The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman


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I. Questions de genre

For all that he had been a slave there, Brown seems to have loved the South more than he loved the North. He called his last work My Southern Home , and he was never at home in the North. To his dismay and disgust when he reached Ohio and freedom in , he found a physical hatred of blacks that he had not experienced in the slave states. He had run from Slavery to Segregation. And that is the story that Miss Jane Pittman has to tell of African Americans running from to Gaines in the s and who, like Gaines, started their lives as field hands working for fifty cents a day before they were ten years old Gaines Are the descendants of Ernest J.

Gaines as much caught in a trap of history as the descendants of the historical Julia McVay and of the fictional Jane Pittman? The Civil War did away with Slavery and that was a great change, but Slavery was replaced by Segregation and that was no change. Between and , the Slave Codes abolished by the 14th, 15th, and 16th Amendments to the United States Constitution were resurrected in the Jim Crow laws of the s and s Johnson, T.

Yet there was no escaping the knowledge that we dared not trust the slave caste with any power that could be withheld from them. You gived them the number, they gived you the clothes.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Miss Pittman living, breathing and talking in , breaths the breath of her whole race, and she breathes for her race. That has fictive strength though it has ideological weakness. Miss Jane Pittman absorbs the identities of Julia McVay and Augusteen Jefferson, and of many other once identifiable and distinct human beings, and in creating his character Gaines not only honors these women, he obscures their memory. Gaines uses another device to provide a continuity backwards from That appeared in , and up to that date Brown, like Equiano, Douglass, Bibb, Henson, Pennington, and the many others who wrote an account of their life as a slave and their escape from the South had had to contend with the Southern cry that everything the fugitive slaves were saying was lies, and that they did not write their own stories but got white Northerners to write them for them.

At the same time, for all that he had been a slave there, Brown seems to have loved the South more than he loved the North. And that is the story that Miss Jane Pittman has to tell of African American s running from to One of the most suggestive is his inclusion of the tragic mulatta theme which so dominated the early slave novel. That fact infuriated the s critic-activist Addison Gayle. But even though Gaines rings a remarkable variation on the old story, he nonetheless presents the figure of the richly named Mary Agnes LeFabre as a figure of deep melancholy and exquisite beauty exactly contrasting with the black black-women.

Gaines is fatally drawn to the stereotype, and in he was drawn with less excuse than can be found for William Wells Brown in She does so by taking on a new name, a name of her choosing and not one imposed by her owners. My name aint Ticey no more. I said Jane Brown. She hit me again: what I said my name was. This, at the time, I thought to be one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights; and I received several very severe whippings for telling people that my name was William, after orders were given to change it.

Though young, I was old enough to place a high appreciation upon my name. I was sold under the name of Sandford. But as soon as the subject came to my mind, I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it.

Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common, at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters.

Brown, Narrative The date is , and the slaves on the Louisiana Plantation have heard their Proclamation of Emancipation, and they know that they are free. The plantation slaves celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation that has been read to them by their master, who is their master no more. He has nothing to say to them; they have to think what it means, what to do, what to be.

The first thought is that they should go North, and without geography or cartography, free though they are, they have to resort to traveling by the sun and stars. North Star point the way at night. William Wells Brown, the fugitive slave, reports exactly the same mode of direction finding:. We continued to travel by night, and secrete ourselves in the woods by day; and every night, before emerging from our hiding-place, we would anxiously look for our friend and leader—the NORTH STAR.

Brown, What Gaines is doing is drawing on the great corpus of slave narratives that has come down to modern times. From this vast trove Gaines is constructing his novel to celebrate that tradition and commemorate that tradition but especially to revisit that tradition. He does so to ask: what change? What change between and of ?

The peculiar geography of African America means that the North is their West since to gain the promise of the American dream they had to run North. The hostility of Northern whites came as a shock to slaves arriving to find people who wanted no physical contact with them at all, did not want to be in the same room, car, space as them, were actually more distant than the Southern whites who lived surrounded by blacks. It is well to remember that the free North invented Jim Crow and segregation. There was no need for that in the slave South.

Jane is going to experience the deathless, endless disappointment of America. And yet she is right to be running North and not to be going South like the dependent negroes freely returning to their plantation and now freely serving their white mistress. The child is right and heroic and should have history on her side. In fact, Jane does not and she begins to discover that there is no place to hide in the United States.

The rest of mankind, black mankind at least, are watchers and followers. Jane Pittman says that these people were always looking for a leader, someone to save them in the hard times of Slavery, Reconstruction, the Depression. The prototype of this Messianic figure would appear to be Frederick Douglass, a looming figure in the novel though he was in fact as enduring as any long-lived woman.

He did not last one hundred years, but he did last a respectable seventy-seven, and he passed through every stage of African American life from a cruelly isolated slave childhood to an internationally respected old age. He is a point of reference in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman , but he is not a figure who can enter the confined range of characters that Gaines admits to the novel. She is barren, and, for that reason, is childless, but her condition permits her to become the symbolic mother of her people; she is further the mother of not one but two messiah figures, Ned and, after the death of Ned, Jimmy.

Gaines portentously constructs about his heroine a Holy Family, with Joe Pittman the horse breaker playing the role of Joseph the carpenter. She then plays a role of a Virgin Mother whose people are in need of a succession of Redeemers. This is the pattern that we have already seen Ticey the slave girl work through.

