The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Jane's autobiography gives a detailed, interior view of a familiar epoch, and the uniqueness and veracity of her voice compel the reader into an imaginary union with her historic vision. Her choice of words, selection of details, and inclusion of many asides allow her to capture general, regional, and personal histories. Her recalling the series of teachers employed to instruct the black children of her plantation is an example. As she reviews the nature of education on her plantation, Jane digresses momentarily to tell the story of the Creole family, the LeFabres. By placing a family's experience, views, and values in the middle of a general history of black education on a postbellum plantation, she gracefully includes a supplementary component, the color division within Creole society, that gives her story a distinct Louisiana flavor. Jane also employs temporal markers specific to her Louisiana world to lend order to the diverse events of her history. In recalling larger events, such as the institution of sharecroppmg and the fight for civil rights, she uses signposts, such as the election and death of Huey P. Long and the floods of 1917 and 1927, as narrative guides. Both her asides and her markers are traditional devices used to structure oral narrative, but they are crafted to give history a regional and personal perspective. Jane's memory unfolds an alternative to the standard and reminds us that history is made up of diverse individuals. Slavery Reconstruction, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement are all documented through the language, art forms, mythology, spirituals, and folk sermons of one woman and her immediate community.

Book 1 of the narrative of this singular woman begins with the era that has most influenced African-American experience in the United States, slavery. Entitled "The War Years," this section of the work is given over to Jane's concrete descriptions of her life as a bondwoman. The horrendous details of barbarity and dehumanization present in other accounts of the slave system are present here, but Jane's treatment of these details is somewhat different. She reveals not only the facts of slavery but also her personal thoughts and reactions to the experience of bondage. Her account is given greater power by comments and analyses depicting both slavery's inhumanity and the manner in which slaves sought to overcome dehumanization. Every facet of "the peculiar institution" is individualized within Jane's narrative, and historic wrongs against a mass of people that might have remained abstract in other historical documents become keenly felt, immediate wrongs against a character so real she seems alive. Her vivid portraits render the horrors of slavery even more abhorrent because they occur to a character whose psyche we know so intimately.

Jane's descriptions reveal an acute, active mind that immediately counters the stereotype of the ignorant, unfeeling slave. In recounting her experience while bringing water to Confederate soldiers, she articulates a slave's perception of the lack of significance chattel status imposes: "They couldn't tell if I was white or black, a boy or a girl. They didn't even care what I was." Jane's matter-of-fact tone as she details the casual denial of her presence constitutes a vivid reminder that the disavowal of a slave's humanity was routine. A subsequent description of a similar encounter contrasts sharply to this earlier episode in which Jane is objectified. In this account Jane brings water to a thirsty Union legion, and soldiers unsympathetic to her status as a human being are replaced by those who acknowledge her existence. One even confers a symbolic token of that acknowledgment, a name. Through Jane's joy, we see what the...

(This entire section contains 3233 words.)

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act of choosing a name comes to symbolize: the possibility of defining identity. She is so taken with the name and the gallantry of the Union soldier who gives it to her that both become representations of the distant ideal of freedom she subsequently seeks upon emancipation.

The action of the Union soldier tempers the denial of personal identity through the denial of such vital personal rights as the prerogative to choose one's name. Though yet another white man arbitrarily changes her name from Ticey to Jane Brown because, as the soldier says, "Ticey is a slave name," this process is different for Jane. The soldier' s altering a label of slavery reveals a new world of control to her, one in which the power of the master, in this case manifested through naming, is not final. A name is chosen for her, but for the first time in her life Jane has the option of deciding whether or not she will retain it. Her jubilation in having a choice and a name she perceives as not being rooted in slavery is expressed when she says, "I just stood there grinning.... It was the prettiest name I had ever heard."

Jane pays a high price for her new appellation, and in her subsequent recalcitrance we see the power of nomenclature to confer personal identity and pride, the very characteristics the system of slavery sought to suppress. As her master and mistress punish her for insubordination, the self-esteem she derives from choosing her own name mitigates the arbitrary brutality used to enforce their power within the slave system:

I raised my head high and looked her straight in the face and said, "You called me Ticey. My name ain't no Ticey no more, it's Miss Jane Brown. " That night she told my master I had sassed her.... My master told two of the other slaves to hold me down.... My master jecked up my dress and gived my mistress the whip and told her to teach me a lesson. Every time she hit me she asked me what I said my name was. I said Jane Brown. She hit me again: what I said my name was I said Jane Brown.

My mistress got tired of beating me and told my master to beat me some. He told her that was enough, I was already bleeding. By demanding to be called not only by a new name but also by the title "Miss," Jane demands respect and recognition of an existence apart from that of a slave....

