Narratives play anintegral role in an individual’s life.
The narrative we choose to adopt is whatshapes us and defines us as a person. Without a narrative, we would not have astory of ourselves and without a story of ourselves, we would merely exist buthow would we define ourselves, or make sense of who we are? In a sense, we areshaped by the stories we tell people, which become a part of who we are. Theblack narrative is integral to our understanding of the experiences andhardships of black people during and after slavery as well as theirunderstanding of themselves. Without the narratives of Frederick Douglass, MaryPrince or even a fictional novel such as the Autobiography of Miss JanePittman, we would not know what it was like to be oppressed from each of their perspectives,as each character brings their own unique experiences and development, and inturn these characters are shaped by the stories they choose to tell, yet theyall unify to reflect the collective black experience, and it is this collectiveexperience that relies on each narrative. The Autobiography of MissJane Pittman, a fictional novel written by Ernest J. Gaines, which will beanalyzed in this essay, reflects the collective black experience through thenarrative of Miss Jane.
The novel revolutionizes the representation of blackfemale subjects by giving them control of their own narrative through a blacknationalistic perspective, as well as emphasizing the importance of femalebridge leadership in civil rights attainment for the black community. This willbe analyzed through the following passage,He found a good place andpulled to the side, and that’s when Tee Bob told him about the girl. Rightthere in front of him, in his own car, and that rain falling outside, Tee Bobtold him he loved a nigger woman more than he loved his own life. He said thatat first he didn’t think he had heard him right. He couldn’t believe what hehad heard. He knowed Tee Bob was seeing that woman every time he came home, buthe thought just like everybody else did: Tee Bob was just sowing his wild oatsbefore he married Judy Major. He had never thought it went any further thanthat. So he told Tee Bob to repeat what he had said, and this time take itslow.
Tee Bob said: “I never told this to nobody else. Not even her. I’mtelling it to you because you’re my friend.
” “I’m not that good a friend,” hetold him. “Who else can I turn to?” Tee Bob said. “Who else will understand?””Nobody,” Jimmy Caya said. “me neither.” (181-2).This passage will be thefoundation upon which the themes of redefining female characters through thenarrative of Miss Jane Pittman will be introduced, as well as the progressionof the narrative from the voice of a female subject to the representation ofthe collective black experience through the adoption of female bridgeleadership, will be discussed.
The novel representsintricate and deeply symbolic black female subjects as agents of their ownnarrative, that emancipate themselves from confounding gender roles as well asthe oppressive hold of slavery through acts as of resistance as well as strengthand determination.The novel is written fromthe perspective of Miss Jane Pittman and gives her the agency to write her own storyand express her own thoughts and feelings through her own subjectivity. She isthe voice of the story rather than a secondary character to a black male leader.At the very beginning when the author of the novel states that the novel iswritten from Jane’s perspective and that it was written in her own words asmuch as was possible, it symbolizes the path the story was going to take, whereblack women are given the voice to shape their own narrative rather than it betold by someone else. When Mary, Miss Jane’s agent asked the teacher: “What’swrong with them books you already got?” Then the teacher answered: “Miss Janeis not in them.” It reflects the importance of Miss Jane’s Narrative told froman old black woman rather than a black male leader. Jane is a symbol of blackfemale empowerment as her experiences reflect a resilient character that doesn’tgive up no matter the obstacles that she is faced with.
Jane is placed at the center of the story, hervoice being the dominant narrative. The story takes a form of storytelling, yetthe story doesn’t continue with only one narrative but begins to blur with thenarratives of other characters in the story and in a sense that reflects thediffusion of female subjectivity into a union of female and male perspectivesthat becomes a tale of the experiences of black people as a whole. “I shouldmention that even though I have used only Miss Jane’s voice throughout thenarrative, there were times when others carried the story for her. When she wastired, or when she just did not feel like talking anymore, or when she hadforgotten certain things, someone else would always pick up the narration….
