Renowned author Ernest James Gaines – whose works have been taught in college classrooms, translated into several languages and inspired millions – is a proud graduate of the California Community Colleges.
Among the fifth generation of his sharecropper family born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., a young Ernest Gaines absorbed the stories of his family and neighbors, acquiring a sense of history and an ear for the rhythms of vernacular speech. During World War II, his mother and stepfather, like many African Americans of their generation, left the South to find work in the booming wartime economy. At 15, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather in Vallejo. To keep him off the streets and out of trouble, his stepfather urged him to spend time in the public library. He soon became enthralled with literature, particularly the 19th century Russian masters, whose tales of a countryside steeped in feudal tradition echoed his own experience of plantation life.
Gaines graduated from Vallejo Junior College – now known as Solano Community College – in 1953 before serving in the Army and entering San Francisco State University. At San Francisco State, he published a number of short stories in the university’s quarterly, and those stories won him admission to a selective graduate program in creative writing at Stanford University. His first novel, “Catherine Carmier,” was published in 1964. Seven years and several novels later, Gaines was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. That same year, he completed the work that was to make him famous far beyond his own country. “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1971) is the first-person narrative of a fictional 110-year-old woman, born in slavery, who lives to see the stirrings of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Her story led readers through a century of African American life. A 1974 television adaptation of the novel became a national event. The film won nine Emmy Awards and brought Gaines's work to the attention of a vast audience for the first time.
In 1993, Gaines received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The same year saw the publication of his most critically acclaimed novel to date, “A Lesson Before Dying,” which describes the belated education of a young man wrongly sentenced to death. The work received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a 1999 television adaptation won an Emmy Award as Best Film for Television.