The Sky is Gray
The Sky is Gray
Ernest J. Gaines 1963
Ernest J. Gaines was thirty in 1963, the year in which “The Sky is Gray” was first published, but it was not until five years later, in 1968, that the story was published as the second story in Bloodline, the thematically interwoven collection with which readers associate it today. Written during the most turbulent years of the Civil Rights movement, the stories in Bloodline describe a less turbulent but perhaps even more racially raw period: Louisiana in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“The Sky is Gray” contains many of the themes and images Gaines returns to again and again in his work: themes of personal responsibility, grace under pressure, and moral behavior; images of strong mothers, mysteriously absent fathers, and families in which love is expressed more often in harsh words or silence than in overt praise or affection. Supporting these ideas is Gaines’s keen awareness of the all-pervasive and profoundly formative influence of race on virtually every aspect of life in the rural South of this era. Though he would no doubt take issue with the South being described as a singular place and would certainly argue that it is many places, each different, each having unique gifts of nature and people, each facing unique challenges, he would just as surely agree with W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous observation, in the “Forethought” of The Souls of Black Folk, that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” for it is this “color line” in all of its manifestations that his work so carefully documents.
Ernest J. Gaines was born on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, a hamlet of Pointe Coupee Parish in rural Louisiana. He was the first of twelve siblings, seven by his father Manuel, five by his mother Adrianne’s second husband, Ralph. His father left his mother when Gaines was a small boy, forcing his mother to move to New Orleans to find work. Gaines was left in the care of his great aunt, Augustine Jefferson, a woman he preferred to call his aunt and whom he considered one of the most powerful influences on the formation of his character. The experiences of his early years, particularly the experience of paternal abandonment, provided the bedrock on which his fiction would later be built.
In 1948, at the age of fifteen, Gaines moved to Vallejo, California, to join his mother and stepfather, because there were no high schools for blacks near his home. Ralph was strict about the kinds of children he would allow Gaines to befriend; because of his stepfather’s insistence that most of the local children were trouble, Gaines turned to the local public library for entertainment and solace—an institution that had been closed to him in Louisiana because he was black. There he developed a keen interest in reading, and he wrote his first novel the next year; on news of its rejection, he destroyed the only manuscript copy he possessed.
After graduating from high school, Gaines attended Vallejo Junior College, did a stint in the Army, and then returned to the Bay Area to take a degree from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). With his degree in hand, Gaines won the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship for Graduate Work which allowed him to begin work in Stanford’s Creative Writing program, the first of many fellowships he has received. Other awards he has received include the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Study Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant-in-Aid, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and honorary doctorates from Denison University, Brown University, Bard College, Whittier College, and Louisiana State University.
His publication record is not extensive, but his works have been well received. His first bona-fide publications—“The Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit” and “The Turtles”—were published in San Francisco State College’s Transfer magazine in 1956. Subsequent publications included the short stories “A Long Day in November” (1959), “Just Like a Tree” (1962), and “The Sky is Gray” (1963), and the novels Catherine Carmier (1964), Of Love and Dust (1967), Bloodline (1968), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978) A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993).
The action in “The Sky is Gray” is broken up into thirteen short sections which describe a half day or so in the life of James, an eight-year-old black boy in the rural South of the late 1930s. The story begins with James and his mother waiting, on a painfully cold morning, for the arrival of a bus which will take them to nearby Bayonne. As they wait, his mother thinks about home—about his aunt, the other children, the farm animals and the weather—the narrative follows James’s thoughts back to the origins of his toothache.
Not wanting to be a “crybaby” and knowing well that his mother cannot afford a trip to the dentist, James recalls his efforts to disguise his pain from the rest of his family. But this state of affairs does not last—his Auntie soon discovers that his tooth is rotten. When aspirin fails to work, Auntie wants to tell James’s mother; James convinces her not to, so they turn instead to a neighbor, Monsieur Bayonne, for a prayer cure. But this cure fails, too. The scene in which James’s mother is told—or discovers—that her son must go to the dentist is skipped over, but the family’s poverty, and the comparatively huge cost of having the tooth pulled, is not. James’s mother talks at length about how much it will cost while James pretends to sleep.
James’s thoughts then turn to the memory of two redbirds he and his brother, Ty, had trapped, and to his mother’s inexplicable insistence that he kill them and her equally inexplicable fury when he couldn’t. Only now, in the narrative present, as an “almost eight” year-old boy, can James understand why she forced him to do this. She was preparing him to take care of himself in case she had to go away like his father did.
The bus arrives and, while his mother pays, James moves to the back of the bus, where the blacks are made to sit. James soon finds himself walking through the cold of Bayonne. After a long walk, they finally arrive at the dentist’s office, which is already full of people waiting to be treated. A woman tries to engage James’s mother in conversation, but a man James takes to be a preacher joins in instead. The woman wonders why the Lord allows people to suffer, saying that she doesn’t understand it, but the preacher concludes that it’s something no human can understand. This comment incites a young man—a teacher, James thinks, or a student—to join in. Shortly thereafter the nurse enters the room and announces that the doctor will not treat anyone until one o’clock.
With nowhere to go, and no money to buy anything, James and his mother have no choice but to walk, aimlessly, until the doctor’s office opens again. They briefly duck into a hardware store to warm up, but must soon leave. With more than an hour to go before the doctor’s office will reopen and sleet starting to fall, James’s mother decides to spend their bus money on something to eat and walk home. Eventually they are stopped by an old white lady named Helena who has watched them each time they passed by. She insists that they come inside while she calls the dentist to tell him that they are coming. She offers them food, but though James is hungry, his mother will not accept any charity, so Helena has James move some empty trash cans to the street as a face-saving gesture for his mother.
Their meal finished, James and his mother thank the woman for her hospitality. James’s mother opens the door to exit, but turns and asks for twenty-five cents worth of salt meat. Helena tries to give them a larger piece, but James’s mother insists on an accurate measure. On the street again, James turns his collar up to keep his neck warm; his mother tells him not to, because only bums turn their collars up, and he is not a bum, he is a man.
