This is one of those posts that comes at a time when I would rather be paying tribute to a local and personal connection in an uncomplicated with one of this year’s National Medal of Arts recipients: A man who has had his work put into successful television formats, who has a center named after him in my undergraduate alma mater, who has had his work and career recognized in many ways as this native of Louisiana and former Stanford University Stegner Fellow Ernest Gaines has at eighty years old received an award from the hands of President Barack Hussein Obama. Gaines is the only novelist on the National Medal of Arts list this year – he already received the National Medal for the Humanities in 2000 and a similar honor from France and his work has been translated into Chinese and most large European languages. Poets and novelists have been awarded regularly the National Medal in both categories but I am not sure how many have received both awards. The language of the citation includes the following statement that Gaines is “recognized for his contributions as an author and teacher. Drawing deeply from his childhood in the rural South, his works have shed new light on the African-American experience and given voice to those who have endured injustice.”
Gaines was born 80 years ago on the River Lake Plantation near the small town of Oscar, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. His ancestors had lived on the same plantation, River Lake, since slavery, remaining after emancipation to work the land as sharecroppers for five generations. Gaines and his family lived in the houses, much expanded, that had once served as slave quarters. His parents separated when he was eight; the strongest adult influence in his childhood was a great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, crippled from birth, who crawled from kitchen to the family’s garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters.
This became the setting and premise for many of his later works. He was the oldest of 12 children, raised by his aunt, who was crippled and had to crawl to get around the house. Gaines’ first years of school took place in the plantation church. When the children were not picking cotton in the fields, a visiting teacher came for five to six months of the year to provide basic education. Gaines then spent three years at St. Augustine School, a Catholic school for African Americans in New Roads, Louisiana. Pointe Coupée Parish, “Negro schooling” in the Parish did not progress beyond the eighth grade at that time.
At the age of fifteen, Gaines moved to California to join his mother and stepfather. He wrote his first novel was written at age 17, while babysitting his youngest brother, Michael. In 1956, Gaines published a short story, The Turtles, in a college magazine at San Francisco State (SFSU). He graduated in literature in 1957 from SFSU. After spending two years in the Army, he won the Stegner, a writing fellowship to Stanford. In most years since 1984, Gaines has spent the first half of each year in San Francisco and the second half at the university in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he has taught a workshop every autumn. But in 1996, Gaines did spend a full semester as a visiting professor at the University of Rennes in France where he taught the first Creative Writing class ever offered in the French University system Gaine remains deeply rooted and he and his wife a home on part of the River Lake Plantation where he grew up.[ He has also had the church he grew up with moved to his property.
He has been open about what he most treasures from those days, “I was raised by a lady that was crippled all her life but she did everything for me and she raised me,” he wrote. “She washed our clothes, cooked our food, she did everything for us. I don’t think I ever heard her complain a day in her life. She taught me responsibility towards my brother and sisters and the community.””
Ernest Gaines has at least two ways in which he has walked the path of a man of letters, a race man and a son of Louisiana. One part of his legacy is his work and life as a writer in residence, commercial success and regional celebrity. That must be taken into account in any assessment of his work and its impact on racial identity and politics. In that area he has been about the advance of his racial group as well as himself. When I was at enrolled the university where Gaines taught I was never enrolled in one of his classes, I did however attend lectures he gave, two of which were hosted by Dr. Patricia Rickels, now deceased, whom both of us knew very well and who was both in the English Department and head of the Honors Program to which I belonged. I spoke to her and students who knew him well about him much more often than I spoke to him and I read his books and bought several although at a time when I often got books signed I never had his books signed nor asked him for anything that I recall except once for his plans for classes in the coming semester which I recall he did not much appreciate. Gaines was a well dressed, disciplined man who was an intimidating physical specimen and more often in the national spotlight than anyone else in the Department when I was there. A strong academic, a strong son of Louisiana and a strong Black man – he was all those things.
The other side of Gaines is his writing itself. He preserved characters and scenes of White Creoles, Cajuns, Anglos and other people along with the African-American characters often described in ten different ways by use of the same “N word” now left out of some versions of Huckleberry Finn. The black people are humans with hopes, dreams, consciousness and aspiration. In A Gathering of Old Men, there is cowardice, backwardness, ignorance and folly portrayed with realism in the African-American Community. There is also courage, cleverness, hope and community as old men with shotguns having fired a shot face down the white supremacist Cajun establishment. In the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman there is failure and lack of achievement but also perseverance, a struggle for decency and a triumph of continuity. In A Lesson Before Dying there is a bit of heavy-handed moralizing, racial philosophizing, and more Black assertiveness than anywhere else but there is real pathos, tender regard for life and law and compromise as people of all colors find them. These are likely his most important works but not as revealing or upsetting to mainstream America as some of his lesser pieces. I have always liked reading Gaines and found him fulfilling to read as well. I once gave a copy of a Gaines novel, I believe it was Of Love and Dust to a friend and relative of mine, now deceased, who was a self-identified White Racist and asked the person to read it and get back to me. The response as best I recall it was, “That N***** can write. I really could hardly put the book down because it is story you feel. He knows and sees everything I do about N****** and he writes in a fully N*****ish fashion but he makes you think about what is right and how people should relate to each other because you know he is not afraid of the truth.” Gaines has a unique voice, I doubt that friend would have read an entire book by many other Black writers and maybe none at all who wrote about Blacks chiefly. Marcia Gaudet of the University of Louisiana’s Ernest Gaines center was quoted by a West Coast interviewer associate with the Stanford University where Gaines has long had ties and she said: “His literature is based on memory of the past, and it’s somewhat different from that of many African-American writers of the mid-20th century, who based their work on erasure of that past and moving their characters to Northern urban settings. Gaines was one of the first to go back and look at what the hardships were.” I pay tribute to Ernest Gaines here but that is not the main point of this Blog Post and Facebook Note.
This is another one of my rambling blog posts and Facebook Notes. I am splitting the difference as I almost always do in these notes between a theme and a combination of recent events from my own life and current events in society. I really am trying to write a bit about Race, Sex and ethnicity in America. I am hoping to do a note or blog post about Sex soon. But in the interest of space and coherence I decided to limit myself to race and ethnicity here. However, whenever it comes out the piece on sex will be a companion to this piece. I will not discuss relations between racial and sexual identity here but I hope to do so soon. However, I also am writing about my own life in ways not so much related to this. There was a time when I hoped for good things in my own life but it was never really a realistic hope. I don’t think highly of very many people, of the state of the world or of society as a whole. I look back on a world of unbelievable evil and I have the sense I always behaved much better than was reasonable to expect. My empathy with and for those with power is shrinking every day. Given the years of ever diminishing resources those experiences and sensibilities track with a route to prison or some kind of institution which is a deeper and clearer hell within hell. But in all these times of hell and evil and righteous suffering I have had a chance to observe what is sometimes the giant sewer in which I and many of us find we live. My varied life experiences have let me see the greatness of America, the modern world, several other countries as well as smaller institutions and groups and that same varied life has enabled me to see the utter wretchedness of many modern conditions as few can. The worst and most evil people in America and most of the world are as likely to wield power as to have it wielded against them. The less empowered and more left alone segments tend to avoid the real extremes of depravity. While there are some very fine people in power and some I see as more or less my moral equals maybe those quotas were full and perhaps I was just never evil and worthless enough to really survive and prosper since I was not born to blend in well. Things are not working out fine it seems to me. I think race, sex and ethnicity are three areas where I feel the tensions in society not being worked out and resolving themselves. I am aware of those tensions the way I am aware of most of the world’s ill. I perceive them through the lens and filter of my own experiences as well as readings and viewing.
I think today of Danielle Wright who may be (and likely is) deceased but may still be at sea in a life raft after the yacht on which she and others were sailing from New Zealand to Australia disappeared. I crossed from New Zealand to Australia in an airplane. But I lived near a beach in New Zealand and toured the coast of Australia and I knew a good number of mariners from New Zealand and Australia whom I met when my family lived near a marina in Tonga. Those experiences join with my reading and television viewing and my sailing and ocean-crossing memories to make it easy for me to visualize the terrors of the sea which that young woman has experienced by now regardless of her condition. I remember being in several storms at sea, seeing whales playing near small ships and large boats I was on and watching big ships pass my boat in a fog. I have been in boats which had engines that failed. I have also read stories of sea survival. These mental images make her experience closer for me than for some. Which is how a great deal of America’s trouble is for me, it is made real by near experience. In following the economic collapse and now financial bankruptcy of Detroit I remember my ex-wife’s trips to Troy and our entertaining one of her supervisors when she came to Louisiana. I also remember my numerous trips to Michigan. I remember troubled neighborhoods and cities I have visited or lived in around the world. The school shootings remind me of my many experiences in schools. The soaring prison population reminds me of my many visits to and interactions with prisoners. One of the pastors of the church parish to which I belong and which I have regularly attended most of the last fifteen years has been to prison. Governors Edwards and Leche, Attorney General Jack Gremillion, Commissioners Brown and Roemer (Roemer was the father of Governor Roemer) all went to prison. One of the more successful members of my father’s law school class who was also one of his good friends went to prison. Several of my first cousins have gone to jail and a sizable number of my friends and classmates over the years have done time. Those numbers are not an abstraction for me. Lots of prisoners are black and a lot of others are ins ome way tied up with the results of our attempt at a misguided racial revolution.
