The Stubbornness of Tradition

  • Trudier Harris


Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying (1993) is comparable to several other works referenced in this study in that it presents an extended example of the impact of a strong black woman character upon her offspring. While Grant Wiggins’ great-aunt, Tante Lou, has certainly not given birth to him, she is the only mother he has ever known. She is thus as much biologically his mother as Octavia is James’s in Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray.” She has been the rooted part of the family tree since her own sister left, leaving her a baby to raise, and she in turn remained rooted when that child grew up, gave birth to Grant, and left him with her to raise. Through the act of narrating the story, Grant enables us to see the impact of Tante Lou’s raising practices upon him, for he is an exemplary manifestation of the offspring affected by the manipulative strong black woman character. The battles he wages for psychological space are perhaps not as dramatic as Walter Lee Younger’s in A Raisin in the Sun, but they are nonetheless poignant. To the strong black female character who has reared a manchild under especially difficult circumstances, that offspring has one option: to do as he is told. Thus Tante Lou can exert just as much biological tyranny on Grant as her literary ancestors do on their offspring.1


Black Woman Commanding Voice Liquor Store Colored People Young Black Male 


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  1. 1.
    Another striking literary example of a strong black female character and her impact upon her offspring is Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brownstones (1959), in which the mother, Silla Boyce, wages psychological war against her husband and her two daughters for mastery of her household. At one point, when her younger daughter Selina calls her Hitler and strikes her mother with her fists, Silla endures the blows, then wraps her daughter in an embrace that is all possessive, all claiming, as the crying daughter gives way to an exhausted sleep in her mother’s arms. Marshall’s characters are drawn from Bajan culture, which suggests that tenets of the strong woman of African ancestry transcend national borders in the New World.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying (New York: Knopf, 1993), p. 3. I will place further references to this novel in parenthesis in the text. The image of the women being as immobile as oak or cypress stumps evokes Christian song imagery. “I shall not be moved; just like a tree, planted by the waters, I shall not be moved.” Keep in mind that one of the stories in Gaines’s Bloodline (1968), which portrays a strong black woman character, is entitled “Just Like a Tree.”Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Knopf, 1974), p. 69.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    For an extended discussion of food and its production as indicative of relationships in the novel, see Courtney Ramsay, “Louisiana Foodways in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying,” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10 (1995): 46–58. Ramsay contends that “food in its acquisition and its preparation not only provides nourishment and a means by which love is expressed but also serves as a medium to exert power, to express other emotions of acceptance or rejection, and to communicate these feelings to others” (46).Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Herman Beavers, Wrestling Angels Into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and fames Alan McPherson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp. 229–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 11.
    Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction (New York: Knopf, 1976).Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Pearl Cleage, Flyiri West (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1995), p. 7. Subsequent references to this source appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar

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© Trudier Harris 2001

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  • Trudier Harris

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