The Convict Lease System in Frank Yerby’s “Gillian”

Frank Yerby’s Gillian (1960) deals, thematically, with the idea of manhood and the mythological ideals surrounding white Southern Womanhood. Gillian MacAllister and Hero Farnsworth shatter the virginal, innocent idea of white Southern Womanhood while Michael Ames challenges ideas of manhood. While these themes are at the forefront of Gillian,  there are, as usual with Yerby, racial aspects that swim just beneath the surface.

gillian-by-frank-yerbyGillian, a novel made up of multiple points of view, solves the mystery of who killed Gillian. Told from the notebooks of Geoffry Lynne, the novel pieces together Gillian’s history and her relationship with the society in Birmingham, AL. The core story serves as a fulcrum to examined issues of industry and a changing South, most notably within the higher strata of the community. Like most of Yerby’s novels, Gillian can be considered a mass market book, and like most of his novels, he says much more than what appears on the exterior. Yerby strategically chips away at the veneer of a racist society while providing a white readership with the narrative exploits of various white characters in various time periods.   

Yerby’s novels contain racial underpinnings throughout their narratives. The most obvious of these themes centers on Beulah, a black servant, and her relationship with Gillian. In the novel,  Beluah refers to Gillian as her child, and others do the same. This appellation can be seen as a stereotypical representation of blacks because the suspicion is that Beulah, by basically raising Gillian, ruined her. In this way, Yerby plays into negative stereotypes by presenting Beulah as an individual with no redeeming qualities who speaks in dialect. However, Yerby’s representation of Beulah is not the only reference to race in the novel.

One of the most import events in Michael Ames’s life occurs when an explosion occurs at Warrior Field. The tragedy highlights the new for of slavery that sprung up after Emancipation and Reconstruction, the convict lease system. Of the seventy-eight men trapped in the mine, “[a]ll but two of ’ems’s,” as Bill Riker tells Michael, “[are] convict niggers” (141). In response to the explosion, and the comment, Ames makes the decision to shut down both of his foundries so the workers can go and try to save the trapped men. Shutting down a foundry would take a week to ten days, so asking Bill to shut down the foundries would result, ultimately, in the loss of steel and money.

Describing the convict lease system and his decision to save the men trapped at Warrior Field, Ames says,

So what I was ordering was that we kiss off a dead loss of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to save the lives of seventy-six Negro convicts. They were farmed out to us by the state, which was another of the ten thousand dodges Abe Lincoln never thought of, by which the South maintains slavery to the day. (142)

This system becomes like slavery because rather than paying workers, the black men get picked up on the street, for charges like vacancy, and bonded out to work for companies and plantations. In essence, they become nothing more that names on a roster, similar to the ways that slaves existed as nothing more than property when calculating a plantation owner’s assets. For Ames’ wife, Gillian, the prospect of losing seventy-six men and two overseers palled in comparison to letting one hundred and fifty thousand dollars slip through her fingers. After leaving for Warrior Field, Gillian counters his orders by commanding that the foundries stay open. To Gillian, “Seventy-six niggers were seventy-six niggers; but one hundred and fifty thousand dollars was–” (142). Ames lets this thought hang in the air before claiming the money was “[t]he price of [his] liberation” from the marriage to Gillian (142).

The convict lease system went on throughout the early to mid part of the twentieth century, and a similar narrative can be seen in Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967) when Marshall Hebert bonds Marcus out of jail to work on his plantation. Ames says that he did not want to hire out convicts, that the other stockholders of the company outvoted him.  He tells Geoffrey, “I didn’t accept it Jeff. I was minority stockholder, and outvoted two to one–by my wife [Gillian]” (142). We can question whether or not we believe Ames, and that type of questioning can lead us to discussions of other white liberals like Candy Marshall in A Gathering of Old Men (1983) or Pamela Ingarham in A Darkness of Ingraham’s Crest (1979).

Even though Ames shows extreme heroism in attempting to save the men trapped at Warrior Field by working nonstop to eradicate the men from the earth. However, he fails. When Ames reaches the trapped men, they are all dead, including “the foreman [Rad] of the Negro miners” son who “[g]ive the sheriff some sass” and received six months (143). Dejected from his failed attempt to save the men, Rad, as he holds his dead son, tells Ames,  “You done your bes'” (143).  Ames refuses to believe this, questioning whether or not his actions were enough.

