Ernest J. Gaines (b. 1933)
Contributing Editor: John F. Callahan
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The simplicity and tautness of Gaines's "The Sky Is Gray" sometimes lulls students to sleep and leads them, at first, not to look for some of the abiding, archetypal patterns in this story. Partly, this is due to the young boy's voice. Given the changes in race relations between the time in which the story was set, then written, and now, students need to read very carefully to pick up the nuances of this 1940s social milieu.
Instructor and students should read large chunks of the story out loud. Secondly, background on this milieu is very helpful; for this reason I urge that Gaines's essay "Miss Jane and I" (Callaloo 1, no. 3 [May 1974]) be offered as a companion to the story.
Students often ask about the actuality of segregation--they wonder whether Gaines's details are accurate. In addition, they ask whether the story's voice is consistently that of the young boy James.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The story is about a young boy having to grow up earlier than he might have wished or than the adults in his family might have wished because his father is serving in World War II. The boy's mother must be father as well as mother to James. He learns about courage and dignity, about pain, and about the love and will that make pain bearable. The story also shows breaks in the color line enforced by Jim Crow laws and customs.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
How authentic are young James's voice and point of view? How (and why) does Gaines rely on the oral tradition of story-telling in his fiction?
Gaines has said over and over again that he writes especially for young people, with particular reference to the young whites and, preeminently, the young blacks of the South. That is worth exploring along with three different layers of time: (1) the story's time of the 1940s; (2) the writer's time of the mid-1960s; and (3) the reader's changing moment.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Other relevant stories in Vol. 2 of the anthology include: Faulkner's "Barn Burning"; Steinbeck's "Flight"; Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"; Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game"; and McPherson's "A Solo Song: For Doc."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. When does James become a man?
2. How does James come into his own voice?
See the special issue of Callaloo 1, no. 3 (May 1978) devoted to Gaines and his work.
Callahan, John F. "The Landscape of Voice in Ernest J. Gaines's Bloodline." Callaloo 7, no. 1 (Winter 1984): 86-112, especially pp. 86-90, 96-99.