Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ernest J. Gaines

ERNEST J. GAINES: January 15, 1933-November 5, 2019

Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.”     Ernest J. Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men

“Ain't we all been hurt by slavery?”
                         Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

             Ernest J. Gaines; Interviews with Ernest J. Gaines

     Sometime in the1970’s I was haunting the literature stacks at the Parkway Main Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia like I did on a regular basis. I had always been a reader, but my high school experiences combined with the times in which we lived made me an insatiable and voracious reader, and I spent a great deal of time at libraries. I was reading everything: beat and modern poetry, revisionist histories of the United States, Russian and African writers, books about Blacks in the American West, and tons of poetry and novels by Black authors. In the literature section that day I stumbled across a book that would become one of my guidelines for the next decade:Interviews with Black Authors, by John O’Brien. This book contained interviews with several of my favorite authors at the time-Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man, Robert Hayden, whose poem, Frederick Douglass haunts me to this day, and Al Young, whose touching coming of age and music novel, Snakes, I learned about from a Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice. There were a bunch of other authors with which I was not familiar, and over time I read all of the interviews, and I went on to read books by the people whose interviews intrigued my the most.That is how I discovered such wonderful and creative writers as Ishmael Reed, John Wideman and Alice Walker. And it is how I became acquainted with a Louisiana born writer by the name of Ernest J. Gaines.
       Gaines’ interview immediately captured me for two reasons. One was because he talked about capturing the sounds, dialect, time, and feel of the places in which his writing was set. I had read a little William Faulkner by then, and I knew what Faulkner was doing with  Yoknapatawpha county in his novels. Gaines acknowledged being influenced by Faulkner, but he also said that he knew that all the people who Faulkner portrayed were not like people he knew in real life on Southern plantations. He also did not see them in the Russian peasant novels he loved by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, so he decided he would portray them as he knew them. Gaines also talked about his Louisiana plantation setting he used in most of his novels almost as if it was a character  focusing, for example, on the role dust played in one of his novels, And he talked about how his characters related to struggles between the past and the present, how many of them were trying to define what it meant to be a man, and the various meanings death could have in not only his novels, but in real life. WOW! All of this was heady stuff for a young, urban Black boy in the 1970's, on the edge of “manhood,“ trying to play the blues, exploring his cultural past, loving history, and looking at all of this in different ways. I had to read this man.
   I read Catherine Cormier first and got acquainted with how Gaines could capture the dialect and sounds of characters-almost so I could hear them as I read the conversations. I could see how he could hint at themes and meaning without necessarily making it obvious. I was also impressed also by how he could present emotions in such a quietly intense way and how he could make the ordinary lives of so many of his characters feel real and compelling. I don't think i had ever at that point really identified with and really appreciated a female character in a novel before, but Catharine really affected me. This was a wonderful revelation that awakened me to new insights in reading. I was hooked. From there I read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and I then had to read everything he wrote. His characters, ideas, setting, plots and quietly stated themes would sit with me for days after I finished reading one of his works. Some of his books, including, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, I read several times, getting something out of each reading.  Ernest Gaines became one of my favorite writers and he taught me and awakened me to so much.

  The Autobiography[hy of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying were each made into powerful films. If you are not familiar with Gaines' work but are reluctant to jump right into reading a new author, I would recommend seeing these films. They are incredibly powerful, well-acted and well-directed (although I do have one little problem with a scene in Miss Jane Pittman.) I will see those films over the next week or two, and I may go back and re-read one or more of his books. Ernest J. Gaines wanted to bring the world he grew up in and knew to life in a full and meaningful way. He did that and much, much more.
(Here are a few websites about Ernest J. Gaines:

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Humans and Time

                         The Chambers Brothers
  We “turned our clocks back” a little while ago and ended what we call “Daylight Saving Time.” We do these manipulations of the clock twice a year, and we have been doing this for over a hundred years in most parts of the country. As a kid it took me some time to learn how to “spring forward and fall back,” but once I got it, I didn’t think too much about what it meant or what it showed about us as a species or what it might mean about the universe. I simply adjusted my clocks, was grumpy or happy about “gaining” or “losing” an hour, and that was that. But the last year or so has found me thinking and wondering about this Daylight Saving thing and thinking about this thing we call “time?” How many different ways do we use and experience it?  What does how we relate to and use time tell us about us? Just what is “time” anyway??