As Jane's narrative continues, she relates one of the most important aspects of black life after slavery, the journey to freedom. In earlier preemancipation African-American literature, fear of jeopardizing the safety of those seeking liberation and those assisting in its attainment made precise descriptions of journeys to freedom a rarity. Though her account unfolds after emancipation, Jane's recall furnishes a possible likeness of this often-absent chapter in slave literature. While she is no longer a slave, her freedom is tenuous at best, and her descriptions of heading north contain perils similar to those alluded to in many slave narratives. She recalls in detail the former slaves' fear, their hope, and the rather cryptic freedom that existed for them after the Civil War: "We didn't know a thing. We didn't know where we was going, we didn't know what we was go'n eat.... We didn't know where we was go'n sleep that night. If we reached the North, we didn't know if we was go'n stay together or separate. We had never thought about nothing like that, because we had never thought we was go'n ever be free. Yes, we had heard about freedom, we had even talked about freedom, but we never thought we was go'n ever see that day." Not having any hope for freedom, Jane did not need a clear conception of liberty.

The systematic debasement of slavery was designed in part to make certain that no slave was prepared for the advent of freedom; therefore, considerations of future action were few because emancipation was a remote ideal rather than a reality. Though very much a realist, Jane falls prey to simplifying freedom, thinking that emancipation included the provision of such basic necessities as food, shelter, and clothing. Ironically, her position comes very close to exemplifying the argument used by "benevolent" slaveholders for the continuance of "the peculiar institution": that slaves were docile, witless innocents incapable of self-preservation. Jane's thoughts and life belie that argument, however, and debunk the popular myth of black helplessness.

The shock of freedom's reality first jars Jane when she discovers that emancipation not only entails heretofore-denied responsibility but also bestows a nebulous freedom that guarantees no human rights. The intoxication of liberation is replaced by the sobriety of a slave's tenuous existence when she hides in a thicket, watching as fellow slaves are massacred by former members of the slave patrols and former Confederate soldiers. In this powerful and moving scene, Jane describes the remnants of the band of slaves in her usual matter-of-fact tone and underscores the similarity between antebellum and postbellum brutality: "I saw people laying everywhere. All of them was dead or dying, or so broken up they wouldn't ever move on their own." The scene gathers power as Jane recalls her reaction and the reaction of the little boy she informally adopts, Ned, to the killing of his mother and little sister.

At this point in her narrative, Jane is a child of 11 and Ned is even younger. One is struck by their stoicism as much as by the violence and brutality of the murder. Both remain collected during the massacre, and Jane has the presence of mind to hide Ned, while he has the presence of mind to remain quiet. As she says of him, "Small as he was he knowed death was only a few feet away." Slavery has forced a mature awareness of death upon the children. Loss of life and fragmentation of family are everyday occurrences, and Jane and Ned are prepared to deal with both as unfortunate eventualities....

Viewing the killing of Laura, her baby, and the other ex-slaves matures Jane and alters her conception of freedom, but only somewhat. She is still unaware of the vast geographical distance that stands between her and Ned and the freedom they seek in the North. Her naïveté is evident in her misguided sense of direction, which tells her Ohio is a week's walk from Louisiana. She sets off, actually walking farther south, and a series of picaresque episodes follow, commenting on segments of southern society during Reconstruction. Each is a symbol, and each teaches Jane of the difficulties of freedom: the black hunter seeking his father symbolizes fragmented families and tells Jane freedom "ain't North"; an eccentric old white man reveals the hypocrisy of Jane's freedom and tells her that at her present rate it will take her "about thirty years. Give or take a couple" to reach freedom; and a poor white farmer who by refusing to fight "their war" symbolizes the class conflict among whites during the Civil War leads Jane and Ned to tenuous shelter on a plantation run by the newly formed Freedman's Bureau. Jane's path from one encounter to the next becomes a circular route returning her to where she began, the plantations of Louisiana, and her circuitous movement back to her origins dramatizes Gaines's concept of freedom and progress. She returns "home" because, in his view, true liberation and the progress it engenders are not an abstract, such as the notion of "freedom," or a spatial entity, such as "the North," but rather a spiritual entity, deeply rooted in a person's character, dignity, and knowledge of his or her history and place. With the exception of one segment, the remainder of Jane's story takes place in the parishes of Louisiana that provide the setting for other Games works and details the personal choices she makes to progress toward spiritual freedom.

Book 2 of Jane's memoir, entitled "Reconstruction," achieves exactly that, a reconstruction of significant historical events in a new context. In her rendering of the epoch after the Civil War, the upheaval of the southern social order and the new relationship of North to South shift from a central position and become backdrops for Jane's observations of the similarities between slavery and Reconstruction. In describing sharecropping, Jane reveals it as the reincarnation of slavery. The exploitation, absence of regular education, and denial of human rights that typified one now typify the other: "It was slavery again, all right. No such thing as colored troops, colored politicians, or a colored teacher anywhere near the place.... You had to give Colonel Dye's name if the secret group stopped you on the road. Just because the Yankee troops and the Freedom Beero had gone didn't mean they had stopped riding. They rode and killed more than ever now.... Yankee money came in to help the South back on her feet—yes; but no Yankee troops. We was left there to root hog or die." Jane's characterization of the North contrasts sharply to her early idealized vision of a place filled with citizens sympathetic to the plight of African Americans. She is now clearly aware of a North uninterested in racial equality and seeking only to rebuild a southern economy and reunite it with that of the North. For black Americans still uneducated, still hunted by secret patrols, and still monitored strictly, the "North" as an entity had changed little. Through the institution of sharecropping, economic servitude replaced physical servitude, and the negation of humanity remained constant. In detailing her and her husband Joe's efforts to free themselves from the trap of tenant farming, Jane makes it evident that extricating oneself from economic bondage was almost as difficult as extricating oneself from physical bondage. The intimacy characterizing Jane's view of the slavery epoch is continued in her descriptions of tenant farming....

