The Autobiography of Ernest Gaines
by Ernest J. Gaines
Original editors note: This short story was delivered by Mr. Gaines December 7, 1989, in accepting the 1989 Humanist of the Year award. It is being simultaneously published with The Southern Review, edited by Dr. James Olney.
Ladies and gentlemen, a fifteen-year-old boy standing on a riverbank in central Louisiana, with a worn-out leather suitcase at his feet and a white pocket handkerchief in his hand, cannot possibly imagine that 41 years and four months later he would be recipient of the Humanist of the Year award by the state of Louisiana.
He is tall, thin; he is worried and frightened. But he continues to stand there as steadily as his legs would allow, because he knows he must go. He then he went out on the porch with his suitcase.
His aunt who had never walked in her life, but who crawled over the floor as a six-month-old child would do, sat on the floor by the door. In spite of her infirmities, she had raised him and his younger brothers—washed for them, cooked for them, sewed their clothes, made them read verses from the Bible, and disciplined them when they needed it. He would speak to her last. He would speak to the others first—the ones who had brought the food, those for whom he had run errands as long back as he could remember—read their letters for them because they could not read, wrote their letters for them because they could not write (or ashamed for not being able to articulate their feelings). They were quiet today—more than usual. They nodded, instead of speaking. They did not say “goodbye,” “take care,” “learn”—they had said all of that already. And because they had always put such trust in him, they knew he would always remember that.
Then he turned to his aunt. She sat on the floor in the door as she always did when she had company at the house in summer. In winter she sat on the floor by the fireplace.
“I am going,” he said.
There was no touching. There was no leaning over to hug her. There were no tears. That would come later when he was alone and when she was alone. But not now. Not in public. He was the oldest. This was no place for a display of weakness. He had to have the same courage that she had. Just as she had crawled over the floor some 50 years without complaining in public, then he must show that same strength. She knew how he felt inside, and that was enough. She knew that he would do anything and everything to make her proud, and that was enough. She had raised him that way these past 15 and a half years.
The bus came around the bend of the road and he waved his handkerchief, and when the bus stopped he climbed on with the suitcase, and after paying his fare, he went all the way to the back of the bus where he was supposed to go, passing under the little sign hanging over the aisle which read White and Colored. He must have found a seat because he cannot remember standing all the way to New Orleans where he would take a train to California. But he can remember that until he got to southern California he saw no other white person in his car except the conductor. When he changed trains in Los Angeles, he noticed the different races together.
His mother and stepfather had gone to California during World War II in search of work. They now lived in government-subsidized projects in Vallejo, California. In the projects were blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos—all the groups, races, who were Californians at that time. He got along with the blacks immediately, but it took him a while to get up enough courage to approach the others. He watched them play basketball, football, tennis. He had never done any of this, so he watched them. Eventually he would be a member, but now he stood back and watched everything that was going on round him.
One day while he and one of the Asians stood on the sideline watching a football game, the Asian said to him (and he still cannot recall what brought it about), said to him that he, the Asian, was not as good as white people are, but better than blacks, because blacks had not contributed anything to civilization. They, he and the Asians, were watching a football game and from what he could see of the game the black kids were holding their place as well or better than any of the other group. So what was this little fellow talking about?
He had never thought himself less than anyone else, neither better. He had come from a world where the two races, white and black, were separated, but he had never thought he was less than anyone else. He had always carried his share of the load. He had gone into the fields at eight-years-old, and he could do as much work as any other eight-year-old could do. He had gone into the swamps at 11 or 12, and he could pull the saw as well as anyone of that age could. So he had never thought less of himself than he did of any other. There were those who were stronger than he, those who were better ball players and marble shooters than he, but he was better in other things than they were—reading, for example, writing letters, for example. So he had never thought himself less, so what was this little fellow talking about?
Not long after this, he went to the library. Not because he volunteered to do so, but because his stepfather told him that standing on street corners in the evening after school was going to get him into a lot of trouble. He had three choices—the movies, the YMCA, the library. He had no money for the movies, so he decided on the YMCA. On his second or third visit there, he got into a boxing ring with another guy who really knew how to box and he, being a boy from the country, did not. The other boy took little time in convincing him that he had chosen the wrong place to spend his evenings. With punches to the nose, chin, ear, kidney, the back of the head, the ribs and stomach, midway through the second round he was ready to call it quits, by using his teeth on the laces of the gloves to hurry the process.
He had never seen so many books. Where he had come from in Louisiana, he was not allowed inside the public library. There was no library in his little school, so the only books that he had read, except for the Bible, were his textbooks … now everywhere he looked there were books. Two floors of books. He could lose himself between stacks and no one would interfere with him all day. He began to read, indiscriminately at first. It did not matter the subject, as long as he was reading something. Anatomy, biology, history, art, music—he would open a book, read a page or two, return the book to its shelf and select another.