   According to Webster’s College Dictionary, time is ,1.“indefinite, unlimited duration in which things are considered as happening in the past, present, or future; every moment there has ever been or ever will be… a system of measuring duration and 2.the period between two events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; measured or measurable interval.”  In both of those definitions there are a lot of words and ideas that depend on other words for those definitions to make any sense. It is assumed we all have an idea of “future” or an “event,” for example, and that we all agree on what those ideas mean. But that, of course, is not always true. Different cultures, professions, philosophies, etc. all have their own concepts of this thing we call time.   Is there really a universal definition of time?    
    We do not have one clear definition of “time” that is universal to all circumstances; what we call “time” can be and is often many things simultaneously. We have all been in situations where time seems to slow down or stop; boring class lectures, bad films, or conversations in which someone goes on and on and on. And we have been in situations where we ae excited, having a great time, and things seem to go by too fast. “Time flies when you are having fun” is a saying most of us can relate to. But the fun experience and the boring experience could have lasted for the same duration in measurable reality; they could have both been 45 minutes when we look at the clock. So if “a system of measuring duration” works as a definition of “time,” 45 minutes is 45 minutes. But there is also a psychological and emotional measure of time, and they go beyond something a clock can capture. And we often live within those emotional/psychological definitions: they are valid to us. So there is often a difference between “clock time” and the time I feel and experience. As a human I have to navigate a world in which actual time and my emotional experience of it can be at odds with each other. Think about anxiety attacks and panic attacks over what might happen “later.” That is the personal nature of time, and sometimes we have to wrestle with living both definitions simultaneously. For we have to live in the world that is about us.
   We humans are communal. We live in groups and groups need to share some ideas about time in order to function. Different groups have spent countless amounts of time thinking about how to measure, regulate, capture, and make use of time. That measuring and regulating are thing humans do. We all acknowledge something we call “time” and we want to at least understand it in some way and get whatever use we can from it. We used the changes in river height or temperature or rain or animal movements or crop growth to let us know what we should be doing at certain points of the regular earth cycle: seasons. As we observed more of the world around us and used our thinking and toll making skills we came up with sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, and eventually mechanical and later digital clocks. Colonization and global trading systems meant that certain ideas spread around the world, so the universality of Western ideas about “Clock Time” eventually became the norm for much of the world. So when most of the Western world went to Daylight Saving Time, much of the rest of the world had to also.
   The theory behind early versions of Daylight Saving Time was that it would extend periods of daylight and therefore save energy and money.  If this was enacted cities would save money by having the electric lights turn on an hour or two later. It was also believed DST would lead to people being outside the house longer, spending money and helping the economy. It was not an easy sell to many people, but by the end of World War I most Western countries had adopted some type of DST. Germany did it first as they wanted to minimize the use of expensive artificial light during World War I. They were the first to use it nationally in 1916. After the war other European nations slowly adopted the idea largely for the same economic reasons. In the US DST was passed into law in 1918. There was originally no nationwide idea of how DST would be observed, and states had different version of what DST meant. The Universal Time Act of 1966 set a national standard country wide. Arizona and Hawaii eventually opted out of the practice, so 48 states now spring forward and fall back.
   There is still a quietly ferocious debate as to whether DST is a good idea or not. In what ways is it still economical? In what ways isn’t it? How does it help society? Hurt it? The European Union wants to scrap DST, and there are arguments regularly made in the US Congress to scrap it as well. DST may well be on the cultural endangered species list.
    Regardless of how this plays out, though, one of the major things DST shows is that humans will measure, regulate, make use of and/or alter that which is around us. Whether it is something tactile, tangible or jut and idea or concept, we seem to need to do that. So whether I am grumbling about or happy about the “extra” or “lost” hour, when I turn that clock back or forward I am a participant in that very human thing: measure, regulate, and/or make use of what is around me. Happy Daily Standard Time.

(Here is a link to an article that examines pros and cons about Daylight Saving Time: