Essays and Criticism (Novels for Students)

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From Jackie Robinson to Marie Laveau to nature, all the elements of Jane's narrative show her life to be a microcosm of the vast panorama of African-American culture—its people, its history, its myth, its vision. She is a personified archive that in the first two books of her narrative records the African-American past and her place in it, and in the third provides an insightful commentary on African-American and larger American society. The fourth and last book of her autobiography, "The Quarters," is not so much a record of the past as a blueprint for the future. Its immediacy is represented through the lack of section titles that divide the other books of the work. Previously, titles set the parameters of Jane's memory, naming the experience she is narrating in terms of an event ("Freedom"), a philosophy ("Man's Way"), a vision ("The Chariot of Hell"), or a person ("Miss Lilly"). Such naming cannot be made for the action in "The Quarters," for it is not as far removed from Jane's present as the other sections, and as such, lacks the distance needed to construct a clear defining perspective. The section leaves the reader feeling that it will be the task of another oral historian to look back on its events from the vantage point of the future and give names to those sections which represent Jane's immediate past.

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As Jane's autobiography comes forward in time and prepares to address issues that will reverberate in the future, a theme that Gaines will explore in his last two novels emerges, the nature of leadership. Jane and the people of her community are desperately seeking "the One," a Moses to lead them out of economic and psychological bondage. As Jane describes the community in this portion of her narrative, it consists of people searching for dignity even if they must settle for the vicarious esteem derived from the exploits of black athletes. By following such figures as Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, Jane and her community experience an affirmation their society denies them:

When times get really hard, really tough, He always send you somebody. In the Depression ... He sent us Joe. Joe was to lift the colored people's hearts.... I heard every lick of that fight on the radio, and what Joe didn't put on S'mellin that night just couldn't go on a man.

Now, after the war, He sent us Jackie. He showed them a trick or two Homeruns, steal bases—eh Lord. It made my day just to hear what Jackie had done. In their own ways, Louis and Robinson are leaders, and in her own way, Jane will become a leader as well.

The communal wish for a figure to do within their parish what Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson have done before the world manifests itself in close examination of each youth in the quarters, to see whether any possesses the qualities that make him or her "the One." At first the people's hope rests in Ned, but the certainty of Ned's martyrdom is expressed through Jane's statement "Both of us knowed that day was coming. When and where we didn't know." When Ned is assassinated, the community must renew its search for "the One." It spends many years waiting and searching, but at long last a possible candidate appears. This time it is Jimmy Aaron, and the community's desperation is reflected in Jane's explanation of why Jimmy was chosen: "People's always looking for somebody to come lead them.... Anytime a child is born, the old people look in his face and ask him if he's the One.... Why did we pick him? Well, why do you pick anybody? We picked him because we needed somebody."

As a youth, Jimmy feels summoned to a cause he cannot yet articulate. As Jane describes him, "Jimmy would be sitting there on the gallery talking, and all a sudden he would stop listening to what I was saying and start gazing out in the road like he was listening to something else. One day..., [h]e said, 'Miss Jane, I got something like a tiger in my chest, just gnawing and...want come out.... I pray to God to take it out, but look like the Lord don't hear me.'" The image of an indifferent God crystallizes Jimmy's realization that man, he in particular, must do something to rid himself of the "gnawing" and help his people. Like Ned, he too goes away to be educated, and returns as an active participant in the civil rights movement. And like Ned before him, Jimmy seeks to vanquish racial injustice through peaceful protests modeled after those of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ned and Jimmy are descendants of characters found in Gaines's earlier fiction: Copper Laurent in Bloodline, who in spite of his biracial heritage attempts to reclaim his family legacy; Jackson Bradley in Catherine Carmier, who through loving the Creole Catherine seeks to move outside the boundaries set for him by his society; and Marcus in Of Love and Dust, who wants to be more than "just a slave." What all these characters share, in addition to a common determination to go against the status quo, is a common failure. None have a lasting impact, and for the most part, the systems they confront remain unchanged. Through their failure Gaines implies that the monolith of racism cannot be easily demolished. Razing it will necessitate a different kind of tactic, a different kind of courage, a different kind of leadership.

Ultimately at the end of the autobiography, it is Jane who emerges as a true leader and effects change, not through rhetoric, or as she terms it "re-trick," not through tactics, but through her sheer presence and the symbolism embodied in her life. Her decision to go to Bayonne and carry on the protest begun by Jimmy (actually, in a larger context begun by Ned) is the catalyst that charges the rest of the community. A full circle is completed here, as the novel begins with Jane in a position of leadership, guiding Ned to Ohio and freedom, and ends with Jane in a similar position, leading her people in peaceful protest.

Jane's confrontation with racism is not one bordering on insanity, as is Copper's; it is not one that lacks direction, as does Jackson's; and it is not one that is destined to fail from the beginning, as is Marcus's. Gaines casts it as a simple act of personal dignity that commands respect, and the very simplicity of its nature seems to guarantee its success. When Robert Samson, the owner of her plantation, attempts to stop her from attending the protest in Bayonne by reminding her of Jimmy's death, Jane replies, "Just a little piece of him is dead.... The rest of him is waiting for us in Bayonne." She ends her autobiography by describing a scene of quiet strength and understated defiance as she closes: "Me and Robert looked at each other there a long time, then I went by him." The introductory clause of this sentence is a relatively long one for the phraseology given Jane Pittman and serves to build the suspense that allows us to appreciate the finality of Jane's action in the second clause, "then I went by him."

As Gaines considers the question of leadership, it is evident that for him any real and lasting change must be effected through leaders and actions firmly rooted in a cultural past. What makes Jane such a symbol to her people is her connection to the African-American past and her embodiment of African-American history. The people of the quarters look at Jane and see not a leader in the traditional sense of the word but a woman who has lived 111 years, one whose life has spanned many of the major events of black American history. In Jane they can see themselves, their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents. Her presence personalizes their ancestral and sociopolitical history, while giving them strength to form a positive future.

Paraphrasing William Faulkner Gaines has often stated, "The past ain't dead; it ain't even passed." Miss Jane reminds us that the past is never a distant memory for Ernest Gaines but is instead a constant influence on the present and future. As he listened to the stories of the old folks on his Aunt Augusteen's porch, the past arose, lived again, and donned a mantle of immediacy, and this influence of living cultural repositories was not lost on him. Accounts of what went before shape his creation of present literary experience, and homage to the past is characteristic, leading him to say of his work, "I was writing in a definite pattern.... I was going farther and farther back into the past. I was trying to go back, back, back into our experiences in this country to find some kind of meaning to our present lives." It is this meaning that Gaines embodies in Jane, and it this meaning that empowers her story to complement traditional histories. She recalls her life and that of others with a clarity that fosters an appreciation of the importance of her people's history to American culture. Jane's autobiography is an American history amplified by the many strains of African-American culture that conventional histories of the United States may have muted. Her fictional narrative becomes a timeless American epic as myth, religion, and the recollections of former slaves all accentuate the historicity of her tale and Gaines's vision.

While the actions, patterns, and motifs of the novel are compelling and create a riveting history of America from slavery to the mid-1960s, it is Miss Jane whom we remember. She is the composite of all Gaines characters who embark upon difficult journeys leading to psychic freedom and definitions of self contrary to those their society imposes upon them.

Source. "From History to Her-story The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," Ernest Games, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 92-96.

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