That war ended in Booker T. Washington or was they teaching Mr. However, he is considered to be too old to be able to put a curse on anyone. Therefore, at the news of freedom, several of the younger people defy him and set out from the plantation for the North. Lena, Jimmy's great-aunt, raises him as the hope of the community. She is typical of Gaines's self-sacrificing women—the greatest being Jane.

This character makes sacrifices in the present that are not immediately beneficial but later result in the betterment of the whole community. Thus, Lena cares for her great-nephew not just because he has no parents, but with the hope that he will become a leader for his people. The social code of the South was a set of rules passed down from father to son from long ago.

By this code, black and white people are viewed and treated differently. The distinctions between black and white do not always depend on skin color but on blood—as in the case of Mary Agnes—and class standing. The latter condition fits Jimmy Caya, whom Sam Guidry looks at as less than white because of his poor origins. After the South's defeat in the Civil War, however, this social code no longer stood upon legal ground. So while men of Robert Samson's generation accepted it as their heritage, many of their sons had to come to terms with the reality of a changing world.

For Tee Bob, it was too much. As Jules Raynard says to Jane, "these rules just ain't old enough. What Raynard means is that the corruption of the traditional code in the South has not happened fast enough for all involved. While many people involved with the code still participate in its upkeep, there are a few renegades like Tee Bob. For example, Mr. Raynard and Jane are friends, in every sense of the word, yet they are unable to sit at the same table. Small discrepancies like this friendship are slowly eating away at the traditional code but not doing away with it entirely.

Those who directly challenge the code, like Ned and Jimmy, are killed. Those who might, like Jane and Mary, are not yet ready. Then there is Tee Bob; he is born into a world where blacks are workers, not slaves. Moreover, Tee Bob—perhaps because his half-brother Timmy is black—has never learned the meaning of being a Southern white according to the rules of the code. Thus, he goes where his heart leads and sees nothing wrong with loving a "black" woman.

When he shares his secret with Jimmy Caya he receives a crude response, suggesting Tee Bob treat Mary like a slave. Caya, who aspires to be as socially valued as a Samson, also aspires to maintain the code that gives the Samsons their standing. Caya emphatically attempts to defend what he presumes to be the honor of the Samson family. Tee Bob cannot love this woman and remain in society but, as Raynard says, "He couldn't understand that, he thought love was much stronger than that one drop of African blood. But she knowed better. When she refuses him, he beats her—thus becoming just like the society who says he should not love her.

Not wanting to live in a world of such inconsistencies, he commits suicide.

Freedom, for most people, means the ability to make your own choices. In the novel's opening, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation presents each particular slave with a choice—stay or go. While those who leave are eager to begin a new life, they soon learn that freedom is not so easily gained. The legal chains binding them have been removed, but they have neither the political power nor economic means to enforce their freedom.

Throughout the novel, this reality of being "free" but being constricted by second-class status slowly develops into a series of risk-taking choices.


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These choices often involve a sacrifice by an individual that serves as a source of inspiration and a step forward. Slowly, the abyss between being a freed slave and being a citizen with rights is crossed. This is done through small moments of choosing to be free. Jane is aware from the moment she hears the Proclamation that she is free to leave. However, not being a slave is very different from being free. When she says, "So this is freedom? It is very difficult to be "free" when the Ku Klux Klan exists and men like Albert Cluveau are contracted to kill "uppity" blacks like Ned.

Changes do begin to occur, however, as people speak out. After Ned's murder, Jane speaks her mind to Cluveau. The school for black children that Ned was killed over later exists at the Samson plantation, and eventually Jimmy goes to college. The fight to gain one's freedom often consists of a series of small steps. As Jane whispers to Jimmy, claiming their rights will take a lot of time and healing, not "retrick. In the end, enough time has passed. Jane, a representative of the freed slave, is now able to claim her rightful status as an equal person.

Jimmy's murder serves as a catalyst. Jane asserts her freedom for the first time in a moment of defiance. She walks past Robert Samson. Her choice to exercise her freedom validates her life. While she did live before that moment, the act of walking by a representative of those who enslaved her heralds a new dawn in her life. Miss Jane's story subtly reflects the political history of America from the Emancipation Proclamation to the early moments of the s.

While her century-long story is affected by the great events, she is directly involved in them. This makes her an average person, except for her healthy old age; her uniqueness comes from retelling those events.

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In other words, worldchanging events like Lincoln's Proclamation are not as significant to her story as are acts such as her renaming, which occurred because of her encounter with Mr. While the novel presents the life of one ordinary individual, Jane's story represents the untold history of thousands of freed slaves and their descendants.

In reading Jane's story, one sees evidence of various historical and political programs designed to empower African Americans. Individual efforts to improve education, hold voter registration drives, and protest inequality are part of a larger political effort. In the end, the novel argues, grand political change can only be made by individuals—and not just great leaders. What Miss Rosa Parks did, everybody wanted to do.

They just needed one person to do it first because they all couldn't do it at the same time; then they needed King to show them what to do next. But King couldn't do a thing before Miss Rosa Parks refused to give that white man her [bus] seat. Jane's first-person "I' account of one hundred years of her life in America brings a uniquely personal perspective to this historical novel. An important part of her narration is the use of dialect—a variation in language particular to a region or culture. Jane's retelling is recorded in her own rural black dialect, in this instance the language of Gaines's native Louisiana.