“The novel expresses a collective female experience rather than an individualone. It is a tale of the experiences of all black female characters and in asense the novel is not a story but a collection of stories. It represents thehistory of slavery and the experiences of black people. It is a symbol to theexperiences of black people as a whole rather than an individual tale. Thus, ina sense the character of Jane Pittman doesn’t reflect a submissive woman butrather a collection of archetypes that push her towards the path of self-actualization.Her character is a multidimensional one that is complicated as it isintricately woven, that defies the traditional gender stereotypes of blackfemale subjects. Her character from a young age reflects a rebellious natureand one that will stand against oppression and slavery.
This can be seen at thebeginning of the story when Corporal Brown, a union soldier, called her Jane,giving her a name other than her slave name, Ticey, which instilled in her aneed for freedom. After that, Jane underwent abuse and harsh treatment by hermaster because she refused to be called by her slave name. This act ofdisobedience reflects a resistance to slavery. Jane Pittman’ strength anddetermination is also reflected in her being barren as it is a symbol of herself-empowerment. Her being barren frees her from the objectification that isplaced upon a woman’s body in her role as a mother and sex object.
Jane is showcasedas strong and independent and does not need a man in her life. She didn’t marryJoe Pittman, but instead lived with him as his partner, which reflects her refusalto submit to the restricting roles placed on women as the “wives of men”. Janecharts her own path independent of a man, and in a way we can focus on thestory through the eyes of Jane rather than a “man’s wife.” This is a focus onJane’s character as a tool of freeing herself from oppressive forces. Byfocusing on the tale through her eyes we can come to see the bigger picture ofthe collective experience of black people. This displacement in narrative isvery important as the story takes on a collection of narratives later on withJane stepping down from the center of the story and acting as a bridge to theexperiences of other characters. This bridging is a form of leadership thatreflects the type of leadership black women adopted during and after slavery,and its equal importance to the formal leadership black men adopted. Mary Agnes Le Fabre, thecharacter showcased in the passage, is a beautiful mulatto woman who works as ateacher at Samson’s Plantation, that is chased by Tee Bob, the son of Samson,who is in love with her.
“He watched her till she has gone in that house, andhe didn’t look at her the way you think a white man look at a nigger woman,either. He looked at her with love, and I mean the kind that’s way deep insideof you. I have seen too many men, of any color, look at women that way. Aftershe had closed the door he looked down at me again. His face scared me. I sawin his face he was ready to go against his family, the whole world, for MaryAgnes.” Reflected in the mainpassage of this essay, we can see that during these times it was seen asdisgraceful for a white man to love a black woman and these interracialrelationships were looked down upon. In fact, it was inconceivable and hard tofathom for white people that a white person could fall in love with a blackperson and want to be with them for purely romantic reasons and not sexualones.
It can also be seen that it was deemed as normal for a white man to use ablack woman for sexual purposes and then to discard of her. White men placedblack women in very restrictive roles, through the stereotype of the “Jezebel”or the “Big Mama.” If she was young she was deemed a whore and if she was oldershe was the caretaker of a white family. Her existence was seen asthere only for pleasure and for use to white people. Black women were not giventhe freedom to be agents of their own body and mind.
Black men, in a sense weregiven the freedom to be the dominant voice of their own narrative and as aresult were able to reach self-actualization, a privilege that black womendidn’t have as they became enslaved persons not only to the white narrative butto the black male narrative as well. White people’s ownership and exploitation of the black body to their ownpersonal use can be seen when Jimmy Caya, his friend, says, “If you want heryou go to that house and take her. If you want her at that school, make themchildren go out in the yard and wait. Take her in that ditch if you can’t waitto get her home. But she’s there for that and nothing else.” Many mixed race women ofAfrican descent, or as they’re more widely called, “Mulattas” sustainedrelationships with white men in order to have social prestige and to protectthemselves and their children from the hardships of slavery. Mary Agnesrejected the role expected of her as a Mulatta and challenged it.
Her solepurpose was to be a teacher to the children on the plantation. This isexpressed explicitly when she tells Jane, “But I got no interest in men, blackor white. I’m for these children here. That’s why I left home.” Mary Agnes’semancipation from conventional gender roles is reflected in her rejection ofthe advances of Tee Bob, as well as her focus on teaching the children. She is not dissuaded by aman, even a white man with money, no matter how much he offers her.
