A Breed Between: Racial Mediation in the Fiction of Ernest Gaines

By Hebert-Leiter, Maria | MELUS, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A Breed Between: Racial Mediation in the Fiction of Ernest Gaines


Hebert-Leiter, Maria, MELUS


By addressing the Cajun-African American conflict in Of Love and Dust (1967) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983), Ernest Gaines emphasizes the interdependence of white and African American people in Louisiana while simultaneously acknowledging social structures that maintain the concept of white superiority. His fiction depicts a complex racial hierarchy; Cajuns' "white" identity remains complicated to some degree because of popular notions of Cajuns as lower-class and, implicitly, less white in the minds of the wealthy landowners and their African American workers. As such, Gaines places the Cajun between the Creole landowners and the African American laborers. Situated socially between wealthy white and working-class African Americans, Gaines portrays Cajuns as possible racial intermediaries who can be manipulated by whites to control blacks but who present some hope of racial mediation between whites and blacks. Simultaneously, Gaines's African American protagonists not only realize their own individual worth in the midst of Louisiana's racial conflict, but also realize the individual humanity of their Cajun neighbors. This mutual understanding remains central to Gaines's ultimate message of racial mediation as the key to achieving human equality and true manhood.

In Louisiana, cultural and social categories are often complicated by the interdependence and overlapping of various racial communities that deny simple boundaries. Although geographically part of the Deep South, Louisiana includes its own unique racial and ethnic categories. As Barbara Ladd explains, "Prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, racial classification in the creole Deep South was much more complex than in the Anglo Upper South, where the status of a mixed-blood child followed that of the mother" (21). This difference extended from the fact that children of "European colonists and African women constituted a separate caste," as demonstrated by New Orleans's free persons of color population (21). Miscegenation complicated racial divisions and testified to their arbitrary nature all over the South, but Louisiana society included a legal and economic space for these intermediary figures, which further tested the boundaries of difference. In this complex categorization, the Cajuns also arose as racial intermediaries who fell between categories because of their history of difference and ridicule and because of their culturally-determined white identity.

One can better understand Louisiana's unique social stratification by defining certain terms, such as Creole and Cajun. Historically, Creole has shifted from referring to a person born in colonial Louisiana, regardless of race, to a racial signifier (Dormon, Creoles x). (1) While Creole has been used to refer to Louisiana colonists and to demarcate racial communities, Gaines uses the term as a class marker, referring to white landowners. He explains how "the big house" of the plantation was "owned by the Creoles," which in this context refers to the "white" population of Creole descendants who are in positions of social and economic power (Gaudet and Wooton 228). (2)

Cajuns present another example of social and cultural interdependence and complexity in Louisiana. Gaines explains that during his childhood the people of the quarters thought of a Cajun as "a white who would give them hell on False River.... And anytime there was a problem on the river, and because so many of the whites there were Cajun, it would always be 'that Cajun,' whether one them was involved or not" (Gaudet and Wooton 83). Although the definition of Cajun in Gaines's past generally included white, French-speaking people, the history of how Cajuns came to form an ethnic community in Louisiana is much more complicated. Following the 1755 expulsion from Acadia (current day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) by the British governor Charles Lawrence, many Acadians searched for a new homeland. …

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