Then he discovered the fiction section on the second floor. He walked between the stacks reading titles and passing his hand over the spine of the book cover. Aisle after aisle. He would stop a moment, move on, stop a moment, and move on again.
He would select one, indiscriminately, read a few pages, maybe a chapter, maybe two, then return it to the shelf. Since there were so many books, why should he read just one? If he read all his life he would never read all of them. But what was he looking for? Why did he take down certain books, but left others?
Maybe he was trying to find something about his own people, something about life in the country. That’s right, something about rivers and trees and dirt roads. But this was 1949, and there were no books, or only a few, by and about blacks in the library. And he did not care for the way the white southern writers depicted blacks, because the characters were unrecognizable to him. Their language, their habits, had nothing to do with the people who had sat out on the porch with his aunt in summer or round the fireplace in winter. And the children in the books by these southern writers, did not talk or act like the children whom he had played with only a year ago. (An asterisk should be placed here. Because much later, he would learn much from such southern writers as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty. But he had not discovered them yet.) Still he read the southern writers, because there was something about earth, trees, and water. He read them until he discovered John Steinbeck and Willa Cather. Though he did not know the characters of Steinbeck and Cather, he liked the way they were depicted. These writers, Steinbeck and Cather, gave their characters more humanity. He would later discover the great Russian writers of the 19th century, Ivan Turgeneff and Anton Chekov, who seemed to understand the serfs, and often made them better than their masters. No, he did not reach this conclusion then, when he first began to read. That would come later when he began to think.
Before he went to the library, he had not thought, he had done. He had done as he was supposed to do. He had done as they, his ancestors, had done, as they were supposed to do. In slavery they were not supposed to think, they were not supposed to ask questions, they were not supposed to “answer back”—they were supposed to do. He had been taught, as a child growing up in the south in the ’40s, that he was supposed to learn, but not ask questions, and not answer back. Never could he ask why one of his playmates was much lighter skinned and his hair more straight. Never could he ask why the white children rode on buses while he walked. Why did he have to sit behind a sign, or not drink water at a fountain, or sit on a bench. Why was his religion made fun of by Catholic children, and why was his stepfather angry. He never asked any of these questions, because to ask a question one must think, and he was not supposed to think—but to do.
But he was here alone now, with his book, with these characters, and he began to think. No, maybe not yet. He was too hungry to read to think. He had to read volumes before he would think. In his reading he saw that all people who worked the land—peasants, serfs, his own people, descendants of slaves-—acted pretty much the same. They went into the fields early in the morning and came out late in the evening, they complained about hard work, little money, and mean landowners. Their children did not get decent educations, hardly a doctor was around when he was needed, and the law was always on the side of the rich. He continued to read, to devour it all.
But eventually he would come to the conclusion that even though the Russian writer had given him much, those peasants, those serfs, were not his people. They drank Kvass, his people drank clabber; they slept on stoves, his people slept on pallets by the fireplace; they measured distances by verst, his people by yards, and miles. They had given him much—Turgeneff, Chekov, and later Gogol and Gorky—but he wanted something else, he needed something else—he wanted to know who he was. He was not Russian, he was not one of Steinbeck’s Mexicans or Okies, neither was he one of Cather’s immigrant midwesterners, and since he had not been allowed to think before, he had to, in some way, take something from all of them to find out who he was, where to belong.
“I think, therefore I am”–Descartes.
“Know thy self”–Socrates.
Ladies and gentlemen, once upon a time, there was a tall, slim, frightened black boy who sat in the back row of all of his classes in California. Once he was called on to explain what he knew about the American Civil War. None of his teachers in the south had ever mentioned the Civil War to him that he could remember, and he thought his instructor had asked him what did he know about the silver war. He did not know anything about a silver war either, but he talked about a minute through the laughter of his classmates—until the instructor told him to sit back down.
This same boy was also told by other recent black migrants to California that you were never supposed to tell people you came from the country. That you don’t know a thing about picking cotton, or chittlin, beef tripe, watermelons—and all the rest of that country stuff like pig feet, pig lips, pig ears, pig tails—and all the rest of it. And you came from New Orleans—and never say N’awlens. It’s New Or-lea-ans. Which he tried to do for several months. Until someone asked him about Bourbon Street. He knew nothing about Bourbon Street, and he realized that to go on lying to others meant lying to himself. Not only was he lying to himself, but he was denying knowing the others—-the ones he had left and wasn’t that the same as denying who he was?
