American novelist and short story writer Earnest J. Gaines’ renowned short story, “The Sky is Gray” was first published in the Negro Digest in August 1963, and is a part of his collection called Bloodline: Five Stories. A classic example of an African-American bildungsroman adapted to the short story form, the novel traces the journey of a young African-American boy, James, and his mother, Octavia, from their country house to a dentist in the town in Louisiana around the early 1940s.
The Sky is Gray | Summary
Written in the first-person narrative, the story uses rural African-American dialect to flesh out its characters and give them credibility. The plot opens in medias res, where the narrator, James, and his mother, are seen waiting for a bus to the town, the young land waiting with his handkerchief in hand to wave at the bus when it arrives.
The narrator now describes his love for his mother and the connection that he shares with her – they have spent so much time together that James can almost read his mother’s thoughts. He muses on how his mother must be worrying about her younger children back in the house, not having the comfort of knowing that her eldest son ‘a man’, is there to take care of things. He loves his mother but is not permitted to voice his emotions, since emotions are considered to be a sign of weakness and vulnerability, as is fear. He now explains that this is why he kept his toothache hidden for weeks, knowing that his family cannot afford to see a dentist. Only his younger brother Ty, who he is closest to, knows about his pain, faithfully keeping the secret.
Despite James’ efforts, his aunt realizes that he is having a severe toothache. On James’ persuasion, she agrees to not inform his mother and summons the local religious healer, Monsieur Bayonne instead. The healer asks him to read catholic prayers in his mind while he tries to heal him. His antics provide only temporary relief and when James’ toothache returns, his mother resolves to go to the town and consult a dentist, ignoring James’ false protests of there being no pain. On the fated day, James is woken up early and rushes through his breakfast, finally leaving for the bus stop. At the end of the backstory, we come back to the present scene of James and Octavia waiting for the bus, which appears to be running late. Although feeling the urge to complain, James resists, knowing that his mother does not like ‘you to say something just for nothing’ considering it a waste of words and energy. Facing a pond with ‘pool-doos’ or pouldeaus, an American duck species, he wonders if they are edible, thinking back to the time when his mother forced an eight-year-old James to kill his pet redbirds in order to eat them. The episode is particularly traumatizing, with James begging to be let off the task, and Octavia insisting on it and beating him continuously for disobeying her orders in what is deemed to be a lesson in strength and manliness. James realizes that he now understands his mother’s motives behind the harsh task.
The bus arrives and they board it, going all the way back to the few seats reserved for the ‘colored’. He refuses a chewing gum offered by a lady and observes a girl in a red coat sitting in front of him, developing a crush on her through the journey. The girl’s mother teases her about James, and she haughtily denies having taken a liking to him, prompting James to respond in the same way. They continue bantering throughout the journey, making the other passengers laugh. They get down at the town, Bayonne, James recollecting the time he visited the place with both his parents and Ty, before his father is sent off to fight in the War. They pass a white school and a court, which houses a national flag appearing different from the one they have back in James’ school, having fewer stars than the latter. On reaching the dentist’s chamber, a white woman notes down his name while a man’s pained howling is heard from inside the chamber, immediately followed by that of a little boy, John Lee Williams. A lady wonders why God lets innocent children suffer, prompting a preacher to reply that it is not up to them to question His will.
The lady reveals that the dentist is not even good, the whites go to Dr. Robillard who treats his patients better but charges more. A young student sitting in the corner questions the validity of the preacher’s claims, pointing out that this attitude of unquestioning acceptance and obedience is what perpetuates the misery of the colored in America. This leads to a heated debate between the two, the preacher outraged at the idea of questioning God’s will while the young student is bringing even His existence under a question mark. The audience, as well as James, instinctively knows which side to pick in this debate. Furious, the preacher gets up and slaps him, the boy surprising the narrator and the reader y baring his other cheek. Following this, the preacher leaves.
The mother-and-son duo keeps waiting for their turn, which does not arrive. The nurse comes and dismisses the waiting patients, asking them to return in the evening while the lady from earlier explains that the doctor only treats his white patients seriously, taking black patients in at random. As the nurse closes the chamber, James and Octavia are compelled to wait in the cold outside, the hunger and the freezing sleet numbing all other concerns of the boy. Wandering aimlessly in the cold, James resolves to buy his mother a red coat following the next season’s cotton harvest. On finding the doctor’s office still locked, they pass several ‘white-only’ cafes in town to enter one in the poorer black quarters, Octavia paying for food despite James’ insistence that he’s not hungry, in order to have access to the warmth of the indoors. As they eat, however, a man makes sexual advances toward Octavia, who needs no help defending herself. Courageous and capable, she corners the man, threatening him with a knife to leave them alone, making him back off.
