Black History Month: Ernest Gaines
OSCAR - The first printing press came to Louisiana through New Orleans more than 250 years ago in 1764. Since then, Louisiana writers, such as Kate Chopin and Grace King, have put the Cajun and Creole cultures into words but none told the story of people of color. That is until a black man from Pointe Coupee Parish put a pen to paper.
Louisiana author, Brandi Worley, has been a writer for about 10 years she has a book series called Crumbsnatchers.
“I didn't want to be a writer,” said Brandi Worley. “I wanted to be a reader,” she continued.
Nearly all of the characters in her books reflect her image, which resonates with people of color. Worley said, “they really haven’t seen a writer like me, someone who looks like them.”
She says she was inspired by a fellow Louisianian, Ernest J. Gaines.
“His work is set in Louisiana. He has southern characters, the scenery, the way he writes, the vernacular,” Worely said.
Ernest Gaines was born on a plantation in Oscar, Pointe Coupee Parish in 1933 at a tiny church. Gaines and others attended the only school for African-Americans.
“I was born here, stayed here, lived here until I was 15. It was because I could not go to a high school around here, in New Roads or Pointe Coupee," said Gaines.
At 15, he moved to California where his stepdad gave him only three options to stay busy.
“The movies, so I didn't have money for movies,” Gains continued. “I went to the YMCA, there I got in the boxing ring with a guy who beat me up, so I didn't want to go back there again, and I went to the library,” Gaines continued.
It was a new exciting place for a young Gaines with new adventures and lots to learn.
“I hadn’t been able to go to the library here, so I discovered books,” he said. “I just read and read and read,” he recalled.
After serving in the army, Gaines spent years at San Francisco State and Stanford, studying literature.
“It took me I would say 10 years of writing before I could publish a book,” he said of his time in California.
Gaines published his first book in 1956, and since then he has written some of the most influential writing in American literature like A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Some of his work have even made it to film. The success and response from the audience are all because he wrote stories that represented his own experience.
“There were not many books, not any books in this whole library about the black lives,” said Gaines. “I thought if I could write. All these books here were written by somebody, so I started writing,” he continued.
Based in rural Louisiana and sharing the black experience, Gaines had a theme central in his writings, "What is a man?"
“Because for a long time and still today, that white out there did not want me to even consider being a man. I was supposed to be second or a lower level than his position,” Gains said.
“Manhood is you're able to make decisions,” he explained. “You need education as well, but you need to make those decisions on your own,” he finished.
He has earned many awards, including the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2012. Since 2007, the Baton Rouge Foundation has been honoring aspiring, black writers with the Ernest J. Gaines award for literary excellence.
Although he is not writing right now, he and his wife are working to preserve the one-hundred-year-old church which now sits in their backyard with a simple hope for his audience.
“I just want people to, I hope- read. I don't want them to have to know about Ernest Gaines," he said.
For information on the Ernest Gaines and his writing, you can visit the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana-Laffayette or at the website https://ernestgaines.louisiana.edu/ .
You can find Brandi Worley's Crumbsnatchers at the EBR parish library and at www.crumbsnatchersbooks.com