Thissymbolizes her independence and wit in her ability to deal with Tee Bob andhold his respect and love even after rejecting him, and her not needing a manin her life. She frees herself of the hold of conventional gender norms andslavery with her intellect and will.The reconstruction offemale subjects as agents of freedom is also reflected in the body of some ofthe characters. Big Laura is introduced at the beginning of the story as acharacter that possesses physical traits that are equal to a man’s. “Now whenwe came to the swamps nobody wanted to take the lead.
Nobody wanted to be theone blamed for getting everybody else lost. All us just standing there fumblinground, waiting for somebody to take charge. Then somebody in the back said, “Moveout the way” I looked, and that was Big Laura. She was big just like her namesay, and she was tough as any man I ever seen. She could plow, chop wood, cutand load much cane as any man on the place. She had two children….
..But evenwith them two children she had the biggest bundle out there balanced on herhead.” She is equal to any man, thus in a sense displaces the dominance of menin the story as she is as strong as any man out there, but she is also a motherthat is shown in her being a mother to two kids that reflect the differentroles one woman can play and that women are not reverted into only one role butcan have various characteristics and traits. Big Laura shows no fearwhen the white patrollers attacked the group and confronts them. This reflectsresistance on her part to slavery and to being subject to the dominance of aman. It’s a message that she can hold her own and that she is not afraid tochallenge authority.
This is seen when one patroller exclaims, “Goddamn, shewas mean. Did you see her? Did you see her? Goddamn, she could fight.” BigLaura is a strong character, not only in body but also in her resistance to theoppressive forces of slavery. Her body is used as atool to express her emancipation from the restrictive traditional roles ofwomen and her reconstruction as a free woman. Her freedom is represented in herphysical strength and her resistance to slavery. Her freedom from oppressivegender stereotypes and slavery. Another female character thatis similar to Big Laura in her astounding physical prowess that is uniform to aman’s is called Black Harriet, who was nicknamed “queen of the field.
” “Hername was Harriet Black, but she was so black (she was one of them Singaleepeople) and the people called her Black Harriet. She didn’t have all herfaculties, but still she was queen of the field. She was tall, straight, tough,and blue-black. Could pick more cotton, chop more cotton than anybody outthere, man or women, except for Toby Lewis. She was queen long before I camehere and she probably would have been queen long after if Katie Nelson hadn’t showedup.” Black Harriet challengedthe conventional roles of how a woman is portrayed, her physical strength anddetermination freeing her from slavery and from constructed stereotypes of whatit means to be a woman. Black Harriet and Big Laura reflected the idea of genderbeing a social construct, and that women are not only defined by the rolesplaced on them by society. In his article, Pattersondemonstrates that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman expresses that thehardships of black people were not only as a result of the oppressive hold ofslavery but also due to the masculinization of leadership and repressing thevoices of black women that were integral to the civil rights movement.
Heargues that the novel challenges the exodus politics that operated within the movementand how it undermined it. The focus on male formal leadership undermined theimportance of female bridge leadership that was just as integral to the civilrights movement. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman conceptualizes the modesof leadership that exist within black communities and expresses the importanceof female bridge leadership to the collective emancipation of black people(341). The novel reflects femalebridge leadership through the narrative of Miss Jane Pittman and herrelationships with the different characters in the story. Her relationships inevery stage of her life reflect her path to self-actualization and her influenceon the community she is in as well as the development of the roles she adoptsin her path to unify her narrative with the collective narrative of thecharacters in the story. Her role as a caretaker, lover, mediator, and aleader, all reflect the complexity of the female narrative and the progressionfrom conventional gender norms to the female subject as the “I” to thecollective experience of black people as “Us”. The irony is that MissJane is the voice of the nationalist narrative even though she mothers andnurtures male leaders that do not have mothers, male leaders that aremasqueraded as the messiahs, yet she is the dominant voice, the bridge to thesuccess of the civil rights movement. This is reflected with her adopting therole of a mother to Ned Douglass, taking care of him and ensuring his survivalafter this mother Big Laura was killed.
