Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men

To See or to Don't See

A Gathering of Old Men dramatizes the social changes brought on by modern agricultural techniques. To start, we learn the farming community that once occupied the quarters has scattered in the Great Migration. As Lou Dimes puts it, “There was nothing but old people there. The young ones had all gone away, leaving only the old and a few children” (58). Charlie is the only working-age Black man in the novel. All the others have left to find work or have been run off the land. Johnny Paul recollects working in groups of thirty or forty people. “But just look at things today,” he says. “Where are the people?” (92). He tells Mapes that white folks can’t see the changes because they had not been in the community to witness the way things were a generation before. “You can’t see the church with the people, and you can’t hear the singing and the praying. You had to be here then to be able to don’t see it and don’t hear it now” (92). His unusual phrasing—the ability to don’t see what once was—speaks to a double erasure of the sharecropping community. First, they lost their livelihood. Then, as the last of the older generation passes, all memory of their social history fades away.

Johnny Paul connects that double erasure directly to new farming techniques. The tractor enters the story again as a symbol for the devastation of the sharecropping community. “Like now they trying to get rid of all proof that black people ever farmed this land with plows and mules—like if they had nothing from the starten but motor machines” (92). Technological changes pushed his people off the land and now threaten their memory, which Johnny Paul makes clear when he says “that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard” where the sharecroppers and enslaved laborers are buried (92). His monologue expresses how memorial desecration will follow social decimation. The drive for increased production will lead to plowing under the burial ground for another acre of sugarcane. He makes it his mission to protect the graveyard and the memory of the people buried there as long as he lives.

Tucker speaks after Johnny Paul, touching on some of the same themes to give readers a fuller sense of the tumultuous shift away from sharecropping. He tells the story of his brother Silas, “the last black man round her trying to sharecrop on this place. The last one to fight against that tractor out there” (93). Silas’s story helps remind us that what might appear like natural progress—from mule-drawn carts to tractors—actually arrives in the form of competition. “How can a man beat a machine?” asks Tucker (96). Despite the unlikely odds, Silas did beat the machine one day during the cane harvest. “With them two little mules, he beat that tractor to the derrick,” where they loaded cane for transport to the mill (96). Tucker carefully details how the competition takes place on an uneven field. Cajun sharecroppers got the best land at the start of sharecropping, so they produced more sugarcane and earned more money. When new technologies like the tractor made farming even more efficient, they could afford to adopt the new techniques. Even those advantages, however, do not secure a sure victory. Silas, a sort of John Henry figure for sugarcane farming, gave it his all and managed to work faster than Fix Boutan, his competition in the tractor. “So they beat him,” Tucker says. “They took stalks of cane and they beat him and beat him and beat him” (96).

The logic of capitalism tells us that productive economies require competition, necessitating winners and losers. If technological innovation can help farmers grow more sugarcane with fewer hands, the thinking goes, those who innovate should win. Given how natural that line of reasoning appears, Tucker’s monologue goes a long way toward offering a critical perspective of the material conditions of sugar production. The story of his brother makes clear how systems of agricultural labor rely on and maintain social hierarchies. That social maintenance depends on competition among sharecroppers, ultimately benefiting landowners. The fiercer the competition, the more cane sharecroppers grow on their land. That means more profit for the landowner who collects a share of the profit. In that way, Tucker implicates Candy’s family for organizing the sharecropping system in an unfair way. Although an earlier draft shows Tucker going out of his way to exculpate Candy, her place in the social hierarchy reveals some tension between her and the community of old men she appears to want to protect, as suggested by her physical posture: “her mouth tight, grim—she was looking over the yard, down the quarters, toward the fields. She knowed Tucker was telling the truth” (94). Candy’s cheerless expression reminds readers, regardless of her benevolence, that a long history of exploitation made her family wealthy and provided them with a “treasured way of life.”

The truth of sugarcane farming, from slavery to the end of sharecropping, appears more bitter than sweet in this novel. In the four decades since Gaines wrote it, the sugar industry in Louisiana has fully modernized. However, the problem of racism and exploitation continues to structure unequal competition in the sugar industry. As Black farmers in Acadiana explain, the end of plantations and sharecropping do not mean the end of discrimination. June and Angie Provost have been outspoken advocates for Black farmers in the United States. Their advocacy stems from personal experience with discriminatory banking practices, intimidation, and the loss of Black farmland. As June Provost explained in an article at Baines Report, “nationwide, black Americans make up less than 1% of U.S. landowners, and they’re losing up to 30,000 acres of land a year.” How will we recognize their loss if we do not first recognize the legacy of Black farming in America? The Provost’s experience shows how the representation of sharecropping in A Gathering of Old Men still has an important role in conveying that legacy. It teaches careful readers to see more clearly how Louisiana produces its number one cash crop.

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