In Gaines’s “A Gathering of Old Men,” Johnny Paul finds himself reminiscing about an
old memory when he notes:
Thirty, forty of us going out in the field with cane knives, hoes, plows—name it. Sunup to sundown, hard, miserable work, but we managed to get it done. We stuck together, shared what little we had, and loved and respected each other (91-92).
This memory encompasses a past that Johnny will never be able to physically feel
again. The possibility of comforting aspects in his memory returning to stay are
gone. Drawing from Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, Katherine
McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds, and Kamau Braithwaite’s Tidalectic method, I assert
that Paul’s memory materializes into a nontraditional map of an ‘imperative
perspective of black struggle’ that continuously haunts him throughout its
As he looks beyond the weeds in front of Mathu’s house, Johnny covers sights and
sounds of smiles, songs, prayers, and religious auras that you had to experience to
“see” and “hear.” His verbal plights become visual and audible maps of pain and
labor, mirroring generations of antebellum absence and abuse. Black slaves were
forced to produce back breaking tasks with plantation technology from sun up to
sun down in cotton and sugarcane plantations. Choosing to “see” the anguish of the
mother who wipes sweat from her forehead as she bends her back to chop
sugarcane awards agency and texture to black cartography that acknowledges and
forms distinct lines between white privilege and black trials. Dionne Brand states:
To the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location. It is also perhaps a psychic
destination. Since leaving was never voluntary, return was, and
still may be, an intention, however deeply buried. There is as it says
no way in; no return (No Return).
Brand’s commentary on “spiritual” and “conscious” maps vividly frames Paul’s
journey of black remembrance. He is not “voluntarily” pulled away from the
sensitive memories of his past and will lose what he knew to be a loving familial
atmosphere. His safe haven has been manually destroyed by a new set of white
tools. Paul details this sentimental cartography noting:
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. Sure, one day they will get rid
of the proof that we ever was, but they ain’t go’n do it while I’m still
here. Mama and Papa worked too hard in these fields. They mama and they papa worked too hard in these same fields. They mama and papa
worked too hard, too hard to have that tractor just come in that
graveyard and destroy all proof that they ever was. (92)
Johnny’s lineage on this black map links a continuous line of family members to
black inferiority. His audible narrative inheritably marks this black space as an
archaeological site of oppression.
The debt/depth of this map is now layered with emotions, bodies, spaces, and
places. The black bodies of “mamas” and “papas” are labeled as lived geographies
where black parents toiled grounds in jeopardy. Katherine McKittrick cites
Dionne Brand’s views on geography:
Brand’s decision, to give up on land, to want no country,
to disclose that geography is always human and that humanness is always geographic—blood, bones, hands, lips, wrists, this is your land, your planet, your road, your sea – suggests that her surroundings are speakable. And this speakablity is not only communicated through the poet, allowing her to emphasize the alterability of space and place, to give up on land and imagine new geographic stories; in her work, geography holds in it the possibility to speak for itself. ix
Their places (social status of mamas and papas) are unacknowledged and written
into margins based on their economic and social status. Black sharecroppers are
beneath white farmers and receive the worst sections of land. The black women
maintain demeaning domestic roles and the men produce the lowest level of intense
work. Black spaces in this novel are synonymous with traditional stereotypical
racialized areas: kitchens, bedrooms, fields, etc. Johnny’s attempt to “alter” his
geography by confronting this man made misery with “desired” spaces of “respect”
and “love” brings a preferred “speakable” geography for black men/sharecroppers
to the forefront.
Johnny’s memories– like the tide of an ocean – consistently enter and exit his
mind. Braithwaite notes the following about Tidalectic methods:
Why is our psychology not dialectical – successfully dialectical –
in the way that Western philosophy has assumed people’s lives
should be, but tidalectic, like our grandmother’s – our nanna’s –
action, like the movement of the ocean she’s walking on, coming
from one continent /continuum, touching another, and then receding (‘reading’) from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future. (34)
In “A Gathering of Old Men,” Beulah’s suggestion to Mapes on behalf of the group of
sharecroppers, reiterates the recurring storm of discrimination stated earlier by
Black people get lynched, get drowned, get shot, guts all hanging out--
and here he come up with ain’t no proof who did it. The proof was
them two little children laying there in them two coffins. That’s
proof enough they was dead. Least to black folks it’s proof enough they was dead. And let’s don't be getting off into that thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago stuff, either. Things ain’t changed that much round here. (108)
Story entrances about “lynching” and “murdered children” drift reality into range.
Occasional waves of stillness in the cemetery - the soft appearance of the
4-o-clocks and palm Christians - disrupts, but does wash away, injustice. Lessons
arrive and depart according to the laws of this “black sea.”
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Penguin Random House, 2011.
Brathwaite, Kamau. Conversations with Nathaniel Mackey. We Press, 1999.
Gaines, Ernest. A Gathering of Old Men. Random House, 1983.
McKittrick, Katherick and Clyde Woods. Black Geographies and the Politics of Place.
South End Press, 2007.