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Posts Tagged ‘Cicely Tyson’

“In the beginning, I tried to be a more cosmopolitan writer, but I realized that I was a country boy, and I had to deal with things I knew about and where I came from.”
Ernest Gaines

The odds from the start were greatly against Ernest Gaines becoming the novelist Ernest Gaines. Or the one whose work would one day be turned into a landmark TV movie that would win nine Emmys.

Imagine being born in Oscar, Louisiana during the depression. To poor black parents who were sharecroppers. And at the age six, instead of going to school, you began working in the fields picking cotton, onions, or Irish potatoes for 50 cents a day. As hard as that is to imagine, I’m sure it was a harder life for Gaines to live.

But Gaines, who died yesterday at age 86, had couple of things in his favor—and one important side hustle. His crippled aunt never walked but that didn’t stop her from cooking, cleaning, and being a strong displinarian to a houseful of kids. She was the main inspiration and guiding force in his childhood—all the more important after his parents life him behind after World War II to seek employment in California.

And in a church they used as a schoolroom five months of the year in the off-harvest season, Gaines learned to read and write. That gave him the opportunity to start his side hustle—his first writing gig. He wrote letters for the elderly people at five cents a pop. And because the people wanted him to fill the front and back of the paper, it gave him an opportunity to use some creativity beyond talking about the weather. And a writer was born. (Though he didn’t acknowlege that until many years later.)

At 15, he would join his parents in Vallejo, California just north of San Francisco. His literary world greatly expanded when he went into a library for a first time in his life. He read a wide variety of writers from around the world, and then attended Solano Community College northeast of Vallejo. That led to an opportunity to study at San Francisco State University. Two of his stories were published in the student library magazine and that opened doors for him to study at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner. 

At this point he was a long way from Oscar, Louisiana. But he would return to Oscar frequently for inspiration. He may have written in California, but the subjects were usually the people and the land of the rural South.

Two of his best knows novels are A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Both were turned into TV movies, but it was Jane Pittman that was a cultural phenomena in 1974— a few years before the miniseries Roots.

It’s the story of one woman’s journey from slavey to the Civil Rights movement. Though I was 12-13 when the movie came out, I remember clearly all the promotional material released about Cicely Tyson playing both the young and 110-year-old Pittman. Her transformation was so well received that she won two Emmys (Actress of the Year and Best Lead in a Drama). In total it won nine Emmys including John Korty’s direction and Tracy Keenan Wynn’s adaption.

My mentor and former professor Annye Refoe took a graduate class where Gaines made an appearance. I asked her what book of his she’d recommend and she said A Gathering of Old Men. That book was also adapted into a TV movie with the same title (by Charles Fuller) starring Louis Gossett Jr, Richard Widmark, and Holly Hunter.

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“Now that I look back on my career for the past forty-some years, I feel that I’m still writing those letters for those old people. Not only for the old, but the young as well. And not only for those I knew as a child, but for those who lived many generations before. They were not given a chance to read and write, and I was. But without their voices, had I not sat on that porch and wrote letters 55 years ago, I’m certain that I would not be sitting here tonight. After all, what else what I had to write about?”
Ernest Gaines
American Academy of Achievement summit  (heard on the What it takes podcast)

Just another example of what can rise up from unlikely places.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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