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It is interesting that Ernest Gaines's story, "The Sky is Gray," is much like Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird: It was published in the early 1960s, but had as its setting the Jim Crow South of the 1930s. That the recurring themes of Gaines--personal responsibility, individual grace under pressure, and moral behavior--are, indeed, expressions of his preoccupations and anxieties about the existential condition of blacks and the times in which he lives is certain.
Particularly, in the scene of the dentist's office, Gaines conveys his concern about racial and existential issues:
James and his mother must see Dr. Bassett [whose name means low] instead of Dr. Robillard because his treatments are less expensive. While the mother’s choice of dentists is made because of their poverty, it is also due to the conditions of the Jim Crow society in which blacks are restricted to menial work. In addition, James and his mother are made to wait most of the morning. When the white nurse announces that the doctor will not see more patients until one o'clock, James's mother implores her to let James go in because she must return to work in the afternoon. However, the nurse adamantly refuses her plea and coldly walks back into the office.
Salvation in the Oppressed
During the course of the story, James transforms from a boy to a man. From his mother's example, he learns to possess a personal dignity that cannot be defeated, a sense of self that maintains itself in spite of the grayness of the world, in spite of the lack of definition for such terms as freedom and liberty, as the student in the waiting room--the voice of Gaines--proclaims.
Knowledge and Ignorance
Scene 7 is pivotal to what lies in the consciousness of Ernest Gaines. As the voice of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the student who wears a suit and reads symbolizes the knowledgeable blacks who will soon resist Jim Crow and assert themselves in the 1960s, creating an existence for themselves that affords opportunities for individual dignity and success.
"The Sky is Gray" is a story that emanates from the heart and consciousness of Ernest Gaines. The setting may be Winter, but Spring in not far off and the gray skies may give way to those of blue. With the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, Gaines foresees change; his final words, uttered by the strong and independent mother are confirmation of this idea:"You not a bum....You a man."
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