Ernest J. Gaines
THE SKY IS GRAY
"The Sky is Gray." This simplistic sentence and the title of Ernest J. Gaines' short story voices
the combination of physical setting and social setting which establish the world of young James and
his mother. The plot of the story follows the journey of James and his mother from a very rural
Louisiana town to a less rural, but still very small, town to see the dentist, from James' point of view.
At two points during the story, James notices the color of the sky. First, it's a flat observation through
a bus window. The second time, while still primarily literal observation, James' remark also reflects
the knowledge he has gained about the real "color" of things from a young man in the dentist's office
who insists that his "wind is pink" and his "grass is black."
"The Sky is Gray" is about racism in the pre-Civil Rights South as well as the relationship
between James and his mother. A powerful force within the story as seen through the eyes of seven-
year-old James, James' mother is self-sacrificing and hardworking. She and her children work in the
fields to maintain their existence, the husband and father drafted and at war. Living in poverty, very
individual in the family knows the precariousness of their survival, how every penny is spent to
provide the essentials of food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Knowing the cost of having a tooth
extracted, James exercises stoicism, never complaining about and even lying about the existence of the
pain. His mother, though, takes the money for bus fare and the dentist from their meager savings to
alleviate James' pain. Once in town, the two wait for hours in an overcrowded dentist office, only to
be shooed out of the office and into the bitter cold while the dentist lunches. Not only are James and
his mother forced to brave the cold in too-thin coats and shoes, James' mother also has to worry about
missing field work that afternoon and, hungry, she must spend part of their meager grocery money on
something for James to eat.
While James' mother clearly has to negotiate the most unfavorable of circumstances, she is
proud, refusing to be patronized and choosing silent stoicism as a means of resistance and also as
parenting strategy. She knows she must teach James and his brother to survive, to be strong and proud
themselves. She teaches them that they must take care of themselves, even when it means killing the
birds that he and his brother catch in traps. She teaches them to confront injustice with action,
confronting the nurse in the dentist's office when she tells them the dentist will not see any other
patients until afternoon. In pulling a knife on a threatening male in the diner where she and James eat,
she teaches James that, at times, even violent self-defense may be necessary when one is threatened by
violence. She teaches James how to accept generosity gracefully and without weakness, accepting the
dinner offered to her by two white individuals in the town, but only in exchange for work performed,
and refusing a chunk of salt meat bigger than the quarter she has to give for it.
The racism James' mother confronts is compounded by sexism. She gets catcalled as she walks
down the street, harassed in the diner, and faces her larger community as a single mother. She has few
opportunities for employment aside from the hard labor that consumes her life. James views his
mother's exhaustion and depression, remembering when his father was with them. The question of his
father's return is an underlying presence in the story as James remembers times he's spent with his
father and the aunt who lives with them voices her awareness of the injustice that has sent him to fight
for a country that does not allow him and his family basic civil rights. The person for whom his
absence has most impact, though, is the mother.
A confrontation about the appropriate response to social injustice and inequity occurs between
a young intellectual and a preacher while James and his mother wait in the dentist’s office and is at the
very heart of Gaines’ story. Evidence of segregation and racism is a clear presence throughout the
story: James and his mother have to sit at the back of the bus; James notices a flag with an
arrangement of stars different than the one he knows from his classroom; James watches white
children play on a well-manicured playground outside a well-manicured school. The tension
embedded in the presence of this inequity and the passive tolerance of most comes to a head when the
intellectual and preacher assert their perspectives on the appropriate response. Responding to an
offhanded and clich d explanation for suffering from the preacher "’Not us to question’," the young
student takes a cynical and intellectual approach to resistance, asserting that more black individuals
need to "question" status quo and then actively seek to change it: "’We don’t question is exactly our
problem . . . we should question and question and question question everything’." When the student
asserts that even God should be questioned and that the head should rule the heart, the preacher reacts
violently, slapping the boy before apologizing to the others waiting in the office and taking his leave.
The preacher is evidence of the clear presence of tradition that undergirds the story, the male friend of
James’ aunt treating James with folk medicine and prayer standing as a second example. He is also
representative of the passive, peaceful approach that yields slow results and becomes frustrating,
sometimes to the point of violence.
A short time later, a woman who witnessed the confrontation approaches the student about his
disbelief. He confirms that he has constructed his own metaphorical description of reality—the "wind
is pink" and the "grass is black"—outside of the reality outside perspectives force him to accept. The
metaphor illustrates his believe that active resistance is the only answer and motivation for positive
change for the black population: 'Things change through action. By no other way." As their
conversation concludes in front of the audience waiting for the dentist, the woman grieves, as does the
preacher, the utter absence of heart in the boy's vision. James witness the distance and clash between
generations and perspectives and learns.
James is the median, the future of the black population. James wants the fire he witnesses in
the young student. As he watches him read his book and state his views articulately, James imagines
that he himself would like to be like this intellectual. But he knows what it is to love and love purely.
He loves his mother, a sentiment he repeats, almost as mantra, throughout the story. His love for his
mother, the respect he has for her, and the sense of responsibility he feels toward her propel James'
understanding of his own heart. Gaines also includes a vision of the future of this love as James
asserts that he loves a young girl he tries to ignore on the bus. But, James has to negotiate desperation
that turns violent in coming to an understanding of love. For example, he casually imagines hitting the
girl on the bus because he feels embarrassed by the attention other passengers are giving them. And,
his mother beats him and his brother when they do not understand that she needs them to kill the birds
they've trapped so that the family can eat. Still, James' dreams are simple and selfless—he wants the
stability of a secure family love and he wants more than anything to buy his mother a new red winter
The promise of Ernest Gaines' "The Sky is Gray" is James' capacity to embody and propel a
balance between acceptance of reality—a sky that's realistically gray—and a resistance that is based in
both head and heart.
Gaines, Ernest J. Bloodline. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1997.
Carmena, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Estes, David C., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens, Ga: University of
Georgia Press, 1994.
Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's
Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Mallon, William T. "Voicing Manhood: Masculinity and Dialogue in Ernest J. Gaines's 'The Sky Is
Gray,' 'Three Men,' and A Gathering of Old Men." Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of
the South 5.3-4 (1994): 49-67.
Roberts, John W. "The Individual and the Community in Two Short Stories by Ernest J. Gaines."
Black American Literature Forum 18.3 (1984): 110-113.