Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men Race

By Ernest J. Gaines

Race

Chapter 3

Turning down into the quarters, I could see the tractor in the middle of the road, and I could see Candy's black LTD parked in the ditch on the right. But I didn't see any of the people as I drove past the old houses. Just like little bedbugs, I told myself. Just like frightened little bedbugs now. But when I stopped before Mathu's house, I could see they were not bedbugs after all. They were all there, in the yard and on the porch. Three of them had shotguns—Mathu, Johnny Paul, and Rufe. (3.5)

This is one of those passages where the role that race plays isn't as obvious, but race is definitely there. The fact that Miss Merle basically calls the African American men living in the quarters insects—and that's who she's talking about—and does it so casually, tells you exactly what she thinks about them. And it's not good.

Chapter 5

</em>"He works in mysterious ways," I told her. "Give a old n***** like me one more chance to do something with his life. He give me that chance, and I'm taking it, I'm going to Marshall. I know I'm old, maybe even crazy, but I'm going anyhow. And it ain't nothing you can do about it. Pray if you want to. Pray for all us old fools. But don't try to stop me." (5.38)

Once again, race is at play here, and not just in Mat's obvious use of a racial slur to refer to himself. Mat's words are meant to tell us that, because of his skin color, he hasn't been given many opportunities to do something meaningful or make something of himself, and he feels like standing up for Mathu is going to give him that chance.

Chapter 7

</em>Jameson came round the end of the garry where I was sitting. He was crying now. He was pressing his lips tight, but I could see tears running down his face. […]

            "That's what y'all come here for?" he asked. "To die? Y'all think that'll make up for all the hurt? That's what y'all think?"

            I didn't answer him. I didn't look at him. I could see him from the corner of my eyes crying, his mouth pressed tight again.

            Now he looked at Candy.

            "You satisfied now?" he asked her. "You satisfied now? You think you doing him any good if you soak this land with blood?" (7.34-42)

Jameson is completely terrified in this passage, and who can blame him? All his life, he's seen time and time again that bad things happen when Black folks stand up to white folks. How do you think that Gaines wants us to feel about him?

Chapter 8

</em>"You seem to have something personal against him."

            Mapes grunted. "That's where you're wrong. I admire the n*****. He's a better man than most I've met, Black or white. But he killed a man—and she's not getting him out of it. If she had any sense at all, she would have taken him to jail hours ago. Because if Fix doesn't show up, others may. And they won't be coming here to talk." (8.174-5)

Mapes has got that right for sure. Of course, you can tell that Mapes is about as bigoted as the same folks he's worried about by how casually he uses that mean and nasty racist word, in spite of all his talk about "respect." Can you say "hypocrite?"

Chapter 9

</em>"I wish I was the sheriff around here," the deputy said. All this time, he had been standing on the side, looking mad, but staying quiet. "I bet you wouldn't talk to me like that."

            "And what would you do, you little no-butt nothing?" Tucker said to the deputy.

            The people laughed. The little deputy turned red.

            "Shut up," Mapes said to him.

            "I ain't used to no n*****s talking to me like that," the deputy said.

            "Just stick around long enough," Beulah said, from the steps.

            "We go'n just stand here and take this?" the deputy asked Mapes.

            "You can go for a walk," Mapes said. "I'll call you if I need you." (9.113-119)

Yup, you read that right. Deputy Griffin is even more of a racist than Sheriff Mapes. How can Griffin even be expected to do what he's supposed to do and fairly enforce the law?

"Now, ain't that just like white folks! […] Black people get lynched, get drowned, get shot, guts all hanging out—and here he come up with ain't no proof who did it. The proof was them two children laying there in them two coffins. That's proof enough they was dead. And let's don't be getting off into that thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago stuff, either. Things ain't changed that much round here. In them demonstrations, somebody was always coming up missing. So let's don't be putting it all on no thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago like everything is so nicey-nice now. No, his seeds is still around. Even if he is old now, the rest of them had their hands in some of that dirt [...]

When it come to the kind of dirt been slung in this Black woman's face—yes, sir, Sheriff, I reckon I do know more than you do." ( 9.226)

Whoa—women might not get to say much in Gaines's novel, but Beulah sure does get to make a seriously important point here.

Chapter 12

"Papa," Gil said, rubbing his knuckles again. "Papa, I want to be an All-American at LSU. I have a good chance—Cal and me. The first time ever, Black and white, in the Deep South. I can't make it without Cal, Papa. I depend on him. Every time I take the ball, I depend on his block, or his faking somebody out of my way. I depend on him, Papa, every moment I'm on that field." (12.76)

Here it is. Gil's best shot at telling old Fix he doesn't agree with his racist perspective. What do you think—are Gil and Cal an image of a better future?