Academic journal article African American Review

Que(e)rying the Prison-House of Black Male Desire: Homosociality in Ernest Gaines's "Three Men"

Academic journal article African American Review

Que(e)rying the Prison-House of Black Male Desire: Homosociality in Ernest Gaines's "Three Men"

Article excerpt

Interviewer: [Critics] say Miss Jane Pittman is the greatest Black female character since Dilsey.

Gaines: (Laughter): Oh, yeah, Dilsey.

Interviewer:. Dilsey is nowhere compared to Miss Jane. You are much better at your Black people than Faulkner.

Gaines: Well, I hope I am. I hope I am.--John Lowe (132)

Gaines shares with Faulkner, as well, a valuing of the old ways, even a basic conservatism in matters other than racial change.--Fred Hobson (96)

A member of the pantheon of African American southern writers, Ernest Gaines hails from a region with such a fertile artistic tradition that one would assume that his subject matter would be inherited as his birthright. Southern literature critic Fred Hobson elevates him to the Olympus of southern literary arts and letters, beside such exalted figures as Faulkner and the New Critics: "For it is Gaines more than any other black Southerner who realizes in his fiction most of those qualities I have mentioned that were long assumed to be the domain of the white southern writer. Indeed, it is not overstating the case to contend that Gaines, in most respects, admirably fulfills [Donald] Davidson's autochthonous [native] ideal" (94). By aesthetic flat, Gaines has chronicled the life-scapes of a peculiar landscape that has countenanced peculiar institutions and queer things. Following the injunction of the patriarch of southern/American literary art, Gaines has unstintingly showcased the people and places that make up his Louisiana postage stamp. As with any southern writer worth his or her soil, Gaines showcases the grand southern themes: race, place, gender, honor, pride. His fiction reflects an abiding artistic concern: the evolution of black male subjects in a region historically committed to their devitalization if not outright annihilation. With the specter of Emmett Till and James Byrd lingering in the American and southern black consciousness, Ernest Gaines has almost obsessively made black male subjectivity within this inhospitable territory his artistic raison d'etre, one aim being to show that black male personhood and US southern culture are not inconsonant.

Gaines's dogged attempt to intervene upon the archetypal narrative of black southern male evisceration with his own revitalized portraitures is laudable but ultimately knotty. While many critics agree that "In his fiction, Ernest Gaines is interested not only in deconstructing stereotypes but also in presenting new models of southern manhood, for both black and white men" (Jones 30), I contend that his seemingly reconfigured male subjects retain the hallmarks of an atavistic masculine construction. Gaines's 1968 story "Three Men" is an ineluctably southern tale of black male sound and fury in which the author re-maps the protocols of black male desire while paradoxically championing some of the more odious dimensions of what Kaja Silverman has labeled the "dominant fiction of masculinity" (42), a narrative of unencumbered and unstinting phallocentrism, privilege, and power.

As he does in many of his narratives, Gaines situates black men in relation to each other, subverting standard discursive formations of black male subjects. To this end, he employs the trope of the prison, which ostensibly permits him to explore de rigueur issues related to male identity--violence, racism, sexual aggression. More importantly, however, his tropic prison animates explorations of what might be considered the interstices of black male identity. For instance, by fictivizing same-gender intimacy as part of a constellation of issues related to identity formation, Gaines writes against a "queer" orthodoxy that too often privileges sex as the sine qua non of male connectivity, often with the attendant elision of issues related to racialized or gendered components of identity. In effect, Gaines cannily disrupts a univocal narrative of same-sex desire, showing, for instance, that desire can involve male rituals such as storytelling and story-listening. …

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