This use of dialect brings a realism to both the characterization of Jane and the Louisiana setting of the book. In addition, by allowing Jane's unrestrained frankness to take charge of the story, Gaines maintains the feeling of the conversation of her telling. The novel is experienced more as something heard than as something read. Jane's frank narrative style also serves to highlight one of the themes of the book, that the ordinary individual can make a difference.

For example, she says:. I'll carry it to my grave. You got people out there with this scar on their brains, and they will carry that scar to their grave. Talk with them, Jimmy. In this little speech she bypasses the "retrick" of fancy education as well as any moralizing that might have impeded her story. She simply talks and talks and talks her life to the recorder—Gaines. In turn, he presents her without the "retrick" of social commentary that would have made her into an obvious symbol of history instead of an individual.

By allowing Jane Pittman to speak for herself and about herself, Gaines creates an African American experience more powerful than any chronological history might have done. This story told by an old woman as if it were fact recovers a lost history that is as important as the one students read in history books. In the history of African American literature , Gaines's novel is very important in terns of its setting. Popular literary works by black authors immediately preceding Gaines set their novels in the locale of big industrial cities.

Gaines used his Louisiana home as background for his novel and stayed within that setting. In this fashion he could fill in the background of black heritage: the inheritance of plantation life after the Civil War.

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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

As Gaines explained to an interviewer from Essence magazine, not all blacks immigrated to the North. They might have tried, but, like Jane, never made it as far as the county line. More important, he said, "a lot happened in those years between the time we left Africa and the fifties and sixties when [black writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison ] started writing novels about big-city ghettos.


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  8. I am what I am today because of them. Jane touches on many symbols to summarize the experience of her life. When she "gets religion," she testifies before the church of her travels. Her salvation testimony is a metaphor—an image or story that has a deeper meaning beyond its surface—about crossing a river. Jane uses other symbols to explain why her community is not rising up against racism as other African Americans have done in other places.

    She speaks of a black quilt blinding people to the truth. A quilt has long been held to be a symbol of southern feminine life because the quilt, made and added to over generations, records the stories of whole families. Jane tells Jimmy that the older people "must one day wake up and push that black quilt off his back. Must tell himself I had it on too long. Joe Pittman's job breaking wild horses can also be seen as a symbol or metaphor of a larger theme. His lonely struggle against the powerful forces of nature parallels the individual's struggle against a similarly powerful racist society.

    His death by wild horse parallels Ned's and Jimmy's deaths by bullet. All three were challenging society in the way they knew best. After all, Joe had to stand up for his right to be free to go and challenge the greater strength of nature. Nature proved to be more powerful, but he earned the legend of being a great horse breaker—skin color not withstanding. Another powerful symbol is the river.

    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

    When Jane speaks of the flood of , it provides one of her few moments of obvious sermonizing. Whether a man builds dirt levees or dams of concrete, it amounts to the same thing—a futile attempt to control the power of nature. Eventually the levees break and the water destroys: it "will run free again" says Jane, "You just wait and see. That spirit can be enslaved, scarred, and beaten but, like the river, it will break through the levees and run free. In this reflection on the river, Jane has also foreshadowed, or hinted at, the coming triumph of spirit in the last section of the novel. Throughout the s, African Americans had been struggling to gain equality.

    Various types of protests, such as the demonstrations described in the novel, were helping to bring centuries-long practices like segregation and racial discrimination to an end. Civil rights were still in the forefront of many African Americans' minds in Gaines's home state of Louisiana became famous during the s for two events: the New Orleans school integration crisis and the Bogalusa movement.

    In its Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. Nevertheless, by the New Orleans school board had still made no progress toward integrating its schools. That fall, Judge Skelly Wright forced the board to come up with a plan for integration. Although this plan allowed only four black first-grade girls to attend white schools, opposition from local whites was tremendous. Most parents of white students at the two schools chosen for integration pulled their children out; those who did not were taunted and terrorized by anti-integration neighbors.

    Politicians who supported the integration were also harassed and threatened, but the worst treatment was suffered by the four young black students. Every day they went to school, they were bombarded by spitting, screaming crowds of angry white faces. Without the bravery of these four first-grade girls and the support of the African American community and organizations like the NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People , the terrorism of these white protesters might have continued to prevent school integration.

    Instead, gradual improvements were made in integrating schools and other public facilities across Louisiana. More and more African Americans, inspired by the example of the four girls, began to stand up for their right to equal treatment and an integrated society. Bad publicity about the New Orleans school crisis and a resulting loss of business helped the civil rights movement in Louisiana.

    Local business people lent their support to integration policies, hoping to drum up lagging business by improving Louisiana's image. Although slow improvements in civil rights were made in New Orleans and across the state, the racist hatred of many white Louisianians was not easily overcome. In the rural mill town of Bogalusa, for example, movements to register African Americans to vote and to integrate local establishments were met with extreme violence.

    White and black civil rights workers from the North and politically active Bogalusa blacks were repeatedly threatened, beaten, and even shot by Ku Klux Klan followers. Soon members of Bogalusa's African American population, many of whom were World War II or Korean War veterans, formed an armed self-defense group to protect themselves from the KKK threat because local police would not.

