“… for his contributions as an author and teacher.  Drawing deeply from his childhood in the rural South, his works have shed new light on the African American experience and given voice to those who have endured injustice.”

~ President Barack H. Obama in presenting Ernest J. Gaines the National Medal of the Arts

Ernest J. Gaines was born January 15, 1933 on the River Lake Plantation in Oscar of Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana to Manuel Gaines and Adrian Jefferson.  The fifth generation of his family to live on the plantation, he was the eldest of his parents’ children.  His parents separated when Ernest was eight years old and his mother soon remarried to Raphael Norbert Colar.  Seeking greater opportunities for a better way of life than sharecropping, the Colar couple moved to Vallejo, California during World War II.  They left Ernest to be reared by his great-aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson.

She was pivotal in influencing him and his life.  Crippled since birth, she, according to the “Achiever: Ernest J. Gaines” biography on the website of American Academy of Achievement, “… crawled from the kitchen to the family’s garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters.”  She cooked, cleaned, performed housework and even disciplined Ernest with a switch, under which he would have to kneel to get his whipping.  It was from his great-aunt that he learned the value of courage, dignity, perseverance, responsibility, strength and wisdom in overcoming the many trials of life.

It was also from Aunt Augusteen that he learned the beauty and power of the oral tradition of African-Americans.  Because of her physical inability, she could not readily visit others on the plantation.  Her family and friends would visit her, gathering on the porch to talk and share.  Ernest, who waited on them, often serving coffee, would listen to their stories and speech.  His aunt also ensured that he read and wrote letters for the people living in the quarters who could not do one or both. 

This experience allowed him to learn different words and patterns of speaking.  Interviewed by Patricia Rickels in “An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines”, he reminisced, “I would go to these people and read their letters for them and write their letters for them.  In most cases, they didn’t know how to form the letter.  They’d give me a little piece of paper, you know those small, yellow tablets, and pencil and say, ‘Tell Viney’ or ‘Tell Clara I’m all right. We’re doing ok and the garden’s all right.’  Something like that.  Then I would have to form the letter.  I’d just write it, and re-write it, and re-write it until I got it right.  Then I’d read it back to them.”

For greater enlightenment...