On one hand, Alnest is little more than an offstage voice, the voice of an old man cautioning Helena, his wife, against the cold. On the other, he is one of only two sympathetic white characters in Gaines’s story (Helena is the other). Though the motivation for their careful charity is not described, it is ultimately accepted, the suggestion being that
whatever their motivation may be, their small generosity will only be accepted as kindness, not as charity.
Like James and James’s mother, the source for James’s aunt is drawn from Gaines’s own experience, modeled after his own great aunt, Augustine Jefferson. Though her presence in “The Sky is Gray” is minimal, Augustine’s presence in Gaines’s life can hardly be overstated: “Unless you include her,” he says, “you can’t write about me at all.”
Kept completely offstage except for his terrifying effect on Little John Lee, who screams bloody murder on receipt of his dental ministrations, Dr. Basset exists in the narrative not for what he is, but for what he isn’t—Dr. Robillard, the good dentist who takes care of the teeth of Bayonne’s whites.
Monsieur Bayonne at the story’s beginning is the superstitious complement to the preacher in the middle section. He is a sincerely religious faith healer/musician, but his religion is heavily tinged
with superstition. For example, he believes that Catholic and non-Catholic prayers heal differently, but one suspects that the distinction between the two would be lost on the clergy of both Catholic and Protestant faiths. Based on Gaines’ own experience, the character of Monsieur Bayonne is a mildly unsympathetic but still dangerous figure—though he acts without malice, his actions keep James from a dentist for several days.
See The Student
A strong offstage presence, James’s father is most profound in his absence. It is because of his absence that Octavia’s moral teachings are both so important and so urgently imparted.
Alnest’s wife, Helena is the story’s other sympathetic white figure. But she is important for another reason besides her human decency: it is paradoxically her kind gesture that represents the greatest potential threat to James’s manhood, at least in his mother’s eyes.
The story’s protagonist, or main character, James is a young boy of about eight who lives with his mother, aunt, and their immediate family in the outskirts of Bayonne, Louisiana. It is through James’s eyes that the story is told; consequently, the story is heavily filtered through his sensibilities. James is on the cusp between youth and adolescence, trying to understand what is expected of him by his inscrutable mother as he enters this next phase of his life.
James’s mother Octavia is a strong, proud, uncompromising woman largely based on Gaines’s own mother. Indeed, one of the story’s more disturbing episodes, during which his mother tries to make James kill two captured birds, is drawn from Gaines’s own experience. She feels her first duty to her children is to toughen them up and show them how to live and survive. She loves her children, but more important to her than any visible demonstrations of affection are the moral lessons she insists upon teaching James.
The old lady
The old man
Like Monsieur Bayonne, the Preacher is little more than a foil—he exists only to become angered by the student on behalf of the other people in the dentist’s office, to strike him on their behalf, and to pity him.
The student, or the boy, is somewhat out of place in this story, but was certainly not out of place at the time the story was written. Like the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the student is profoundly alienated from his community. In the microcosm of black society represented by the dentist’s office that morning, he offers an indictment of religion and of its opiate-like effect on the downtrodden that Gaines himself seems to share.
Change and Transformation
The overarching theme in this story is change and transformation. In physical terms, there is motion from one pole to its opposite: from warm, to cold, to warm again; from beyond the outskirts of Bayonne to the city and back again; from the doctor’s office to the street, and to the office again, and so on. From a larger, more global viewpoint, these motions support and underscore James’s own transformation. James, who begins the story as a boy more conscious of his feelings and inner life than of the world in which he lives, moves far along the path toward understanding the moral complexity
Topics for Further Study
- Why did James’s mother think it was important for him to kill the songbirds? Look up the phrase “rite of passage.” Does James’s situation fit the definition?
- What is the allegorical meaning of the student turning the other cheek when the preacher hits him? Why does he later say that grass is black?
- Investigate the relationship between the Civil Rights movement in America and the anti-Apartheid movement in Africa. Are the two related? How?
of adulthood and of being “a man” in the course of the single day.
Though the events in this story take place well before what is commonly called the Civil Rights era, one cannot read “The Sky is Gray” without a keen awareness that the writer is writing at the historical moment during which the Civil Rights movement exploded onto the national stage and that, surprisingly, given this context, the story somehow manages to describe but not to overplay the protagonists’ suffering in terms of prejudice and inequality. While the prejudice James and his mother encounter is real and unarguable, the response of James’s mother presages the essence of Martin Luther King’s message that salvation begins in the person of the oppressed, not the oppressor.
Only slightly less prominent than the theme of Civil Rights is class inequality. While many argue that the difference between races is less substantive than the difference between the classes, class inequality clearly takes a back seat to racial inequality in Gaines’s fiction. While James and his mother would certainly have had an easier day if they had had enough money to own a car—to drive to the dentist’s office, to perhaps stop and do some shopping and have lunch on the way, perhaps even to see Dr. Robillard instead of Dr. Bassett—the simple fact remains that to do so, they would have had to be not only financially comfortable, but also white.
Coming of Age
“The Sky is Gray” is fundamentally a story about the process of coming of age, of going from one state to another. The reader only sees a small part of this process, a few hours one morning, a few more that afternoon, but these hours are important: they form some of the bedrock upon which the foundation of James’s manhood—his sense of personal dignity and worth, as well as courage and silence in difficulty—will be built. Gaines creates these moments with sufficient force and clarity both to explain his protagonist’s past and to anticipate his future.
God and Religion; Knowledge and Ignorance
In thematic terms, two of the most important sections in the story—sections seven and eight—explore the relationship between God, religion, knowledge, and ignorance. On one side is a heretical young black student who has not only renounced his religious beliefs but argues that “words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored” are meaningless.
