Recently, I had a conversation with Jennifer Morrison, for my Multicultural American Literature class, on Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. At one point, we began talking about Fix and the ways that Gaines represents him, specifically through the eyes of an outsider to the community, Sully. This topic led me to eventually ask, “Who is the villain in the novel?” On the surface, it seems like Fix, but that is not necessarily the case. I posited that the villain of the novel is white supremacy, and Jennifer argued that it’s capitalism. This part of the conversation really made me start thinking about this, especially in light of discussions I had in class with students in another class. One of the students talked about a class where they looked at the 1619 Project and discussed it, and some students didn’t agree that America rose up from the labor and on the backs of enslaved individuals.Conversation with Dr. Jennifer Morrison about Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men.
When I think about A Gathering of Old Men, or really any of Gaines’ novels, I have a hard time pinpointing a character that is the villain or the main antagonist. That is not to say that villains and antagonists do not exist within Gaines’ works. Rather, it points to the ways that Gaines, for one, works to humanize all of his characters and the ways that he uses his texts to point out the systemic issues, birthed in the slave trade, that continue to infect the lives of everyone they touch, no matter their racial or economic background.
On one level, these issues stem, as Jennifer notes, from capitalism: private entities creating and selling commodities for profit on a free market. Slavery was a capitalistic enterprise where enslavers bought and sold individuals as property, as commodities, working them in order to produce more commodities that people could buy, thus making a profit for the owner. After emancipation, the enterprising former enslavers moved to share cropping or other forms of production that essentially still enslaved, in another way, the laborers. This system became more industrialized and cooperate, and we have the labor of today. In each of these stages, the laborer, whether enslaved or “free,” was visible yet invisible at the same time. They were/are interchangeable. When the laborer ceases to provide monetary gain, then the person ceases to serve a purpose for the wealthy.
Karl Marx, in his “Preface” to A Critique of Political Economy (1859), points out the ways that capitalism and the acquisition of wealth through the exploitation of labor exists as the foundation that supports the social and legal structures that maintain that foundation. He lays out how at some point the foundation will crack and the structure will collapse in upon itself, paving the way for the erection of a new structure. He writes,
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
There are a few things within Marx’s quote that warrant a little more discussion. We see the ways that the “relations of production,” in this case the enslavement of individuals, lead to the ascendance of “a legal and political superstructure.” This began, in America, during the 1600s in various ways, most notably when Virginia passed the 1662 law stating that the status of a child would follow that of the mother. This law arose from Elizabeth Key’s case in 1655 where she successfully sued for her freedom. Enslaved individuals were the means of production for enslavers, and by codifying the enslavement of unborn children, “White enslavers,” as Ibram X. Kendi puts it, “could now reap financial rewards from relations ‘upon a negro woman.'” Thus, the white enslavers used the law to uphold their suppression of those they enslaved for labor to produce their commodities.
Along with the “legal and political superstructure,” Marx’s comment about individuals’ “social existence [determining] their consciousness” stands out. Here, the apparatus that works to maintain productivity for merely financial gain shapes individuals’ consciences, not the other way around. One would think that ones conscience should inform “their existence,” and this would be the logical formulation. Yet, that is not the case here. Rather, the drive for wealth, the drive for individuality before community, the drive to acquire and horde all work to form ones’ conscience. In this manner, one looks out for oneself, constructing laws and polices that benefit them, and those close to them, not the community as a whole. We see this constantly today with corporations not paying any, or even small amounts based on their earnings, in taxes. We also see it in the ways that corporations such as Amazon work to squash any worker response to working conditions, specifically through the union organizing.
The wealthy used enslavement as a means to increase their profitability at the expense of those they enslaved, at the expense of those they bought and sold as commodities. Marx highlights the ways that this foundation undergirds the systems that strive to maintain that position, creating laws and loopholes so that the worker becomes invisible, dispensable, and nothing more than a tool. White supremacy arose out of this system. It arose to maintain this system. It arose to keep the labor in place so those at the top could sit back and watch as the machinery they put into place turned and turned and turned bringing in the money.
We see all of this in Gaines’ novel, and we see how the system “fetters,” as Marx puts it, everyone involved. In the next post, I’ll dive into A Gathering of Old Men and lay out how multiple characters become bound to the system by the fetters that reach up from the foundation and keep them in place, unable to escape.