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Recently, I spoke with a colleague’s class about Ernest J. Gaines and specifically A Gathering of Old Men (1983). During the question and answer period, two students asked questions that made me start to think about the ways that Gaines, throughout his entire career, challenges the social construction of race. One student asked about Gaines’ unbiased representation of characters, including Fix, and he followed up by asking about the importance of Gaines’ work for the present moment. The other student asked a question I had never thought about before. He asked why Gaines had Charlie kill a Cajun, Beau Boutan, rather than a white landowner like Jack Marshall.
In response to each of these questions, I partly pointed to the comments that Beau’s brother Gil makes to the white landowner Candy who views Gil, Beau, and other Cajuns as below herself on the social ladder. White landowners who maintained power did not look on Cajuns with respect, rather they relegated them to a position below themselves yet above Creoles and Blacks. Upon seeing Candy before he goes home to see his father, Gil approaches Candy about this and tells her, “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. Your folks had a break, mine didn’t, that’s all.” Gil’s comment here “releases,” as Mary Ellen Doyle argues, “his awareness of blacks as his equals, of Cajun injustice to them.” Gil begins to realize the social constructions that allow him and other Cajuns to exist above Blacks yet below the white landowners, solely due to ancestry and the law.
Jack Marshall exists within this construction that keeps him in power as well, even though he never wanted any of it. Looking at Marshall as he drinks his daily bourbon, Tee Jack thinks to himself, “You know, I sympathize with him. ‘Cause you see he never wanted none of his. Never wanted to be responsible for name and land. They dropped it on him, left it on him.” Marshall’s position as a white landowner comes from his ancestry and the social machinations passed down from generation to generation. However, rather than realizing the absurdity of this lineage, he refuses to do anything about it and drinks himself into a stupor everyday to escape the realities that the past has wrought.
While Marshall does not address the disparities in regard to the social construction of race, he maintains them by providing Cajuns with the richest land on the plantation to farm. Marshall began leasing the land to Beau Boutan. As Cherry says, “Beau and his family had been leasing all the land the past twenty-five, thirty years. The very same land we had worked, our people had worked, our people’s people had worked since the time of slavery.” Marshall’s decision to lease the plantation to the Cajuns aligns him with the Cajuns by bringing them up to a level of whiteness that, while not as high as his own, elevates them above Creoles and Blacks.
These issues arise specifically in Catherine Carmier (1963) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) as well. When Robert Carmier, a Creole, approaches Mack Grover about working some of his land, Mack gives Robert the land; however, he also makes a point to tell Antoine Richard that no matter how phentotypically white Robert appears, he will always be Black. Robert, as well, relies on these social constructions. As a Creole, he strives to reach the social level of white landowners, but because of his mixed ancestry, he cannot achieve it. Likewise, he rejects the Black side of ancestry considering in beneath him to even mingle with Blacks. Robert, and later Raoul, buy into the social constructions that place them in a liminal space between Blacks, Cajuns, and white landowners.
Jackson Bradley questions his former teacher Madame Bayonne about why Bud Grover, Mack’s son, took land from the Blacks and gave it to the Cajuns to work. She simply tells him, “White is still white, Jackson . . . And white still sticks with white.” Because of their skin color, they appear similar to Bud. Madame Bayonne continues by telling Jackson about how Bud began giving the land to Cajuns like the Villons and how when a Black farmer would quit he would parse that land out to the Villons, thus increasing their stake.
In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Cajuns such as Albert Cluveau serve as enforcers for white landowners like Sampson. “They” call upon Cluveau to kill Ned because of his teaching in the community. “They” call upon Cluveau to assert their power. While Cluveau interacts with Miss Jane, goes fishing with her, and for all intents and purposes is something of friend, he listens to the ambiguous them and assassinates Ned. The mysterious “they” (white landowners) use Cluveau to divide the Cajuns and the Blacks, driving a wedge between them so they will not rise up as a unified force and fight back against the white landowners.
This fear of subjugated groups joining together to resist the hegemonic power is nothing new. During the Early Republic, those in power sought to keep Blacks and Native Americans separated. This method continued throughout the antebellum period as well, especially in the Seminole Wars. Likewise, Southern planters, as Keri Leigh Merrit has shown, worked to keep Blacks, both free and enslaved, and poor whites separated for fear that they may combine forces and overthrow the planter class. All of these issues highlight the social construction of race and how that construction ultimately hinges on economic factors.
One final instance in Pittman occurs with Tee Bob. Like Marshall, Tee Bob inherits ideas from the past from his parents. Like Marshall, Tee Bob ponders his inheritance. Unlike Marshall, Tee Bob chooses to love Mary Agnes, a Creole, but the social strictures, “rules” as Gaines refers to them, move him into a position where he attempts to force himself on her because she understand the “rules” and refuses his advances. Tee Bob realizes what he does, and he concludes that he cannot live in a world that will not allow him to love someone who, due to legal fictions, does not exist on the same social level as himself. This realization causes him to kill himself with his grandfathers letter opener, an instrument that his grandfather used at the state capitol in Baton Rouge, symbolically reinforcing the social construction of race.
These are not all of the examples of instances where Gaines illuminates the social construction of race in his works. Nor does this discussion provide a background of the social construction of race. I have done that elsewhere on this blog when writing about Rosa, George Washington Cable, and others.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.