Study Guide

Billy Washington in A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

Billy Washington

He's not the first elderly gentleman we meet, but he definitely makes a powerful first impression, and his words should haunt you long after he's stopped speaking. We admit that he doesn't seem like much at first. The first close-up of Billy we get, after all, comes when Cherry starts bagging on him for missing a rabbit he was trying to kill for his supper (6.10-12). But Billy isn't somebody you want to mess with, because he makes it clear later on that he's not taking any garbage from just anybody. When Griffin picks him out of the crowd and Mapes starts smacking him around, Billy bleeds—but he doesn't change his story. Mapes, not buying it (which is understandable, considering Billy is so old he can barely stand on his own), asks Billy a simple question, but—man, oh man—does he get some response: 

"Why did you kill Beau?"

"What they did to my boy," the old man said, staring blankly at Mapes, his head bobbing again. "The way they beat him. They beat him till they beat him crazy, and we had to send him to Jackson. He don't even know me and his mama no more. We take him candy, we take him cake, he eat it like a hog eating corn. Don't offer none to them other crazy people. Don't offer none to nobody—me, his mamma, or them other crazy people. Just put his head in the cake and eat it like a hog eating corn. His mamma slice him a little piece and hand it to him, he let it fall on the table, and eat it like a hog eating corn. That's no way to be. It hurt his mamma every time she see that." (8.258-9) 

We find out a little while later that Billy's son was beaten more than thirty years ago, but it's pretty obvious that the pain hasn't gone away. Ask yourself: what about justice for Billy's son? Nobody took Fix in for this crime. It's one thing to think of racism as a set of nasty ideas about how the world works, but Billy's story about his son's violent beating shows us that those ideas mean that some really awful stuff happens. What do you think: if Billy had killed Beau, can you see why he would have?