Commentary by Karen Bernardo
James, the narrator of Ernest Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray,” is a black child living outside Bayonne, Louisiana during the Second World War. But James’ life scarcely seems like a childhood at all, for it is occupied with worries and concerns too old for a child: whether his family will have enough wood to keep them warm; whether they have enough money to pay the dentist in Bayonne to pull James’ decayed tooth and still buy “a little piece of salt meat.” James has already suffered a great deal of pain, both physical and emotional, because he knows his family can not afford the dental bill his toothache is going to inflict on them. These are heavy issues for an eight-year-old to deal with; but he will deal with others just as weighty on his day trip to the dentist.
Early in the story, we are told an anecdote that seems to present James’ mother Octavia as a hard and unfeeling parent. James and his brother have set traps for owls and blackbirds, but on this one occasion the traps netted redbirds instead. His mother killed one of the redbirds and James was horrified; the birds were beautiful and not pests, and James wanted to let them go. His mother beat him for his refusal to kill the second bird, and eventually he did kill it; then he basked in his family’s pride in him for providing this little bit of meat for their supper. Even at such a young age, James realizes that his mother was preparing him for the hard ways of the world.
A conversation occurs in the dentist’s office between a preacher who believes that one must accept one’s lot in life without questioning God’s will, and a young black student who believes people must “question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything.” The preacher becomes so infuriated that he slaps the student in the face; the student merely sits down and resumes reading. Although he is too young to articulate what has just happened, James realizes that when he grows up he wants to be a student just like that one. He has had enough of the hardscrabble life he lives now; the strength his mother is giving him will prepare him to change a hostile world.
After a long morning spent trying to escape the cold and sleet in a city full of white cafes they cannot enter, merchandise they cannot buy, and scary, cold-hearted people with their worst interests at heart, a white woman asks James and Octavia into her store and offers them something to eat. The woman and Octavia dance a delicate waltz around Octavia’s obvious need and her just as obvious pride; a compromise is reached when the woman asks James to put out the trash in return for lunch for himself and his mother. Another waltz ensues over the issue of whether to accept a large slab of salt meat worth far more than the “two bits” Octavia has to pay for it; only when the woman cuts the appropriate amount will Octavia accept it.
As they leave the store, James tries to turn his coat collar up against the biting wind and his mother tells him to wear it properly. “You not a bum,” she tells him. “You a man.” In this story, Octavia gives James the tools he will need to succeed in life. She realizes more than he does that only through toughness, persistence, and character will he be able to rise above his environment rather than fall victim to it. Her parenting may seem harsh to those of us who have never needed to teach or learn such rigorous survival skills, but she is determined to hone James into a person who can survive any hardship with his head held high. Due to her teaching, it’s clear James will never accept himself as anything less than “a man.”
This story can be found in the collection Bloodline: Five Stories, available from Amazon here.
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