Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933 to a family of sharecroppers at River Lake Plantation in Oscar, La. They lived in the workers quarters on a dirt road lined on both sides with two-room cabins built by their slave ancestors. There was no running water or inside toilet, no electricity. Five months of the year, when they could be spared from fieldwork, the children attended school in the little wooden church up the road.
Today Gaines is lionized as one of the great American writers. Best known for his works The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying, the award-winning author will present the eighth annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to author Mitchell S. Jackson at a ceremony Thursday. The $10,000 prize, sponsored by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and awarded by a panel of judges, is one of the nation’s top honors for African-American writers.
For Gaines the award is a lifetime away from the life he first knew. His parents worked in the plantation fields, cutting cane, while Gaines and his four siblings at the time—Gaines is the oldest of 12—were cared for by their great-aunt Augusteen Jefferson.
Gaines started working at 8 years old. But he also did well in school and created little plays that he staged in the church, the earliest sign of his creativity.
The racism of the wider world was always present, particularly when he ventured into the nearby town of New Roads. “I was never threatened,” Gaines said in an interview with The Root. “I never knew anyone who was lynched. But there was subtle racism every day of my life. You could not speak to a white man unless he spoke to you first. On the sidewalk, I’d have to move so a white person could walk by.”
In 1948 Gaines left for California, where his mother and stepfather had found work in Vallejo. He was 15 when he caught a bus to New Orleans and a train to Vallejo. With the resilience of youth, he soon adjusted to his new home.
Vallejo High School was filled with not only white students but also Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Mexican and Native American teenagers. “Back home, when the teacher called on you, you stood up,” Gaines said. “When I jumped to my feet in California, everybody cracked up. They’d be all stretched out in their desks.”
At 16, frustrated by the portrayal of blacks by white writers, Gaines decided to write his own book. He scrawled it in longhand and then persuaded his mother to rent a typewriter.
“I cut the paper in half because that was the size of a book,” he said. “I typed on both sides of the paper, because that’s how books were printed. Every mistake you could possibly make, I made.”
He wrapped the novel and sent it to a New York publisher. “I’m sure they thought it was a bomb,” he said. “They sent it back and I threw it in the incinerator.”
He enrolled at San Francisco State College, then did graduate work in creative writing at Stanford University. When he left Stanford in 1957, he gave himself a deadline: 10 years to make it as a writer.
Casting about for ideas, he remembered the book he had written at 16, about a black man, a Creole woman and the strict barrier between their two cultures. In 1964 he published a much reworked version of that novel, Catherine Carmier. It was followed by Of Love and Dust in 1967, which earned glowing reviews, including praise from James Baldwin, who called it “a really fine and truthful study of the black-white madness.” Gaines had met his self-imposed deadline. In 1968 he released a collection of short stories, Bloodline.
With The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971, he finally tasted popular—and financial—success. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the book was also sold to television. The CBS movie starring Cicely Tyson won nine Emmy Awards.
That’s when the University of Southwestern Louisiana offered him a professorship of creative writing and the lifetime use of a house near the Lafayette campus. Gaines taught at the school, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, until he retired in 2004.
“ULL came through when I was just about down and out,” he said. In 2010 the university established the Ernest J. Gaines Center as a place where scholars can study his work.
A Lesson Before Dying, published in 1993, finally gave Gaines true financial security. It came with a substantial advance, and when it was named an Oprah Book Club selection in 1997, it rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. “That’s still carrying me today,” he said. “It is being read all over the country—all over the world, in about a dozen or more countries.”
In 1993 Gaines also won a MacArthur “genius” grant and married for the first time at 60. He and his wife, Dianne, live in an elegantly furnished house they built on False River near the plantation where he was born.
Gaines, who turned 82 on Jan. 15, is working on two novellas that he hopes to publish as one book. He works in a trailer camp across the highway from his house. “It’s quiet there,” he said. “No telephone, no one else around. I can look out at the river and a weeping willow moving in the wind.”
Although not particularly religious, Gaines declared, “If there were no God, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be dead or crazy or in prison. So many of the guys I grew up with ended up that way.”
Jackson, the winner of the Gaines Award, can relate.
He grew up in Portland, Ore. His life parallels the story in his novel—a mother who overcame an addiction to crack cocaine, his own “career” selling, but never using, crack. Arrested while a junior at Portland State University, he spent 16 months in prison. There he began to write—a few loose-leaf pages that became the nucleus of his novel.
After returning to college and earning a Master of Fine Arts in Portland, Jackson moved to New York City’s borough of Manhattan and earned a second master’s degree in creative writing at New York University. He now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches at NYU and Columbia University. He is working on a book of essays titled Head Down, Palm Up. The award, he said, will allow him to write instead of teach during the summer. He plans to present the manuscript to his publisher by the time he turns 40 in August.
Jackson related to Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, in which a young man wrongly accused of murder is sentenced to the electric chair. Locked in a cell, the young man, Jefferson, is given a notebook; he scrawls a diary that becomes the moving heart of the novel.
“Anytime you humanize someone in that position, it’s good,” Jackson said. “You don’t often find stories that show the humanity of people who are outcasts. To capture their struggles, the angst and loneliness of being segregated from other inmates, that means a lot.”
Ruth Laney wrote and co-produced a television documentary about Ernest Gaines and is working on a book about the community where he grew up.