Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
When Jane Pittman recounts a sermon delivered by Ned Douglass, she constructs a powerful piece of rhetoric echoing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It is remarkable that she can recall in such detail the words of Ned from so long ago; she claims she does not remember all that he said, but what she remembers she attributes to Ned’s faith: “I can remember it because Ned believed in it so much.” She has a prodigious memory or a persuasive imagination. In either case, she is a compelling storyteller.
The theme of Ned’s sermon is what it is to be American, to take possession of America, to be possessed by it, and to nourish one’s identity with attachments to the earth. Freedom carries with it a responsibility to labor and to love the land and its people. One of Jane’s earliest lessons is that any place can be all places; at ten, frustrated that her days of traveling to Ohio have still not taken her out of Louisiana, she exclaims, “Luzana must be the whole wide world.” Her hope for finding a place of freedom is dashed by a hunter she and Ned meet during their early travels. Freedom, the hunter tells her, “ain’t coming to meet you. And it might not be there when you get there, either.” She must find freedom in herself before she can find it anywhere else, and that understanding does not come until the end of her long life. Indeed, it may not come until she tells her story to the editor.
In the novel, freedom is bounded by natural...
(The entire section is 595 words.)
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The dominant social concern of the novel is the struggle of blacks to survive in a racist society. A very old woman by the time of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Miss Jane Pittman is a skillfully rendered character who has experienced the strife of American blacks from the Civil War onward. She is a leader of her people not in a political sense but because her long suffering has given her stature. A major point that emerges from all her suffering is that the hard-won gains of a century of struggle cannot be taken for granted; blacks must still fight for the rights that the U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees them. The slavery and beatings that blacks endured are paralleled by open slaughter, lynchings, and disappearances during the Reconstruction years. When these become more rare, social, economic, and political discrimination, and more subtle forms of oppression, continue. As a slave, Jane is beaten and overworked. After "freedom," ex-slaves leaving the plantations are murdered. Later, Jane's adopted son Ned, who has become a teacher and minister, is assassinated by a Cajun bounty hunter.
The outright hostility of whites towards black education, when it is not altogether neglected, is internalized by and perpetuated among blacks. Miss Lilly, a mulatto school teacher, is treated with suspicion because she buys all the children toothbrushes and objects to the abusive disciplinary measure of one black father who punishes his children by...
(The entire section is 930 words.)
Custom and Tradition
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...
(The entire section is 1077 words.)