The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 590 words.)