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Ernest Gaines & the Triumph of the Human Spirit

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By Terry Scambray | October 2020
Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

Ernest J. Gaines
Born January 15, 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana
Died November 5, 2019, in Oscar, Louisiana

 

When I heard belatedly that Ernest Gaines had passed away, I felt sadness for his gracious wife, Dianne, and for his family, friends, and the readers of his work all over the world.

Aside from the sorrow I felt, what struck me was the correspondence between the more recent studies of black Americans during and after slavery and what Gaines’s stories and novels dramatize: that despite the great suffering caused by slavery and segregation, black people have maintained their dignity and courage. Ralph Ellison called this achievement “one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.”

Gaines’s best-known novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), covers a hundred years of Jane’s life. It begins in the postbellum South, when Jane is inspired by a Union soldier to walk to the North; it concludes when the 110-year-old Jane continues her journey, walking past the authorities on her way to integrate a “whites only” drinking fountain. Jane’s story takes on epic proportions as it chronicles her long life, during which she overcame all manner of obstacles on her passage to freedom.

Gaines dramatizes another abiding example of unflagging perseverance in “The Sky Is Gray” (1963), his short story about a boy who endures a throbbing toothache and hunger during what, to him as a child, is a long, cold day’s journey to the dentist with his mother. Gaines’s evocative presentation of this simple story dramatizes how suffering — something we in modern society increasingly seek to avoid — can be redemptive. “They endured,” is the way William Faulkner describes the psychic stamina and tenacity of the black characters in his own work.

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