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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