Crusader Staff Report
Ernest Gaines, who wrote the award-winning book, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and other critically-acclaimed books about the Black struggle, died at his home in Oscar, LA, Tuesday, November 5. He was 86.
Gaines died in his sleep of cardiac arrest, according to the Associated Press.
The son of sharecroppers, Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He attended school for little more than five months out of the year but acquired enough schooling to write letters for adults who couldn’t read or write.
In the late 1940s, when Gaines was 15, his family moved to Vallejo, California after the school district in Louisiana did not allow Black students. Gaines once said that there he could do something that had been forbidden in the South: visit a library.
Gaines later attended San Francisco State University. His early writing earned him a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.
In 1963, Gaines returned to Louisiana, and enrolled at the University of Mississippi, after being inspired by activist James Meredith’s fight to attend the all-white university.
In 1971, Gaines rose to prominence after his novel, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” was published.
The story is about a fictional Black woman born into slavery and gives a first-person account of her experiences from the time she worked for her slave owner to her freedom during the civil rights era. The book was later adapted for a CBS television movie in 1974 starring Cicely Tyson and won nine Emmy Awards. The movie would come three years before Alex Haley’s “Roots” movie would be seen in record-breaking numbers by viewers in 1977.
Gaines would later say that the fictional Pittman was modeled after his disabled great-aunt, Augustine Jefferson, who despite being unable to work, was able to raise a family.
Gaines wrote other books based on the Black struggle during segregation. In 1993, his best-selling novel, “A Lesson Before Dying,” told the story about a young Southern Black man wrongfully-convicted, waiting to be executed. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was featured on Oprah’s Book Club. The book was also adapted into a television movie.
Gaines also wrote “A Gathering of Old Men,” a tale of a group of aging Black men sharing stories about their lives in rural, segregated Louisiana. The book was published in 1983 and was made into a movie in 1987.
During his illustrious career Gaines published eight novels and many short stories. He was honored with numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was named a MacArthur Fellow, known as the “genius grant” in 1993. President Bill Clinton awarded Gaines the National Humanities Medal in 2000. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Gaines the National Medal of Arts.
With the earnings from his books and television movies, Gaines built a home on plantation land he had worked as a child and near a cemetery where his family members were buried.
In an interview published by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation in 2007, Gaines talked about his home in False River, LA.
“If Auntie [Augusteen Jefferson] could sit here with me, or my stepfather who took me away from here, or my Uncle George, who used to take me to those old beat-up bars in Baton Rouge—if I could, I’d just buy him a good glass of Gentleman Jack, and we could sit here and talk. Oh, I wish I could do that.”
Gaines is survived by his wife Dianne Saulney Gaines, four stepchildren and nine siblings.