Revisiting a Cult Classic Novel: ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ by Ernest J. Gaines


Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exhaustive, must-read work on the historical exploitation of black Americans — from “The Case for Reparations” to his recent writing about the prison-industrial complex — would convince even the most cynical historian to revisit, skeptically, common narratives about American history. Recently, I’ve been searching for fictional counterparts to Coates’ nonfiction, novels that illustrate different eras of American racial oppression and the struggle for equality, from post-Reconstruction through Jim Crow and redlining.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines’ 1971 fictional oral history of a 110-year old Louisiana woman born in slavery who has lived from emancipation through the Civil Rights Movement, is a wonderful example of an author using the minute lens of fiction to tell a sweeping historical story.The novel by Gaines is perhaps less famous than its adaptation, a much-acclaimed TV movie starring Cicely Tyson that predated Roots (I’ve already been sneaking peeks at it on the Internet), but it’s well worth a second look.

The book begins with a preface that suggests it’s been compiled through interviews with Jane Pittman, recorded over several sessions. Indeed, Gaines listened to many of the WPA’s tape recordings of former slaves to develop the tone and cadence of his narrator. Jane, born Ticey, is an orphan on a plantation, and just a small child, when the Yankees come through and a Union soldier takes an interest in her. A year later, she and everyone on her plantation are emancipated. Some decide to stay and sharecrop; others, like her, light out for freedom. She changes her name to Jane thanks to the suggestion of that Union soldier, and follows the North Star.

And that’s where the narrative optimism of the novel comes to a shuddering halt. The first section, essentially an adventure and travel story, is as bleak as it is gripping; within a night of leaving the plantation, most of the newly freed folks traveling together are massacred by a roving band of “Secesh” — the angry Southern soldiers who are the remnants of the army and the precursors to the KKK. Their attack leaves Jane alone with Ned, a child a few years younger than herself. They wander and wander, and eventually find some solace from the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction schools that have been set up for the newly emancipated. For a time, there’s peace, and protection too. But eventually, Reconstruction ends and the teachers, along with the soldiers protecting them, depart.

From that moment on, Jane lives most of her life in servitude, working for various white bosses and landowners who represent a new kind of master — they pay wages but retain almost total power. The narrative provides a simple but very clear picture of what life was like, a second-class existence, eked out on the edge. Even the kinder white people who see Jane as “the help” are invested in the status quo and reveal themselves to be rigid and inflexible on race relations. And brutal violence is never far away. Young Ned leaves Louisiana to get an education and returns to open a school; from the minute he starts to teach, his life is under threat. Same with Jimmy, the precocious young boy Jane and others later think is “The One,” who rejects the church for Civil Rights activism.

And harm isn’t always done by the gun-toting vigilantes, either — it’s part of the atmosphere, inherent in the system. A white boy falls in love with a Creole woman, and his very forbidden feelings for a woman of color put them both in grave danger — from themselves as well as their communities. A longtime tenant is kicked out of her home for her son’s involvement in political demonstrations. Even horse-breaking, the skill that gives Jane’s husband his advantage as a worker, comes with a terrible price. Jane has seen it all, yet the more she sees, the less complacent she becomes. The novel’s ending, right in the Civil Rights era, arrives with incredible force — and left me in tears on my subway ride. It’s one of those endings that turns the entire story into a cry of resistance, an affirmation that Black Lives Matter and also a testament to the growth of human endurance and courage.

Gaines uses a mix of humor and pathos to make a very dark story into a page-turning pleasure to read. He lets Jane’s elderly voice, full of colloquialism and dialect, be a source of humor without ever belittling her or doubting her experiences or wisdom. And the understatement of her storytelling style, the matter-of-fact way she talks of tragedy and bloodshed as if the reader is the man on her porch with the tape recorder, allows her experiences to accumulate slowly and gain weight, rather than being a source of constant sorrow.

This novel, despite its considerable time span, only touches on a small slice of history. It doesn’t cover the experience of the many black Americans who left the South for big cities up north. But it provides a precise window into the experiences of those who, for many reasons, stayed close to where their ancestors had been forced to labor, and illuminates the different forces that colluded to make upward mobility and prosperity nigh impossible. But this is a novel, not an oppression narrative; Miss Jane’s life is a triumph, and her final actions in the book make her into the kind of literary heroine that all readers love to cheer for.