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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Preserver of the Past

“All writers write about the past, and I try to make it come alive so you can see what happened.” – Ernest Gaines 
Gaines, born on this date in 1933, was among the fifth generation of his sharecropper family to be born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, LA, the setting and premise for many of his works.  Although he grew up in crushing poverty with sparse opportunity for education, he went on to earn several college degrees and author hundreds of stories and many novels and books of nonfiction, including the multi-award winning The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying.

That latter book won the National Book Award and all three books were made into television movies.  Jane Pittman won The Director’s Guild of America and 8 Emmy Awards, and A Lesson was selected for the Emmy as Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

Sporadically educated up through 8th grade, Gaines started writing in his mid-teens after leaving Louisiana for California, where he helped care for his mother’s family while simultaneously holding down a job and going back to school.  His writing drew the attention of a faculty member at San Francisco State University, which gave him a scholarship.  His first short story “The Turtles,” was published while he was a student there. 

Today, Gaines’ historical writing is studied around the world and his legacy is honored through the annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, presented by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to encourage rising African American writers of fiction.

“I wanted to be a writer,” Gaines reflected shortly before his death in 2019.  “I wanted to say something about home.”

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