A Gathering of Old Men
Chapters 6 and 7
Chapter 6: Grant Bello, aka Cherry
Grant Bello, aka Cherry narrates this chapter. He is sitting in the back of Clatoo's truck when Clatoo slows down to pick up Yank. Yank is in his early seventies, but he used to be a cowherd and still acts like a cowboy notwithstanding his aged body that was frequently injured over the years. Yank greets everyone in the truck and Cherry recognizes pride on Yank's face. Cherry reflects that pride is an emotion that they all seem to feel. About a mile down the road, Clatoo stops to pick up Dirty Red.
About four miles after picking up Dirty Red, Clatoo stops his truck on a small dirt road surrounded by sugar cane. The two main plantations in the area, the Morgan and the Marshall, lie on either side of this road. Clatoo lets the men present out of his car and tells them to wander up toward the graveyard. Clatoo has to go pick up some other men. After he returns, they will all walk to Mathu's house together.
As they walk through the sugar cane of the Marshall plantation, Cherry explains that although the Marshalls still owned the land, Beau Bauton and his family have been leasing it for the past twenty-five years. Cherry and his ancestors have been working on this land since slavery, until the Bautons arrived. Cherry spots a nearby cane field that had just been cleared and he finds that the sight depresses him. He decides that the empty cane field is like an old house that people have moved out of. A sound of a shot breaks Cherry's reverie. Billy Washington has shot at, and missed, a rabbit. Billy looks very ashamed that he missed.
The men arrive at the graveyard that is surrounded by increasingly encroaching sugar cane. All the local black families have a small area of the yard that belongs to them. Jacob Aguillard goes over to the grave of his sister Tessie. Cherry remembers how she was a pretty mulatto girl who slept with both white and black men. The white men eventually killed her for sleeping with blacks. After her death, her family refused to take her body home because they felt she had disgraced them by mixing with dark folks. Cherry wonders if Jacob is lamenting the way that he treated his sister thirty years ago. Cherry goes to his family's area and prays. He then eats some pecans that have fallen to the ground on the advice of Dirty Red who think that graveyard pecans taste good. The community frequently has thought of Dirty Red and his family as lazy and Cherry reflects that Dirty Red must have come out this day to do something good.
Clatoo soon returns with seven other men all carrying guns. The men fire their shotguns into the trees so that all their shotguns will appear to have just been used. They then keep walking toward Mathu's house.
Chapter 7: Cyril Robillard, aka Clatoo
Clatoo, formally known as Cyril Robillard, narrates this chapter. Candy meets him and the other men by Mathu's house. Clatoo has known Candy all her life and knows what Mathu means to her family and especially to her. Candy describes for Clatoo how she shot Beau, but Clatoo knows that she is lying because her story sounds too practiced. Clatoo sees Mathu squatting near his house. Mathu is a dark-skinned man who takes pride in his coloring. Mathu even believes himself superior to lighter blacks since he, unlike them, has not bee tainted with white blood. Clatoo himself is brown skinned, as some of his grandparents were white and Indian. Clatoo sees Beau's bloody body lying on the grass.
Clatoo approaches Glo Hebert and notes upon shaking her hand that she is very proud that they all have come. Clatoo then speaks to Mathu who tells him that this plan was Candy's not his own. Mathu says that he will turn himself in when the sheriff gets there. Johnny Paul and Rufe then say that Mathu cannot turn himself him because they shot Beau not him. All the men on the property immediately start claiming that they shot Beau, even if they have just arrived. The men even start competing with one another with their claims.
Reverend Jameson is the only man who does not participate. He believes their plan foolish and foolhardy and loudly tells them so. Candy tells him to go home if he does not like it, but Reverend Jameson continues to complain. Soon after, a car starts heading down the road. It stops before the house and Lou, Candy's boyfriend, gets out.
With these two chapters, the old men gather and finally arrive at the plantation. Several important stops mark their journey. First, the men walk through the cut sugar cane on the Marshall Plantation. This walk gives Cherry the opportunity to explain that although the Marshall family still owned the plantation, the Bautons have been leasing it for close to twenty-five years. Up until that time, Cherry's family had worked on the land since the days of slavery. Beau's arrival heralded changes in the agricultural system and eventually led to the decreased need for local black labor. The fact that the Bautons now manage the farm further underscores the already evident idleness of Bea and Jack Marshall who actually own the land.
As Cherry walks through the empty cane fields, he feels lonely and depressed. The cane evokes the memory of time when the black community thrived in their agricultural work. In those days, the people worked the soil and the soil gave them life. Families lived on or around the plantation. Songs, stories, and relationships bound them together. With the arrival of the Cajuns and their tractor however, the diminished need for black labor stripped the black community of all middle aged adults. These days only the old men remain on the farm. The community is dying away, just as the plantation is becoming increasingly decayed. Weeds surround the fields. The sugar cane grows wildly almost up to the graveyard in such a way that threatens the yard itself, symbolically suggesting the way that the recent agricultural change is threatening the past of the local blacks. The walk through the cane appears to be the perfect conduit for the old men since it reminds them of everything that the plantation once meant to them and how and why it has changed. The nature of this change is essential in understanding the complex reasons that led to Beau Boutan's death.
The second important stop on the way to the plantation is at the graveyard. The graveyard is a reservoir of ancestry that will help to activate the men's strength. Each of the men has family members buried there. Many of the ancestors had painful lives, such as Jacob's sister who was murdered by local whites. Still, the gravestones allow the men to connect to their past before they undertake one of the braver moments of their lives. Just as the visit strengthens them, so to does it suggest the way that current action can liberate the past. The ancestors of these men may have suffered, but current potential for action among the living may help to assuage their woes. This meditative moment in the graveyard then both strengthens and affirms the men. The memories of the pain that their family suffer will further spur them toward their goal, at the same time the vision of their family's strong connection to the land lends them strength as they act.
A final theme that arises in both of these chapters is the issue of the relevance of skin tone within the black community itself. Cherry brings up the memory of Jacob Aguillard's sister, a pretty mulatto girl whose family shunned her for hanging out with men who were too dark. Clatoo, on the other hand, describes Mathu's snobbish preference for his coal black skin. This discussion of skin tone highlights the fact that racial divisions are not just seen along black and white lines. The white community, we have already seen, divides itself between Cajuns and landowners. As Cherry and Clatoo explain, the black community also maintains a social rating system: one that is based upon skin tone. Ironically however, the preference for a certain skin tone within the black community is a form of subtle racism of its own. Gaines's careful delineation of this issue shows the arbitrary nature of these social rating systems and suggests the absurdity of judging any person by the color of their skin where white, black, or light or dark. All such external means to measure a person's worth have no basis.
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