Last post, I started looking at the ways that capitalism structures society in Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. Using Karl Marx’s “Preface” from A Critique of Political Economy, I noted how legal and social structures arise from the foundation of capitalism, working in tandem to construct the superstructure that separate individuals from one another based on wealth and power. Today, I want to look at these aspects in relation to Gaines’ novel, moving towards how white supremacy arises from this foundation, working to maintain the system.
In “A Breed Between: Racial Mediation in the Fiction of Ernest Gaines,” Maria Hebert-Leiter details the ways that the wealthy use their power, and their desire to acquire as much wealth as possible by exploiting the labor force beneath them, to maintain their positions through both legal and social structures. Focusing on the ways that Jack Marshall and the wealthy pit Cajuns such as Fix and Beau Boutan against the African American community, Hebert-Leiter points out the the flattening of whiteness, especially when it comes to maintaining a social order where Marshall and the wealthy remain at the top.
The flattening of whiteness occurred after the Civil War, as Noel Ignatiev, Keri Leigh Merritt, Frank Yerby, and more have noted. Oren Boscomb, a poor white character in Yerby’s Benton’s Row, encapsulates this when he tells Wade Benton, as they return home from the Civil War,
My folks warn’t much: white trash, swampers, and such-like. No war record. Course I fought like hell, but I fought for Rebs as much as I did Feds. Fought for me. What did I care if folks kept their niggers or not? Got caught, either side would of hung me out of hand for robbing the dead, bushwhacking, foraging and stealing. But all that’s finished. Everything’s plumb busted to pieces. Man like me’s got a chance now, if he’s smart. And damned if this thing on my shoulders don’t work right pert good.
Fix and the other Cajuns on the river, unlike Oren, exist in a space between the wealthy whites and the African Americans in the quarters and on the plantations. The wealthy controlled those beneath them, pitting them against one another, and, as Hebert-Leiter puts it, “[b]y doing so, the wealthy white class could and did use such power to construct larger distance between themselves and other African American laborers.”
The wealthy white landowners use Fix and other Cajuns to keep the foundation intact. Talking about this, Tee Jack, the bar owner, tells us that while poor whites and Cajuns had “legitimate” jobs, “they did other little jobs to keep things running smoothly in the parish” by terrorizing African Americans in churches, at school, and in the street. They would even get “paid as much for these little civic duties as they did” at their regular job. Gaines shows all of this in other novels as well, specifically in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman when the wealthy whites ask Ned Cluveau to assassinate Ned Douglass even though he is friends with Miss Jane. The wealthy use Ned, Fix, and others to keep the parish “running smoothly” and producing commodities for the wealthy.
Everyone exists within this system, including Marshall, the owner of the plantation. Tee Jack comments on Jack Marshall’s role in this system, and he points out that Marshall “[n]ever wanted to be responsible for name and land.” He did not want any of it, yet he entered a world where he had to be responsible for all of it, and rather than divesting himself of that responsibility, shattering the foundations that entrap him and countless others, he ignores it, allowing things to continue as usual.
In Tee Jack’s saloon, Marshall talks with a professor from the University of South Louisiana, and the professor tells the plantation owner, “In the end, it’s people like us, you and I, who pay for this. . . . The debt is never finished as long as we stand for this.” The debt of capitalism, the construction of a structure with enslavement and production at its base, causes everyone to become entrapped. Only when individuals, as the professor points out, step up and realize the ways that the system affects everyone will things change, but Marshall doesn’t care. Instead, he merely drinks himself into a stupor all day, oblivious to his role within the system.
The system, as Marx puts it, “determines their consciousness.” Marshall’s conscience does not determine the system. There is hope, of course, through the Black men who gather at Mathu’s house and even through Gil Boutan’s comments to Candy Marshall when he 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.” Here, we can read Gil’s statement as his recognition of the ways that the wealthy such as Candy and Jack sow discord among those beneath them on the social ladder.
Even though we do not see Gil after the novel, his role playing with Cal at LSU highlights Cajuns and African Americans working together. While they do not fight against the social structure, in a literal sense, they symbolically combat the divisions that the wealthy whites create. When Gil says he may not play in the game on Saturday against Ole Miss, the deputy Russ tells him that he must play because of the message that him and Cal send to the community, the state, and the nation. He also tells Gil that playing in the game will impact his nephew, Beau’s son, because seeing him and Cal in the same backfield serves as an affront to the Fix’s and the Luke Will’s of the world.
The more I think about it, at least in relation to Gaines’ novel, the villain is capitalism, as Jennifer Morrison says, and white supremacy is a beam rising from the foundation. This rotting wood of white supremacy keeps coalitions from forming because the foundation separates. Writing about Jackson, MS, and the current water crisis facing the city, Merritt points out all of these issues. She writes, “From pitting laborers of different races against each other to stoking racist and xenophobic fears through a sensationalistic and profit-driven media, America’s White elite have always used the specter of racism to prevent the formation of a broad coalition of people with similar class interests, regardless of race.”
The wealthy whites continually pitted Fix and his men against the African American men and women in the community. They stoked fears, promising equality and assimilation into whiteness, but what they really did was use Fix to fix their problems and keep “peace” on the parish through the “civic duties” that the Cajuns performed for those at the top. White supremacy, growing crookedly from the foundation of capitalism, placed everyone in “fetters” and only when individuals start a “social revolution,” as Marx puts it, will the foundation begin to crack and we’ll see a “transformation of the whole superstructure.”
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