Southern Comforts

Article excerpt

The South, repatriated ex-slave Ned Douglass lectured his Louisiana neighbors in Ernest J. Gaines's novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is "yours because your people's bones lays in it; it's yours because their sweat and their blood done drenched this earth."

The latest U.S. census confirms that the grandchildren of the Southern diaspora are going home: American blacks are returning to their ancestral region. The revenants include novelist Gaines, 78, who now makes his home on the plantation on which his people have lived and died since the days of slavery. As a boy, he picked cotton on that land. He also wrote letters for his mostly illiterate elders, a training in dialect and dialogue worth a dozen MFAs.

Despite years in San Francisco exile, Gaines has placed all his fiction in rural Louisiana, never venturing even as far as New Orleans. "I picked my own back yard--and there's nothing wrong with that," he says. "After all, Yoknapatawpha County was good enough for Faulkner," with whose volumes Gaines's masterwork, A Lesson Before Dying, deserves kinship.

"My folks have lived in the same place for over a hundred years in Pointe Coupee Parish in South Central Louisiana. I can't imagine writing about any other place," Ernest Gaines says. "Everything comes back to Louisiana."

Including its native sons.

Gaines is said to have pictures of Faulkner and Booker T. Washington on his walls. His characters sometimes kick against what they view as Washington's conciliatory, even acquiescent, advice, but they live the classic Washingtonian injunction to "cast down your buckets where you are."

Booker T.'s harshest black critics were condescending graduates of elite colleges who were embarrassed by their Southern brothers and sisters in the sticks. In contrast, Washington, writes Robert J. Norrell in his rich Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, "had an emotional connection to the unlettered freed people of the rural South and a deep appreciation of their speech, music, humor, and religiosity." Washington's annual Tuskegee Negro Conferences brought together black farmers and teachers, for he insisted that the "uneducated" men and women of the countryside possessed wisdom and talents that no book could impart.

Ernest Gaines had his own model of rural endurance: Miss Augusteen Jefferson, his crippled great aunt. …