Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview

Chapter Three

BEARING WITNESS
The Recent Fiction of Ernest Gaines

Just as Beloved offers both white enemies and white allies but sees black people as ultimately the key to their own survival, so A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying locate recovery in the African American community. Gaines's stories, however, take place much more in the public sphere. In each case, the law plays a central role in shaping the narrative, suggesting that notions of justice and legal practice are key to the African American experience. In both novels, the law represents the historical failure of the larger society in that racism contaminates claims of fairness and equality. At the same time, however, law provides the opportunity for personal and communal reclamation in that individuals and groups come to stand for and articulate the nation's violated ideals.

The narrative of A Gathering of Old Men is itself communal, made up of the voices, both black and white, of Gaines's mythic part of rural Louisiana. In a sense, all of the history presented also belongs to the community; it is its significance to individuals that is private. These individuals have been unable to speak their experience and, in their silence, have lost their sense of self-worth. In this sense, the author is refusing any sense of an erased past. Rather, he is concerned with the continuing effects of impotence and cowardice in the face of past (and present) oppression. This is a narrative concerned with the meaning of black manhood in a world hostile to its existence. Here, as elsewhere in his fictions, Gaines examines the challenges to such manhood, both external and internal. Unspeakable in this text, as opposed to the scenes of violence recovered in Beloved, are the moments of humiliation and frustration for the survivors. The purity of suffering that informs Morrison's narrative is not so evident here; while Gaines also catalogs the injustice and brutality of Southern experience and gives names and faces to the victims, their stories are not so

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