“Words,” he says, “mean nothing. One means nothing more than the other. . . . Action is the only thing. Doing. That’s the thing.” In the communal microcosm of the doctor’s office he represents the defiance, the nonviolent non-cooperation of the Civil Rights movement that would sweep through the South thirty years later. In Gaines’s words, describing the type of person he depicts in the student to Carl Wooton in an interview reprinted in Porch Talk: “you will have this rebellion against authority. You have these kids, you know: I’ll stick a goddamned needle in my arm, I’ll sniff coke, to hell with anybody telling me what to do. Can I get a job tomorrow? Can I live here tomorrow? Well, if I can’t, to hell with it. I’ll take coke, or I’ll use any kind of profanity, I don’t give a damn.” On the other side are the preacher and the other woman the young man speaks to after the preacher departs. They are unwilling, or unable, to follow his line of reasoning, for to accept that the signification of green or black has no intrinsic relationship to a Platonic ideal of green or black, but signifies by consensus only, comes perilously close to accepting that the other words about which the young man seems to care even more than God—freedom and liberty—are empty of meaning unless they signify the same thing to speakers both black and white.
Point of View
“The Sky is Gray” is told entirely from the point of view of the eight-year old narrator, James. Consequently, the reader is limited to what James observes and understands. Though he can accurately recall the words of the student in the dentist’s office that lead up to the student being hit by the preacher, he cannot understand the argument in which they are engaged (“She just looks at him like she don’t know what he’s talking ‘bout. I know I don’t.”). The limitations imposed on the narrative by an eight-year-old narrator are more obvious when he tries, unsuccessfully, to understand his mother’s frequent mood changes or her mysterious decisions to fight or flee at each of the stations of mood the narrative visits.
But what the narrative loses from one hand it gains in the other. James is sympathetic without being an object of sympathy; the reader feels his cold, his confusion, his hunger directly, authentically, without the intrusion of another character or narrator’s impressions or observations. And when, at the story’s conclusion, his mother pronounces him a man, the reader who has been inside James’s subjective world can take measure of both how far he still is from manhood and of what he has learned from the lessons meant to take him the rest of the way there.
“The Sky is Gray” is episodic in form—that is, the story is not told as a sequence of events, but as a sequence of events punctuated by narrative flashbacks and broken up into numbered segments. The effect of the story’s episodic discontinuity is to emphasize the particular moment James is living, whether he is reliving a memory or moving through present events, while de-emphasizing the story’s overarching structure. The advantages of episodic form, when relating the experiences of a young boy, are obvious, and have been used with great success in works as different as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The greatest advantage of an episodic form is that it allows the author to follow the protagonist, or main character, from one important event to another without recording all the unimportant events in between. This is particularly useful in a story limited by the narrative point of view to the description of a young person’s inner life.
“The Sky is Gray” is a bildungsroman, a story describing the growth of a child into adulthood. Of course, the reader doesn’t follow James all the way from childhood into adulthood, but the central premise of bildungsroman is that the reader watches the protagonist go from innocence to experience—in this case, from being a child whose primary interest is in staying warm and well-fed to a youth who has the first glimmerings of pride in himself and awareness of an important and external reality: that others will judge him not by what he is, but by how he appears to be. In this transformation, as he puts his collar down, the reader has taken a small but important step with James from childhood to adulthood.
Race and Rights
Gaines’s story is meant as more than an entertainment; it is meant as a critique of the racial injustice he experienced as a boy made vivid again by a visit to Louisiana in 1968. Understanding “The Sky is Gray” requires that one not only understand something about the Louisiana of the 1930s and 1940s but also understand what was happening with regard to race in the United States during the 1960s, because the events of what later came to be called “the Civil Rights era” made a substantial and lasting impression on Gaines, one that can be seen not too far beneath the surface of “The Sky is Gray” in the person of the student and in the story’s preoccupation with racial inequality.
While precisely dating the start of an era is difficult, most agree that the beginning of the Civil Rights era can be dated to John F. Kennedy’s election in 1961 as this country’s 35th and youngest President, and with the United Nation’s decision that same year to condemn the South African apartheid. Two years later, in 1963, the conflicts began in earnest, with riots and acts of racial brutality against demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, culminating with Martin Luther King’s being jailed in Birmingham. In response, later that year, 200,000 Americans, black and white, joined together in a “freedom march on Washington” to demonstrate. But the American consciousness was jolted away from these events by Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, and by events abroad, principal among these being the escalation of what would become the Viet Nam war.
It is important to recall that the Civil Rights era coincided with the casting off of imperial control by a series of African countries. In 1964, for example, Zanzibar and Tanganyika came together to form Tanzania, expelling a sultinate, while Zambia was formed out of Northern Rhodesia’s ashes by Kenneth Kaunda the same year that Kenya became a republic under Jomo Kenyatta. Also in 1964, a white minority in Southern Rhodesia elected as Premiere, Ian Smith, under whose leadership Rhodesia managed to postpone representative government for another two decades. Overall, however, the move away from colonial entanglements was stronger than the ties that bound African countries to their colonial powers, and the move toward home rule was unstoppable. This did not go unnoticed in the United States, particularly among black leaders who read with interest books like Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya.
In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York and outbreaks of anti-black violence occurred in Selma, Alabama, including Ku Klux Klan shootings and Martin Luther King leading a procession of 4,000 in a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. In Los Angeles, race riots in Watts resulted in 35 deaths, the arrest of 4,000, and $40 million in property damage. In 1968, the same year that Gaines’s Bloodline was published, Reverend Martin Luther King himself was assassinated in a Memphis hotel.
Critics have been kind to Gaines, but his reputation has not risen with such meteoric speed as have the reputations of some of the other contemporary black writers of his generation. In the introduction to Ernest Gaines, Valerie Babb’s biography of Gaines through the lens of his work, Babb writes, “taken as a whole, Gaines’s canon represents a blending of Louisiana, African-American, and universal human experience. His writings reproduce the communal nature of storytelling in his rural parish while accenting the historicity that joins members of the African-American diaspora to larger American society. By recording and preserving his people’s culture in his literature, Gaines creates both an ongoing memorial to a vanishing way of life and an enduring testament to human concerns.”
Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton share many of Babb’s observations, particularly with regard to the importance of dignity under strain and courage. In their introduction to Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft they write: “Gaines’s characters evoke laughter, joy, despair, grief, anger, sympathy, and—perhaps most of all—pride. Whatever their struggles, their successes and failures, they move toward a perception of their dignity.” Describing the events that led to the set of oral interviews which comprise Porch Talk they write “through our association with him we have discovered that dignity and pride are not only themes that pervade his art, but qualities that characterize him as a teacher and a man.”
John Lowe, editor of Conversations with Ernest Gaines provides a somewhat more rounded, though still uniformly laudatory, response to Gaines’s works. He states that Gaines was “shockingly underrated” at the beginning of his career. Some of the reasons for what Lowe considers the unfair “obscur[ity of] Gaines gifts” are that Gaines writes about “a largely rural community, isolated by both its southernness and its special Louisiana qualities, which it is true make it exotic, but at the same time somewhat inaccessible, even for many African Americans.” Another reason Lowe cites for Gaines neglect “is his refusal to cater to stereotypes.” He states that although people expect stories set in Louisiana to take place in New Orleans, Gaines has never set one there. And since his stories are set in the past, his African-American characters appear subservient and are not placed in the “revolutionary poses favored by some of Gaines’s contemporaries such as James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, John O. Killins, John Wideman, or David Bradley.”
In sum, while Gaines may not have had the wide recognition of other African-American writers early in his career, there is a broad critical consensus that he is an important writer, a good writer, and a writer who has perhaps been undervalued and may continue to gain increasing recognition in the years to come, in part because he was somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries during his early years, in part because of the increasing importance of studies of masculinity in the literary canon. As Gaudet and Wooton point out, “Gaines has come to the fore in many critical studies lately because of his searching appraisal of the masculine search for identity, particularly that of African-American men.”
David Y. Kippen
David Kippen is a doctoral candidate in world literature with an emphasis on the literature of southern Africa. In the following essay, Kippen explores the implications of a moral reading of Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray.”
Though Gaines’s works invite a wide number of readings, almost all current criticism can be divided into one of two broad categories: race-centered criticism, concerned primarily with the story’s instructive value about such things as prejudice and injustice, and structural criticism, which describes the parts of the story and their relation to the whole in formal, rather than thematic, terms. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of critiques fall into the first camp, and even the structural readings include didactic (instructive) digressions in almost every case. Such readings all share a serious, albeit unintentional, flaw; they suggest that one must understand all actions and most events as direct or indirect consequences of race, rather than individual choice. The drawback to what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, “race-based” readings may not be immediately obvious, but isn’t terribly complicated. Reading Gaines first, foremost, always, and only as a black author, an author of race and race issues, rather than primarily as an imaginative author, an author of ideas, delimits the kinds of questions one can ask about his works and necessarily diminishes the reader’s appreciation of the imaginative sphere in which he works. In short, the unfortunate consequence of exclusively race-based readings is that they narrow the reader’s scope of inquiry, inviting the reader to ask fewer questions and questions of a more particular nature than one would ask of an author like James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, or J. M. Coetzee—each of whose writings are intimately concerned with different conceptions of “race” and their ramifications. Though it is indeed difficult, particularly for Americans, to step far enough back from the late 20th century American present to see the world Gaines describes with the same dispassionate clarity as one might see the Ireland, India, or South Africa that Joyce, Rushdie, and Coetzee respectively describe, nothing is lost—and much is gained—if one makes the effort. In short, what is
What Do I Read Next?
- W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk is one of the masterworks of 20th century literature, a collection of essays as powerful today as it was nearly a century ago, in 1903, when it was first published. Du Bois begins with the simple observation that what he calls the “color line” is the single greatest problem facing this country. His essays move from history through sociology to spirituality in search of the authentic black soul.
- Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom recounts the twenty-seven years he spent in jail as a result of his anti-apartheid work leading Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress, and South Africa’s peaceful transition to majority rule in 1994.
- Ivan Turgenev’s “The District Doctor.” Gaines himself cites Ivan Turgenev as one of his more important literary sources, saying that he learned form from Turgenev. “I was very much impressed, not only with form, but with how [the Russians] used their peasantry, how they used their serfs.”
- William Faulkner’s Light in August is well-known for its descriptions of the South. Gaines credits reading Faulkner with teaching him about dialogue, “especially when we’re dealing with our southern dialects.” Most of Faulkner’s works require a serious commitment from their reader, but all are worth the effort.
- Ernest Gaines’s Bloodline, the collection from which “The Sky is Gray” is drawn, is a collection of loosely-interrelated stories well worth reading in its entirety.
missing from the current crop of responses to Gaines is a moral reading, one that doesn’t look for causes and effects in a two-dimensional equation of character and color, but rather, in the quality of the characters’ thoughts and actions, regarding the characters not as caricatures of different types, but as fully formed people with their own—to borrow a phrase from Joyce—“individuating rhythms.” If Gaines is indeed an imaginative writer of canonical status, his works will reward such readings.
It is not possible, within the scope of this essay, to survey all of Gaines’s works, or to make more than a cursory pass through “The Sky is Gray.” It is also not possible, in a discussion of what I’m calling moral readings, to avoid some necessary oversimplifications of the complex issues surrounding and clouding the idea of race. But this much is clear. Gaines writings about Louisiana have been understood and responded to largely as writings about race. It is also clear that race, racial injustice, the years of segregation, and the particular way these things play themselves out in rural Louisiana are central to Gaines’s writing and therefore are central to understanding his works. Less clear, because less attention has been paid to this question, is how much is left when race is left out or made irrelevant to the readers. Put another way, if Gaines’s stories were set in the India of 1946, two years before partition, if the primary groups described were Muslim and Hindu, rather than black and white, would the stories still merit reading? This is neither a subjective nor an unimportant question.
