An Analysis of Ernest J. Gaines' 'The Sky is
Ernest J. Gaines' 'The Sky is Gray'
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
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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
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."
It is available in paperback from Amazon here:
You can also find it as a Kindle download in Ben Forkner's "Louisiana Stories" here:
It is also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here: