Academic journal article African American Review

"'His Feet on Your Neck'": The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines

Academic journal article African American Review

"'His Feet on Your Neck'": The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines

Article excerpt

Central to the work of Ernest J. Gaines is the question of the place of religion in the lives of black people attempting to attain freedom. Although he rarely addresses religion explicitly, religion becomes a means through which Gaine's characters are defined or define themselves. While the religious motifs he uses tend to have their origins in Christianity, only in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a direct tie to Christianity dominant.

Previous studies of religiosity in Gaines's work have failed to plumb the depths of the topic. Audrey L. Vinson, for example, has observed of Jimmy's murder in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that "he is slain for his obedience to a duty which was conferred on him through spirit and intellect. Yet having made the sacrifice, he conferred subsequent social gains on the community" (37). The young men whose lives are sacrificed in Gaines's fiction are not simply Christ symbols; for Gaines to adopt this posture would be to acquiesce to the religion forced on the slaves. More complexly, Gaines is concerned with the personal test of religion; his characters reassess and reappropriate religion in order to accept it on their terms, not on terms imposed by the community and through institutional Christianity. For Ernest Gaines's characters, the Christian church exists as a system of white oppression, whereas the denial of the church and the rejuvenation of a personal and communal religion become parts of the route to freedom and the realization of self.

Gaines and his characters are creating a new text of religiosity that stands at an opposite pole from traditional Christianity. While I use the word text with some trepidation, the term serves to underscore the use of Christianity to codify a system of oppression, and it also provides a way to relate that codification to Gaines's new text, which expresses the divinity of the people and the Earth, not just of God and heaven.

The characters' creation of this text is complex and not altogether consistent. The first step seems to be an outright rejection of the church, and this is most obvious in the conftontations between several rebellious characters and church leaders. In "The Sky Is Gray," a young man in the dentist's office directly challenges a preacher regarding the existence of God: "'You believe in God because a man told you to believe in God,'" the boy says. "'A white man told you to believe in God. And why? To keep you ignorant so he can keep his feet on your neck'" (96). The preacher slaps the young man for his beliefs, recalling to a lesser degree the actions of European Christian missionaries attempting to bring their religion to non-European races, and in so doing he reveals himself to be a maintenance man for an oppressive system. Some critics may dismiss this episode because the young man becomes one of Gaines's most radical characters, tending his questioning of beliefs to the words he has been taught by white society, but Gaines does not pass judgment on the young man. In fact, others around him, such as the woman who laughs at him for saying "'The wind is pink'" (100), are made to seem iridiculous against his solemnity.

Reverend Jameson in A Gathering of Old Men is another religious figure who crumbles in the face of adversarial conditions. When the old men arrive to make their stand in support of Mathu and against Fix, Jameson implores them to give up: "'That's what y' all come here for?' he asked. 'To die? Y'all think that'll make up for all the hurt? That's what y'all think?'" (55). He is first ignored, but eventually confronted:

"Reverend Jameson, just shut up," Beulah said. "Just shut up. Nobody listening to you; so just shut up. Go on back home .... Nobody listening to you today."

"Maybe I ought to shoot him," Rooster said. "You think I ought to shoot him, Dirty Red?"

"No, let him slide," Dirty Red said. "He might change 'fore the shooting start. …

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