Narratives collective black experience through the narrative of

Narratives play an
integral role in an individual’s life. The narrative we choose to adopt is what
shapes us and defines us as a person. Without a narrative, we would not have a
story of ourselves and without a story of ourselves, we would merely exist but
how would we define ourselves, or make sense of who we are? In a sense, we are
shaped by the stories we tell people, which become a part of who we are. The
black narrative is integral to our understanding of the experiences and
hardships of black people during and after slavery as well as their
understanding of themselves. Without the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Mary
Prince or even a fictional novel such as the Autobiography of Miss Jane
Pittman, 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 in
turn these characters are shaped by the stories they choose to tell, yet they
all unify to reflect the collective black experience, and it is this collective
experience that relies on each narrative.

The Autobiography of Miss
Jane Pittman, a fictional novel written by Ernest J. Gaines, which will be
analyzed in this essay, reflects the collective black experience through the
narrative of Miss Jane. The novel revolutionizes the representation of black
female subjects by giving them control of their own narrative through a black
nationalistic perspective, as well as emphasizing the importance of female
bridge leadership in civil rights attainment for the black community. This will
be analyzed through the following passage,

He found a good place and
pulled to the side, and that’s when Tee Bob told him about the girl. Right
there in front of him, in his own car, and that rain falling outside, Tee Bob
told him he loved a nigger woman more than he loved his own life. He said that
at first he didn’t think he had heard him right. He couldn’t believe what he
had heard. He knowed Tee Bob was seeing that woman every time he came home, but
he thought just like everybody else did: Tee Bob was just sowing his wild oats
before he married Judy Major. He had never thought it went any further than
that. So he told Tee Bob to repeat what he had said, and this time take it
slow. Tee Bob said: “I never told this to nobody else. Not even her. I’m
telling it to you because you’re my friend.” “I’m not that good a friend,” he
told 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 the
foundation upon which the themes of redefining female characters through the
narrative of Miss Jane Pittman will be introduced, as well as the progression
of the narrative from the voice of a female subject to the representation of
the collective black experience through the adoption of female bridge
leadership, will be discussed.

The novel represents
intricate and deeply symbolic black female subjects as agents of their own
narrative, that emancipate themselves from confounding gender roles as well as
the oppressive hold of slavery through acts as of resistance as well as strength
and determination.

The novel is written from
the perspective of Miss Jane Pittman and gives her the agency to write her own story
and express her own thoughts and feelings through her own subjectivity. She is
the 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 is
written from Jane’s perspective and that it was written in her own words as
much as was possible, it symbolizes the path the story was going to take, where
black women are given the voice to shape their own narrative rather than it be
told by someone else. When Mary, Miss Jane’s agent asked the teacher: “What’s
wrong with them books you already got?” Then the teacher answered: “Miss Jane
is not in them.” It reflects the importance of Miss Jane’s Narrative told from
an old black woman rather than a black male leader. Jane is a symbol of black
female empowerment as her experiences reflect a resilient character that doesn’t
give up no matter the obstacles that she is faced with.  Jane is placed at the center of the story, her
voice being the dominant narrative. The story takes a form of storytelling, yet
the story doesn’t continue with only one narrative but begins to blur with the
narratives of other characters in the story and in a sense that reflects the
diffusion of female subjectivity into a union of female and male perspectives
that becomes a tale of the experiences of black people as a whole. “I should
mention that even though I have used only Miss Jane’s voice throughout the
narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her. When she was
tired, or when she just did not feel like talking anymore, or when she had
forgotten certain things, someone else would always pick up the narration….”
The novel expresses a collective female experience rather than an individual
one. It is a tale of the experiences of all black female characters and in a
sense the novel is not a story but a collection of stories. It represents the
history of slavery and the experiences of black people. It is a symbol to the
experiences of black people as a whole rather than an individual tale. Thus, in
a sense the character of Jane Pittman doesn’t reflect a submissive woman but
rather a collection of archetypes that push her towards the path of self-actualization.
Her character is a multidimensional one that is complicated as it is
intricately woven, that defies the traditional gender stereotypes of black
female subjects. Her character from a young age reflects a rebellious nature
and one that will stand against oppression and slavery. This can be seen at the
beginning 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 a
need for freedom. After that, Jane underwent abuse and harsh treatment by her
master because she refused to be called by her slave name. This act of
disobedience reflects a resistance to slavery. Jane Pittman’ strength and
determination is also reflected in her being barren as it is a symbol of her
self-empowerment. Her being barren frees her from the objectification that is
placed upon a woman’s body in her role as a mother and sex object. Jane is showcased
as strong and independent and does not need a man in her life. She didn’t marry
Joe Pittman, but instead lived with him as his partner, which reflects her refusal
to submit to the restricting roles placed on women as the “wives of men”. Jane
charts her own path independent of a man, and in a way we can focus on the
story through the eyes of Jane rather than a “man’s wife.” This is a focus on
Jane’s character as a tool of freeing herself from oppressive forces. By
focusing on the tale through her eyes we can come to see the bigger picture of
the collective experience of black people. This displacement in narrative is
very important as the story takes on a collection of narratives later on with
Jane stepping down from the center of the story and acting as a bridge to the
experiences of other characters. This bridging is a form of leadership that
reflects 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, the
character showcased in the passage, is a beautiful mulatto woman who works as a
teacher 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, and
he 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 inside
of you. I have seen too many men, of any color, look at women that way. After
she had closed the door he looked down at me again. His face scared me. I saw
in his face he was ready to go against his family, the whole world, for Mary
Agnes.”