For Ames, his acquiescence to Gillian, not fighting to close the foundries after he discovered she ordered them to stay open or fighting to not participate in the convict lease system, causes him to question his role in the system. He asks, “What claim had I now to justice, decent, simple manhood?” (143) Ames ultimately believes that by acquiescing to the system, God will not forgive him like him like He does passion end criminals or those who participate in “carnal play” (144). He plainly states, “I’d swear that God forgives evildoers; but those who would do right, but acquiesce in evil, never!” (143) By allowing a corrupt system to operate in his company, even though he disagrees with it, Ames condones the suppression of black bodies through his actions. He can say all of the words he wants, but he still acquiesces to the treatment of blacks that suppresses them.

How does this affect us? What systems do we acquiesce to in our daily lives without speaking up? What can we do to change these systems? These are big questions, I know, but the explosion at Warrior Field and Ames’s response makes me think about questions like this. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Yerby Frank. Gillian. New York: Dell Publishing, 1972.


Frank Yerby’s “White Magnolias”

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I stopped by Librairie Bookshop on Chartres and picked up four Frank Yerby paperbacks: The Saracen Blade (1952), Gillian (1960), The Man from Dahomey (1971), and A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979). Since then, I have been delving, in earnest, into Yerby’s oeuvre, one that includes thirty three novels. I’ve written about his first novel The Foxes of Harrow (1947) before and the subversive elements that exist beneath the surface of Yerby’s “costume romance” that appear to reinforce the mythological ideal of a romantic South.


Maligned during his life and after his death by critics, Yerby’s work needs to be reexamined and explored in the ways that it strives to deconstruct false mythologies of the South. To do that, we need to look at Yerby’s life’s work as a whole, not just at his novels. This includes poems and short stories that he wrote and got published before he made it big with The Foxes of Harrow. These texts are, for a lack of a better term, protest writings. They directly challenge the hegemonic system that maintains its power and control over blacks. One such story is “White Magnolias,” a piece that originally appeared in 1944 in Phylon.

The short story (only about seven pages) focuses on Beth Thomas, a white teenager, asking her black friend Hannah Simmons over to her house for tea. Beth’s parents do not want Hannah in their house because she is black, and the main focus of the story centers on the debate that Beth has with her parents about Hannah’s humanity. Eventually, Hannah appears and a verbal confrontation occurs between Beth’s parents and herself. Bruce A. Glasurd and Laurie Champion argue that “White Magnolias,” along with Yerby’s other short stories, need to be reevaluated because “Yerby, as did Chester Himes, attempted both to reach and to teach about the evils of the current race situation in the United States; this approach makes his stories both politically effective and tragically ignored” (16).

From the title of the story, Yerby draws our attention to the symbol of the magnolia and its reference to both the South and white womanhood. This symbol recalls similar images of magnolia’s in Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Langston Hughes’s “Magnolia Flowers.” While the magnolia, in Holiday, Hughes, and Yerby, contains elements of beauty, violence lurks underneath. The scent of magnolias in “Strange Fruit” becomes overwhelmed by “burning flesh,” the magnolias that the speaker looks for in “Magnolia Flowers” turn up a dead body that the speaker trips over, and the magnolias that line the Thomas’s walk in “White Magnolias” hide the hostility and cruelty behind the veneer of beauty.

Southern Magnolia Blossom

Magnolia Flower From Fast Growing Trees

In “White Magnolias,” Yerby comments on the barriers to upward mobility by African Americans in the South. Even though Hannah’s father is a well-respected doctor in the community, her brother is at Harvard, and she has a degree from Fisk and plans to attend Boston University for postgraduate work, Beth’s mother and father see her as nothing more than a servant. From the very beginning, Beth’s parents (Clint and Martha) cannot believe that Beth wants to share the table with Hannah, and her mother even thinks that Beth wants Hannah to serve her food. As such, even though Beth tells her parents that her and Hannah are friends, Martha tries to get Hannah to work for the family as a maid: “How’d you like to come to work for me? Just for the summer I mean – or longer if you’d give up this foolish notion about postgraduate study. I have the feeling you’d be quite a treasure” (323). They do not see her, or her family, as equals. In fact, Clint tells the group gathered on the porch, “But let me tell you – all the money and all the education in the world won’t make a white man out of a nigger! All it does is to make the critter miserable. Wanting things he never can have. Forgetting he’s black and trying to act white. Getting into all sorts of trouble–” (324).

