Louisiana author, Ernest J Gaines, who is widely known for examining race, class, and poverty in his works, will be featured on a postage stamp to be issued January 2023, according to this article from The Advocate and announced by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The internationally acclaimed author, who passed away at age 86 in November 2019, was a writer-in-residence emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he also taught creative writing from 1983 until he retired in 2010. This past week, the United States Postal Service announced that the 46th stamp in their Black Heritage series will feature an oil painting based on a photograph of a stoically poised Ernest Gaines wearing his trademark beret.
President of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Dr. Joseph Savoie, commented on the postage stamp honoring Ernest Gaines by saying, “Dr. Gaines’ stamp offers an impressive representation of the man I knew and admired, and it reminds me of the immeasurable grace, strength, and character he displayed throughout his life and through his words. More importantly, it acknowledges and affirms his belief in the inherent commonality of people and his unflinching courage in reminding us of the need to continually address some of the darkest chapters in our collective past.”
Something the nation lost when Gaines passed was the chance to hear his literary voice. His understated yet striking prose had a way of highlighting the struggles of marginalized groups and shaking up our consciences. Ernest Gaines began his publishing career with the 1964 publication of Catherine Carmier. He soon received acclaim and published 7 more novels, two collections of short stories, and many other volumes throughout his prolific career. In 2013, Gaines was awarded a National Medal of Arts, which is the highest award given by the U.S. government to artists, by President Barack Obama for his contributions to the arts and his dynamic lifetime of achievement in literature.
In their published obituary, The New York Times noted that in his writing, Ernest J Gaines told “of the inner struggle for dignity among southern black people before the civil rights era” and “captured the lives and strivings of those he had grown up within a time of limited opportunities and oppressive racism.”
Born in 1933, Gaines grew up on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana with his parents, who worked as sharecroppers. With every hardship they faced, from economic desperation to racial segregation and its aftermath, the family’s eloquence in their losses constructed Gaines’ personal narrative and literary ethos. As a teenager, he moved to California and studied at Stanford University. Soon after, he taught at Stanford before returning to Louisiana to continue writing his fiction, which was resiliently rooted in his ancestors and the people and places of his childhood.
Gaines’ novel that first received widespread attention was The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. The novel is a true account of the fictional life of a 110-year-old woman born into slavery. Published in 1971, Gaines’ inspiration for the work came from his Aunt Augusteen Jefferson, who raised him after his parents were killed when he was four years old.
His other massively notable work, A Lesson Before Dying, revolves around the story of an illiterate man wrongfully condemned to death. This novel earned a National Book Critics Circle Award, won a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
Gaines’ novels have been published in at least 17 languages, and their writing is often compared to both Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. His wide-reaching appeal is linked to his skills of “prompt[ing] conversation about humanity,” as explained by UL Lafayette’s Cheylon Woods, who is an assistant professor and director of the Ernest J Gaines Center.
UL Lafayette’s Ernest J Gaines Center, which Gaines worked to establish after he retired, is an international center for scholarship on the author and his fiction that is housed in the Edith Garland Dupré Library.
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