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 idea 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.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s