- Onward Christian Soldier:Reverend Phillip Martin's Road to Redemption in Ernest J. Gaines's In My Father's House
If you want to know the end, look at the beginning.—African proverb
From the omniscient point of view, Ernest J. Gaines opens his 1978 In My Father's House with a reference to the Reverend Phillip Martin, the charismatic preacher and community activist in the St. Adrienne parish of Bayonne, the principal site of Gaines's fictional works. As the voice of the community's disenfranchised, he enjoys a heightened esteem created in equal parts by the community and himself. His influence extends beyond the province of the community, and he has the establishment's ear on issues of social, economic, and political progress. As a man of the cloth, he believes it is his duty to offer his expert advice to the community on issues impactful to their lives. His communal position, he surmises, is to save souls and preserve the distinction of the residents in all matters of respectability. In full ownership of his social and political standing in the St. Adrienne community, he relishes his position as the community's most revered black male figure. As pastor of the Solid Rock Baptist Church, the most prominent religious institution in the parish, he advocates vociferously on behalf of the oppressed and disenfranchised and is quick to assume the political engagements brought forth by its members. In constructing Phillip in the role of minister and assigning him the last name "Martin," Gaines evokes the social politics and noble endeavors of civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. "King Martin," as Phillip is referenced throughout the parish, is a commanding dignitary among his constituents (In My Father's House 30).
In one of the novel's opening scenes, in which he takes center stage during a political gathering at his home, Phillip relishes his guests' hero worship. Their fawning reaches a crescendo: "The people had begun to applaud Phillip, and he raised his hands for silence. . . . The people [End Page 17] would not stop applauding him" (In My Father's House 35). The scene not only accentuates his significance in the community, it captures his flair, elegance, and aesthetic contribution to the community, providing him a propitious moment to grandstand as the physical representation of wealth, success, and prosperity:
Phillip Martin wore a black pinstriped suit, a light gray shirt, and a red polka-dot tie. He was sixty years old, just over six feet tall, and he weighed around two hundred pounds. His thick black hair and thick well-trimmed mustache were just beginning to show some gray. Phillip was a very handsome dark-brown-skinned man, admired by women, black and white. The black women spoke openly of their admiration for him, the white women said it around people they could trust. . . . He was very much respected by most of the people who knew him.(34)
While his standing in the community frames his identity, an enigmatic past creates the foundation required for a resolution of a haunting, former life.
To the degree that the novel is centered upon the emotional and psychological disconnect between a father and son, a motif which governs the Gaines canon, the work is also a narrative whose structure rests upon the dependence of external figures who help set the stage for the central character's transformation. Phillip must lend himself to an exterior surrogacy if self-evolution and personal growth are the desired result. While communal allegiance, in the form of familial servants and constituents, serves Phillip admirably, it does not resolve his inner conflict. Exterior figures help consign him to an affecting space necessary for healing to occur.
Phillip's introduction in the novel and the rogue staging of Robert X, the son he abandoned, are significant in two respects: they foreshadow a catastrophic reunion between the two men and ascribe Phillip's abandonment and neglect of Robert, according to Gaines, to the historical legacy of slavery, wherein families in general—and fathers and sons in particular—were separated and have been unable, since that time, to sustain meaningful relationships. Robert X's adoption of...