The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Book 4

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Jane tells the story of Jimmy. Jane begins by saying that in her community, people are always looking for someone to lead them. Every time a child is born, she says, the elders look into the baby’s face and to themselves ask if this child is the One who will help them, or save them, or at least lead them out of their misery. Jimmy, Jane says, was that One.

He is born to Shirley Aaron, but she, like many of the other young mothers, spends most of her time in the big cities now, working for better pay than she would receive on the plantation. So Jimmy is put under the care of his great aunt Lena Washington. The population on Samson at this time is primarily made up of young children and old people. Jane is very old by now and retired from working. But she is the one who delivers Jimmy, so she takes a special interest in him.

Jimmy is a troublemaker at first. The old people try to keep an eye on him and hope he will “get religion” before it is too late. Jimmy is also a quick learner and can be very kind. He reads stories from the newspapers for his elders who were illiterate. This includes Jane, who loves to have Jimmy read the sports page. When Jimmy senses that Jane is not feeling well, he makes up stories and tells her that her favorite baseball player did better than he actually did.

By the time Jimmy is born, the owners of Samson have split up most of the plantation into smaller plots. The Creoles received the best land and profited from it; they eventually bought up much of the land that had been given to the black workers. There really was no plantation left, per se. But the old workers, like Jane, even though they no longer till the fields, are allowed to stay in the same cabins they have lived in most of their lives.

Jimmy sees all the changes that are happening, such as the people moving away to the cities and the older people having no ownership of their land or house. When Jimmy goes away to go to school, he learns about what is happening outside of Samson, even outside of Louisiana. It is the era of the Civil Rights Movement and integration. Jimmy meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and hears him talk about freedom.

Jimmy has been away from Samson for a couple of years. When he returns, he brings with him a message. He wants the people he knew to fight for their rights. The people respond poorly. Jane says it is because most of the people left at Samson had experienced slavery. They and their parents and grandparents had always been told they were not worth more than a mule. When that is repeated, Jane says, people believe it is true. Jimmy cannot inspire them because they do not understand what he is talking about. They have no concept of freedom.

Jimmy plans a demonstration anyway. He goes to the city with a group of his friends and has one of the girls drink from a water fountain that is labeled as “whites only.” The girl is jailed, which is exactly what Jimmy and his friends want. This will provide grounds for a demonstration.

Jane promises Jimmy that she will be there to take part in the demonstration. A few other people say they will join her, but most of the people at Samson are afraid to do anything. Then on the morning Jane is supposed to catch the bus to meet with Jimmy, she turns around and sees people coming from everywhere in the quarters. The people have decided that they will support Jimmy’s cause too.

Before everyone leaves Samson, Robert, the owner, drives up in his car. He says Jimmy has been shot and killed. After reacting to this news, Jane does not go back. Instead she says she is still going to the courthouse. She is still going to demonstrate. A part of Jimmy might be gone, but she is going to honor his spirit.

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Book 3, Chapters 10-11 Summary