Reflected in the main
passage of this essay, we can see that during these times it was seen as
disgraceful for a white man to love a black woman and these interracial
relationships were looked down upon. In fact, it was inconceivable and hard to
fathom for white people that a white person could fall in love with a black
person and want to be with them for purely romantic reasons and not sexual
ones. It can also be seen that it was deemed as normal for a white man to use a
black woman for sexual purposes and then to discard of her. White men placed
black 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 older
she was the caretaker of a white family.

Her existence was seen as
there only for pleasure and for use to white people. Black women were not given
the freedom to be agents of their own body and mind. Black men, in a sense were
given the freedom to be the dominant voice of their own narrative and as a
result were able to reach self-actualization, a privilege that black women
didn’t have as they became enslaved persons not only to the white narrative but
to the black male narrative as well. 
White people’s ownership and exploitation of the black body to their own
personal use can be seen when Jimmy Caya, his friend, says, “If you want her
you go to that house and take her. If you want her at that school, make them
children go out in the yard and wait. Take her in that ditch if you can’t wait
to get her home. But she’s there for that and nothing else.”

Many mixed race women of
African descent, or as they’re more widely called, “Mulattas” sustained
relationships with white men in order to have social prestige and to protect
themselves and their children from the hardships of slavery. Mary Agnes
rejected the role expected of her as a Mulatta and challenged it. Her sole
purpose was to be a teacher to the children on the plantation. This is
expressed explicitly when she tells Jane, “But I got no interest in men, black
or white. I’m for these children here. That’s why I left home.” Mary Agnes’s
emancipation from conventional gender roles is reflected in her rejection of
the advances of Tee Bob, as well as her focus on teaching the children.

She is not dissuaded by a
man, even a white man with money, no matter how much he offers her. This
symbolizes her independence and wit in her ability to deal with Tee Bob and
hold his respect and love even after rejecting him, and her not needing a man
in her life. She frees herself of the hold of conventional gender norms and
slavery with her intellect and will.

The reconstruction of
female subjects as agents of freedom is also reflected in the body of some of
the characters. Big Laura is introduced at the beginning of the story as a
character that possesses physical traits that are equal to a man’s. “Now when
we came to the swamps nobody wanted to take the lead. Nobody wanted to be the
one blamed for getting everybody else lost. All us just standing there fumbling
round, waiting for somebody to take charge. Then somebody in the back said, “Move
out the way” I looked, and that was Big Laura. She was big just like her name
say, and she was tough as any man I ever seen. She could plow, chop wood, cut
and load much cane as any man on the place. She had two children……But even
with them two children she had the biggest bundle out there balanced on her
head.” She is equal to any man, thus in a sense displaces the dominance of men
in the story as she is as strong as any man out there, but she is also a mother
that is shown in her being a mother to two kids that reflect the different
roles one woman can play and that women are not reverted into only one role but
can have various characteristics and traits.

Big Laura shows no fear
when the white patrollers attacked the group and confronts them. This reflects
resistance on her part to slavery and to being subject to the dominance of a
man. It’s a message that she can hold her own and that she is not afraid to
challenge authority. This is seen when one patroller exclaims, “Goddamn, she
was mean. Did you see her? Did you see her? Goddamn, she could fight.” Big
Laura is a strong character, not only in body but also in her resistance to the
oppressive forces of slavery.

Her body is used as a
tool to express her emancipation from the restrictive traditional roles of
women and her reconstruction as a free woman. Her freedom is represented in her
physical strength and her resistance to slavery. Her freedom from oppressive
gender stereotypes and slavery.  

Another female character that
is similar to Big Laura in her astounding physical prowess that is uniform to a
man’s is called Black Harriet, who was nicknamed “queen of the field.” “Her
name was Harriet Black, but she was so black (she was one of them Singalee
people) and the people called her Black Harriet. She didn’t have all her
faculties, 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 out
there, man or women, except for Toby Lewis. She was queen long before I came
here and she probably would have been queen long after if Katie Nelson hadn’t showed
up.”

Black Harriet challenged
the conventional roles of how a woman is portrayed, her physical strength and
determination freeing her from slavery and from constructed stereotypes of what
it means to be a woman. Black Harriet and Big Laura reflected the idea of gender
being a social construct, and that women are not only defined by the roles
placed on them by society.