    This corps eventually attracted enough national attention to force President Lyndon Johnson to declare "war on the Klan. Inspired by African Americans' gains in civil rights in the s, Gaines sought to relate the long, hard history of oppression that led to these triumphs. Although the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the Civil War, the transition to independence was difficult.

    In fact, the prospect of leaving home to start a new life was often too much for former slaves. While some moved out of the South, many chose to stay in the same area—sometimes even on the same plantation—where they had worked as slaves; others returned after failed attempts at starting anew. Although these freedmen and freedwomen often performed the same functions they had before emancipation—plowing fields, picking cotton, cooking meals, caring for white children—they were paid for their work in land, harvest, or wages and were expected to pay for their food and shelter.

    To many former slaves, however, these differences seemed insignificant. Nevertheless, blacks worked to improve their lot by gaining land, education, and equal civil rights. Meeting in churches and schoolhouses, African American groups provided training and education for one another, published newspapers, and got involved in politics. In Louisiana, African American political action was especially effective in the decade from to During that time, newly elected black lawmakers and community leaders led a successful fight to outlaw segregation in public schools, streetcars, bars, and hotels.

    Unfortunately, passing laws against segregation did not make it disappear. With the victory of anti-integration Democrats in Louisiana's elections and the "separate but equal" Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, even the political gains made by Louisiana's African Americans were canceled out. Thus, while many African Americans in Louisiana tried to exercise the new rights granted to them by law, the risk of violent responses from angry whites kept most from crossing the color boundaries erected by white society.

    Ironically, since they were no longer the valuable property of white slave owners, blacks often faced worse violence than they had when they were enslaved. As a result, during Reconstruction African Americans were often the victims of savage, even deadly, attacks by angry and demoralized white Southerners. The fictional massacre described by Miss Jane in the novel is no worse than many real attacks reported in the South in the decades following the war. Although attacks like this were technically illegal, few Southern whites were punished for crimes against blacks.

    The white culture of violence was far more powerful in the postwar era than laws, judges, or Freedmen's Bureau officers, who were appointed by the federal government to ease the transition from slavery to freedom. As a result, white witnesses to such crimes were more inclined to protect guilty fellow whites—especially those who demanded such protection with threats of violence—than to stand up for the rights of African Americans. African American witnesses were also subject to violence if they spoke out against whites, and they faced major legal obstacles as well. These hate groups were founded by white Confederates who turned their anger and shame at being defeated by the Union into violence against former slaves.

    Many members of these groups feared a black revolt against the white people of the South and concluded that the way to prevent it was to beat, maim, or lynch those blacks who contradicted a white person or otherwise sought to exercise their political rights. Although these acts of terrorism became much less common after a federal crackdown in the s, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a huge revival during the civil rights movement of the s.

    Although Louisiana of the late s and early s was a typical Southern state in many ways, it possessed a unique culture made up of four distinct groups: whites, blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns. Cajuns, who were white, came from an earlier settlement in French Canada to settle in the area. They influenced Louisiana with their language, food, and customs. During the one hundred years portrayed in the novel, however, most Cajuns were poorer and less powerful than other white Louisiana residents.

    They were often hired to do the dirty work for more powerful whites; Albert Cluveau, for instance, must kill Jane's adopted son Ned or face threats to his own safety. Creoles were people of mixed African and European ancestry who shared some of the French heritage of the Cajuns. They usually looked different, however, because of their mixed ancestry. Nevertheless, some Creoles, such as the teacher Mary Agnes LeFabre, were light enough to pass for white. Note: while the novel uses the term "Creole" for those with mixed French and African heritage, it has also been used as a term for the exclusively white descendants of Louisiana's original French and Spanish settlers.

    The mixed-heritage Creoles generally kept away from Cajuns as well as other whites and from African Americans, speaking their own French-based language and maintaining a unique, sophisticated culture. Before the Civil War, most free people of color were Creole. At the bottom of the Louisiana social ladder during this century were African Americans like Jane Pittman, whose dark skin marked them as inferior in the eyes of most whites, Cajuns, and Creoles.

    These cultural distinctions often play a pivotal role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and give it the special regional flavor that has been praised by so many critics. However, many blacks remain in the South either as sharecroppers or subsistence wage laborers. The biggest scenes surround the bus boycotts and marches led by leaders like Martin Luther King. Elsewhere in the South, however, Jim Crow laws remain unchallenged but changing.

    Today: Several federal Civil Rights Acts allow persons unfairly treated due to color, sex, or creed full recourse of the law. These groups prevent the full implementation of Reconstruction, the realization of equal rights, and the timely integration of African Americans into society. Other groups, like the Black Panther Party, were formed and became more direct when progress did not happen immediately. Today: White supremacist organizations still have a vast following. The membership of the KKK per se is not as large but together with its many branches, sympathizers, and imitators, the number of avowedly racist Americans is worrisome.

    Fortunately, wherever the KKK appears for membership drives, groups like Can the Klan, remnants of the Black Panther Party, and Amnesty International rally to show opposition to the Klan's hate-filled message. The majority of critics have noted that Ernest Gaines made an unforgettable contribution to American literature with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines has been seen as a historian, as he pretends to be in the introduction of the novel, who has created "a metaphor of the collective black experience," according to Jerry Bryant in the Iowa Review.