“The Sky is Gray” is told in the first person by an eight-year-old child, James, on the cusp of youth, and describes a half-day in James’s life. His narrative begins as he and his mother wait for a bus to take them to a dentist’s office where James is to have his tooth pulled and ends that same day, sometime shortly before (the reader presumes) that tooth is finally pulled. Told in a series of thirteen more or less chronological episodes, James’s narrative is punctuated by frequent flashbacks to past events, each of which provide the reader with a more complete picture of the moral forces pulling at and shaping James. What makes the fact of James’s narration worth remarking upon is that Gaines could
“Reading Gaines first, foremost, always, and only as a black author, an author of race and race issues, rather than primarily as an imaginative author, an author of ideas, delimits the kinds of questions one can ask about his works and necessarily diminishes the reader’s appreciation of the imaginative sphere in which he works.”
have chosen to tell the story from a number of different perspectives. He could have told it through the eyes of James’s mother Octavia, or Val; he could have told it in epistolary form (as a letter) from James’s mother to his father; or from an omniscient perspective, one that allowed him to describe the sensory and sentient world from all of these vantage points in turn. But instead, Gaines allows James to tell his story in his own words. This is puzzling, because a child’s perspective is considerably narrower than an adult’s. What might be complex, three-dimensional people with equally complex motivations threaten to become two-dimensional caricatures with obscure, even uninteresting motivations when seen through the eyes of a child. Moreover, while an adult may be judged on the basis of his or her thoughts and actions, a child is still too completely a product of his or her parents to evaluate as an independent being. Whatever the narrative gains by being told through James’s eyes would need to add a great deal to offset these drawbacks. But James’s narration creates a rationale for reading the story as a moral story. Though still a child, James is on the verge of youth. One might therefore argue that the real story is yet to be told, that it cannot be told until we see the boy as a man. But the counter to this argument is that one should, if Gaines is successful, be able to see how James will turn out, that the creation of a characterization sufficient to demonstrate that the child is father of the man is a demonstration of a naturalism like Zola’s, and worthy of similar respect. And by the end of the story, the reader does indeed sense that there has been some change to who James is in that short span, a sense reinforced by his mother’s assertion that he is not a bum, but a man.
The distinction his mother makes between men and bums is both subtle and significant: bums pull their coat collars up, while men don’t. What this suggests is that in the highly polarized world in which James is growing up, external appearance can be more significant that internal reality—after all, whether James’s collar is up or down, he’s clearly not a bum, but a boy, and even a man can be permitted, under conditions as cold as those James and Octavia find themselves in, to pull his collar up around his throat. If one’s analysis of this scene stops here in attempting to understand this odd end point for the story, the reading which suggests itself is quite straightforward, something like, “external appearance is essential because James’s person will always be identified and understood first by his external blackness, then, perhaps, if he is lucky, by his innate character by the world in which he lives, a world in which the white gaze is the most significant threat a black man faces.” This reading is reinforced by other stations in the text, and indeed, most critics have read James and Octavia as I’ve suggested. For example, in Ernest Gaines Valerie Babb writes:
Unable to buy food because of their poverty, and forbidden to enter the warm shelters in the area of the dentist’s office because of their color, they become rambling outcasts in a society in which the whim of any white is empowered to affect their destiny. While they wait for the dentist to reopen his office, Octavia must devise ways in which she can keep James from the cold and at the same time carefully adhere to strict rules of racial separation. Observing his mother manipulate their environment moves James closer to what will be his particular entry into manhood, the psychic freedom that comes from emotional self-mastery. In one instance Octavia enters a white-owned hardware store and pretends to inspect ax handles for purchase while James heats himself at the wood stove. Her dissembling enables her to warm him without compromising her dignity by begging the proprietor to allow her son use of the stove. Here, hiding her true feelings and motives, she makes use of the technique of “masking” and teaches her son a valuable lesson in pride and survival.
But if one takes a step back from the more obvious reading another, more subtle, reading begins to emerge. Consider, for example, the contradiction in Babb’s representation of Octavia as on the one hand trying to “keep James from the cold” while “adher[ing] to strict rules of racial separation,” but on the other being “enabled” by her “dissembling” to keep him warm “without compromising her dignity.” Exactly what is keeping James cold, one wonders—“strict rules of racial separation,” or Octavia’s uncompromised dignity? Babb can’t decide. Babb would have Octavia read as a woman whose prideful “dissembling” and “technique of ‘masking’,” whatever that entails, are the necessary consequence of living in a dangerous world in which “the whim of any white is empowered to affect their destiny.” But this is a significant, even inexcusable oversimplification of Octavia’s motivations. Clearly, if the environment in which they found themselves was as dangerous as Babb suggests, with every white potentially disposed to do harm, Octavia’s lesson would be the worst example she could possibly give James, setting him up at some future date for a prideful miscalculation whose outcome could be fatal. It is both more reasonable and more in keeping with Gaines’s own views on the importance of dignity to read Octavia as intentionally withholding warmth from James to teach him that the value of their personal dignity is greater than the value of the most basic comforts—being warm and well-fed.
The importance of this distinction is difficult to overstate: it is nothing less than the difference between a story about people living in perpetual victimhood, on one hand, or a story about a mother trying to teach her son what it will take to become the sort of man she will respect, on the other. If one reverts to the easiest sort of race-based reading, one will invariably decide to read the story as one about victimhood. If that is the reading one chooses, the more important, more striking, more interesting story disappears, while James and his mother become nothing more than sympathetic but uninteresting racial stereotypes about the lives of poor blacks long ago. But if one decides to read the story as a more complex critique, not of racial relations, but of the value—and the cost—of dignity, one sees that even as an eight-year-old James understands her, Octavia is an interesting, fully-realized character.
