When Jane Pittman recounts a sermon delivered by Ned Douglass, she constructs a powerful piece of rhetoric echoing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It is remarkable that she can recall in such detail the words of Ned from so long ago; she claims she does not remember all that he said, but what she remembers she attributes to Ned’s faith: “I can remember it because Ned believed in it so much.” She has a prodigious memory or a persuasive imagination. In either case, she is a compelling storyteller.
The theme of Ned’s sermon is what it is to be American, to take possession of America, to be possessed by it, and to nourish one’s identity with attachments to the earth. Freedom carries with it a responsibility to labor and to love the land and its people. One of Jane’s earliest lessons is that any place can be all places; at ten, frustrated that her days of traveling to Ohio have still not taken her out of Louisiana, she exclaims, “Luzana must be the whole wide world.” Her hope for finding a place of freedom is dashed by a hunter she and Ned meet during their early travels. Freedom, the hunter tells her, “ain’t coming to meet you. And it might not be there when you get there, either.” She must find freedom in herself before she can find it anywhere else, and that understanding does not come until the end of her long life. Indeed, it may not come until she tells her story to the editor.
In the novel, freedom is bounded by natural processes and expressed through natural forces. Human blood drenches the earth as if to keep life going. From Jane’s bloody beating when she is ten to the murder of Jimmy Aaron when she is 110, Jane’s history is a story of the earth absorbing the blood of martyrs. When Ned is murdered, his blood drips along the dirt road as his body is carried home; Jane swears that his blood could be seen for years afterward, even after the road was covered with gravel.
Blood-soaked earth produces great oak trees, which express the virtues of endurance, stolidity, and fortitude. Jane talks to trees, and she understands that such behavior may appear crazy to others. She insists, however, that it is a sign of her respect for nobility; she thereby has a connection with the soil of her bloody history, just as the great trees have with the earth from which they spring. Indeed, Ned’s sermon includes an image of trees falling back into the earth as a symbol for the earthly origins of human beings.
Another powerful symbol used in the novel is the river. Jane tries to cross it to reach Ohio; Ned teaches beside it; and Jane dreams of her spiritual crossing of it when she “travels” to salvation. This flowing river washes away guilt and restores life; first, though, the fear of death has to be conquered. Thus the figure of the black stallion, unbroken by Joe Pittman, ridden by the evil Cluveau, has to be confronted and purged by a renewed Jane Pittman in her dreams. When Jimmy Aaron is killed because he protests the arrest of a black woman in Bayonne, it is deeply ironic that her arrest is for drinking from the “whites only” fountain in the Bayonne court-house. Drops of water forming the morning dew cleanse the air for Jane on the morning that she chooses to be free and to go to Bayonne herself.
Custom and Tradition The social code of the South was a set of rules passed down from father to son from long ago. By this code, black and white people are viewed and treated differently. The distinctions between black and white do not always depend on skin color but on blood—as in the case of Mary Agnes—and class standing. The latter condition fits Jimmy Caya, whom Sam Guidry looks at as less than white because of his poor origins. After the South's defeat in the Civil War, however, this social code no longer stood upon legal ground. So while men of Robert Samson's generation accepted it as their heritage, many of their sons had to come to terms with the reality of a changing world. For Tee Bob, it was too much. As Jules Raynard says to Jane, "these rules just ain't old enough."
What Raynard means is that the corruption of the traditional code in the South has not happened fast enough for all involved. While many people involved with the code still participate in its upkeep, there are a few renegades like Tee Bob. For example, Mr. Raynard and Jane are friends, in every sense of the word, yet they are unable to sit at the same table. Small discrepancies like this friendship are slowly eating away at the traditional code but not doing away with it entirely. Those who directly challenge the code, like Ned and Jimmy, are killed. Those who might, like Jane and Mary, are not yet ready. Then there is Tee Bob; he is born into a world where blacks are workers, not slaves. Moreover, Tee Bob—perhaps because his half-brother Timmy is black—has never learned the meaning of being a Southern white according to the rules of the code. Thus, he goes where his heart leads and sees nothing wrong with loving a "black" woman.
When he shares his secret with Jimmy Caya he receives a crude response, suggesting Tee Bob treat Mary like a slave. Caya, who aspires to be as socially valued as a Samson, also aspires to maintain the code that gives the Samsons their standing. Caya emphatically attempts to defend what he presumes to be the honor of the Samson family. Tee Bob cannot love this woman and remain in society but, as Raynard says, "He couldn't understand that, he thought love was much stronger than that one drop of African blood. But she knowed better." Tee Bob could not rape Mary, as Caya suggested, because he loved her. When she refuses him, he beats her—thus becoming just like the society who says he should not love her. Not wanting to live in a world of such inconsistencies, he commits suicide.
Choices and Consequences Freedom, for most people, means the ability to make your own choices. In the novel's opening, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation presents each particular slave with a choice—stay or go. While those who leave are eager to begin a new life, they soon learn that freedom is not so easily gained. The legal chains binding them have been removed, but they have neither the political power nor economic means to enforce their freedom. Throughout the novel, this reality of being "free" but being constricted by second-class status slowly develops into a series of risk-taking choices. These choices often involve a sacrifice by an individual that serves as a source of inspiration and a step forward. Slowly, the abyss between being a freed slave and being a citizen with rights is crossed. This is done through small moments of choosing to be free.
Jane is aware from the moment she hears the Proclamation that she is free to leave. However, not being a slave is very different from being free. When she says, "So this is freedom?" she has only known of being free from her owners, not true freedom. It is very difficult to be "free" when the Ku Klux Klan exists and men like Albert Cluveau are contracted to kill "uppity" blacks like Ned. Changes do begin to occur, however, as people speak out. After Ned's murder, Jane speaks her mind to Cluveau. The school for black children that Ned was killed over later exists at the Samson plantation, and eventually Jimmy goes to college. The fight to gain one's freedom often consists of a series of small steps. As Jane whispers to Jimmy, claiming their rights will take a lot of time and healing, not "retrick."
In the end, enough time has passed. Jane, a representative of the freed slave, is now able to claim her rightful status as an equal person. Jimmy's murder serves as a catalyst. Jane asserts her freedom for the first time in a moment of defiance. She walks past Robert Samson. Her choice to exercise her freedom validates her life. While she did live before that moment, the act of walking by a representative of those who enslaved her heralds a new dawn in her life.
Politics Miss Jane's story subtly reflects the political history of America from the Emancipation Proclamation to the early moments of the 1960s. While her century-long story is affected by the great events, she is directly involved in them. This makes her an average person, except for her healthy old age; her uniqueness comes from retelling those events. In other words, world-changing events like Lincoln's Proclamation are not as significant to her story as are acts such as her renaming, which occurred because of her encounter with Mr. Brown.
While the novel presents the life of one ordinary individual, Jane's story represents the untold history of thousands of freed slaves and their descendants. In reading Jane's story, one sees evidence of various historical and political programs designed to empower African Americans. Individual efforts to improve education, hold voter registration drives, and protest inequality are part of a larger political effort. In the end, the novel argues, grand political change can only be made by individuals—and not just great leaders As Jane tells Jimmy, "the people and time brought [Martin Luther] King; King bring the people. What Miss Rosa Parks did, everybody wanted to do. They just needed one person to do it first because they all couldn't do it at the same time; then they needed King to show them what to do next. But King couldn't do a thing before Miss Rosa Parks refused to give that white man her [bus] seat."