    In serving as this metaphor, Jane Pittman is the story of rural African Americans since Her final moment in the narrative represents this one hundred-year period as a victorious slow march to freedom. As Josh Greenfield writes in Life magazine: "Never mind that Miss Jane Pittman is fictitious, and that her 'autobiography,' offered up in the form of taped reminiscences, is artifice. The effect is stunning. The novel has been so celebrated that the difference in critical views is often limited to the way reviewers praise the novel.

    Often, this praise has been for Gaines's ability to integrate historical events and political changes without writing an angry "protest novel" of the type that often appeared in the s. As a result, note these critics, the novel focuses on the literary qualities of the story rather than its message. The ability to avoid outrage and self-pity, according to a Times Literary Supplement review, stems from the technique Gaines uses to tell the story. Because many of the events Jane remembers are years past, the graphic pain they inspire is somewhat faded.

    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman published - African American Registry

    As the reviewer explains: "Cheerfully free of self-pity or dramatics, taking for granted unspeakable persecutions and endurances, faded into matter-of-factness by the suggestions of old age remembering, the record's implicit revelation of wickedness is nevertheless so hard that one would like to turn away from such truth. But he is too skilled a writer to be stuck in so sordid, so small a category.

    DuBois, rather than Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright , because his preference is for the story over politics. That is, she says, he "claims and revels in the rich heritage" and customs of the Southern blacks of Louisiana. As a result, Gaines's work is "open to love and to interpretation. In another early review of the novel for Time magazine, Melvin Maddocks calls Gaines a "country-boy writer.

    His stories grow organically … with the absolute rightness of a folk tale. Instead, "he simply watches, a patient artist, a patient man, and it happens for him" in the final moment when Jane walks past Robert. Nevertheless, the novel captures the essence of an entire people, states Martin Anis in New Statesman.

    That tale similarly captures the history of an entire people, the Cheyenne tribe of the Great Plains , through the narrative of a year-old witness. The difference between the two is that Gaines avoids a mythic sweep and simply tells the tale of an individual woman. These characters are "caught in the movement of the changing times, they must make choices, the results often unpredictable, the consequences sometimes tragic.

    Picking up the refrain of praise, Addison Gayle summarizes the formula of Gaines's historic novels in his work The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America: "Realization precedes action; recognition of the truth of history is a prelude for rebellion and revolution. Faulkner wrote of the men trapped, like Samson or Raynard, by the old patterns of the white South.

    In comparing Faulkner's universe to Gaines's, Gayle says: "to endure in Faulkner's universe is to accept predominance of guilt and redemption, and, thus, to accept too the inevitability of fate. To endure in Gaines' universe is to minimize such themes, concentrate upon people, and, thus, to struggle endlessly against fate. In the following essay Johnson, a doctoral candidate at Yale University , examines how The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman works as historical fiction and how Gaines makes a single character work both as an individual and as a historical symbol.

    Gaines's first major critical and popular success. It exemplifies the author's concerns with the relationship between language, identity, and narrative structure. The novel names itself as an autobiography but it is also generally recognized as a work of historical fiction. Gaines's novel functions as an autobiography in so far as it provides a first-person account of the life of a particular person.

    However, it differs from conventional autobiography in two ways. First, this is the life history of a fictional character as recreated by a fictional editor. Second, Jane's narrative, unlike those in many autobiographies, does not define her life as a quest toward an inevitable goal. In other words, she does not suggest that her past led in any direct way to her present state. As a historical novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman places its fictional characters in relation to a known history of African Americans in the South and names specific historical persons and events.

    But Gaines makes Jane, not history, the central figure in his novel, subordinating the broader historical element to her own personal story. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman blends fictional autobiography and the historical novel to create a distinct narrative form. In the introduction, the editor admits that "even though I have used only Miss Jane's voice throughout the narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her.

    But continuing in his fictional role as editor, the author suggests an even broader impact of other voices on the autobiography: "In closing I wish to thank all the wonderful people who were at Miss Jane's house through those long months of interviewing her, because this is not only Miss Jane's autobiography, it is theirs as well. This is what both Mary and Miss Jane meant when they said you could not tie all the ends together in one neat direction. Miss Jane's story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane's. By linking Jane's story to others' stories, the author does not intend to diminish the uniqueness and individuality of Miss Jane, as the story that follows makes clear.

    For it is Jane who narrates her own story in her own authentic dialect. Instead, he refers to the contributions of many voices in order to stress that there is no "one neat direction" in which a person's life progresses. For instance, the first book of the novel imitates the framework of a quest North, common in nineteenth-century slave narratives. The Union peacekeeping troops have withdrawn and Dye informs those who have stayed on the plantation that the school will close and that he will not be able to pay his workers till the end of the year:.

    If Colonel Dye had told me that a week before I would have turned around then and left. I would stay right here and do what I could for me and Ned. Jane's decision to remain in Louisiana rather than continue to Ohio is an act of survival rather than one of submission. Many characters in the novel do resist and even challenge their conditions, but these are mostly men such as Ned, Joe, and Jimmy who possess a greater freedom to travel.

    As a woman and as a pragmatist, Jane feels it less useful to relocate herself even when her situation is difficult. When Ned urges her to leave for Kansas with him, he observes, "You ain't married to this place. The author seems to approve Jane's rootedness since all the events represented in the novel are contained within the state of Louisiana. The story does not follow Ned when he moves to Kansas, nor does it even expand as far as New Orleans still within the state when Jimmy attends school there.

