Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

(Re)Claiming Legacy in the Post-Civil Rights South in Richard Wright's "Down by the Riverside" and Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

(Re)Claiming Legacy in the Post-Civil Rights South in Richard Wright's "Down by the Riverside" and Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men

Article excerpt

In Mark Arax's 2004 Los Angeles Times article "In a Reverse Migration, Blacks Head South," he informs us that the urban northern and western destinations of African Americans from 1910 to 1970, what we refer to as The Great Migrations, have been undergoing a "full scale reversal" as African Americans began "retracing steps to a place their families once fled--the South" (A1). The spike in the southern black population--an increase of 3.6 million during the 1990s--coincided with the changing ethnic demographics in areas to which African Americans traditionally moved in opposition to the Jim Crow South. Therefore, with the appearance of cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Memphis as black "Meccas," as DeWayne Wickham points out, "the South has emerged as the leading source of economic opportunity for black businesses and fertile ground for black politicians" (A13). The realignment that the Civil Rights Movement engineered resulted in a southern transformation that could not overtly and legally deny the rights and humanity of African Americans. Yet in a landscape that maintains a deep connection to its traditions and legacy, African Americans still find themselves, at times, erased from the mythic construction of the South and marginalized in material areas of social and political power. In addition to its role in the conservative counterrevolution of the 1980s and 1990s, a litany of recent events in the South--specifically the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, the punitive indictments of six African American boys in Jena, Louisiana, and the federal government's belated response during Hurricane Katrina--have reinforced ideas of the South as a site in which African Americans still remain an incredibly vulnerable populace.

The depiction of the South as a dangerous (and at times nightmarish) space for African Americans has an extensive history in African American literature. Richard Wright's 1938 collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children, for example, depicts southern African Americans struggling to achieve agency in an unforgiving, violent Jim Crow South, a struggle buoyed by contemporaneous events like the trial of the Scottsboro boys and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Wright's second story in the collection, "Down by the Riverside," also points to the future by forecasting the pervasive instances of white supremacy that accompanied the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, from the governmental response to the mostly black poor to the media construction of black "looters" and "refugees." Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men presents a late 1970s South that directly contradicts the idea of a rapidly changing nation after the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s. In Gaines's novel, we are witness to a world that has barely changed from the world of the 1940s that Gaines captures in works like Of Love and Dust (1968) and A Lesson Before Dying (1993). Wright and Gaines are part of a larger literary tradition that, as Anissa Wardi claims in Death and the Arc of Mourning in African American Literature, "bears witness to the truncated narratives of the Middle Passage, the brutal practices of slavery, and the paradoxical configuration of the South through myth and memory" (28). Instead of merely bearing witness, the African Americans in Gaines's south Louisiana community assert a collective subjectivity that foreshadows the significance of black political, social, and economic life in rewriting the southern racial narrative and myth that has marginalized or erased the legacy of African Americans.

Jerry Ward claims that "in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the flooding of New Orleans, 'Down by the Riverside' speaks to much more than the Flood of 1927" (347). Similarly, the return of African Americans to the South leads us to view A Gathering of Old Men not only as the site of a final battle in the Civil Rights Movement, but as a potentially regenerative space for a more inclusive, restructured South. …

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