Babb seems to approach this realization when she writes that Octavia’s “dissembling enables her to warm him without compromising her dignity by begging.” Babb realizes that Octavia’s act is fundamentally about dignity, not about warmth, but she doesn’t think through the implications of the point she has made, here or later. For Babb, Octavia’s intention is to “teach her son a valuable lesson in pride and survival,” but she doesn’t interrogate the relationship between pride and survival, preferring tacitly to assume that her readers will infer a necessary relationship between the two where none in fact exists. But assume for a moment that Octavia’s world is not so simple. Though her family is clearly poor, it is evident that they have learned to function within the constraints of their poverty. James tries to keep silent about his tooth not out of fear, but because he knows how expensive it will be to have a dentist pull it. Later, the whole family is at hand when Octavia and James’s aunt count out the cost of a trip to the dentist: “She say: ‘enough to get there and get back. Dollar and a half to have it pulled. Twenty-five for me to go, twenty-five for him. Twenty-five for me to come back, twenty-five for him. Fifty cents left guess I get a little piece of salt meat with that.’” Though it is clear that money is scarce, it is just as clear that this family knows how to survive with dignity—that is, without charity. The great fear here is not the capriciousness of white townfolk, but of being beholden, as a result of their poverty, to anyone. And a reading focussed exclusively on the story’s racial dynamic misses this completely.
Source: David Y. Kippen, “An Overview of ‘The Sky is Gray’,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
William E. H. Meyer, Jr.
In the following essay, Meyer describes how “The Sky is Gray” is a coming of age story not just about coming to terms with growing up, but also dealing with the sensual orientation of one’s body. He looks at two contrasting ideas, the African/aural roots—the idea that African Americans express themselves through their music and aural interpretations—and their American/visual reorientation—the idea that America is a country of visual stimulations, that as Emerson said “the eye is final.”
Each of the first two stories in Ernest J. Gaines’s Bloodline—“A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray” —describes a black boy or youth attempting to come to terms not just with the world in which he lives, his parents’ problems, and the racism which circumscribes him but, more importantly, with the sensory orientation of his own body, the struggle between what William Faulkner called a “black blood and white blood.” It is this private or internal struggle more than any public or external debate that creates the real identity crisis for the young black and for the artist or writer who would contend with an America which has “painted the senses white!” Both Sonny in “A Long Day in November” and James in “The Sky Is Gray” have to resolve the conflict between their African/aural roots and their American/visual reorientation—between James Baldwin’s declaration that “it is only in his music . . . that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assumption that “the eye is final; what it tells us is the last stroke of nature; beyond color we cannot go.” This hyperverbal/hypervisual trauma or rite de passage forms the real theme or subject of both black children’s accounts in “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray.” . . .
James, in “The Sky is Gray,” is a somewhat older black youth who rightly faces a more complex dilemma concerning his ear and eye. The absence of the father—“in the army”—has somewhat prematurely forced James into the role of “the man of the house”; and we first find this young black initiate “looking down the road,” of American hypervisuality. Here, James must learn to balance the words of his black heritage with the visions of white America—must learn to observe his mother’s sadness and poverty while at the same time controlling his words after the fashion of the stoic adult black male: “I want put my arm round her and tell her. But I’m not supposed to do that. She say that’s weakness and crybaby stuff.” Time and time again, the black youth must simply “take it”—must see the advantages of the whites or the sufferings of himself and other blacks—while saying nothing and offering no complaints. Indeed, the “tooth” with the aching root here is James’s own Afro-American tongue and ear—the dilemma of finding that his deepest “roots” are at odds with hypervisual America. The text of “The Sky Is Gray” subtly brings out this painful aurality: I’d just lay there and listen to them, and listen to that wind out there, and listen to that fire in the fireplace. Sometimes it’d stop long enough to let me get little rest. Sometimes it just hurt, hurt, hurt. Lord, have mercy (italics mine). This tooth of endless remorse/aurality may be denied—“It ain’t hurting me no more”—but will never be extracted from the central black consciousness of “The Sky Is Gray.” Of course, too, there is a shrewd and even humorous irony involved in attempting to exorcise the black hyperverbality by “prayer”—whether this be Baptist or Catholic incantation—for the Word/word, spoken or sung, lies at the root of black religiosity. Yet James, for all his acuteness of perception, can never follow Emerson into the parody of the Biblical command, “Pray without ceasing”: the New-England sage demands, “Observe without ceasing” (italics mine). The only way that James can truly understand his world is by authoritarian explanation—the tongue and ear forming the eye: “Auntie and Monsieur Bayonne talked to me and made me see” (italics mine).
The trip to town on the bus marked “White” and “Colored” represents the real rite de passage for the black youth in white America—the blurring of his sensibilities into gray: “The river is gray. The sky is gray.” From henceforth, James’s own “long day” will be comprised of this struggle between “black blood” and “white blood” within a cerebral “sky” of “gray”—a terrifying and chilling confrontation with one’s own senses and sensibilities. The first thing that James learns is to rein in his potential visuality—to accept verbal blinders for his eyes: “Mama tells me to keep my eyes in front where they belong” (italics mine). Next, James discovers that the dentist’s “colored” waiting-room is a place of intensified vocality and aurality, where patients are “hollering like pigs under a gate” and where “all round the room people are talking. Here, the key episode occurs between the “liberal” black student and the “conservative” black preacher—a paradoxical conflict between Word and word, between faith and sight. The black student demands hypervisuality—” Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God” (italics mine)—while at the same time demanding a reinterrogation of is verbality: “What do words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored mean?” (italics mine). The student wants very much to deny his aurality—“Me, I don’t listen to my heart”—and he ends up sad and depressed over his liberalism and scepticism: “I hope they aren’t all like me. . . I was born too late to believe in your God.” What the student desires is a new age for American blacks—one which can blend “faith” with “sight,” the “ear” with the “eye,” one’s internal “blackness” with the surrounding “whiteness” into “The Sky Is Gray.” James is acute enough to sense a kindred dilemma and thinks to himself: “When I grow up I want to be just like him.”
