Ernest Gaines: “The Sky Is Gray”

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See image credit below.

I was first introduced to southern literature in 1978, when I was a first-year university student in Martha Baker’s Honors Writing class. The course focused on southern writers. I had no idea at the time that I would go on to become a scholar of southern literature or to write A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South.

All I knew in the fall of 1978 was that I loved the literature Martha had us read: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and of course, William Faulkner. I was especially struck by Ernest Gaines’s moody, but compelling, short story “The Sky Is Gray,” so much so that the story has stuck with me for nearly forty years.

Later, like many readers, I would come to associate Gaines most closely with his 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Later still he’d gain an even larger audience with his 1983 novel, A Gathering of Old Men, and especially his 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Books Critics Circle Award.

But it was “The Sky Is Gray” that first drew me in and that still evokes a certain atmosphere in my mind. The narrator is James, an eight-year-old black boy living in rural Louisiana. The unrelenting cold and hunger he experiences throughout the story stay with me so many years later.

For the sky is, indeed, gray in this story. James and his mother, Octavia, set out for the town near them, take the bus so that the boy can have a tooth pulled. They are headed to Bayonne, a town in Louisiana where they can get services like the dentist but not nearly as large as Baton Rouge, where the boy has also traveled. Octavia heads the household now that her husband has left to serve in World War II.

But the sky is gray not just because of the cold and sleet but also because James and Octavia must confront Bayonne during the pre-Civil Rights era of World War II. Small-town Louisiana is harshly marked by Jim Crow laws, which keep them out of restaurants and force them to walk the town’s streets in the grim weather as they wait for the dentist’s office to reopen after lunch.

While James witnesses an extended conversation in the dentist’s waiting room between a black preacher and a young student about the right way to challenge (or not challenge) the racist social system, the lessons he learns from his mother are even more pronounced. As they walk the streets of Bayonne, his mother conveys to him – nearly without words – how to act so as to defer to the Jim Crow system and at the same time stand up straight and proudly in the face of it. In the story’s famous ending, James pulls his coat collar up around his neck to block out the cold. His mother admonishes him, telling him to wear the coat properly. “You not a bum,” she says. “You a man.”

Gaines’s prose is stark, spare, unrelenting in its precision and honesty. Where The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman gives us a grand, sweeping epic of a black woman and her slave community, “The Sky Is Gray” zeroes in on a moment in time, one crucial afternoon in a black child’s development. Regardless of the scope, however, Gaines forces us to consider the personal in the historical. What was it like to be a slave and move into “freedom” and eventually into the Civil Rights Movement? The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman will tell you. What is it like to be a black boy coming into awareness of the way his dark skin, his “race,” marks him as other? “The Sky Is Gray” will give you insights into that.

Gaines published “The Sky Is Gray” in 1963 when he was thirty and then included it in his 1968 volume of short stories, Bloodline. Here, as elsewhere, Gaines writes about the world he knew intimately from his upbringing. A fifth-generation descendant of plantation slaves, he grew up on the River Lake plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, where he set most of his fiction. Though Gaines had limited schooling while living in Louisiana, his family’s move to California exposed him to greater education and to a passionate exploration of the library. As one source says, “Gaines sought books about Southern blacks, but found few, and decided, ‘If the book you want doesn’t exist, you try to make it exist.’”

Gaines has been a MacArthur Foundation fellow, held a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and been awarded the National Humanities Medal. An excellent biography and overview of Gaines’s work can be found at the Academy of Achievement website; an interview – with transcript and video clips – is also available at the Academy of Achievement. The Missouri Review offers an insightful interview with Gaines. For more resources, visit the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Finally, you might want to read an article about Gaines’s return to Louisiana, where he now lives on part of the plantation where he and his ancestors lived. There’s also a great CNN piece on his return to Louisiana.

This week, StoryWeb celebrates its 100th post. If you enjoy learning about a new story each Monday, please pass the word along to your friends!

Watch and Listen:Listen as Ernest Gaines reads the ending lines from “The Sky Is Gray.” You can also watch a 1979 film adaptation of the short story. Finally, take some time to watch as Ernest Gaines talks about his background and discusses his novel A Lesson Before Dying (part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ program The Big Read).


Image Credit: Ernest J. Gaines, 2015, photo by Slowking,