The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and the Representation of Southern Black Experience
Ernest Gaines’s novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman  may be considered a representation of the black Southern experience, with the titular heroine serving as a symbol for the collective of her ethnicity as opposed to a character who holds her own individual significance. Indeed, the story told by Gaines through the eyes of Miss Jane is largely reflective of the common lives of black people in the American South, suggesting that it is indeed true that “Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories and their stories are Miss Jane’s” (v). However, alongside this notion, there simultaneously emerges the sense that Miss Jane’s individuality is in actual fact just as crucial to the rendering of the black Southern experience as her standing as a metaphorical symbol for “all of their stories” (viii).
It is tempting to argue that Gaines’s fictional rendering of a black, Southern woman’s autobiography is primarily a portrayal of the wider black Southern experience, as opposed to the telling of her individual experience. From this viewpoint, the character of Jane Pittman becomes more of a symbol for the collective narrative and history of her race than an individual in her own right. Lisa Hinrichsen categorizes Gaines’s text as a neo-slave narrative as it uses the medium of fiction to underpin the lasting effects of slavery on the black community. She suggests that “The “neo-slave narrative” has become one of the most widely read and discussed forms of African American literature. These autobiographical and fictional descendants of the slave narrative confirm the continuing importance of its legacy: to probe the origins of psychological as well as social oppression”. Indeed, Gaines’s novel uses a character who has lived through a century of black Southern history, experiencing both slavery and its aftermath, to “probe” multiple aspects of black oppression and segregation, including its origins in slavery and its persistence beyond the American Civil War and the subsequent abolishment of slavery. The experiences of Miss Jane, although containing personalised specifics, are also generalized enough to reflect the collective black Southern community. She is born into a slave plantation, much like so many black people born in the American South prior to the abolition. Furthermore, the death of her mother at the hands of her white master emanates the commonplace brutality inflicted on victims of slavery, and the subsequent orphaning of their children. It is not only Miss Jane who stands as a symbol for the black Southern experience, but also the characters around her. For example, the fictional lynching of Ned Douglass for his commitment to social change and his promotion of it via education is reflective of the way in which black people who were perceived as ‘dangerous’ to the status quo of Southern white supremacy were brutally eliminated. He can be seen to symbolise the fallen agents of change who emerged from the black community after the American Civil War, as well as the many more black men wrongly lynched for unproven crimes against white people. It can be argued that, while Ned more specifically represents the black male opportunist who advocates social change, Miss Jane can be seen as a representation of the Southern black female, and the collective experience of these women who endured oppression on the basis of both race and gender. Rosemary K. Coffey and Elizabeth F. Howard argue that “Miss Jane Pittman typifies generations of solid, long suffering black women, the ordinary unsung heroines of a century of slow change”. Indeed, the suffering of black men post-slavery may be more widely recognized, as they stood as the predominant victims of lynching. However, Jane can be seen as symbol for the forgotten black women, who were forced to continue on and endure the deaths of the men around them, including their husbands, lovers, sons and brothers. She acts as a surrogate motherly figure to Ned from childhood into adulthood until, despite her best efforts to warn Ned of the danger he is in for his teachings, he is shot to death. She previously voices her fears to his wife Vivian that “they’ll kill him if he keep on” (111), and is soon after proven to be correct. She also tries in vain to prevent the death of her husband Joe, as her dreams foreshadow him being fatally thrown from a stallion. This reflects the powerlessness of black women in the American South, as they are forced to watch helplessly as their male loved ones are made to suffer injury and death. Ironically, her own reactions to this dream lead directly to his death, symbolizing the way in which, even as she tries to take action, her efforts are ultimately rendered futile as her status as a black woman renders her unable to successfully intervene.