Again, Gaines is shrewd enough not to let James end his ordeal at this point but forces him to confront the obstacles of bitter cold and hunger in order to accomplish his sensory rite de passage. Being told that he must return after lunch, James goes with his mother out into the sleeting streets of Bayonne. He hears his mother complain—“We the wrong color”—and he sees for himself the relative comfort of the “white people” eating in a nearby cafe. This time the trial is so severe that the verbal command is ineffectual: “Mama tells me keep my eyes in front where they belong, but I can’t helpfrom seeing” (italics mine). Nor can the mother’s demands for stoicism keep James from nearly succumbing to the piercing chill of the sleeting “gray sky.” At this point, almost by deus ex machina, the black youth’s deepest self reasserts itself in all its visceral aurality: “My stomach growls and I suck it in to keep Mama from hearing it . . . It growls so loud you can hear it a mile.” Moreover, it soon becomes clear that the black mother and son must accept the fact that they have now become the observed, not the observers—that they are the ones who dearly need to be seen for what they are, cold and hungry. An elderly white woman and store-owner declares, “I saw y’all each time you went by.” The blacks, now realizing they are not going to conquer the keen-eyed compassion of this woman and her husband, bow and accept food and a perhaps-too-generous supply of “salt meat” under the transparent pretense of James’s doing some “chores” for the shopkeepers. The blacks then leave the store under the kindly but acute “genius in America, with tyrannous eye”: James recounts how “she’s still there watching us” (italics mine).
All in all, the only pride that can be salvaged at the conclusion of the story is the black mother’s verbal assurance—“You not a bum”—and the visual accommodation whereby James “turns down the collar” of his coat in order to appear as an Afro-American or newly reconstituted hyperaural/ hypervisual “man.” This is what the black student in the dentist’s office had desired—the best of both cultures, of ear and eye. But the question remains whether or not in this blending of “black” and “white” into “The Sky Is Gray” there still may be too great a personal pain and sense of loss or self-betrayal for black youth or artist ever to transcend Gunnar Myrdal’s penetrating observation: “The colored peoples are excluded from assimilation.”
O Say, Can YOU See that in one’s “bloodline” one may indeed rediscover the “wise blood” of his or her deepest cultural and aesthetic self?
Source: William E. H. Meyer, Jr., “Ernest J. Gaines and the Black Child’s Sensory Dilemma,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol.34, No. 4, June, 1991, pp. 414-25.
John W. Roberts
In the following essay, Roberts looks at the communal bonds found in Southern black communites, especially those as described by Gaines in “The Sky is Gray.” Along with this, he describes the dangers inherent in a community where tradition and change interact.
“The trip to town on the bus marked ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ represents the real rite de passage for the black youth in white America—the blurring of his sensibilities into gray: ‘The river is gray. The sky is gray.’”
The interaction between the community and the individual, along with its role in the shaping of human personality, is a primary concern of Ernest J. Gaines in much of his fiction. It is in probing the underlying community attitudes, values, and beliefs to discover the way in which they determine what an individual will or has become that Gaines gives poignancy to the pieces in his short-story collection Bloodline. Because his fiction focuses on the peculiar plight of black Americans in the South, Gaines must consider an additional level of significance—the strong communal bonds characteristic of Southern black folk culture. In these stories, black folk culture, with its emphasis on community-defined values and behaviors, shows signs of deterioration, while Western individualism and the development of more personally-defined values appear as catalysts in the demise of the black folk world view. In such a cultural climate, the spiritual and emotional well-being of both the community and the individual is threatened. Faced with the necessity to act and finding traditional solutions no longer viable, the characters in Gaines’s stories struggle desperately to restore some semblance of normalcy to their worlds. The dramatic conflict endemic to the stories in Bloodline arises out of the efforts of various characters to reconcile their individual needs with community prerequisites. Two of the stories in Bloodline, “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray,” are particularly illustrative of the conflict between community perspective and individual needs. The conflict in these two stories further illustrates the importance of the changes taking place within Southern black culture to the development of the social consciousness of children. While the action of the stories revolves around
“The ‘gray’ of the sky which hangs threateningly over the action of the story symbolizes the dangers inherent in the extremes which James must reconcile.”
two young boys, the resolution of the conflict resides with their parents. . . .
The feeling of community which permeates “A Long Day in November”—that sense that whatever happens to Amy and Eddie is everybody’s concern—is conspicuously absent from the second story in Bloodline, “The Sky Is Gray.” James, the eight-year-old narrator of this story, struggles to understand his mother and her conceptions of manhood and dignity without aid from the community. With the exception of Auntie and Mr. Bayonne, who attempt to explain his mother’s cold, dispassionate treatment of him on one occasion, James is alienated in his effort to come to grips with both the social and personal forces governing his life. The source of James’s isolation is his mother Octavia, who moves through the world of the story with a calm and control which always seem on the verge of eruption. She has cut herself completely off from the community which conceivably could have provided her with support while her husband does his tour of duty in the army. Although her relationship with this absent husband is only briefly mentioned, one senses in her attitude and behavior that his departure left her vulnerable. As a result, she has made protecting James from becoming vulnerable her primary goal in life. The problem in the story arises not so much from her efforts to make James a “man” as from her approach to and definition of manhood.
In her efforts to make James a “man,” Octavia apparently believes that she has only her own behavior and attitude toward life to offer as a model. To project an image of invulnerability for James, she alienates herself from the community and deals with her world on an individualistic level. The community, presumably, offers no such model. Taking what she has—her pride and her poverty—she moves toward her goal of inculcating in James a sense of independence and dignity in self undeterred by offers of kindness and generosity. However, because she never explains her motives to him, she presents James with a world filled with extremes which endangers his realization of the manhood she attempts to force prematurely on him. The “gray” of the sky which hangs threateningly over the action of the story symbolizes the dangers inherent in the extremes which James must reconcile. While “gray” literally represents the harmonious blending of black and white, its use in the story to describe the sky before a brewing storm symbolizes a potentially destructive force. The force implicit in the story is Octavia’s individualism, which threatens to deprive James of membership in the human community.
The dangers that her approach poses to James are dramatically illustrated in the argument between a minister and a student in the dentist’s office, the scene of much of the action. The argument between the men focuses on the existence of God. The minister accepts God unquestioningly, while the student rejects God because belief in Him alleviates the need to question:
“Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God,” the boy says.
