This story, which initially appeared in Ernest J. Gaines’s collection entitled Bloodlines, has become a classic contemporary bildungsoman. Powerfully told with a convincing use of African-American dialect and dialogue, the story features nine-year-old James and the lessons he learns from his mother, Octavia, and others. James’s absent father is serving the country, which expects its African-American citizens to fight for freedom abroad while it denies them those same freedoms at home. The story occurs on a cold winter day in Louisiana, whose gray sky suggests the lack of hope for many African Americans.
Because James is suffering a toothache, symbolic of the festering wounds of racism, he and his mother take the bus into Bayonne to see a dentist. As they ride in the back of the bus reserved for blacks and walk the streets of Bayonne, James, the first-person narrator, acutely evokes his almost unbearable feelings of pain, cold, and hunger: Only his love and respect for his mother prevent him from complaining. Theirs is an odyssey or journey that encompasses the major dilemmas blacks faced in this era—including a debate between a black preacher who embraces the Christian doctrine of suffering and acceptance and an angry young black man who advocates questioning and action. James instinctively knows that he would like to imitate the young man rather than the old preacher.
James has an advantage over the young man, however: The young man has lost both his parents, whereas James has a mother who teaches him the qualities of manliness, courage, self-confidence, integrity, and self-respect. Never one to waste words, she knows how to protect herself: When a pimp tries to molest her, she throws him against a wall and threatens to stab him with the knife she carries. Mother and son’s odyssey through the dangers and pitfalls of poverty and racism also includes encounters with two kinds of whites: the dentist’s receptionist, who delays their appointment and then locks them out in the cold, and a woman and her invalid husband, who invite them into their store, offer them a hot meal (in exchange for work, at Octavia’s proud insistence), and phone the dentist to make sure he takes care of James’s “toothache.” At the end of the story, although the sky is still gray, readers sense hope for James with the lessons he has learned from good people, black and white, but from no one more than his strong and principled mother.
Gaines, Ernest J. “The Sky Is Gray.” In American Short Stories. 6th ed. Edited by Eugene Current-García and Bert Hitchcock. New York: Longman, 1997, 511–530.