Ernest J. Gaines, an author and a University of Louisiana at Lafayette writer-in-residence emeritus, will be shown on a postage stamp that the U.S. Postal Service intends to issue in January 2023.
According to the U.S. Postal Service website, “Best known for such novels as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” Gaines drew from his childhood as the son of sharecroppers on a Louisiana plantation to explore the untold stories of rural African Americans, adding a vital voice to American literature.”
Gaines, known for his global contribution to literature with works centered around matters pertaining to race, poverty, gender, classism, ageism and ableism, will be portrayed through an oil painting based on a 2001 photograph on the stamp designed by Mike Ryan with art by Robert Peterson.
“A United States postal stamp is one of those indicators that literally illustrates someone’s impact on American culture,” Cheylon Woods, head of the Ernest J. Gaines Center located in Edith Garland Dupré Library, said. “He’s in that same caliber of people like Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Maya Angelou, and I think that’s amazing.”
Through his work that mainly focused on rural south Louisiana, Gaines depicted humanity and personified socio-political struggles. Being an internationally acclaimed author, his work was translated in more than 19 different languages and four of his works were turned into films.
According to the UL Lafayette website, he would utilize opposing forces such as dignity to defeat oppression and triumph to conquer disassembling along with methods of changing injustice and discriminatory language with words of humane dialogue and social justice. His global presence was made evident when his work traveled overseas to French students who gained more information about slavery.
Gaines taught creative writing at UL Lafayette for more than 20 years, from 1983 to his retirement in 2010. He contributed to various dissertations and theses while at the university, spoke in classes, participated in programs and actively engaged with students on campus.
According to Woods, Gaines came to speak to three classes during her time at UL Lafayette.
“He is definitely part of UL and what UL represents,” Woods said.
Born on January 15, 1933, on River Lake Plantation in the town of Oscar in Pointe Coupee Parish, Gaines grew up in the plantation slave quarters known as Cherie Quarter on the plantation where his parents worked as sharecroppers.
Amongst his mother’s 12 children, he was the oldest. Although gaining most of his early learning from Cherie Quarter and St. Augustine, a Catholic school for African Americans in New Roads and being raised majority of his younger life by his Aunt Augusteen, Gaines later moved to California with his parents.
After graduating high school in Vallejo, California, he went to the United States Army and started his writing career by winning a creative writing contest while stationed in Guam, according to the UL Lafayette website.
While Gaines was an undergraduate at San Francisco State College, he published his first short story. With a bachelor’s in English, Gaines acquired a fellowship to Stanford University and from there, he published his first book “Catherine Carmier” in 1964.
After the publishing of more of his works, Gaines was honored with a National Medal of Arts, a high-level award that the U.S. government gives to artists.
“Dr. Gaines’ stamp offers an impressive representation of the man I knew and admired, and it reminds me of the immeasurable grace, strength and character he displayed throughout his life and through his words,” UL Lafayette President Joseph Savoie said in a press release.
Some people are hoping that this recognition will not only spark conversation but allow people, especially students, to go find more information about Gaines and his legacy.
“It would encourage people to go back and reread Dr. Gaines’ works,” Woods said. “It would encourage people to want to know who this person is and what he did.”
This stamp will be the 46th stamp in the Black Heritage series.
Student organizations such as UL Lafayette’s Chapter of the NAACP acknowledged this honor and what it means to them being a minority-advancement organization on campus.
“As minority students of UL Lafayette, we recognize that our university has a lack of Black professors. Because of this truth, we acknowledge the significance of having a former Black professor, and award-winning author, now receive the honor of having his own postal stamp. A number of UL students are not aware that Dr. Gaines has an entire center on campus that is dedicated to his professional legacy,” UL Lafayette’s Chapter of the NAACP wrote in a statement to The Vermilion.
“This space is filled with rich history and one of its intentions is to provide minority students with a communal area on a predominantly White campus. UL NAACP works daily to ensure that the students we come in contact with are aware that they can seek the Gaines Center for assistance and refuge,” the statement continued.
“Although Dr. Gaines is not the first African American to receive an honorary stamp, Louisiana is extremely proud to call him our own. He left a crucial mark on the world and our beloved campus. His legacy will live on forever, and we will continually strive to ensure that the students at UL Lafayette recognize the beauty he’s left us,” the statement concluded.