    We may explain this geographical limit by noting that the novel shares its Louisiana setting in common with almost all of Gaines's other works, including most recently A Lesson Before Dying But the geographic boundaries of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman also symbolize the novel's interest in community. In the introduction, the author proposes that the life story of an individual is also the life story of a community and vice versa.

    And if Jane's history is Louisiana's history, it is also the history of African Americans in the South. By creating an editor who wants to use Jane's narrative to teach American history to his high school students, Gaines indicates that Jane's experiences are as important in understanding the past as are those of more famous historical figures. For example, the author incorporates Jackie Robinson into the novel in part as a sign of African American achievement. Robinson's presence is also a means by which to illustrate the personal sacrifices involved in progress. Robinson, who in became the first African American to play major league baseball, appears in the novel without much fanfare when Jane comments on her passion for listening to baseball games.

    Jane recognizes Robinson's significance for a larger community: "Jackie and the Dodgers was for the colored people; the Yankees was for the white folks. Like in the Depression, Joe Louis was for the colored. But I liked baseball so much they had to take it from me and give it to Emma. However, in so doing, we must be careful not to discount the particular effect this historic personage had on Jane as a private individual.

    She loses her position in the church, but she is compensated for this loss by the great joy she experiences as a baseball fan. Jane certainly does not conceive of her allegiance to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in terms of its public meaning. While Gaines does not deny the power and significance of symbolic actions, he implies that those who do perform them or otherwise act as representatives of their communities risk losing their own identities.

    Jane's last act in the novel has at the same time enormous public and private meaning, as she defies Mr. Samson and heads to Bayonne with other residents of the quarters. Some critics have faulted the novel's conclusion as abrupt and as belatedly introducing a new plot direction. In fact, Jane's act decisively completes the plot of this final book in the novel, whose theme is unity and whose structure is unified. This book is the story of "the One" and, appropriately, it is the only book which contains no titled subdivisions.

    This single purposefulness parallels the northern quest of the novel's first book. Just as a quest narrative subordinates the importance of the individual to her ultimate historic symbolism, Jane's defiance signals the end of her own individual, fictive existence. She moves to join a greater historical dimension that this autobiography cannot contain: "Me and Robert looked at each other there a long time, then I went by him.

    As we imagine Jane continuing toward the demonstration in Bayonne, we would do well to remember that, with regard to history, she harbors no unrealistic expectations for what an individual can accomplish. She warns Jimmy that "'People and time bring forth leaders,' I said. The people and the time brought King; King didn't bring the people. But King couldn't do a thing before Miss Rosa Parks refused to give that white man her seat.

    Jane's attitude toward Rosa Parks parallels that of the author toward Jane. Jane observes that Parks is, to a certain extent, simply a representative of a group, having done what "everybody wanted to do. Likewise, the author states that Jane's story is everyone's story, and yet Jane's personality, voice, and experience distinguish this autobiography as fully her own.

    In the following excerpt, Babb discusses the theme of leadership and the qualities of Jane Pittman as a leader. From Jackie Robinson to Marie Laveau to nature, all the elements of Jane's narrative show her life to be a microcosm of the vast panorama of African-American culture—its people, its history, its myth, its vision. She is a personified archive that in the first two books of her narrative records the African-American past and her place in it, and in the third provides an insightful commentary on African-American and larger American society. The fourth and last book of her autobiography, "The Quarters," is not so much a record of the past as a blueprint for the future.

    Its immediacy is represented through the lack of section titles that divide the other books of the work. Previously, titles set the parameters of Jane's memory, naming the experience she is narrating in terms of an event "Freedom" , a philosophy "Man's Way" , a vision "The Chariot of Hell" , or a person "Miss Lilly". Such naming cannot be made for the action in "The Quarters," for it is not as far removed from Jane's present as the other sections, and as such, lacks the distance needed to construct a clear defining perspective.

    The section leaves the reader feeling that it will be the task of another oral historian to look back on its events from the vantage point of the future and give names to those sections which represent Jane's immediate past. As Jane's autobiography comes forward in time and prepares to address issues that will reverberate in the future, a theme that Gaines will explore in his last two novels emerges: the nature of leadership. Jane and the people of her community are desperately seeking "the One," a Moses to lead them out of economic and psychological bondage.

    As Jane describes the community in this portion of her narrative, it consists of people searching for dignity even if they must settle for the vicarious esteem derived from the exploits of black athletes. By following such figures as Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, Jane and her community experience an affirmation their society denies them:. When times get really hard, really tough, He always send you somebody. In the Depression … He sent us Joe. Joe was to lift the colored people's hearts. Now, after the war, He sent us Jackie.

    Homeruns, steal bases—eh Lord. It made my day just to hear what Jackie had done. In their own ways, Louis and Robinson are leaders, and in her own way, Jane will become a leader as well. The communal wish for a figure to do within their parish what Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson have done before the world manifests itself in close examination of each youth in the quarters, to see whether any possesses the qualities that make him or her "the One.

    When and where we didn't know. This time it is Jimmy Aaron, and the community's desperation is reflected in Jane's explanation of why Jimmy was chosen: "People's always looking for somebody to come lead them. Well, why do you pick anybody? We picked him because we needed somebody. As a youth, Jimmy feels summoned to a cause he cannot yet articulate.

