Essays and Criticism (Novels for Students)
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.... I heard every lick of that fight on the radio, and what Joe didn't put on S'mellin that night just couldn't go on a man.
Now, after the war, He sent us Jackie. He showed them a trick or two 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." At first the people's hope rests in Ned, but the certainty of Ned's martyrdom is expressed through Jane's statement "Both of us knowed that day was coming. When and where we didn't know." When Ned is assassinated, the community must renew its search for "the One." It spends many years waiting and searching, but at long last a possible candidate appears. 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.... Anytime a child is born, the old people look in his face and ask him if he's the One.... Why did we pick him? 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.... I pray to God to take it out, but look like the Lord don't hear me.'" The image of an indifferent God...
(The entire section is 1657 words.)
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