I can empathize with black kids protesting over the Trayvon Martin shooting who are afraid of getting shot and the many whites and Asians not protesting who are afraid or disturbed by the racist Black masses of vengeful, ignorant people who harbor those calling for blood, making death threats and collecting money for bounties. This is a real tension and crisis.
The school shootings and other mass killings are also both real and significant. It is hard to see how the Rolling Stone cover of Dzokhar Tsarnaev helps the problem. However, it does remind us of how real our social problems are today. This is a society in crisis. I have a different perception of the Tsarnaev’s to add to the big picture of who they are which includes them being Muslim, Chechen, young, living in Boston and a dozen other realities that defined who these brothers were and who Dzokhar still is. But I want to think about their sense of ethnicity and identity and heritage in a society without very strong moorings in that regard.
I have written a great deal in my blog and elsewhere about the Acadian heritage and its ties to France, Greece, the United States and the Confederacy. I cannot exhaustively cover those issues in this note which is largely about other things anyway. I cannot even really define ethnicity or what constitutes a proper sense of a diverse national heritage in the space and number of words I am going to use here, nor will I really attempt to do so this essay comes without footnotes and a direct bibliography and is therefore more of a personal reflection than an analytical dissection and its tone is not mostly scholarly. The truth is that I greatly support seeking to understand the American heritage, the Acadian heritage and the Confederate heritage and support finding the right way to pass these on but in the world we actually live in that is far from being too much, it is not enough. In fact there is an example of how heritage not central to our past can matter when one looks at the Boston Massacre bombings and the reporting about this incident.
While Rolling Stone has a cover dedicated to the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, while we celebrate Mandela in almost purist terms despite the horrors many whites experience because ANC related activity in Africa we have seen the Confederate Battle Flags come under increased opposition and attack. We celebrated the election of Barack Obama in a way that bears little witness to the idea that Slavs and slaves sound alike because Muslim Turks enslaved so many Russians and other white slavs that is has shaped our language. The movie Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer was watched as a truthful parable by at least some of the largely black audience I saw it with but it is really less true than almost any fiction in so very many ways. I am proud of my Confederate ancestors and when we who are proud talk or write about Confederate Heritage we ought to also remember the overwhelming evidence that the Confederacy was a society which recognized the concept of heritage. It was a society in which people were at least somewhat sensitive to the heritage of others. Although its name was changed to honor a Confederate Hero after the war who deserved to be honored Congo Square gave white Southrons a place to go where they could be educated about the diversity and reality of black African heritages more in a few minutes than many Americans are today in a lifetime. Yet I do not deny nor wish to imply that they were not a white supremacist society.
I have written about Acadian heritage in its American, Canadian, French and Greek Dimensions. The Greek or Hellenic dimension is what we see throughout early American history and it brings us beyond the recent years before the founding of our Union or the later War Between the States. In the past there were other stories too and they matter less to America as a whole than either Western European or Greek history matters. Hellenic Heritage was a heritage many in the Confederate States of America knew something about. I am a fairly long-suffering man who perhaps bears too much with insult but if America ceases to know about heritage and therefore says thing which are stupid and insulting continuously about how things have happened I will probably usually forgive. My inaction and our cultural ignorance do not prove that the rest of humanity will either forget or forgive. Many people do care about being known for who they came from and what they are attached to and our children will be at a disadvantage if they do not have any idea of people not all being recently cranked out of nowhere as the same.
Perhaps if, as is conjectured, he was the instigator of the Boston bombing attack and drew his younger brother into the plan they are accused of carrying out his sense of isolation increased every time this fighting man’s name was not recognized and understood as a reference. I do not know he knew this but I presume he knew he was named after Tamerlaine . Tamerlaine is is the equivalent name to Tamerlan in our histories but probably did not appear in the history classes he took and is an Anglicization of what some have rendered Timur i-lenk, or Timur the Lame. Chechen’s would probably be reminded that while I grieve over how little of our own history student’s know they know far less of central Asia’s history.
