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Commentary on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Essay


I had a load of bricks on my shoulders and I wanted to drop it but I couldnt. It was weighing me down and weighting me down, but I couldnt let go of the sack. Then a White Man with long yellow hair-hair shining like the sun-came up to me. (He had on a long white robe, too.) He came up to me and said Jane, you want get rid of that load? I said, Indeed, indeed. But how come you know me? Can you be the Lord? He said, To get rid of that load and be rid of it always, you must take it cross yon river. (Gaines 143)

The prevailing character within the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is in fact Miss Jane Pitman, not because of her name being on the front cover of the novel, but because of her strength that is brought forth through her trials of suffering as she becomes the most notably endemic character to brake away from the identity of the folk figure. Throughout the century or so that Mrs. Jane Pittman was fictitiously around, she, as well as three other characters in the novel (Ned, Jimmy Aaron and Tee Bob) gained and granted strength to others by sacrificing their lives in hope of swaying the notions of hatred towards the folk. The ability to provide aid for others is done so by acquiring the unbecoming characteristics of the southern folk character, who, like the common people around them share a similarity in race and compassion. The forces in the novel that repress the folk are brought forth as racism on African Americans, attacks on African American self sufficiency and the loss of life brought forth by murder. The use of such tactics are to repress the strength gained by the African American individual, not entirely back to slavery, but to a point of constant inequality. Overall, the chronology of the novel brings forth individuals, such as Miss Jane Pittman, Ned, Jimmy Aaron and Tee Bob, to provide strength and leadership based upon their power in academic knowledge, wisdom and compassion.

The portrayal of strength brought forth in the novel can be characterized as determination, persistence and will in each individual folk. Who are the folk? The folk are the African American population, agrarian in nature, and are brought forth through racial stereotypes, such as gambling, laziness and indifference (of their situation in society). With this description of the folk, one of the prevailing characters representing strength, Ned, who states during The Sermon at the River that to break out of this mold which envelops the folk, African Americans must:

[b]e Americans, he told the children. But first be men. Look inside yourself. Say, What am I? What else beside this black skin that the white man call nigger? Do you know what a nigger is? he asked us. First, a nigger feels below anybody else on earth. Hes been beaten so much by the white man, he dont care for himself, for nobody else, and for nothing else. He talks a lot, but his words dont mean nothing. Hell never be American, and hell never be a citizen of any other nation. But theres a big difference between a nigger and a black American. A black American cares, and will always struggle. (Gaines 115)

This explanation is in direct correlation to the folk, who, to become more American, must have compassion and brake away from the mold that is the folk character. The southern African American character cares and will continue to struggle and braking away from the folk mind set allows the folk individual to acquire an essence of identity, which brings forth strength as a result because it is hard to care for a person who is indifferent about the situation each individual hold in society.

It can be argued that the source for constant change, underlying the more apparent murders and intimidation of progress and liberation for the African Americans, is a pattern of spiritual and psychological evolution of many people in Jane Pittmans life. For example, freedom and its fulfillment can be sought after in the novel as a spatial idea, which Jane believes can be obtained in Ohio by walking there, rather than psychologically and spiritually, in her childlike mind. During the point in the novel where Jane and Ned are traveling to Ohio by simply walking, a women on a plantation warns Jane when she says [o]h, child, child, there aint no Ohio. If there is, it aint what you done made up in your mind. Yall come back with me. Yall come back. Ill treat you right. (Gaines 30) The warning, brought forth by the plantation mistress, has tried to offer Jane an alternative to regress into the plantation past, to a time and place of security. Throughout the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the constant temptation of security within the plantation past constantly creeps upon Jane from time to time as a commanding and threatening force to go back to the past (Gaines 27). With progress and regression constantly trying to overcome one another, the dialogue in the Autobiography conveys the vast array of backward and forward directions of thought and action to prepare the way for changes in the social situation of African Americans. Hence force, strength becomes endemic through characters surrounding, and including, Jane Pittman, all of whom display an essence of progress by swaying the notions of both white and African Americans in the story of Jane Pittman through the prevention of go[ing] back independently or through force (Gaines 27).

While Jane Pittman aids in overcoming racism, she influences two strength inducing characters, Ned and Jimmy Aaron, both of whom sacrifice their lives in martyrdom, which is the suffering of death due to a cause. The strong characters in the novel choose their own degree of determination, and their goals by either speaking out individually, or by coming together in a group. This is most evident towards the end of the novel when Jimmy tries to gain support of the folk community in his hometown by saying:

I need you because my body is not strong enough to stand out there all by myself. Some people carry flags, but we dont have a flag. Some carry guns, but we know it would be nonsense to even think about. Some have money, but we dont have a cent. We have just the strength of our people, our Christian people. I care much for you now as I ever did-and every last one of you in here know me.

Just as Ned states in The sermon on the River the difference between a nigger and an African American, Jimmy begins to endorse his community into becoming Americans by standing together against tyrannical forces and taking up the American flag together.

African Americans helping other African Americans are common to read in the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, however, it is rare to come by a man with a Caucasian coloring of the skin to aid other African Americans. Although, in the case of Tee Bob, the son of the plantation owner Robert Samson, an indirect influence on the interrelation between white and African Americans is brought forth through his suicide. Jules Raynard, the godfather of Tee Bob, displays his wisdom through a speech that is brought forth when he states [w]e all killed him. We tried to make him follow a set of rules our people gived us long ago, But These rules just aint old enough..., which pertains to how all of them, including Jane Pittman, killed Tee Bob, especially by supporting the culture that wore him down (Gaines 204). Jules Raynard is exceptional, not because of his wisdom but due to his curiosity in understanding a time of prejudice and segregation. Just as Jesus had sacrificed himself in martyrdom, Tee Bob had done the same, however, he was most likely ignorant or rather foggy to the effect his death would cause because he was able to enlighten those who follow the rules, which in affect would eventually provide strength to those willing to go against the rules (Gaines 204).

Work Citied

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1972.

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