“My heart tells me,” the preacher says.
“‘My heart tells me,’” the boy says. “‘My heart tells me.’ Sure, ‘My heart tells me.’ And as long as you listen to what your heart tells you, you will have only what the white man gives you and nothing more. Me, I don’t listen to my heart. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body, and nothing else.”
Whereas the minister clings to the traditional religious value of faith, the student espouses the development of more individualistic values based on reasoning and logic.
During the exchange between the men, the minister exposes the weakness of his position when he becomes frustrated and strikes the student. Through his action, he admits that the emotional or “heart” position leads to a cul de sac; it cannot be defended rationally. On the other hand, the student maintains a defensible position, but his egotistical stance exposes his feelings of alienation from his community. His father, we’re told, is dead, and his mother is in a charity ward with a serious illness. Futhermore, he is forced to “wash dishes at night” to finance his education. Consequently, his feelings of isolation cause him to alienate himself from the emotional support and comfort of the members of his community, whom he, in turn, deprives of the benefits of his education. His feelings of isolation are clearly illustrated in his conversation with a woman who attempts to take his side in the disagreement. Rather than explaining his position to her in such a way that she will be able to understand it, he raises his argument to a metaphysical level and alienates her:
“You really don’t believe in God?” the lady says.
“No,” he says.
“But why?” the lady says.
“Because the wind is pink,” he says.
“What?” the lady says.
The boy don’t answer her no more. He just reads in his book.
Although he claims to have a solution for the black community, he refuses to consider its level of comprehension. Consequently, in attempting to communicate with the community, he feels frustration, which reinforces his belief in his own isolation.
Octavia’s skepticism and self-imposed isolation place her in a similarly antagonistic stance toward the community. Although her primary goal is to project a model of strength for James through her own actions, her inability to make her sense of the world comprehensible to him leaves James vulnerable to the very forces from which she would shield him. By forcing James to sublimate his emotions and accept them as signs of human weakness, she fails to provide him with a means of dealing with the emotional responses of others in a way consistent with her philosophy. James’s vulnerability to this aspect of human nature is illustrated in the episode with an old couple who offer them food during their visit to town. James does not betray the kind and heartfelt offer of the couple although his mother would want him to. He responds to the emotional intent of the act. It is through these kinds of moderating forces in James’ environment that Gaines sees his salvation.
Although Octavia does not operate from the same level of awareness that the student does, it is strongly implied that her attitude stems from perceptions and conscious choices made as a result of her husband’s army duty. She uses her new awareness to structure her world into clear-cut oppositional units. Her final statement to James in the story is probably the most illustrative of her world view: “‘You not a bum,’ she says. ‘You a man.’” While this is the nature of Octavia’s world, it does not completely define the contours of the world with which James must come to terms. Human existence does not lend itself to such neat categorizing. Contrary to what Octavia would have him believe, the choices that James must eventually make about the quality of his existence should not be between “bum” and “man,” or between adhering to the dictates of the “head” or “heart” as advocated by the student and the minister respectively. His choices should involve a conscious effort to integrate the extremes. However, for the moment, James is literally and figuratively caught in the middle of a storm in which both social and personal forces threaten his well-being.
The symbolic significance of the “gray sky” is the key to an understanding of the complexity of the issue raised in the story. To see “gray” merely as the integration of black and white on a literal level, and as a metaphor for racial integration on a symbolic level is, I think, to misunderstand Gaines’s real intent in the story. As the argument between the student and minister in the dentist’s office clearly illustrates, there is a racial dimension present in the story. But the conflict goes much deeper than that. It also involves the problem of integrating the individual and the community in a mutually rewarding relationship in the face of dehumanizing individualistic forces. In this case, consciousness raising of blacks should not lead to an alienation from the community as it has for the student and Octavia; it should provide the basis for bettering the community.
In both “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray,” Gaines involves the reader in the dilemma faced by individuals who find traditional folk values inadequate to meet their needs. In both cases, the situation is presented as a puzzle to the young who must attempt to resolve the conflicts that come about as a result of this realization. For Eddie in “A Long Day in November,” the ability to solve the enigma created by Amy’s decision to leave him is compounded by his already established communal world view. However, his indirect discovery that the community is no longer capable of defining his individual responsibility to his family is potentially important both for him and for Sonny. Furthermore, the story implies that the community can continue to provide the individual with emotional support in his efforts to fulfill his individual needs. On the other hand, James in “The Sky Is Gray” will never know the values of communal bonds if Octavia has her way. Although the point is never explicitly stated, it is apparent that Octavia finds the values of her community inadequate to make James the kind of man that she feels he must become. Her personal situation can be seen as a metaphor for the plight of blacks. Dependency on the philanthropy and good will of others leads to vulnerability when that support is no longer forthcoming. Her alternative, however, creates an atmosphere which, for James, is potentially equal in the dangers it poses. The fact that neither story offers a resolution to the underlying conflict apparent in the situations is indicative of the contemporary nature of the issue which Gaines raises.
Source: John W. Roberts,. “The Individual and the Community in Two Short Stories by Ernest J. Gaines,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 110-13.
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines, Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Estes, David C., editor. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, Athens: Georgia University Press, 1994.
Gaudet, Marcia G. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: a Conversation on the Writer’s Craft, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Lowe, John., editor. Conversations with Ernest Gaines, Mississippi: Mississippi University Press, 1995.
Bryant, Jerry H. “Politics and the Black Novel,” in The Nation, Vol. 212, No. 14, April 5, 1971, pp. 436-38.
Reviews The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, describing it as an “epic poem.” The critic writes: “Literally, it is an account of Jane’s life. Figuratively, it is a metaphor of the collective black experience.”
Burke, William. “Bloodline: A Black Man’s South,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 4, June, 1976, pp. 545-58.
Summarizes Bloodline, noting of the work: “The five stories in [this] collection demonstrate their excellence in two ways; they are human stories—moving, humorous, ironic; and they are symbolic—which tradition tells us is a quality of great literature.”
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