They leave the café despite the owner’s requests to stay, wandering out in the cold again. This time, however, they encounter an old white woman named Helena who orders them to stop, enquiring whether they have eaten. Ignoring Octavia’s protests, she insists on them accompanying her to her house, revealing that she and her husband, Ernest, had been watching the two struggle in the cold all along, unable to catch up to them. On realizing that Octavia is too proud to accept food and warmth as a charity, she makes James throw out her garbage, which is light enough to be carried by an old woman like herself, in order to preserve Octavia’s self-respect. On finishing the task, James and his mother are treated to a scrumptious meal of rice, gravy, meat, tomatoes, and lettuce, along with some milk and cakes for James. She also has a word with Dr. Basset’s nurse, ensuring that James is treated for his toothache right away. While leaving, Octavia asks for a quarter’s worth of salt meat, to which Helena tries to give them much more than the money’s worth. Octavia however, stands her ground until Helena relents, cutting off from the portion she chose earlier, and Octavia thanks her for her kindness, insisting that she will be remembered. Out on the road once again, she asks her son to put down his collar as he is ‘a man’ now.
The Sky Is Gray | Analysis
The story is a bildungsroman that follows the symbolic journey of James from his childhood to adulthood as he is confronted with the dark realities and implications of race and class in the America of the 1940s. We are told that his father is sent off to fight for the nation in the Second World War, which is tragically ironic given the state of civil liberties and rights of African-Americans back home.The nation that is ready to use the services of the colored people in the war, is, however, not ready to grant them basic equality and democratic rights. The character of Octavia is central to the story and is the primary influence on the development of James’ character and psyche. She fits into the trope of the strong, courageous but emotionally hardened black mother, a figure that is very common in post-emancipation African-American literature. Having seen the generational trauma of slavery, discrimination and poverty that affected people of her race, Octavia is intent on raising unemotional, ‘manly’ children who can face the harsh world, in the process, unknowingly traumatizing them with her emotional unavailability. She perceives emotions as turning children into ‘crybabies’, making them weak and vulnerable, and actively reinforces the suppression of all forms of emotions and affection. The aunt, by contrast, appears to be a more sympathetic figure, empathizing with the children’s fear and pain.
The young narrator, although inexperienced and naïve, displays unusual maturity and sensitivity considering his mother’s toughened upbringing. He loves his mother dearly and is so well attuned to her emotions that he is to quite an extent able to read her thoughts. At the same time, he is emotionally intelligent enough to recognize what his mother would not like to hear and refrains from voicing such thoughts out loud. At the beginning of the story, he is innocent and proud of his status as ‘the man of the house’ in the absence of his father, a role that he takes very seriously. The story follows a thematically epic journey, albeit on a much smaller, realistic scale, of James’ encounters with the various aspects of the racist society. If his first lesson is trying to hide his pain in order to save whatever little money his family has, the second is the blatant display of racism on the bus that has separate seats for the white and the colored, needlessly to say that the numbers for the latter being far smaller.
This display of racism is strengthened at the dentist’s office when they realize the income disparities that force the colored to visit the inferior dentist, unable to afford the better doctor, as well as the nurse who calls in black patients randomly, taking only white patients’ concerns seriously. Glimpses of racial segregation are also glimpsed in the existence of separate cafes for blacks and whites.
The conversation between the preacher and the student is one of the major ideological and thematic concerns of the story, the old preacher falling in the category of the immediately pot-emancipation generation of former slaves who are too grateful for their so-called freedom, leaving everything in the hands of a higher power, being indoctrinated by their white masters in Christian values of unquestioned submission of acceptance of all atrocities and inequalities as manifestations of God’s will, something that actively aids the process of enslavement and subordination. The student represents the younger, atheistic generations who realize that only affirmative actions and not blind faith will help improve the condition of blacks in America, seeing through the white-induced Christian ideology as an instrument aiding their oppression.
Through James, the reader knows that it is the student and the likes of him who bring about the Civil Rights Movement, and subsequent campaigns for equal treatment across races in America. This debate is the ideological crux of James’ epic journey, one that gives him a direction in action and values, besides the teachings of his mother.
Helena and Ernest are the only white characters in the story who are sympathetic to the plights of the colored. Helena is not only kind but sensible enough to make sure that her kindness does not come across as charity to the proud Octavia, who would not tolerate a wound to her self-respect. Their kindness with no apparent motive is the only saving grace in the story, as well as a ray of hope for the future that otherwise appears gray.