Thursday, February 28, 2002

Cincinnati's assignment: Ernest J. Gaines

Author believes black people and white people are more alike than different

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ernest J. Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying thinks we, that is, blacks and whites, have more in common than we have differences.

        “What I try and do in my books is just write about people. People I create and imagine,” he says by phone from his home in Lafayette, La. “If I have white characters, I try to make them as real as I possibly can. ... If there are black characters, I try to make them as true as possible.

        “I never think about their liking or loving or disliking each other. We all have much more in common than we have differences. I would say that about people all over the world.”

        Today marks the kickoff of On the Same Page a two-month-long community reading of his 1993 novel, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner.

        “The main lesson I hope people get from reading my book is the lesson of responsibility,” he says. “And the lesson of commitment — a commitment to one's community and a responsibility to oneself and the people who love you.”

    Born: Jan. 15, 1933, River Lake Plantation New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana
    Lives: Splits his time between Lafayette, La., and Florida
    Marital status: Married to Dianne Saulney, an attorney, in 1993.
    Published: First short story published in 1956. Since then he has written eight novels
    Current job: Writer-in-residence, University of Southwestern Louisiana
    Awards: Include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1993) for lifetime achievements; National Endowment for the Arts grant (1971); Guggenheim Fellowship (1971); named Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by France's Minister of Culture (1996); National Book Critics Circle Award (1993) for A Lesson Before Dying.
    • Dee Amos, columnist, The Cincinnati Enquirer
    • Amanda Boyd, managing editor, Cincinnati Magazine
    • Faye Childs, writer, consultant and publisher of the Blackboard Times, a monthly list of African-American best sellers
    • Sharon Draper, former Cincinnati Public Schools teacher, writer and winner of the Coretta Scott King author award
    • Carolyn Kindle, librarian, Hughes High School
    • Becky Kennedy, Mariemont Branch manager, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
    • Janet Koehne, master bookseller, Joseph-Beth Booksellers
    • Mitchel Livingston, vice president, Student Affairs and Human Resources, University of Cincinnati
    • J.C. Morgan, Independence Branch manager, Kenton County Public Library
        A Lesson Before Dying, set in rural Louisiana in 1948, is the story of a poorly educated black man sentenced to death by a white judge and jury for a murder he didn't commit. It is also the story of a teacher, reluctantly recruited to teach the convicted to face death as a man, not a “hog,” as the defense attorney has characterized him.

        “There are other lessons — teaching, the judicial system, capital punishment,” Mr. Gaines says. And there are even larger considerations that go directly to our humanity and the entire bitter history of African-Americans in the South.

        “I try to create characters with character to help my own character and the character of the person who might read my book,” he says. “They find out that those people are the same as themselves. They all have the same dreams and maybe suffer in the same way.”

Louisiana life

        The oldest of 12 children, Ernest James Gaines was born on Jan. 15, 1933, on River Lake Plantation near New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, La. His home “quarter” is the background of six of his novels and short stories, and it provides the setting for A Lesson Before Dying. The plantation that dominates the book — the cotton fields, the “big house,” the school and church — are all based on his childhood home.

        “Though the places in my novels are imaginary ones, they are based pretty much on the place where I grew up and the surrounding areas where I worked, went to school and traveled as a child,” he says. “My characters speak the way the people speak in that area. They do the work that the people do there. Since most of my writing is about Louisiana, my characters are closely attached to the land.”

        Raised by his maternal aunt, who became the model for the main character in his 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, he left Louisiana when he was 15 in search of higher education.

        “I could not go to the high school in Louisiana,” he says. “Where I lived, the high schools were for whites only. So, my folks moved to California to work in the military plants, and my stepfather went into the Merchant Marines. They took me out there when I was 15. I was terribly lonely for my siblings and friends, so I started to go to the library. The library in Louisiana was for whites only, as well.”

        His loneliness led him to the great names in American fiction: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck. He started writing at 16, re-creating stories about life in Louisiana as a way of staying connected to those back home.

        “I come from a background where people told stories more than they wrote them,” he says. “There was no TV at that time and very few people had radios. People did a lot of talking. That's what people did in the rural South. I suppose that's how I try to tell a story — the way I heard it.”

        After finishing high school in Vallejo, Calif., Mr. Gaines attended San Francisco State and later Stanford University on a fellowship. He has written eight novels and five short stories and received a MacArthur Foundation grant for writings of “rare historical resonance.” A Lesson Before Dying was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

        “The South was the only thing I could talk about,” he says. “I tried to write about California and my Bohemian days in San Francisco, but none of that was any good. When I write about Louisiana, I am writing something publishable.”

Message of hope

        A Lesson Before Dying was sparked by Mr. Gaines' curiosity about death row inmates.

        “I started out writing a book about someone who knew the day and hour he is going to die and how he feels about that,” he remembers. “There are more young black males in prison than in college, more on death row than whites or any other race, percentage-wise.”

        From the manslaughter that begins the book, to a slaying at the close, death is a constant presence in A Lesson Before Dying. Perhaps that is what makes it so relevant for a Cincinnati read-in. The fact that recent racial unrest stemmed from the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer reverberates in the book in the treatment of blacks by whites in authority.

        “In Cincinnati you have to bring some of the leaders together,” Mr. Gaines suggests. “Bring people together that represent the black population with the mayor, police department or whoever in the white population. That's the only way you can solve things, by having people meet and sitting down and discussing problems. I don't know any other way to do it.”

        The final message in the book is one of hope. The black teacher and a white deputy move toward one another rather than away.

        “They come to the conclusion they will work together,” says Mr. Gaines. “If there was a sequel — and there isn't going to be — those two guys would somehow be involved in the civil rights movement.

        “If I were going to lead a book discussion in Cincinnati I would get intelligent people on the panel who understand the problems in Cincinnati and then show them that maybe — since my book takes place in 1948 — maybe in some areas things have not changed.

        “Maybe they can learn something from the book. Maybe they will learn something about how to get along.”
        Local libraries and bookstores are stocking extra copies of the book, and there will be many opportunities to join in book discussions. To find out more about the project and how you can become involved, visit the Web site www.Cincinnati.Com/bookclub.


Old-timey music a hit at Grammys
- Cincinnati's assignment: Ernest J. Gaines
Project can help teach 'Lesson'
Excerpts from the novel
Thoughts from the selection panel: Why we chose this book
Bibliography of Ernest Gaines' work
3 reasons to see Everett Dance Theatre
Chieftains crazy like a fox
Expect 'evolutions' in newest 'Survivor'
Next Wave/Who's up and coming: Overachiever steps into a different life
The Early Word
Get to it