    As Jane describes him, "Jimmy would be sitting there on the gallery talking, and all a sudden he would stop listening to what I was saying and start gazing out in the road like he was listening to something else. One day … [h]e said, 'Miss Jane, I got something like a tiger in my chest, just gnawing and … want come out. Like Ned, he too goes away to be educated, and returns as an active participant in the civil rights movement. And like Ned before him, Jimmy seeks to vanquish racial injustice through peaceful protests modeled after those of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Ned and Jimmy are descendants of characters found in Gaines's earlier fiction: Copper Laurent in Bloodline, who in spite of his biracial heritage attempts to reclaim his family legacy; Jackson Bradley in Catherine Carmier, who through loving the Creole Catherine seeks to move outside the boundaries set for him by his society; and Marcus in Of Love and Dust, who wants to be more than "just a slave.

    None have a lasting impact, and for the most part, the systems they confront remain unchanged. Through their failure Gaines implies that the monolith of racism cannot be easily demolished. Razing it will necessitate a different kind of tactic, a different kind of courage, a different kind of leadership. Ultimately at the end of the autobiography, it is Jane who emerges as a true leader and effects change, not through rhetoric, or as she terms it "retrick," not through tactics, but through her sheer presence and the symbolism embodied in her life.

    Her decision to go to Bayonne and carry on the protest begun by Jimmy actually, in a larger context begun by Ned is the catalyst that charges the rest of the community. A full circle is completed here, as the novel begins with Jane in a position of leadership, guiding Ned to Ohio and freedom, and ends with Jane in a similar position, leading her people in peaceful protest. Jane's confrontation with racism is not one bordering on insanity, as is Copper's; it is not one that lacks direction, as does Jackson's; and it is not one that is destined to fail from the beginning, as is Marcus's.

    Gaines casts it as a simple act of personal dignity that commands respect, and the very simplicity of its nature seems to guarantee its success. When Robert Samson, the owner of her plantation, attempts to stop her from attending the protest in Bayonne by reminding her of Jimmy's death, Jane replies, "Just a little piece of him is dead.

    As Gaines considers the question of leadership, it is evident that for him any real and lasting change must be effected through leaders and actions firmly rooted in a cultural past. What makes Jane such a symbol to her people is her connection to the African-American past and her embodiment of African-American history. The people of the quarters look at Jane and see not a leader in the traditional sense of the word but a woman who has lived years, one whose life has spanned many of the major events of black American history. In Jane they can see themselves, their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents.

    Her presence personalizes their ancestral and sociopolitical history, while giving them strength to form a positive future. Paraphrasing William Faulkner, Gaines has often stated, "The past ain't dead; it ain't even passed. As he listened to the stories of the old folks on his Aunt Augusteen's porch, the past arose, lived again, and donned a mantle of immediacy, and this influence of living cultural repositories was not lost on him.

    Accounts of what went before shape his creation of present literary experience, and homage to the past is characteristic, leading him to say of his work, "I was writing in a definite pattern. I was trying to go back, back, back into our experiences in this country to find some kind of meaning to our present lives. She recalls her life and that of others with a clarity that fosters an appreciation of the importance of her people's history to American culture. Jane's autobiography is an American history amplified by the many strains of African-American culture that conventional histories of the United States may have muted.

    Her fictional narrative becomes a timeless American epic as myth, religion, and the recollections of former slaves all accentuate the historicity of her tale and Gaines's vision. While the actions, patterns, and motifs of the novel are compelling and create a riveting history of America from slavery to the mids, it is Miss Jane whom we remember. She is the composite of all Gaines characters who embark upon difficult journeys leading to psychic freedom and definitions of self contrary to those their society imposes upon them.

    In the following excerpt, Babb examines Gaines's use of fictional character Jane Pittman as a vehicle for his vision of black slavery in American history. Jane's autobiography gives a detailed, interior view of a familiar epoch, and the uniqueness and veracity of her voice compel the reader into an imaginary union with her historic vision. Her choice of words, selection of details, and inclusion of many asides allow her to capture general, regional, and personal histories. Her recalling the series of teachers employed to instruct the black children of her plantation is an example.

    As she reviews the nature of education on her plantation, Jane digresses momentarily to tell the story of the Creole family, the LeFabres. By placing a family's experience, views, and values in the middle of a general history of black education on a postbellum plantation, she gracefully includes a supplementary component, the color division within Creole society, that gives her story a distinct Louisiana flavor. Jane also employs temporal markers specific to her Louisiana world to lend order to the diverse events of her history.

    In recalling larger events, such as the institution of sharecropping and the fight for civil rights, she uses signposts, such as the election and death of Huey P. Long and the floods of and , as narrative guides. Both her asides and her markers are traditional devices used to structure oral narrative, but they are crafted to give history a regional and personal perspective. Jane's memory unfolds an alternative to the standard and reminds us that history is made up of diverse individuals. Slavery, Reconstruction, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement are all documented through the language, art forms, mythology, spirituals, and folk sermons of one woman and her immediate community.

    Book 1 of the narrative of this singular woman begins with the era that has most influenced African-American experience in the United States, slavery. Entitled "The War Years," this section of the work is given over to Jane's concrete descriptions of her life as a bondwoman. The horrendous details of barbarity and dehumanization present in other accounts of the slave system are present here, but Jane's treatment of these details is somewhat different. She reveals not only the facts of slavery but also her personal thoughts and reactions to the experience of bondage.