There was no mention of Ned’s father inthis story and this reflects the integral role black women play in blackfamilies and in raising male leaders. “Ned was by himself in this world, exceptfor me, and I didn’t want no man and no children spiting him just because hewas an orphan.” When Ned grows older and becomes an activist, Miss Jane becomeshis advisee and tries to protect him against those that were plotting againsthim (101). The different layers ofleadership showcased in the novel reflect Miss Jane, at first as a fightertaking on an active role in the story, trying to get to the North, and thenbecoming more passive as she accepts her life in the South. Yet this passivityis only temporary as she later takes on the role of being a bridge to thecollective narrative tale of the characters in the story, a mediator betweenthe male leaders and the community.
Jane progresses from a passive individualto a main participant and thus to a leader, an active agent in her community,providing a bridge between the community and black male heroes. This pathfinally leads her to self-actualization as a bridge leader.Miss Jane’s self-actualizationas a bridge leader is reflected in her relationship with Jimmy Aaron “The One”. Like Ned, Jimmy Aaron has a mother, butnot a father. “Shirley Aaron was his mama’s name – but I don’t need to tell youwho his daddy was.
That don’t matter – and, yes, it do. Because if his daddyhad been there the cross wouldn’t ‘a’ been nearly so heavy. Oh, heavy it would ‘a’been – it had to be – because we needed him to carry part our cross; but thedaddy, if he had been there, would ‘a’ been able to give him some help. But he didn’thave a daddy to help him. The daddy had done what they told him a hundred yearsbefore to do, and he had forgot it just like a hundred years ago they had toldhim to forget. So it don’t matter who his daddy was, because you got some outthere right now who will tell you his daddy was somebody else. Oh, sure, theyall know who he was, but still they’ll argue and say he was somebody else.”(199-200).
The black women in theplantation raised Jimmy as their own, believing that he was “The One”. Theyneeded him to be their messiah. Miss Jane plays an integral role in theupbringing of Jimmy and prepares him as the messiah for the community they arein. Jimmy begins to realize the role that is expected of him in the community,and starts to act out that role. “He wasn’t nothing but a child, and he didn’t knowwe had already made him the One, but he was already doing things the One issupposed to do.” (204). When Jimmy became anactivist he was met with opposition from the black elders in the community.
However, Miss Jane took on the role of mediator acting as a bridge between theblack community and Jimmy, trying to make the elder’s support jimmy’s ideas. Sheadvised him to be patient with the people and encouraged him to continue hismission, telling him, “The people here ain’t ready for nothing yet, Jimmy….Nothing out there now but white hate and nigger fear. And fear they feel is theonly way to keep going.” (228). Miss Jane actualizes Jimmy’s ascent toleadership when she advises him and tells him, “People and time bring forthleaders,” I said.
“Leaders don’t bring forth people. The people and the timebrought King; King didn’t bring the people. What Miss Rosa Parks did, everybodywanted to do.
They just needed one person to do it first because they all couldn’tdo it at the same time; then they needed King to show them what to do next. ButKing couldn’t do a thing before Miss Rosa Parks refused to give that white manher seat (228). This reflects the integral part she plays in the civil rightsmovement and as a bridge to the black community because of her understanding ofblack consciousness and her urge for self-actualization.
Later on when Jimmy waskilled, Miss Jane was not deterred from going to Bayonne and participating inthe demonstrations. Jimmy’s death fueled the conscious awakening of the blackcommunity at the plantation and their resistance to the oppressive forces theyfaced. This is reflected when Miss Jane says, “Just a little piece of him isdead. The rest of him is waiting for us in Bayonne.
And I will go with Alex.”(245). Miss Jane activated theresistance that reverberated through the community, she bridged the gap betweenthe young and the old, the community and the male leaders.
Thus, Miss Janeadopted the image of the black woman that is an agent of her own story,creating resistance within the community through her role as a bridge leader. To conclude, TheAutobiography of Miss Jane Pittman reflects the relationship between black maleand female characters as well as the integral part they both play in the emancipationof the black community. Conventional female gender roles are challenged as blackfemale subjects become agents of their own narrative through the voice of Miss Jane,as well as black female subjectivity being conceptualized and redefined throughvarious archetypes and characters. The different aspects of leadership are highlightedin this novel, with an emphasis on female bridge leadership that was as integralas formal male leadership as the male messiahs in the black community werebrought up by the women, and without the contributions and mentorship of thesewomen, they would not have ascended into their roles as leaders. It is not thestory of one woman but all women, and therefore the whole community.