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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Chapter 9: Joseph Seabury, aka Rufe

Chapter 8: Louis Alfred Dimoulin, aka Lou Dimes

Chapter 10 and 11

Summary

Rufe, formally know as Joseph Seabury, narrates this chapter. Candy protests when Mapes calls Mathu over for questioning, but Mathu complies. Rufe knows that Mapes likes Mathu and considers him a real man, unlike the rest of them. Occasionally, Mathu and Mapes have even gone hunting and fishing together. Upon reaching the Sheriff, Mathu immediately confesses. Mapes accepts and agrees with Mathu's confession. Mapes tells Mathu to send the other men home, but Mathu says that he cannot because the men have to do what they see is fit.

Clatoo interrupts Mapes and Mathu's conference by telling the Sheriff that he shot Beau. Dirty Red and Johnny Paul soon after interrupt by saying that they did it. The Sheriff asks them why they are getting militant. Jacob Aguillard stands up and says that he killed Beau because Beau was involved in murdering his sister. Ding and Bing Lejeune next confess saying that they did it because their niece was poisoned. Sheriff Mapes nods his head in response to these tales. Johnny Paul then grows angry. He tells the Sheriff that the Sheriff does not understand what happened because he has not been living and working on the plantation as they have for years. The Sheriff knows little about the pains that they suffered. The Sheriff knows little about the way that the Cajuns's agricultural mechanization displaced the vibrant black community that once worked the land. For Johnny Paul, Beau lies dead today in order to compensate for what they and their ancestors have suffered. The other blacks nod their heads in assent at Johnny Paul's commentary.

Tucker then rises and tells the story of his brother, Silas. Silas was the last black sharecropper in the district, which means that he leased a plot of land from the plantation and tried to profit from its harvests on his own. He had been given the worst rocky piece of land, but he still worked hard despite harassment from the whites. One day, he won a race by driving his two mules faster than the Cajun's tractor. Silas, and all the other blacks, knew that he was supposed to lose the race, but Silas refused to lower his pride and with his urging his mules out ran the tractor. For this reason, the whites beat him to death with stacks of sugar cane. Local blacks joined in as well, including Tucker, because they feared what would happen to them if they did not. Tucker angrily asks Sheriff Mapes where the law was when crimes like this happened.

Sooner after Yank stands and describes how he used to break horses for everyone because he was the best cowhand around. Now he shot Beau because Beau took those horses from him. After this comment, Griffin, the deputy, starts to complain about what the black men are saying. He suggests that the Sheriff make them shut up. The Sheriff tells him to be quiet. Gable next rises and says that local whites dragged his sixteen year old son in for raping a white trash girl who was obviously lying. The whites strapped his son to an electric chair, but it malfunctioned. When Gable arrived to claim his son's body, he found his son still alive with the whites kicking the electric chair so that it would work. They made Gable wait outside until they got the chair to work and killed his son. Gable says that he killed Beau in retribution for the murder of his own child, even though Beau was not actually the one who pulled the switch.

No one speaks after Gable finishes. Soon after, Coot, who is wearing an old uniform from World War I, rises. He fought in the First World War having been trained in France and ultimately earned a medal for his valor in battle. After getting home, the local whites told him that he better not wear the medal that showed that he had killed white folks. Coot remembers that local whites killed a friend's son after World War II for having a picture of him with a German girl and that the federal government refused to bury a local black boy in Arlington, even though he had saved his platoon in Korea by jumping on a grenade. Coot remembers how surprised the white German soldiers looked when they saw black soldiers shooting at them and he flushes with pride at his story.

The Reverend Jameson then starts criticizing Mapes for not taking people in and doing his duty. Other people yell at the Reverend and tell him to go home and be quiet. One woman, Beulah, starts arguing with the Reverend and says that she could tell stories about what happens to women in those parts that would make their hair stand on their heads. Mapes declines her offer. Mapes explains to everyone that all of their stories may have basis but there is no proof that Fix ever was involved in them. The blacks laugh and say that blacks long have been lynched on insufficient evidence. When Mapes suggests that he could just take someone in, Candy volunteers herself. The Sheriff and everyone else settle down and decide to wait for the storm that they think will be coming.

Analysis

This chapter is the emotional center of the novel. It is at this moment that the old black men at the Marshall Plantation rise up defiantly against the social system that has entrapped them. They do so by forcing the Sheriff to listen to their stories.

Nine of the eighteen men stand up in this chapter to describe the pains they suffered over the years. As a communal statement, these men suggest that Beau lies dead in retribution for all of the crimes against them. The willingness of these men to rise up and tell their stories, as Billy Washington did before them, represents a forceful act of defiance. Again, traditional social mores dictated that black people only speak to whites when they are spoken too. Here the blacks take the upper hand by dominating the dialogue and forcing the Sheriff to listen. The Sheriff takes this shift in verbal patterns calmly. A more traditional reaction can be seen with his deputy Griffin, who grows angry and irritated that these old men are speaking so much. Griffin's criticism of the Sheriff's inaction testifies to the power of the black men's speech. Ernest Gaines first gave them power by making them narrators; in this chapter, he grants them the further power of being storytellers. The men are telling their own history in their own subjective ways. All together their tales weave a collective narrative of the African-American experience in Bayonne Louisiana since the times of slavery. Their ability to use speech to fight the silence that previously oppressed them is the first major tool that they use this day to redefine their manhood.

Several of the men's stories further detail the way in which the Cajuns altered the blacks' traditional relationship with the land. Johnny Paul evokes the image of a vibrant plantation that where the blacks once nourished the land while the land nourished them. His observations of the weeds surrounding Mathu's house suggest the deterioration of the once healthy plantation. Since the Bauton family took over and brought in machines to farm, the blacks have been slowly forced from the land because they have had no work. In the olden days, these weeds would not have existed because the people living on the land would be carefully maintaining it. With the arrival of the Cajuns, however, the plantation has fallen apart.

The Cajun tractor takes on important symbolism in Tucker's story of his brother Silas. Silas farmed his plot of land in the traditional way, with mules and his own hands. When challenged to a race with the Cajuns, Silas's determination made his mules outrun the white men's motor. Silas died for his audacious act of beating the tractor. Furthermore, he died by being beaten to death with stalks of sugar cane. This sugar cane once nourished the black community when they farmed it for centuries. Symbolically Silas's death by the same cane suggests that with the onset of mechanization, the local blacks can no longer survive. Silas's farming techniques may have been superior just as his mule cart was faster than the tractor, but this superiority does not matter. The Cajun control of the plantation will slowly force all of the blacks out. The land that once fed them will no longer nourish them. The sugar cane that they once relied on will now be turned against them and may even contribute to their deaths, as it did for Silas.

For the most part, the stories that the men tell in this chapter describe painful histories of lynchings, murders, rapes, and beatings. Together these stories weave together into a collective cry of pain. On the level of the story, the narrators are forcing the Sheriff, his deputy, and even Candy and Lou to listen to all the things that they were previously not supposed to discuss. On an textual level, Ernest Gaines is doing the same thing. By evoking specific tales of brutality in the South, Ernest Gaines, like the old men in the novel, is shattering the silence that long veiled those crimes. While the old men at the Marshall Plantation have just a small audience to entertain, Ernest Gaines is able to direct his monologue to the entire literate English-speaking world. His powerful persistence in naming those actions that generally remain under recorded in American history textbooks, again relates to the African-American motif of expanding American history so that it accurately includes the experience of all of its members. Within the text and outside of it then, Gaines illustrates the way in which the control over language can alter traditional power dynamics by allowing for redefinition.

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