In book 3, "The Plantation," Jane's narrative moves forward in time, fleshing out life on Samson plantation, her last home. She relates stories of the people of the quarters, and larger historic and current events recede from prominence and assume the place of backdrops. Taken as a whole, these recollections serve as modified allegory, illuminating particular aspects of black culture. In the section entitled "Miss Lilly," for example, Jane tells about the stern Lilly, "a bowlegged mulatto woman," whose aspirations for the children of the quarters force her to impose a value system inappropriate to their day-to-day reality of sharecropping- "She didn't just want lesson, she wanted the girls to come there with their dresses ironed, she wanted ribbons in their hair. The boys had to wear ties, had to shine their shoes. Brogans or no bro-gans, she wanted them shined." Teachers are a valuable commodity in Jane's world, and rare. Lilly, unfortunately, seems to be more concerned with the outward appearances of her charges than with their inward edification, and Jane uses her to illustrate the belief that education must be utilitarian and relevant to be successful. Lilly's story also signifies the obstacles faced in schooling rural black children who must eke out an education between the harvesting of crops. Further, the number of teachers assigned to the plantation makes clear that the ignorance mandated by law in slavery is now perpetuated in a more benign manner: "After Miss Lilly, then came Hardy. Joe Hardy was one of the worst human beings I've ever met.... Telling poor people the government wasn't paying much, so he would 'preciate it if they could help him out some.... For a year and a half we didn't have a school on the place at all. Going into the second year we got that LeFabre girl." The "LeFabre girl" Jane refers to is Mary Agnes LeFabre, a Creole woman who comes to Jane's plantation to escape the strict doctrines of her Creole society. In recalling her history on the plantation, Jane creates a modified allegory that illuminates the complexities of the color line and the self-hatred that engendered it...

Personal recollections with overtones of social allegory are only part of Jane's commentary. As she continues to divulge the details of her history, she makes larger American history a living and present process. Important figures of the American past are not two-dimensional portraits housed in history books but human beings who impact on the lives of other human beings such as Jane. The immediacy in her description of Frederick Douglass is an instance: "Now, after the Yankee soldiers and Freedom Beero left, the people started leaving again. Not right away—because Mr. Frederick Douglass said give the South a chance. But when the people saw they was treated just as bad now as before the war they said to heck with Mr. Frederick Douglass and started leaving." In Jane's portrait Frederick Douglass is not the great orator, abstracted and removed from his cultural roots. Instead he is demythologized and shown to be part of a people's daily life as they attempt to make decisions that will form their history and future....

The personal interpretation Jane gives to history she also gives to traditional Christian religion, and her religion answers the hollow proclamations of the ministers in previous Gaines works. A spiritual woman, she is not awed by religious conventions. She will as soon sit before the radio to listen to Jackie Robinson play baseball on a Sunday as go to church. Her reverence for religion and its symbols is balanced by day-to-day realism, and she keenly feels that worship should not be divorced from life. The use of biblical images and terminology to mark the daily events of life on Samson plantation underscores Jane's pragmatic spiritualism, and the Bible's language is no longer remote but instead provides a fitting lexicon for describing significant periods in black history The term exodus, for example, is used to refer to black migration: "Droves after droves ... was leaving. If you went to town you would see whole families going by. Men in front with bundles on their backs, women following them with a child in their arm and holding another one by the hand.... They slipped away at night, they took to the swamps, they ... went." Jane is a realist and sees that the stories of the Bible are meant as examples. She discerns its mythic nature, viewing its accounts as attempts to explain natural phenomena, the origin of humankind, traditions, and rituals. It is thus easy for her to see relevancy and importance in both the teachings of the Bible and the myths that derive from her own culture. Figures of African-American lore are given as much prominence as biblical figures in Jane's narrative. The former interact intimately with her community, and the immediacy of their presence is incorporated into her episodes. In Jane's encounter with the hoodoo woman Madame Eloise Gautier, we see that the legendary hoodoo queen Marie Leveau and her daughter are made integral parts of the communal psyche: "The hoo-doo lived on a narrow little street called Dettie street.... She was a big mulatto woman, and she had come from New Orleans. At least that was her story. She had left New Orleans because she was a rival of Marie Laveau. Marie Laveau was the Queen then, you know, and nobody dare rival Marie Laveau. Neither Marie Laveau mama, neither Marie Laveau daughter who followed her. Some people said the two Maries was the same one, but, of course, that was people talk." Consistently, whether recalling historical events, analyzing biblical parables, or recounting the doings of legendary figures, Jane's insights join the folk and the mythic in a unique historic vision.

Source: "From History to Her-story. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," Ernest Gaines, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 80-92.


Critical Overview