Tamerlan’s namesake was a Tatar tribesman who entered history when he successfully rebelled against the dynasties and cultures of Mongol overlords in the 14th-century social order created by the almost unimaginable violence and military skill the great Mongol warlord Genghiz Khan who had conquered much of the known world. Tamerlaine established his seat of government in they exotic inland city of Samarkand, There he both took advantage of controlling existing dominating significant trade routes and he helped to forge other routes which knitted together a vast part of the world. While we study little of these people and their heritage the cultures around Tamerlaine suffered a similar cultural narrowness of their own. Vikings, Europeans Aztecs, Tongans and other groups had leaders who ruled large regions, traveled far and commanded armies but Tameralaine’s people and neighbors probably regarded only seven rulers or small groups of rulers in the world as significant. These significant powers were the Mongol overlords Tamerlaine conquered in his first rebellion, the Lord of Tatars which may have been his own chief title, the Caliph in Baghdad, and rulers in Turkey, Egypt, India, and China. Tamerlaine conquered all the others except China. Here he fell short of the greatness of Ghengis Khan. While he had little more than tribute from Egypt and only an occupation of Turkey he was still a ruler of enormous influence in world history. His lasting legacies were the Mogul dynasty in India, and some cultural influence over a wide area from India into Russia. What did it mean to the older Tsarnaev to meet so many to whom his name meant nothing at all? A country must have a cultural coherence and not merely laws.
If it is dangerous not to know one‘s self and it is dangerous not to know the world it is also more dangerous than some would think not to know the elements of one’s history as played by one’s neighbors. I am an Anglo-Acadian. I will not be discussing that heritage here as it relates to the Confederate heritage or American heritage but I have written of such things elsewhere . The word Christian was first used in Syria. It makes all Christians weak that there are few Christians left there and a priest was beheaded and it was scarcely reported here. We are living in a deadly blindness and are seeking a solution in trying to wipe out our own white supremacy for no particularly good reason – rather than trying to make it better. The Trayvon Martin movement is full of racist and violent blacks who want to control the country but not themselves. We are running out of time for a good plan.
Besides the Trayvon Martin protests, the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit and the collapse of al sense of a real legal system I have learned other things. Such as the fact that cowardice, corruption and cruelty are normal in governance and yet fatal as well and those who live in such modes of what might be called evil often applaud themselves most loudly for doing their best. I know hard times loom large and am aware of the fact that life is without apparent justice in countless cases, but I am trying to be part of creating a plan for a better future. My model constitutions have already spelled out the answers I would propose. What I am asserting here is mostly that the course we have been on will not work and will not be survivable if continued. Race and ethnicity must be faced and understood differently and that must happen soon. Doing it right will matter a lot.
I have decided to write most of everything I write from now on in preparation for the future which has stretched out so bleakly and horribly ahead of me for so long to be vastly worse than it has long been. I think that the time will be coming soon enough when I will sign off my web presence entirely but I will at least have written the things I will have wanted to say as the years of living hell extend into a limitless misery at least until death. I need to set a frame of reference I suppose, the person I respect the most among the living in the world today is me. That does not make me happy but it is the truth.
I have done things I regret, been exposed to things where I chose to do what was both right and legal at great cost but probably was in a situation so muddy that some mud will permanently follow me around. I look back on a life in which I feel so infinitely cheated already that it defies expression and yet I feel an ever-growing confidence that the worst is yet to come. Life has been horrible but will become infinitely worse in time. Because that is what this world is about. Yet I have resisted not out of compulsion but out of a real desire to make a difference and sense of moral obligation to try. I really do not think that there is any hope for things to be or feel OK but they can feel less than completely horrible for a moment now and then.
The truth of much policy and political philosophy is that it exists framed and living in a dialectic between that which must be done in a crisis and that which can be reasoned and properly debated in relative leisure during times not defined by a particularly urgent crisis. The struggle of every society to formulate policy and then to put it into effect is one of the great themes of history although it may less often make its way into the titles of books or even their chapter headings. The truth is that most good historians telling most good and important histories have at least some interest in how the people of a given period discussed and intellectually prepared for a great historical crisis when it was incipient, developing and the then escalating. The activity during the time when the crisis is acute is not likely to produce original theoretical frameworks or innovative discussion which is really excellent. Instead those acting in the acute stage are often doing more than can be expected if they can reach for and apply the best theories and remedies which have been reasoned out and proposed in advance.