    Her account is given greater power by comments and analyses depicting both slavery's inhumanity and the manner in which slaves sought to overcome dehumanization. Every facet of "the peculiar institution" is individualized widtin Jane's narrative, and historic wrongs against a mass of people that might have remained abstract in other historical documents become keenly felt, immediate wrongs against a character so real she seems alive.

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    Her vivid portraits render the horrors of slavery even more abhorrent because they occur to a character whose psyche we know so intimately. Jane's descriptions reveal an acute, active mind that immediately counters the stereotype of the ignorant, unfeeling slave. In recounting her experience while bringing water to Confederate soldiers, she articulates a slave's perception of the lack of significance chattel status imposes: "They couldn't tell if I was white or black, a boy or a girl.

    They didn't even care what I was. A subsequent description of a similar encounter contrasts sharply to this earlier episode in which Jane is objectified. In this account Jane brings water to a thirsty Union legion, and soldiers unsympathetic to her status as a human being are replaced by those who acknowledge her existence. One even confers a symbolic token of that acknowledgment, a name. Through Jane's joy, we see what the act of choosing a name comes to symbolize: the possibility of defining identity.

    She is so taken with the name and the gallantry of the Union soldier who gives it to her that both become representations of the distant ideal of freedom she subsequently seeks upon emancipation. The action of the Union soldier tempers the denial of personal identity through the denial of such vital personal rights as the prerogative to choose one's name. Though yet another white man arbitrarily changes her name from Ticey to Jane Brown because, as the soldier says, "Ticey is a slave name," this process is different for Jane.

    The soldier' s altering a label of slavery reveals a new world of control to her, one in which the power of the master, in this case manifested through naming, is not final. A name is chosen for her, but for the first time in her life Jane has the option of deciding whether or not she will retain it. Her jubilation in having a choice and a name she perceives as not being rooted in slavery is expressed when she says, "I just stood there grinning.

    Jane pays a high price for her new appellation, and in her subsequent recalcitrance we see the power of nomenclature to confer personal identity and pride, the very characteristics the system of slavery sought to suppress. As her master and mistress punish her for insubordination, the self-esteem she derives from choosing her own name mitigates the arbitrary brutality used to enforce their power within the slave system:. I raised my head high and looked her straight in the face and said: "You called me Ticey.

    My name ain't no Ticey no more, it's Miss Jane Brown. Every time she hit me she asked me what I said my name was. I said Jane Brown. She hit me again: what I said my name was. My mistress got tired of beating me and told my master to beat me some. He told her that was enough, I was already bleeding. By demanding to be called not only by a new name but also by the title "Miss," Jane demands respect and recognition of an existence apart from that of a slave.

    As Jane's narrative continues, she relates one of the most important aspects of black Me after slavery, the journey to freedom. In earlier preemancipation African-American literature, fear of jeopardizing the safety of those seeking liberation and those assisting in its attainment made precise descriptions of journeys to freedom a rarity. Though her account unfolds after emancipation, Jane's recall fumishes a possible likeness of this often-absent chapter in slave literature.

    While she is no longer a slave, her freedom is tenuous at best, and her descriptions of heading north contain perils similar to those alluded to in many slave narratives. She recalls in detail the former slaves' fear, their hope, and the rather cryptic freedom that existed for them after the Civil War: "We didn't know a thing. We didn't know where we was going, we didn't know what we was go'n eat. If we reached the North, we didn't know if we was go'n stay together or separate. We had never thought about nothing like that, because we had never thought we was go'n ever be free.

    Yes, we had heard about freedom, we had even talked about freedom, but we never thought we was go'n ever see that day. The systematic debasement of slavery was designed in part to make certain that no slave was prepared for the advent of freedom; therefore, considerations of future action were few because emancipation was a remote ideal rather than a reality.

    Though very much a realist, Jane falls prey to simplifying freedom, thinking that emancipation included the provision of such basic necessities as food, shelter, and clothing. Ironically, her position comes very close to exemplifying the argument used by "benevolent" slaveholders for the continuance of "the peculiar institution": that slaves were docile, witless innocents incapable of self-preservation.

    Jane's thoughts and life belie that argument, however, and debunk the popular myth of black helplessness. The shock of freedom's reality first jars Jane when she discovers that emancipation not only entails heretofore-denied responsibility but also bestows a nebulous freedom that guarantees no human rights.

    The intoxication of liberation is replaced by the sobriety of a slave's tenuous existence when she hides in a thicket, watching as fellow slaves are massacred by former members of the slave patrols and former Confederate soldiers. In this powerful and moving scene, Jane describes the remnants of the band of slaves in her usual matter-of-fact tone and underscores the similarity between antebellum and postbellum brutality: "I saw people laying everywhere.

    All of them was dead or dying, or so broken up they wouldn't ever move on their own. At this point in her narrative, Jane is a child of 11 and Ned is even younger. One is struck by their stoicism as much as by the violence and brutality of the murder. Both remain collected during the massacre, and Jane has the presence of mind to hide Ned, while he has the presence of mind to remain quiet.

    As she says of him, "Small as he was he knowed death was only a few feet away. Loss of life and fragmentation of family are everyday occurrences, and Jane and Ned are prepared to deal widh bodh as unfortunate eventualities.

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    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
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