In his article, Patterson
demonstrates that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman expresses that the
hardships of black people were not only as a result of the oppressive hold of
slavery but also due to the masculinization of leadership and repressing the
voices of black women that were integral to the civil rights movement. He
argues that the novel challenges the exodus politics that operated within the movement
and how it undermined it. The focus on male formal leadership undermined the
importance of female bridge leadership that was just as integral to the civil
rights movement. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman conceptualizes the modes
of leadership that exist within black communities and expresses the importance
of female bridge leadership to the collective emancipation of black people
(341).

The novel reflects female
bridge leadership through the narrative of Miss Jane Pittman and her
relationships with the different characters in the story. Her relationships in
every stage of her life reflect her path to self-actualization and her influence
on the community she is in as well as the development of the roles she adopts
in her path to unify her narrative with the collective narrative of the
characters in the story. Her role as a caretaker, lover, mediator, and a
leader, all reflect the complexity of the female narrative and the progression
from conventional gender norms to the female subject as the “I” to the
collective experience of black people as “Us”.

The irony is that Miss
Jane is the voice of the nationalist narrative even though she mothers and
nurtures male leaders that do not have mothers, male leaders that are
masqueraded as the messiahs, yet she is the dominant voice, the bridge to the
success of the civil rights movement. This is reflected with her adopting the
role of a mother to Ned Douglass, taking care of him and ensuring his survival
after this mother Big Laura was killed. There was no mention of Ned’s father in
this story and this reflects the integral role black women play in black
families and in raising male leaders. “Ned was by himself in this world, except
for me, and I didn’t want no man and no children spiting him just because he
was an orphan.” When Ned grows older and becomes an activist, Miss Jane becomes
his advisee and tries to protect him against those that were plotting against
him (101).

The different layers of
leadership showcased in the novel reflect Miss Jane, at first as a fighter
taking on an active role in the story, trying to get to the North, and then
becoming more passive as she accepts her life in the South. Yet this passivity
is only temporary as she later takes on the role of being a bridge to the
collective narrative tale of the characters in the story, a mediator between
the male leaders and the community. Jane progresses from a passive individual
to 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 path
finally leads her to self-actualization as a bridge leader.

Miss Jane’s self-actualization
as a bridge leader is reflected in her relationship with Jimmy Aaron “The One”.
 Like Ned, Jimmy Aaron has a mother, but
not a father. “Shirley Aaron was his mama’s name – but I don’t need to tell you
who his daddy was. That don’t matter – and, yes, it do. Because if his daddy
had 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 the
daddy, if he had been there, would ‘a’ been able to give him some help. But he didn’t
have a daddy to help him. The daddy had done what they told him a hundred years
before to do, and he had forgot it just like a hundred years ago they had told
him to forget. So it don’t matter who his daddy was, because you got some out
there right now who will tell you his daddy was somebody else. Oh, sure, they
all know who he was, but still they’ll argue and say he was somebody else.”
(199-200).

The black women in the
plantation raised Jimmy as their own, believing that he was “The One”. They
needed him to be their messiah. Miss Jane plays an integral role in the
upbringing of Jimmy and prepares him as the messiah for the community they are
in. 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 know
we had already made him the One, but he was already doing things the One is
supposed to do.” (204).

When Jimmy became an
activist 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 the
black community and Jimmy, trying to make the elder’s support jimmy’s ideas. She
advised him to be patient with the people and encouraged him to continue his
mission, 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 the
only way to keep going.” (228). Miss Jane actualizes Jimmy’s ascent to
leadership when she advises him and tells him, “People and time bring forth
leaders,” I said. “Leaders don’t bring forth people. The people and the time
brought King; King didn’t bring the people. What Miss Rosa Parks did, everybody
wanted to do. They just needed one person to do it first because they all couldn’t
do it at the same time; then they needed King to show them what to do next. But
King couldn’t do a thing before Miss Rosa Parks refused to give that white man
her seat (228). This reflects the integral part she plays in the civil rights
movement and as a bridge to the black community because of her understanding of
black consciousness and her urge for self-actualization.

Later on when Jimmy was
killed, Miss Jane was not deterred from going to Bayonne and participating in
the demonstrations. Jimmy’s death fueled the conscious awakening of the black
community at the plantation and their resistance to the oppressive forces they
faced. This is reflected when Miss Jane says, “Just a little piece of him is
dead. The rest of him is waiting for us in Bayonne. And I will go with Alex.”
(245).  Miss Jane activated the
resistance that reverberated through the community, she bridged the gap between
the young and the old, the community and the male leaders. Thus, Miss Jane
adopted 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, The
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman reflects the relationship between black male
and female characters as well as the integral part they both play in the emancipation
of the black community. Conventional female gender roles are challenged as black
female subjects become agents of their own narrative through the voice of Miss Jane,
as well as black female subjectivity being conceptualized and redefined through
various archetypes and characters. The different aspects of leadership are highlighted
in this novel, with an emphasis on female bridge leadership that was as integral
as formal male leadership as the male messiahs in the black community were
brought up by the women, and without the contributions and mentorship of these
women, they would not have ascended into their roles as leaders. It is not the
story of one woman but all women, and therefore the whole community.