gathered at Mathu’s house, he calls out the “they” that seeks to maintain control by pitting blacks and Cajuns against one another while keeping their own hands relatively clean.
When thinking about these topics, I continually go back to the “idle white rich” in Catherine Carmier that ride their speedboats along the river while the Creoles, blacks, and Cajuns struggle to exist. This is not all that could be said on this topic, but I hope it provides a start that can be expanded. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
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