Beth’s parents believe the “race problem” has been solved a long time go, because “[t]he South solved it years ago. Treat the Negro kindly, but keep him in his place” (321). That place, as Beth’s parents espouse, is subservient to whites. The magnolias represent this social hierarchy, and they take center stage from the opening of the story when Clint tells her about the beauty of the magnolia and its relation to white womanhood. As Hannah comes up the walk near the middle of the story, she looks up at he magnolias and tells Beth, “I hate magnolias. . . They always meant something to me something unpleasant – like useless beauty that can’t even stand a breath. But I’m being silly. They really are beautiful, aren’t they?” (322). For Hannah, the magnolias, while beautiful, maintain something hideous underneath.

Beth, after fighting with her parents and talking with Hannah, realizes the falseness of the Southern myth as well. At the end of the story, when Hannah says that the magnolias “are lovely,” Beth starts to think back to an “idyllic” South with the smell of jasmine and magnolias in the air as women is hoop skirts move about the landscape. However, she stops halfway through her thought and realizes the falseness of her vision. Rather than seeing women in hoop skirts, she sees “only the long line of black men and women in their faded rags moving between the stalks of the cotton. And the auctioneer was holding open a black man’s mouth to show his fine teeth. And the slow heartbreaking songs rose up from the little cabins and the stench of black flesh drowned out the jasmine” (325). Here, Yerby undercuts the beauty of the magnolias with the stench of death in the same way that “Strange Fruit” and “Magnolia Flowers” do. At the end, Beth takes a magnolia flower from the tree and tears “the heavy, waxen petals into shreds,” thus destroying the mythic image of the South that existed in her mind (326).

There is more to Yerby’ story than I could talk about here. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below. Make sure to stay tuned for the next couple of posts when I’l be writing about Gillian and The Man from Dahomey.

Glasurd, Bruce A. and Laurie Champion. “‘The Fishes and the Poet’s Hands’: Frank Yerby, A Black Author in Whitee America.” Journal of American and Comparitive Cultures (2000): 15-21.  

Yerby, Frank. “White Magnolias.” Phylon 5.4 (1944): 319-326.

Some Pedagogical Takeaways from the NEH Summer Institute

Part of this post appears in “‘I think Aladdin looked kinda white’: Teaching Cultural Projection in the Classroom” on the Pedagogy and American Literary Studies’ blog. The links throughout provide more insight into the technique being discussed. 

238dd-gaines_portrait_long-e1446060564580During the NEH Summer Institute, Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience, pedagogy was a big topic of discussion. Throughout the institute, the visiting lecturers and scholars shared with one another various texts and resources for discussing issues of race, class, and gender in the classroom. Some proposed ways to include the texts being examined in the institute to the composition classroom as well as the literature classroom. This exchange of pedagogical techniques invigorated me and the rest of the participants, getting me excited to bring these tools into my own classrooms in the near future. Today, I want to take a moment to share with you a few of the ideas we talked about over the course of the four week institute.

One of the techniques that stuck out to me is also one of the simplest. (This is a technique that I am sure most of us use already in the classroom.) As he spoke about the texts during week two, Richard Yarborough also talked about and exhibited something he does in his own classroom. When discussing texts, Yarborough reads the opening paragraph of a work out loud to his students. Some may view this as veering too much towards a formalist interpretation of texts, but by having students read, aloud, the opening paragraph, they can see what the author is trying to do from the opening words of a text.

Perhaps the best example of this occurs with Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967). (I have written about this before on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog.)  In the opening paragraph, Jim Kelley, that narrator of the novel, describes standing on the gallery and seeing a car race down the dusty road in the quarters towards his house. Students will note that the novel starts with a road and a car coming down it, signaling a journey. Most of Gaines’s texts start this way, with a road or a journey. The word “dust” appears four times in the paragraph, presenting its symbolic significance throughout the novel as an omen of disruption and signifier of suffocation. Finally, the final sentence presents the reader with an image that blurs the separation of blacks and whites that the novel centers around: “It was too dark to tell if [the man walking towards Jim] was white or colored” (3).

imageIf students read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) alongside Gaines’s novel, they can compare and contrast the narrators and the imagery being presented, specifically the image of “dust.” Rather than serving as a symbol of disruption, “dust” in the opening paragraph of Faulkner’s text signifies stagnation. As for the narrators, Faulkner’s novel presents a challenge to readers, especially since it shifts between different voices throughout. The opening paragraph, however, occurs in third person.  Of Love and Dust does something similar, but  Jim Kelley maintains a first-person narration throughout. Having students look at the first paragraphs, and the choice of point of view, will allow them to not only determine some of the imagery that will be at work throughout the text but to examine whether or not the narrator should be considered reliable or not.

