The United States Postal Service showcased Ernest J. Gaines’ commemorative forever stamp at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus last Monday on Jan. 23 during the First Day of Issue Dedication Ceremony.
With Black History Month here, the U.S. postal service honored Ernest J. Gaines by making him the 46th stamp in the Black Heritage series. Gaines contributed significant works of literature and was best known for his transparent depictions of the rural South. Some of his notable works include “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” which were both consistently recognized at the ceremony.
Emceed by Cheylon Woods, head of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at UL Lafayette, the ceremony consisted of an array of speakers, all knowledgeable on or connected to either Gaines or his work and its impact. Various groups of people attended, ranging from UL Lafayette students to those who lived with or interacted with him in his hometown of Oscar, Louisiana.
Before even entering the room of the event, guests got the opportunity to view photos of Ernest J. Gaines in the nearby hallway along with other documented pieces and artifacts depicting his life and his literature. Attendees could hear Michael White and his band performing jazz music as they entered a full room with some attendees having to stand.
Woods began the ceremony with Jules Edwards III, Lafayette’s city court judge, who discussed Gaines’ life and his triumph over adversity. Edwards described Gaines as an “individual of extra strength” during his speech.
The Acadiana Veterans Honor Guard then proceeded with the presentation of colors to acknowledge Gaines’ service in the United States Army after he graduated high school in Vallejo, California.
Following President Joseph Savoie’s greeting, Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service Donald Moak officially dedicated the stamp to Gaines and shared the story of how he was invited to be an English professor and writer in residence Emeritus at UL Lafayette.
Moak also highlighted Gaines’ other pieces including “Catherine Carmier,” “Of Love and Dust” and “Bloodline” and how they’ve brought attention to Louisiana.
“His masterful words and his genius brought millions of people from around the world here,” Moak said in his speech before officially revealing the postage stamp.
Program participants gathered towards the front of the room, where the stamp that featured an oil painting of a 2001 photo of Gaines was officially disclosed with waves of applause following. Mike Ryan designed the stamp with art from Robert Peterson along with the guidance of Greg Breeding as the art director, according to the U.S. Postal Service website.
Annalise Smith, Gaines’ granddaughter, shared how much she loved the stamp and the emotional reaction she got from seeing its realness.
“It looks too much like him honestly. It just brings me to tears,” Annalise Smith said.
The program followed with a series of remarks from George Mason University professor Keith Clark, who interviewed Gaines in 2014, Florida A&M University assistant professor Lillie Anne Brown and UL Lafayette alumni, novelist and Gaines’ mentee Wiley Cash.
Along with acknowledging Gaines’ difficulties living on the River Lake Plantation and his literary development during that time, the speakers also brought to light some modern day issues that live in our society, especially those pertaining to race, and how Gaines used his texts and beliefs to spark the conversation.
“Here we are in 2023, when classrooms and school libraries nationwide are being purged of texts, pilloried as discomforting because of their representations of race, gender, and sexuality,” Clark said in his speech. “We collectively benefit from Ernest Gaines’ own wisdom on these matters.”
Cash first met Gaines as a graduate student in 2003 and came to UL Lafayette because Gaines was writer in residence.
“Dr. Gaines had done what all great writers do, he had removed the barriers that would keep someone like me from perceiving the realities of life for someone like him,” Cash said during his speech. “And in doing so, he had shown me the realities of racism, geographic isolation, cultural pride, class division and historical injustice in ways that I otherwise would have never known.”
After a violin performance of “How Great Thou Art” from Lily Martinez, which received full focus from the audience and a standing ovation, Louisiana Poet Laureate Mona Lisa Saloy was introduced by Gaines’ wife, Diane Gaines.
After her speech, which mentioned Gaines’ connection to the understanding of the relationship between the justice system and Black men, Saloy led the audience in a remix of the common “Happy Birthday” remix song by changing it to “Happy Stamp Day” for Gaines. Audience members joined in song and danced in their seats.
Residents of Pointe Coupee Parish stood up towards the end of the ceremony to represent the home of Gaines and the community he influenced and inspired.
Constance Joseph, a native of Oscar, Louisiana, went to school with some of Gaines’ family members and knew about Gaines’ work since she was 10 years old. Joseph’s mother shared Gaines’ work with her growing up, and she read his books and related to him based on their similar upbringings.
Joseph enjoyed seeing everyone who knew and connected with Gaines come together for the ceremony.
“I could cry because it’s so exciting and awesome to see everybody,” Joseph said.