"'His feet on your neck'": the new religion in the works of Ernest J. Gaines.
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." (56)
This is one of the first steps the old men take on their path to selfhood. Previously they traversed the graveyard of their ancestors, confronting then leaving behind their collective past. Now they face off against the leader of their church, who in this situation becomes a powerless figure to be derided.
Ned Douglass places himself in direct confrontation with the church in The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. Upon his reunion with Jane, he questions her as to what the preachers in the church have been teaching. "Was they teaching Mr. Booker T. Washington or was they teaching Mr. Frederick Douglass?" (100), Ned wonders, probing whether the church is propagating a system of oppression or helping the community to question its place in the slave quarters. When Ned dooms himself by "preaching" freedom, the institutional religious community ignores him out of fear and refuses to allow him to teach in any church. It remains for the people who follow him to convert his personal vision into something greater.
It is true that the achievement of a communal vision occurs in the works of Gaines only after some act of martyrdom. However, the martyr's accepting religion on their own terms precedes communal understanding. That is, the leap is from the personal to the communal, and it occurs outside of any sort of imposed religious or legal system. To demonstrate this in its different forms, I am going to focus on Jimmy, Ned, and Jane from Autobiogrgphy and Charlie Biggs from Gathering.(1) Vinson examines Jimmy and Charlie as "examples of crucifixion arche-types" (37), but the very idea of the crucifixion belongs to Christianity and serves to ground the characters in the very system they are attempting to overcome. In order to move beyond the bounds of institutionalized religion, the other characters must come to view the deaths not as another propagation and affirmation of the system, but as a means to achieve something different and more meaningful.
When the old men enter Mathu's shack at the end of Gathering, Mathu and Clatoo acknowledge their accomplishment in standing firm against the repressive forces and direct opposition they have always faced; this recognition is identified solely within the community of black men. Neither Candy nor any other white character sees their success, which implies that the realization of selfhood and manhood takes place when the community itself understands the men's achievement. Mathu says he is "'proud to be African'":
"'I been changed,'" he says. "'Not by that white man's God. I don't believe in that white man's God. I been changed by y'all Rooster, Clabber, Dirty Red, Coot - you changed this hardhearted old man'" (182). This final denial of "the white mar's God" is the last chain to be broken, the ultimate system to be overthrown. In doing so, the men not only achieve a fuller identity, but the truth about Beau Boutan's death can be revealed.
And Charlie's appearance seemingly from nowhere provides a multilayered revelation. On a basic level, the whole story of Beau's murder comes to light when Charlie returns to Mathu's home. Charlie explains that, at fifty years old, he no longer could tolerate the abuse of his white boss. Beau and Charlie fought, and Charlie sought refuge with Mathu, his parrain 'godfather.' Mathu pushes Charlie into manhood by giving him a gun to face Beau, and Charlie, confronted by a rifle-toting Beau, shoots and kills the white man.
More significantly, Charlie brings with him a new religion, a new text of gospel, born in his flight from Marshall. Charlie feels as if, running away through the swamps,
"... something there stopped me, too. something like a wall, a wall I couldn't see, but it stopped me every time. I fell on the ground and screamed and screamed. I bit in the ground. I got a handful of dirt and stuffed it in my mouth, trying to kill myself. Then I just laid there, laid there, laid there. Sometime' round sundowm - no, just 'fore sundown, I heard a voice calling my name. I laid there listening, listening, but I didn't heart it no more. But I knowed that voice was calling me back here." (192-93)
Lou Dimes, a white reporter narrating at this point, comments, "... there was something in his face that you see in faces of people who have just found religion" (193). This religion is found in the earth, in the ground with which Charlie fills his mouth. In the recognition of his having "'dropped a heavy load'" (193), of bearing his own burden, Charlie achieves a divinity in which he is baptized with earth and dirt, not water, like the river which is controlled by the Cajun farmers.
His divinity is also one of selfhood, something Charlie is unable to pass on himself. It is a triumph of the personal over the imposition of history When Dirty Red asks Charlie what be saw in the swamps, Charlie tells him, "'You seen it too, Dirty .... All of y'all seen it.' "Pressed further, all Charlie win say is that"'you got it, Dirty .... You already got it, partner'" (208). When Charlie dies, the community attempts to get from Charlie what they do not have and what nothing else can provide. Dirty Red says,
I leaned over and touched him, hoping that some of that stuff he had found back there in the swamps might rub off on me. After I touched him, the rest of the men did the same. Then the women, even Candy. Then Glo told her grandchildren they must touch him, too. (209-10)
While I will not presume to explain with any sort of definitiveness the poignant indeterminacy of this moment, perhaps in touching him they too attained a recognition of self as a part of their own culture. Only in seeing one man take on the consequences of completely owning his identity - Charlie goes from coward to namer to leader to martyr within the course of a single day - are the people on Marshall able to complete their movement to self-realization, the process of which also overthrows the shaddes of any religious beliefs they themselves do not wish.
