Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men


Set in rural South Louisiana, Gaines’s fiction takes place in the heart of the state’s sugarcane country. The economic conditions attending to sugarcane production make up the backdrop of all his fiction and play a special role in A Gathering of Old Men. The history of sugarcane production spans three centuries and relied on slave labor to become a commercial industry. After abolition, the enslaved laborers who made sugarcane cultivation profitable suddenly had rights and the legal freedom to seek better employment. What would become of the sugar industry? Sharecropping provided a way for plantation owners to offset the costs of production and defer the risks of agricultural business while ensuring largely unchanged socio-economic conditions in the rural South. The general hierarchy of land owners, overseers, and laborers needed reorganizing, but not substantially. To maintain their place at the top, land owners maintained control over as much of the production process as possible and assimilated working class white folks into positions of privilege compared to Black sharecroppers.

A Gathering of Old Men offers a glimpse of how sharecropping disadvantaged Black farmers when Tucker describes how the Marshall family parceled out their land for sharecropping, giving Cajun planters the best land while giving the people they had enslaved the worst land—“that bottomland near the swamps” (94). He goes on to explain the cruel irony of the situation: “Here our own black people had been working this land a hundred years for the Marshall plantation, but when it come to sharecropping, now they give the best land to the Cajuns, who had never set foot on the land before” (94). That disadvantage, among others—including the Thibodaux Massacre—made it difficult for Black sharecroppers to get ahead in what has become a billion-dollar industry. According to the American Sugar Cane League:

It is important to note that the sugar industry is vital to Louisiana’s economy – with an annual economic impact of $2 billion to cane growers and raw sugar factories, while also generating an overall economic value of $3 billion. Sugarcane is produced on more than 400,000 acres of land in 22 Louisiana parishes – with production of approximately 13 million tons of cane yearly. About 17,000 jobs are supported in the production and processing of sugarcane in Louisiana – and the state boasts 11 raw sugar factories. Suffice to say that sugarcane production and processing is a major part of Louisiana’s economy and a treasured way of life for hundreds of farming families in our state.

While sugarcane farming may be a treasured way of life for some, Gaines’s fiction shows how it can be a hard way of life, predicated on cheap labor and unequal competition for resources. Yet, Gaines more than anyone has acknowledged that the culture sugarcane farming produced is worth remembering, even celebrating. The characters populating his fiction demonstrate skill, discipline, intelligence, grit, humor, and a love of life. Their perspectives add up to a penetrating look at the systems of power, violence, and exploitation required to produce an agricultural commodity that we consume every day.

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