Another topic that occurred during the institute was that of cultural projection. Herman Beavers started off week three by talking about Richard M. Merelman’s Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States (1995) and cultural projection. Merelman defines cultural projection as follows:

A politically, economically, and socially subordinated group engages in cultural projection when its allies put forth new, usually more positive pictures of itself beyond its own borders. By inviting respect, commendation, debate, and engagement, these new images contest the negative stereotypes that dominant groups typically apply to subordinates. For its part, a dominant group engages in cultural projection when it and its allies develop a newly positive set of self-images, and put forth such images to subordinate groups. These new images not only contend that dominant groups deserve the right to rule, but also ask subordinate groups to approve rather than resist or distrust rule by dominants. (3)

miss_jane_pittmanDuring our discussion, Beavers noted that there are three different types of cultural projection: hegemonic (maintains dominant projection), counter-hegemonic (challenging dominant projection), syncretic (dominant and subordinate working together). After watching the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Beavers commented that the movie is a cultural projection developed by the dominant and subordinate groups. However, it is, ostensibly, a film for whites. In that manner, it becomes a form of hegemonic cultural projection. Even though the film garnered nine Emmy awards and paved the way for Roots, it placates a white audience and makes them, in women was, feels better about their position because the problems of racism and subjugation have been solved, or at least challenged, through the film’s final scene. As well, it presents a white newspaper reporter as Jane’s amanuensis instead of the African American history teacher that records her story in the novel. This change totally reverses the narrative and who, ultimately, tells Jane’s story.

Having students think about cultural projection by having them question whether or not a text, film, album, or other form of art works to present a subordinate group in a non-stereotypical light would be a good way to have them examine what they consume and why. To me, this question of cultural projection is important, especially when I think about documentaries and films like ESPN’s Ghosts of Ole Miss, Quentin Tarantino’s  Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). In each of these instances, what is the main focus of the narrative? For me, while each explores issues of race and class by “attempting” to reverse stereotypes, they do not accomplish their goal because the dominant hegemonic white culture ultimately maintains its position at the end.

For me, the incorporation of visuals, at least in regards to either photographs or paintings, in the classroom allows students to better visualize the text(s) that they are reading. This is especially true when providing students with images such as those from the FPA/OWI (1935-1945) programs from around the country. These images, taken by the Farm Program Administration and Office of War Information show life all over America during the depression and during World War II. Maria Hebert-Leiter showed some of these images to the participants, and they gave everyone a more vivid image of Ernest J. Gaines’s Louisiana. I have used these images in my class before, and I have had students find images on their own and present them to the class. This exercise makes them relate something they have read to a visual accompaniment and describe why they chose that specific image to the class. These images are all collected at the Library of Congress, and you an also find them at Yale’s Photogrammar site. At Photogrammar, students can search for images by state and county (parish).

Another visual repository that Keith Byerman mentioned is Without Sanctuary: Lycnhing Photography in America (2000), a website that collects photographs of lynchings from across America. This site, while disturbing, gives students images of what authors describe in their texts. I would use caution with this site because the images are disturbing and will cause visceral reactions. I would point students here, possibly showing one image briefly; then, I would present them with the NAACP’s An Art Commentary on Lynching (1935) which presents artistic representations of lynching to counter it and to raise awareness. This exhibit would go well with a now defunct website, You can get to this website via the Way Back Machine. It shows all of the Jim Crow law as and contains a map of documented lynchings in the United States, showing them all over the country, not just in the South.

Finally, students encounter another visual resource forte to before they even open the book. Before reading the text, have students examine the cover and comment on what they think they book may be about based on the cover image and the back matter. After reading, have students talk about whether or not the cover met their expectations. As well, have them search various covers of the same book, talking about whether or not the cover matches the themes in the book. This can be done prettying easily. I have written about this exercise in relation to different covers for Of Love and Dust, both domestic and international covers.

When having students look at the visual accompaniments and representations,  have them think about cultural projection and who is actually providing the image(s) and why. In this way, students will begin to see how what they consume, no matter what the material may say, still comes to them in a heavily mediated manner that either works to elevate the subordinate group or to  maintain the hegemonic system.

Of course, these items are not all of the things we discussed during the four week institute, but they are some of the pedagogical tools I will take with me back to the classroom to expand upon my teaching. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. Of Love and Dust. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979.

Merelman, Richard M. Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1995.