Heart of Louisiana: Ernest Gaines

"All of my people lived here for five generations, and they're buried back there in that cemetery about three-quarters of a mile from this house," Ernest Gaines tells us.

The old Mount Zion Cemetery is surrounded by the sugar cane fields of the River Lake Plantation in Oscar.  The oldest graves, many of them unmarked, date back to the days of slavery.

Gaines says, "When they used to bury people back there, just put them in a little box. No anything, no cross, no stone."

But their lives, their struggles, their joys, their humanity are immortalized in the writings of Ernest Gaines, who grew up poor in the old quarter cabins on the plantation.

Gaines says, "The only thing I could write about was the experiences of my life and the people I knew and loved."

Gaines' life changed at the age of 15, when his mother and stepfather brought him to California. There, he was able to attend high school and spend his spare time reading in a library, things he could not do in his hometown.

Gaines says, "There were no books in the library about black people, African-American people."

That was the inspiration for Gaines to write.  He graduated from San Francisco State University and was invited to study creative writing at Stanford.

Gaines says, "I did a lot of writing, writing, writing and writing. The only thing I could think to write about was Louisiana. The body went to California, but the soul remained here."

He found inspiration for his book The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in a  giant oak tree, two miles from his boyhood home.

Gaines says, "When I came to write about Miss Jane Pittman I had that tree in my mind. She is like the tree, that great oak that knew so much and seen so much and lynchings and killings and suicides and everything that Miss Jane had gone through."

Just as his stories are rooted in this land, Gaines now lives on part of the old plantation property, a half-mile from the quarter where he grew up.  You can still see one of the old cabins hidden in the overgrowth.  The church that was part of his youth has been moved to his backyard.

If you have read Ernest Gaines' books, then you know about this old church. It is where families sang praises, where kids went to school. It was the center of the community. And now it is part of Gaines' home.

Gaines says,  "I still recall hearing the old people singing and praying and the preaching. And the determination Sundays where you were determined to go to heaven."

Through books like A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines hopes his stories connect with African-American youth, to help them understand where they came from. But he says the stories are also for white youth.

"I hope the white youth of the South would read my books and let them know that, unless they knew their neighbors, whose black kids of the past 300 years…. They know only half, half of their own history."

As he approaches his 80th birthday, Gaines is starting another novel that he predicts will be his last. But he never wants to put down his pen.  Gaines says, "I wish I can write until the last day, I wish I could."

And he has already written what will be his final statement to the world: "I've told them what I want on my tombstone, to lie with those who have no mark. Without those people, I would've had nothing to write about."

With his stories, Ernest Gaines has given all of these lives a mark.

Ernest Gaines' novel A Lesson Before Dying is being featured at The Big Read, a series of events around Louisiana, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.  New Orleans' music ambassador Irvin Mayfield has written a new composition based on the Gaines novel that will be premiered at a concert next Friday night, November 30, at the Joy Theater.

You can find more information about Gaines and The Big Read online: