The male characters in A Gathering of Old Men explore their own masculinity throughout the novel. By dramatizing their self-perception against the backdrop of collective experience, Gaines shows how different communities understand masculinity in different ways. The men throughout the novel use their aspirations and limitations to develop into the epitome of a masculine man so defined in their own culture. Gaines uses various challenging characters to illustrate how masculinity is perceived in association to race, ethnicity, class, and social upbringing. As the characters develop, the novel's dramatization of masculine ideals structures an opposition between masculinity in Cajun and Black communities.
Set during the 1970’s in rural South Louisiana, the novel constructs Black masculinity through representations of courage, potential, self-actualization and advocating for their own humanity. By contrast, the Cajun community in the novel recognizes masculinity in dominance, power, and violence. The Black men in the Quarters slowly unearth their courage and represent their own development of manhood when they arrive to defend Mathu. Each man comes with a gun, and with that gun comes their potential to embody a form of masculinity they have lacked in their lives. To these men, masculinity means establishing their own voices and defending themselves. They establish their voices by speaking up on their own behalf. By fighting against racism and their past acquiescence to white supremacy, they attain a sense of masculinity through self defense.
If the Black men achieve masculinity by bearing arms, the Cajun community finds itself split over the relationship between masculinity and violence. Literary critic Suzanne Jones explains this difference in regards to Gil Boutan, a college athlete and the brother of Beau, who was shot dead in the Quarters. She writes, “A young white man comes to maturity when he rejects his society’s equation of masculinity with violence, while the old black men become men when they enact this definition” (30). The Black men fulfill the definition of masculinity when they reject what is expected of them by a white supremacist society. According to social expectations, Black men should submit to the white man's authority. Rejecting that compliant behavior allows the Black men to achieve full manhood. Gil, by contrast, defies what is expected of him by rejecting violence. Instead, he advocates for letting the law take its course, wherever that may lead.
Gil’s foil in the Cajun community, Luke Will, reacts with violence in a way characteristic of toxic masculinity. To him, masculinity is discernible through violent behaviors. Jones explains by stating, “He can define masculine bravery as fighting not as refusing to fight” (35). In the novel, however, Luke Will represents the downfall of masculinity because he dies in the end. Meanwhile, Gil illustrates a new generation of masculinity that accepts racial equality, dramatized in particular by his sportsmanship on an interracial football team. Although, like Luke Will, the Black men demonstrate a willingness to enact violence, Gaines shows the difference between how violence can define masculinity. In Luke Will’s case, an act of violence shows an aggressive tendency that defines his toxic masculinity. He brings his gun to enact his violent aggression and social intimidation. In the final shootout, Luke Will shoots Sheriff Mapes, to which Sharp, one of Luke Will's gang, says: “Luke hadn’t intended to kill him when he shot him, only to stop him” (203). From this, it is evident that Luke Will was responding with aggression and excitement, not as a defense of himself or his people. He was participating in the shootout for his own entertainment.
The violence the old Black men enact defies their socially scripted behavior toward white men. They reject society’s emasculating hierarchies by fighting against white authority. They bring their guns to defend themselves, as opposed to Luke Will, who pursues aggressive violence.
Through Charlie, Gaines shows how self-actualization and masculinity work together. When Charlie returns to the Quarters, he gains the courage to accept responsibility for shooting Beau Boutan. He realizes his potential as a man and claims his masculinity. He tells Mapes, “Sheriff, I’m a man. And just like I call you Sheriff, I think I ought to have a handle, too—like Mister. Mr. Biggs” (187). He embodies this masculinity by displaying courage. He doesn’t want to be treated like a boy any longer. He definitively states that he is a man and he should be called Mr. Biggs to show his overdue maturity into manhood. His importance in the novel spikes as he shows a direct transformation into what the Black men claim as masculinity in their own community. Mathu’s masculinity is different from Charlie’s. Mathu is the epitome of a man to Charlie and the other Black men because of his fearlessness toward white authority. The novel constructs masculinity of the Black man in terms of bravery and daring. Mathu was never afraid to assert his influence throughout the novel, he is shown as a strong and bold Black man. Adversely, Charlie is afraid of his consequences until the end of the novel when transforms himself through courage and self-respect. Unlike the white man’s emergence of masculinity through violence, Charlie gains his masculinity by asserting himself and discovering his own contentment.
A Gathering of Old Men was published in 1983 and set at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a close. Throughout the novel, Gaines constructs his own view of Black masculinity by appropriating contextual events in history where the masculinity of Black men was questioned. When Charlie states, “I’m a man” to Mapes, this closely resembles the historical event of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 (187). Melonee Gaines, a journalist from Memphis, writes on the Sanitation Workers Strike and interviews a man named Elmore Nickleberry, who participated in the strike to demand fair wages (Gaines 19). The sanitation workers held signs stating, “I AM A MAN” which soon became unforgettable. Nickleberry was a veteran of the Korean War and comments on the strike by saying, “I fought for my country. I love my country. I served my time and I came out as a man. But they didn’t call you a man. They called you a boy, but I knew I was a man” (20). Charlie Biggs understands this same transformation. He was treated like a young boy all of his life. But he was a man, and by the end of the novel he realizes his potential of manhood and claims it. Mr. Nickleberry has a similar realization. He believes that “participating in the Memphis sanitation workers strike was an opportunity to be seen as a man who deserved life, liberty, and happiness” (23). A Gathering of Old Men dramatizes many different social circumstances to show the true effects of how Black masculinity has been tested through time. It shows the strength men can have in times of adversity.
Through each character’s narration, Gaines exposes the truth of how masculinity is defined in terms of race and social class. He uses his characters to contradict one another and give a glimpse of what masculinity looked like in rural South Louisiana communities in the 1970’s. Gaines hoped to expose injustice while attempting to help people see the complexities of what fuels a man to achieve masculinity.