To take this one step further, the black people of the Marshall quarters complete a conversion begun with the alienation of Reverend Jameson from the community. This process continues through the denial of the white god and reaches its culmination with the raising of Charlie to martyrdom. As a consequence, a new, communal religion is forged.
Ned Douglass in Autobiography comes to be deified in a similar way. Like Charlie Biggs, Ned's speech asserting self-identity for his people is given the label of a spiritual experience, a "sermon," but the sermon contains no references or supplications to the Christian God. What Ned does instead is to ask the people to move beyond the heavenly, he calls for an earthly religion. "'This earth is yours ...,'" he says. "'It's yours because your people's bones lay in it; it's yours because their sweat and their blood done drenched this earth'" (107). For Ned's congregation, Christianity is a religion which does not admit the earthly; it looks forward to the afterlife instead of looking for sanctity in the earth. The scene just after Ned's death presages the scene in Gathering in which the people touch Charlie. Shot by Albert Cluveau, Ned's bloody body is placed atop the wagonload of wood he was bringing to help build a school:
When the people heard the news they started crying. The ones living side the road followed the wagon to the house.... They ran up to the wagon when it stopped at the gate. They wanted to touch his body, they wanted to take it inside. The road was full people coming from everywhere. They wanted to touch his body. When they couldn't touch his body they took lumber from the wagon. They wanted a piece of lumber with his blood on it. (116)
The lumber is not sanctified in any way, except by Ned's blood. Significantly, this scene is not hard to compare to funerals of Islamic holy men, where mourners touch the body or the casket in the belief that the touch will give strength and power and holiness; the implications of this suggest that Ned receives his true divinity outside of the church which had forsaken him. Ned's death, however, does not bring about a new age, and it does not imbue Jane with any additional strength. She eventually retreats into Christinity.
Jane's religious conversion has been seen by most critics as a joyous occasion, but Gaines craftily words the scene in such a way as to cast doubt on the reverie of the experience.
I had a load of bricks on my shoulders and I wanted to drop it but I couldn't. It was weighing me down and weighing me down, but I couldn't let go of the sack. Then a white man with long yellow hair-hair shining like the sun - came up to me. (He had on a long white robe, too.) He came up to me and said, "Jane, you want get rid of that load?" I said, "Indeed, indeed. But how come you know me? Can you be the Lord?" He said, "To get rid of that load and be rid of it always, you must take it 'cross yon river." (136)
Further in the episode, Jane tells the Devil that" ... the White Man told me to cross yon river with the sack" (137). Taken out of context, the line would seem to imply a type of slavery, indeed, it may recall the description of the white men on the river watching Ned give his sermon. Jane cannot be truly free if her God is the white God she has been taught exists. Albert Wertheim describes this passage as reflecting Jane's "freedom of the soul" (230), yet if her spiritual freedom requires a white overseer, it is a dubious freedom at best.
However, as Jane ages, she is not a good churchgoer, she skips church to hear Jackie Robinson play, and at one point she is accused of not being faithful by Just Thomas, the head deacon, who asks her, "'When the last time you got down on them bending knees?'" (225). Thus, Jane's religious "travel" are a way of reappropriating the institution to fit her personal needs, they cast a brighter light on the efforts of Ned and Jimmy, who must achieve freedom of both soul and body outside the church.
A positive aspect of Jane's conversion is that she "finds 'ligion" in her own way; she does not simply conform to what her friends believe. On the other hand, Jimmy's conversion is forced on him so that he can meet the Christian expectations of the community: All the people in the quarters believe he is "the One," the person who will lead them on the road to spiritual and physical freedom. The community "wanted him to get religion that summer he was twelve. [His mother] made him go to prayer meeting every night, ... and every night they prayed over him" (211). The people in the quarters have all lived under and conformed to Christianity and are attempting to impose the same system on Jimmy. But if Jimmy truly is "the One," then he cannot be held to the same laws, he cannot turn to religion. Even Jimmy's presumed conversion is presented by Jane so dryly that it rings false. He cannot find religion and be the One within the text of Christianity. Rather, he must create his own text, his own testament.
Once again, this testament cannot be completed until be is dead. Shortly before his death, Jimmy comes to church to speak, and just Thomas attempts to portray him as a devil, an anti-Christ, because he no longer attends the Christian church: "'That's what happen when the devil walk in .... Good Christians fight'" (224). However, Jimmy tells the congregation that they have the strength of a "'Christian people'" and adds, "'I left the churck but that don't mean I left my people'" (225). Eder Banks, the church leader, draws a fine but distinct line between the actions of the church and the actions of the people as a separate community when he tells Jimmy, "'... I can't tell my church to go with you. If they want to go, it's up to them'" (226). And Jimmy affirms that line with his final words at the church:
"You mentioned you have an old church ... because you want me to see your way of life. Now, I mentioned what we have, because I want you to see our way of life. And that's the kind of life the young will feel from now on. Not your way, not no more. But we still need your strength, we need your prayers, we need you to stand by us, because we have no other roots. I doubt if I expected you to understand me this time. But I'm coming back. I know we can't do a thing in the world without you - and I'm coming back."
