Gaines, Ernest J. (1933– )

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Editor: Valerie Smith
Date: 2001
From: African American Writers(Vol. 1. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Length: 12,400 words

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Ernest J. Gaines (1933– )


“I THINK ONE of the greatest things that has happened to me, as a writer and as a human being, is that I was born in the South, that I was born in Louisiana,” Ernest Gaines reflected in conversation with Ruth Laney in 1974. The centrality of his origins to his work has been a recurrent theme in the many interviews he has granted throughout his career. His remarks to Laney are representative:

Because I grew up on a plantation in the late thirties and the forties, I’m pretty sure it was not too much different from the way things could have been when my ancestors were in slavery. Oh, we could do a few little things more. But that I went through that kind of experience—there’s a direct connection between the past and what is happening today. I’m very fortunate to have had that kind of background.

Few contemporary African American writers have been as candid as Gaines in asserting the formative power of race- and region-specific experiences or as persistent as he in channeling that power into prose fiction.

Born on January 15, 1933, at River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, Gaines was a child of both the Great Depression and the rural South. His birthplace was in the quarters where African American plantation workers had lived during slavery, and where five generations of his family had made their home while cultivating sugarcane, cotton, and corn. Like his parents, Manuel and Adrienne Gaines, and their ancestors who had known the intensity of labor and poverty under the plantation system, Ernest Gaines went early to work in the fields along False River in Point Coupee Parish. This parish is an area adjacent to the West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes and one of the thirteen alluvial land parishes where blacks outnumbered whites, on average, ten to one after the Civil War. The oldest of eight brothers and three sisters, Gaines picked cotton at the age of eight, and by the time he was nine years old, he was digging potatoes for wages—fifty cents a day. Gaines has not romanticized growing up on a sugarcane plantation in a time of individual and systemic hardship. In talking to Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton for the journal Cal-laloo in 1988, he remembered that his boyhood was enriched by a supportive extended family and community in the River Lake Quarters: “I came from a place where people sat around and chewed sugar cane and roasted sweet potatoes and peanuts in the ashes and sat on ditch banks and told tales and sat on porches and went into the swamps and went into the fields—that’s what I came from.” Gaines has compressed much of his Louisiana childhood experience into a memory of active people.

The central person in his youth was his great-aunt Augusteen Jefferson, who had lost the use of her legs either at birth or in infancy. Unable to walk, she did not work in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1387200027