The idea of Gaines’s focus on the collective over the individual is strengthened by his use of other black characters who fill in the gaps of Miss Jane’s story when her memory lapses make her unable to do so. This creates the impression of one, interchangeably universal experience, shared not only by Miss Jane and her acquaintances, but by the black Southern community as a whole. Their accounts blend together with hers, to form one single orated narrative. Gaines himself described the way in which the novel was originally intended to be presented as one person’s life story, narrated through the eyes of a multitude of acquaintances and witnesses. He states how “At first, a group of people were going to tell about one person’s life, and through telling this one person’s life, they were going to cover a hundred years of history, superstitions, religion, philosophy, folk tales, lies”. This adds more weight to the notion that Miss Jane is a composite character, a patchwork figure of the interwoven and universal experiences of all of the members of the black Southern community. Even though Gaines later refined the novel so that the finished text contained one predominant narrator, the fact that it was originally split equally between different narrators leads us to view Miss Jane as an embodiment of multiple black viewpoints of the South, in light of the knowledge that this was the format in which her story was originally intended to be told. The historian who interviews Miss Jane remarks that whenever Jane paused in her speech “someone else would always pick up the narration” (vii), suggesting that the narrative flow of the black Southern experience cannot be altered or interrupted by one individual. This indicates that her experiences were not only her own, but were instead communal experiences, which could just as easily by told by another member of the black community who had lived through them. In this sense, it does indeed appear that “Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Janes” (viii) as each one them appears interchangeable in the storytelling. They know what Miss Jane means to say when she fails to say it, perhaps because they would be saying the exact same if they were telling their own stories. In addition to this sense that their stories harmonise into one, is the simple fact that in including multiple secondary storytellers, the finished text becomes a stronger representation of the black Southern experience, as the words of many can be seen to carry more weight than the words of one.
Further to the idea that Gaines’s novel provides a scope for the collective black Southern experience, is the notion that it actually offers an alternative retelling of American history from the largely untold black perspective. Certainly, the novel is rife with the notion that this fictional, oratory autobiography depicts a far more accurate account of black history than the non-fiction history books of the time. Arlene R. Keizer supports this notion as she argues that “Memory in these texts clearly functions as a counter-history to mainstream U.S and Caribbean historiography about slavery which, until the 1960’s, has little to say about individuals’ experiences of bondage”. Indeed, this “counter-history” comes from a figure who is not an external recorder of events, but a representation of those on the inside of slavery. It delivers these events as seen from eyes of one of the victims, one who has therefore seen the damaging repercussions in such a way that an outsider could not imagine. The importance of Miss Jane to the telling of black history is delineated in the novel’s opening, as Miss Jane’s friend Mary asks the history teacher “What’s wrong with them books you already got?” (v), and he responds by telling her that “Miss Jane is not in them” (v). Here, Gaines uses the history teacher’s character as a medium through which he expresses the lack of black input in the published accounts of their own American history. The frankness with which Miss Jane orates her story creates a sense of authenticity, as she retells the events as she remembers them, in her own African-American folk speech. This further strengthens the view of her as a symbol for her people, as her voice emulates the collective voices of a largely unheard community. Melvin Dixon outlines the way in which Miss Jane is perhaps a far more reliable source of black history than the widely read white historians as he states that “Miss Jane experiences all of history…She contains that history, carries it in her memory. Her larger historical participation makes her a metaphor of the witness of the past”. This supports Keizer’s suggestion of the memory’s capability to offer an alternate telling of history, as he outlines the importance of her stance as a witness. Here, Dixon also touches on the importance of age as a factor for determining Miss Jane’s status as an agent of the collective “counter-history” of which Keizer speaks. Indeed, her century and a bit of living as a black woman in the American South has allowed her to experience not only the events of slavery and its aftermath, but to observe and understand the experiences of over one hundred years’ worth of African-American friends, lovers and acquaintances, all of whom have stories which she tells right alongside her own.
However, the text can also be seen to foreground the importance of the individual within the context of the black Southern experience, with Miss Jane existing as a human character in her own right, as opposed to standing simply as a symbol for a people’s collective experience. Throughout the novel, Gaines offers us an insight into a deeply personal account of her experiences, both positive and negative, on a far more in depth level than if she were merely a mouthpiece for her race as a whole. In this sense, Miss Jane’s story may, to an extent, serve as “all of their stories” (viii), but it is simultaneously a story which is very much her own. Bernard W. Bell notes the way in which “Rather than a black superwoman, Gaines painstakingly delineates Miss Jane as a complex, dynamic individual”. Indeed, Bell’s view is exemplified as Miss Jane tells Jimmy “I have a scar on my back I got when I was a slave. I’ll carry it to my grave” (242), as here Gaines further humanizes Jane as an individual through the use of personal, specific details. The assertion that she will “carry it to [her] grave” (242) reflects the individual impact of each slave’s experiences, and the mental and physical scars they leave behind. Stephanie Y. Evans suggests that to see Miss Jane solely as a representative character for a people’s collective experience, is to condone the dehumanization which was enforced by Southern American prejudices as she argues that “Self-definition is vital in a country where black people are often portrayed as less than human”. Indeed, reducing Miss Jane to a symbol of black experience, even with the best of intentions, holds implications for the issue of black individuality as the practise of generalization is perpetrated over the value of each person in their own right. The act of the characters naming themselves is crucially important in representing the black Southern experience, as many ex-slaves chose to rename themselves after their liberation from slavery. In this sense, Miss Jane once again becomes a symbol for a wider practise amongst the black community, along with the other characters who rename themselves such as Ned Brown, who ultimately becomes Edward Stephen Douglass. However, it also serves to separate “their stories” (viii), as they each become self-defined individuals who choose their own paths, embrace their own personalities, and deal with the trauma of slavery in their own ways. This idea becomes more defined as after Jane talks about the scar on her back, she goes on to note that “You got people out there with scars on their brains, and they will carry that scar to their grave” (242). Here, she highlights the way in which not all ex-slaves share one collective aftermath experience. The depth and nature of their personal repercussions differ, much like their individual slave experiences, personalities and coping mechanisms.
Philip Bader emphasizes the issues which arise as the characters attempt to reconcile their quest for self-definition and individuality with their need for unification as one communal unit as he argues that “The characters whose individual stories form the substance of the novel, describe the struggles they experience in their personal development and their efforts to remain connected to their community”. Indeed, the practice of slavery which saw blacks dehumanized and reduced to one single mass of anonymous figures, led to the rise of civil rights movements which adapted but emulated this collectivisation of the blacks even in their attempts to overturn this oppression of self-definition. The importance of Miss Jane being recognised as a defined individual in her own right becomes even more predominant when set against the backdrop of the influence of Black Nationalism. The African-American social movement was largely prominent in the 1960’s and 70’s American South, and placed focus on a black sense of community along with the idea that strength could be found in unity. The movement promoted ideas of black collectiveness, much like the idea that “Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane’s” (viii). However, Robert J. Patterson underpins the notion that the text does not necessarily serve to condone such views, and that Gaines actually succeeds at contradicting them, as he argues that “at a time when Black Nationalism’s emphasis on black unification contributed to the proliferation of discourses that promulgated sameness, Gaines’s text foregrounds difference”. Cathy Cohen supports Patterson’s assertion as she suggests that “The public agenda of African-American communities was once dominated by consensus issues construed as having equal impact on all those sharing a primary identity based on race”. Here, she touches on the once predominant idea of all black people being perceived as one, both by the oppression and subjugation of white supremacists and by the black civil rights movements which valued black unity and the interests of the collective black community over individual interests. This is further exemplified by Gaines’s portrayal of racism within the black community, as the lighter skinned Creole culture enforce a separation between themselves and the general black population, on the grounds that they believe themselves to be superior. This undermines the “primary identity based on race” to which Cohen refers, as they deem themselves to be an entirely different people, with Mary Agnes being disowned by her own family for choosing to work at a plantation with the ‘common blacks’. Although the white population of the American South viewed all black people to be the same, the experiences and culture of the Creoles is separate from the rest of the black community. Therefore, the story of one black person cannot be entirely deemed to be “all of their stories” (viii).
In light of this dual nature of Gaines’s text, it is perhaps necessary to appreciate The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and indeed the character of Miss Jane herself, as both a presentation of the individual experience and as a simultaneous symbol of the black collective experience. Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu highlights this resolution as she insists that “Gaines validates oral tradition by recreating the past through the voice of a storyteller, a representative figure whose chronicle is simultaneously the narrative of her personal story and the collective history of African—Americans”. Indeed, this leads to arrival at the notion that the black Southern experience can only be truly represented through recognition of the individual, as well as the individual’s standing within the bigger picture. A large portion of this experience revolves around the removal of black individuality, as slavery saw them separated from their names, their families and their original culture. Throughout the text, there are repeated indications that Miss Jane is not telling a story of mass suffering, but a story of her own suffering, and her own steps to escape from and recover from that suffering. By doing this, she reclaims her right to self-definition whilst all the while communicating the forgotten and unheard black perspective of the American South. If she is to be viewed as a symbol, she is a symbol for the individual black person, breaking free from the constraints of slavery, Jim Crowe laws and white supremacist brutality, as opposed to an artificial metaphor for an entire race. Melvin Dixon emphasizes this idea of a dually communicated narrative as he suggests that “By remaining within Luzana and remaining faithful to her individual and collective memory, Miss Jane records a new history”. Here, he again makes reference to the idea of Miss Jane’s autobiography offering up an alternative teaching of history, but also notes that she does not neglect her personal memories in a bid to communicate a wider scope of historic black experience.
Gaines’s novel is indeed a representation of the black Southern experience, as the untold black perspective on Southern history is conveyed through the medium of a fictional character. This character is one who has seen and experienced over a hundred years of collective black experiences, rendering her an ideal spokesperson for their communal story. The assertion that “Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane’s” (viii) is founded, as her experiences largely ring true for an entire community, and reflect the true state of the American South during Slavery and its aftermath. However, she is far more than merely a metaphorical rendering of collective experience, and her emergence as an individual in her own right proves as valuable to Gaines’s portrayal of the black Southern experience as the legitimacy of her ability to speak for the entirety of her race. Indeed, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman provides a new insight into black Southern history by asserting the idea that these experiences must be considered within the context of the individual’s personality and self. The black struggle for self-definition was as predominant in the South as the struggle for unified equality. Miss Jane’s story is not only “all of their stories” (viii). It also remains, to an equal extent, Miss Jane’s own personal autobiography.
Bader, Philip. African-American Writers. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2014.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Writing African American Women: An Encyclopaedia of Literature by and about Women of Color. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.
Bell, Bernard W. “Modernism and Postmodernism (1962-1983)”. In The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches, by Bernard W. Bell, 186 – 249. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Coffey, Rosemary K., and Elizabeth F. Howard. America as Story: Historical Fiction for Middle and Secondary Schools. Chicago: American Library Association, 1997.
Cohen, Cathy. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Dixon, Melvin. “The Black Writer’s Use of Memory”. In History and Memory in African-American Culture, edited by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally, 18 – 27. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Evans, Stephanie Y. Black Passports: Travel Memoirs as a Tool for Youth Empowerment. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014.
Gaines, Ernest J. Interview with Dan Tooker and Roger Hofheins. In Fiction! Interviews with Northern California Novelists, by Dan Tooker and Roger Hofheins, 86 – 99. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1972.
Grenon, Carole. “Turning Points in Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”. In Turning Points and Transformations: Essays on Language, Literature and Culture, edited by Christine Devine and Marie Hendry, 133 – 154. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.
Hinrichsen, Lisa. “The Literature of the Delta”. In Defining the Delta: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Lower Mississippi River Delta, edited by Janelle Collins, 271 – 282. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015.
Keizer, Arlene R. Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Patterson, Robert J. ““Is He the One?”: Civil Rights Activism and Leadership in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”. In Exodus Politics: Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture, by Robert J. Patterson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. Kindle edition.
1 Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1972). Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition.
2 Lisa Hinrichsen, “The Literature of the Delta”, in Defining the Delta: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Lower Mississippi River Delta, ed. Janelle Collins (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015), 277.
3 Rosemary K. Coffey and Elizabeth F. Howard, America as Story: Historical Fiction for Middle and Secondary Schools (Chicago: American Library Association, 1997), 48.
4 Ernest J. Gaines, Interview with Dan Tooker and Roger Hofheins, in Fiction! Interviews with Northern California Novelists, by Dan Tooker and Roger Hofheins (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 88.
5 Arlene R. Keizer, Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 6.
6 Melvin Dixon, “The Black Writer’s Use of Memory”, in History and Memory in African-American Culture, ed. Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 22.
7 Bernard W. Bell, “Modernism and Postmodernism (1962-1983)”, in The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches, by Bernard W. Bell (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 206.
8 Stephanie Y. Evans, Black Passports: Travel Memoirs as a Tool for Youth Empowerment (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014), 12.
9 Philip Bader, African-American Writers (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2014), 96.
10 Robert J. Patterson, ““Is He the One?”: Civil Rights Activism and Leadership in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”, in Exodus Politics: Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture, by Robert J. Patterson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), Kindle edition.
11 Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 8.
12 Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu, Writing African American Women: An Encyclopaedia of Literature by and about Women of Color (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 412.
13 Dixon, “The Black Writer’s Use of Memory”, 22.
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