- Re-(W)righting Black Male Subjectivity: The Communal Poetics of Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men
When I think of Gaines, I think of voice and story. . . . I think of a person talking to me. I think of men and women talking to me. I think of voices that carry through time. I think of history and personal life memory.—Gayl Jones, Interview with Michael Harper
It’s not between the character and the writer. It’s the voice, not the person himself, but the voice. . . . When I come to the omniscient point of view and I create a character, a narrator who’s much like myself, I do too much thinking. I don’t have the freedom. That’s one of the things I criticize Invisible Man about. There’s too much thinking going on all the time. There’s thinking in every goddamned sentence. You don’t think. Let the thing flow. Let it go.—Ernest Gaines
The collective writings of Ernest Gaines have challenged and critiqued literary and cultural constructions of the black male subject. As the epigraphic “reading” of Ralph Ellison suggests, Gaines is not satisfied with earlier “blueprints” for “Negro” men’s writing 1 : throughout his career, he has foregrounded the differences between his work and that of his literary forebrothers, most notably Richard Wright and Ellison. By centering the experiences of black men within a certain cultural context, Gaines’s novels and short stories reveal a consanguineous if not harmonious relationship between his and Wright’s writings, which revolved around a debilitated male subject—one rendered disabled and disfigured by the scourges of racism and classism.
Indeed, most of Gaines’s fiction (the notable exception being his 1973 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) charts black men’s attempts to re-situate themselves as subjects—a liberating domain where they attain some degree of agency, self-definition, and authority amidst an abnegating southern environment. Because he and Wright share common geographic place, the different fictive spaces they configure are made even more marked. From early works such as Bloodline (1968) to his latest novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993), the author has embarked upon a re-figuring of the black male literary subject: his protagonists depart substantially from the psychologically and culturally mutilated Bigger Thomas of Wright’s 1940 classic Native Son. [End Page 195]
Of course, any discussion of black men’s literary discourse that examines protest writing and subsequent artists’ critique of it must take into consideration social and cultural dynamics. Wright’s insistence on a deformed black male subject reflected what he considered the cultural evisceration of black men; his introduction to Native Son, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” lays the groundwork for the maimed male subject that permeates his fiction. However, what is so intriguing about the work of Ernest Gaines generally, and his 1984 novel A Gathering of Old Men specifically, is its radical insistence on black men challenging and interrupting their seemingly inexorable victimhood. Though many critics have discussed Gaines’s centering of male rituals and the integral role storytelling and voice play in his fiction, 2 I posit that Gaines’s artistic accomplishments have even more salient implications vis-à-vis the protest tradition, which Wright epitomizes.
I will illustrate how Gaines’s aesthetic endeavor involves the re-centering not merely of the black male voice, but of a black male communal voice which contrasts sharply with the mono-voicedness of protest discourse. In A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines’s re-examination and reinscription of black masculinity result in a revised representation of black literary subjectivity. Specifically, the author deconstructs the notion that black masculinity is merely derivative, and he simultaneously demonstrates that voice and story function not only as fictive tropes but as viable vehicles for the transformation of the black male self. This essay argues that Gaines’s relationship with the protest tradition is more countertextual than intertextual: he appropriates but also subverts discursive features of protest fiction in order to center the empowering nature of communal storytelling and storylistening in terms of black male agency and subject formation.
In light of Trudier Harris’ trenchant observation that “There...