That man needs crutches to help him is normal. He searches for an easy way to find himself. Many whites like going back to Europe—to France, Italy, Sweden, England, Germany—to find out who they are. For many blacks, they would just as soon skip over the previous 350 years and go back to some obscure African community to find out who they are. This same young man was asked by a teacher at the university whom did he wish to reach in his writing. When he told the professor that he had no one particular reading public in mind, the professor said, but if you had to write for but one group, who would that group be? The young man said for the black youth of the South to help him find out who he is. And suppose there is a second group the professor asked him? “Then to the white youth of the South,” the young man said. “To let him know that only when he knows his neighbor will he really know himself.” (John Stuart Mills said it: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” He who knows only his own house knows little of the community. He who knows only his street knows very little of the town. He who knows only his town knows very little of the state. And he who knows only his religion knows very little about man or God. My quotes, for what they are worth).
But it seems that we’ve skipped too far ahead. A while ago we were concerned with a young man who was searching for that elusive “I.” Part of it he found by reading American, Russian, and French literature. Now he had to sit and think. How could he relate this to the lives of his ancestors and to the people whom he had grown up around. How to articulate their, his own people’s experience. Articulating thoughts that they had been denied to articulate for 300 years. There were those recent migrants to the west who told him that digging into the past would be embarrassing, too painful; forget the past. But he wanted to become “I.” And to do that meant to confront the past.
An interviewer from one of the more popular magazines would ask him one day, “What book of all those you read helped you to become the person you are today?” After thinking a while, he shook his head, he didn’t know. “Maybe it was the one that was not there,” the interviewer said, “and you felt that you had to put it there.”
His first effort as writer was a love story between light-skinned blacks, whose religion was Catholic and Protestant. He knew something about each, because he had both in his own family. After five years of wrestling with the idea—articulating it was the problem for him, so not to embarrass anyone—the book—one little chapter, he would call it—was finally accepted for publication. In the book he would have the main character say: “I feel like a dry leaf, broken away from the tree and now drifting with the least bit of wind toward no true destination.”
In each of the following books he found that he was moving farther and farther back into the past, until he realized that to find the tree from which the leaf had been broken was to go back to those who sat out on the porch the day that he left. What were they talking about that day while he was inside packing? What did they talk about the day before, the year before, years and years and years before. Because his aunt was crippled and could not go to them, they came to her, summer and winter, day and night, weekdays as well as weekends, and talked. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Creole; sometimes their voices would hush when he came into the room. What was so secret, so painful, that they did not want him to know? Why did they say it was none of his business, when he asked the question.
His aunt as well as many of the others were dead by now—20 years later. He went to the younger ones, their children, their nieces, nephews, and asked could they recall a phrase the old ones liked using, or a song they liked singing? Was there a Bible they liked holding even though they did not know the words, or a hymnal they had saved even though they could not read a verse?
He and a young professor sat in the living room of the professor’s house one day, and he asked the professor, “What do you think they were talking about that day, the day before, the years and years before? Remember they could not read, they could not write. They left no journals, no diaries, and hardly any letters. Only the spoken words. So what did they talk about? Let’s begin with twelve things, nationally; then let’s go to twelve things statewide, then the parish, and finally the plantation. Now what do you think they were talking about?”
Into the night, he and the young professor talked, and they both agreed that he should go to the library—the same ones which had been forced to deny him entrance 20 years earlier.
“I would like to write a novel about a lady who would have been in slavery around 1852, and who will live until the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s,” he said to the librarian. “I want to know the kind of life she might have lived during that time. I would like books on the Civil War, the Reconstruction period, the plantation system, books or pamphlets on the season for planting and harvesting cotton and cane; books on antebellum homes, on the great floods of ‘12 and ‘27, on the prison system, convict labor, school system, Huey Long, on Mardi Gras, something about La Toussaint, Louisiana cooking, the flowers, trees, bayous, rivers, and spillways of Louisiana.”
“That seems like a very big order,” the librarian said, “but I think we can help you.”
Even after he had gone back to California to work on the book, he would call on the telephone or write back for additional information, which would be sent him, always with a note, “How are you and your little lady getting along?” And now when he would return to Louisiana he would always go back to the library, and he and the librarian would sit in her office where they would talk, while she served him thin cookies and small cups of coffee. “And how are the two of you getting along?” the librarian would ask.
‘’I’m learning much about myself from her,” he told the librarian. “I owe a lot of this to you.”
Recently, at a high school in Lafayette, the writer was asked by a white student what was an American. The writer told the student that he had been searching for that answer for nearly 40 years now.
The student asked, “Do you think you will ever find out?” The writer said he did not know, but he could not think of anything else more important in his life to do.
The student said, “Well, I sure got a lot out of Miss Jane Pittman.” The writer asked him, “What did you get?” The student said, “Well, er, I, er, I, er, —well, she made you think.” “Good,” the writer said, “that’s good.”
© 1989 Emest Gaines. Used with permission.