Ernest Gaines was one of the first authors to attempt to present African American history from the perspective of a black person. Until the 1970’s, when it became popular to capture the lifestyle and dialect of the average black American in such novels as Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), it was difficult to find fiction that presented African American history from the common person’s perspective, especially from the perspective of a black woman. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines uses the framing device of a history teacher who tape-records an interview. Although Miss Jane is actually a fictional character, she is based on the women who lived on the southern Louisiana plantation on which Gaines was raised. The novel depicts southern Louisiana plantation life, the dialect of the people, and history of the area accurately. Gaines, who was working as an English professor and not as a history teacher, accomplishes the fictional history teacher’s goal of teaching black history more accurately through presenting it from the black perspective. The framing device is designed to make Miss Jane seem more real and make her autobiography more believable. It is not really important that she is fictional because her story is not fictional. Black women and men lived through the racism, hard labor, and poverty described in the novel. Thus, as the fictitious editor states in the introduction, “Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane’s.”
In addition to re-creating a more personal depiction of African American history from a poor black woman’s perspective, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman also establishes two important themes: the determination and pride of African Americans in the face of seemingly unconquerable racism and the destructive effects of racism on all of society, including whites. Throughout the novel Miss Jane is a proud individual who has the courage to face the consequences of standing up for herself and for others in a racist society. She endures a harsh whipping as a young adolescent in order to reject her slave name, and as a ninety-year-old woman stands up to her white employer and landlord, risking the loss of her home, source of income, and perhaps even her life in order to partake in a demonstration against segregation. Although Miss Jane clearly suffers in the novel, she and other blacks are not the only people who suffer from racial discrimination and social and legal segregation. The white plantation owner’s son Tee Bob is deprived of a loving and productive marriage to a beautiful and intelligent woman simply because she is part black. He decides killing himself is a better alternative than living by the hypocritical standards of his father and his father’s society.
Another important detail in the novel is the naming of Miss Jane. One way former slaves declared their independence from slavery and rejected the subservient status associated with slave names was by giving themselves new names. In the novel, former slaves decide to rename themselves after Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and other abolitionists or Union soldiers who helped them obtain their freedom. Miss Jane not only names herself after a Yankee corporal who first acknowledges her worth as an individual by telling her to reject her slave name, but she also is referred to as Miss, which connotes her dignity as a lady. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is revolutionary in its presentation of a black woman who is a realistic, multidimensional individual who cannot be classified as a stereotype.