He told us he was sony he had disturbed our church, and he walked out. (227)
This speech illustrates Jimmy's recognition of the duality of a church with both repressive and strength-giving qualities. The old church is comfortable in its old ways, and Jimmy is attempting to provide an alternative to these complacent traditions, to demonstrate that spiritual freedom has to be tied to earthly freedom in order to legitimize freedom. The old church cannot provide the means for this, so a new type of religion is necessary, one that is based on the strength of prayers, but is able to see below the heavens to the earth that Ned previously tied to the people. Jimmy apologizes for "disturbing the church" out of respect, but his intention was disruption as a means to dispose of the old text of their lives, especially the part of the text which is tied to the church. Jimmy, in the end, is able to see this because he is outside the religion. Recognition by the old people comes too late to help Jimmy. During his next visit to the church, the congregation will walk away rather than listen, clinging to their centuries-old text.
In the wake of Jimmy's death, the old people of the quarters come to support his ideas. Jane says the area is "quiet the way it is on Sunday nights when you don't have church" (242-43), tying the effort to achieve selfhood to the absence of the church. Jimmy's death "is the germ that has fallen like a new religion into the hearts of some of the older people especially, and among them Jane Pittmman" (Ensslen 151), who perhaps has the strength because of her ability to see religion as something that exists outside the church. She may be a strong believer in a Christian God, but she does not feel bound by the laws of the church; her triumph is in the acknowledgment of both texts - and finally moving past the owner of the quarters to embrace the new text.
The Christ connection between the three fallen figures discussed here is impossible to deny. But it is a mistake to see that connection as a continuation or reaffirmation of Christianity. Instead, Gaines is indicating that the appearance of a new Christ means the dawn of a new religion, a reappropriation of religion on the terms of the black characters, not a revisiting of the repressive system of Christianity that has been forced on them. Christianity for the older characters promises hope for the afterlife in opposition to the constant suffering of the earth. Ned and Charlie make direct connections between the earth and the people, and, along with Jimmy, create the conditions whereby some of their people move into a religion of both heaven and earth.
Relatedly, the characters that do make the move to the heaven/earth conjunction have placed their institutions under scrutiny, testing whether the ideal of the institution of religion conforms to the needs of a people living under a system of oppression. When this personal test is complete, certain characters, such as Jane, are able to define themselves within the institution, while the other characters seek to redefine the institution on the personal level. Because Charlie, Ned, Jimmy, and Mathu are able to reappropriate the most personal of institutions, religion, they are able to succeed in overthrowing all the system of oppression. Christianity, represented by the white man's God, is not seen as a legitimate spiritual basis for these characters. Gaines's rebellious characters seek to rewrite the text of religiosity on the basis of personal revelation in order to further the redefinition at a communal level. The sanctity of that individual and of the idea of self-realization through the new text is found in the community and the communal process. The sanctification of the community on these personal and earthly terms is revealed in the scenes where the people touch the fallen Charlie and Ned; the touch is the direct communication and acceptance of the new religiosity, one that is outside of law or system.
On a deeper level, Gaines's characters are creating their new religion as a reconnection with African cultural identity. When the connection to the earth is achieved, the characters discussed here hearken back to the religion and culture which was denied them for centuries. Perhaps that is what Charlie Biggs finds in the dirt - a revelation of culture whick, as he says, all the characters "'got it.'" The discovery and embrace of the cultural identity within the religious context provide the most meaningful establishment of new identity. For Ernest J. Gaines's characters, the greatest leaps forward are instigated by the inward search for the old - self and culture and community - which can create the new.
(1) I have deliberately excluded Phillip Martin of In My Father's House from the discussion here. Martin is a Baptist preacher who is shaken by the return of his abandoned son. Christianity, for Martin, is a retreat from his true past his suppressed and denied past. In the end, Martin is left to recreate himself with the complete knowledge of that past and, indeed, the past of African America. While the failure to Christianity to compensate for Martin's character flaws is related to this discussion, Gaines does not have Martin pass his own revelations on to the community in the same way Charlie, Ned, and Jimmy do.
Ensslen, Klaus. "History and Fiction in Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." History and Tradition in Afro-American Ed. Gunter H. Lenz. Frankfurt: Campus, 1984. 147-66. Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. 1971. New York: Bantam, 1972. --. A Gathering of Old Men. 1983. New York: Vintage, 1984. --. "The Sky Is Gray." 1968. Bloodline. New York: Norton, 1976. 83-120. Vinson, Audrey L. "The Deliverers: Ernest J. Gaines's Sacrificial Lambs." Obsidian II 2 (1987): 34-48. Wertheim, Albert. "Journey to Freedom: Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitt-man." The Afro-American Novel since 1960. Ed. Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: Gruner, 1982. 219-36.
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|Title Annotation:||Black South Fiction, Art, Culture|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1993|
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