Call this a Gathering of Old Friends.
More than 400 people made their way to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette last week to unveil the Black Heritage Stamp that bears the image of Ernest J. Gaines. Captured in brilliant color, it will forever honor this Louisiana native and writer.
Author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “A Lesson Before Dying” and a half-dozen other novels, including “A Gathering of Old Men,” he was remembered by those who treasured him for his books, lectures and insights: Colleagues, students, scholars, fellow writers, readers, family and the curious. Hundreds attended the sort of ceremony that sometimes draws but a few dozen people on the first day a stamp is issued.
“For a quarter century, as a professor and writer-in-residence at the university, Dr. Gaines entreated aspiring writers to remember the inherent commonality of people and obligation we have as individuals to treat each other with dignity and respect,” said UL President E. Joseph Savoie. “His genius and influence made them better, and made our university better, and we are forever grateful for his enduring example.”
Gaines drew his characters from those who lived lives not unlike his own: Black people, struggling but hard-working, sometimes from Gaines’ fictional area of Bayonne. They had family conflicts and faced steep challenges but most pursued their lives with aspirations and dignity, lending inspiration to readers the world over.
For much of his time as a writer-in-residence, Gaines lived on Buena Vista Boulevard in a subdivision just south of campus, Arbolada Addition. The one-story, brick house on a corner lot with many oaks was named “The Ernest J. Gaines Writer in Residence House” in 2020 by a vote of the UL System Board of Supervisors.
The home, which has housed many writers in residence, is located some 50 miles yet a world away from the Riverlake Plantation in Oscar, where Gaines was born. There, Gaines was part of the fifth generation of a family — first slaves, later sharecroppers — who toiled that land. He later built his own house there on Highway 1, where he lived in retirement, and had the church building where he had both worshipped and attended school moved to the property.
“Dr. Gaines brought worldwide attention to generations of men and women who asserted their human dignity in the face of racial oppression and violence,” said Donald Lee Moak, a member of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, who served as the stamp ceremony’s dedicating official. “His novels would shine a light on individuals who were too often overlooked and remind us of the dignity present in every human being, especially those being oppressed.”
Gaines first saw that dignity revealed in Point Coupee Parish, where he lived in a home intended to house slaves. He saw that light while living with a disabled aunt who had to crawl to move around the house.
Impoverished as a child, he felt the sting of attending segregated schools for the few months a year that they were open. In his home parish, there were no high schools for Black children, but his mother and stepfather urged him to join them in California, where he could continue his schooling through a master’s degree.
His stamp reminds us of what he endured but also of what he created: a body of brilliant literature and generations of inspired writers and readers. His work is worth commemoration, on our mail and in our hearts.