Reissue edition (August 1, 1982)
Pittman knew how to live a life from beginning to end; she neither
skipped a page, nor neglected her share of suffering. Few people
live that kind of life.
Perhaps that is
one reason why this book has been taught in schools for many years
now. Former students remember reading it. They cant remember
why, and they cant remember what there was to remember. Meaning
has yellowed like the first editions of this book. That is unfortunate,
but also predictable. Miss Pittman reminds us that "sometimes the
loose ends just dont get tied up." And maybe this is why those
same recalcitrant students will take up this book again and again
in their livesin youth, we arent ready to absorb such
a story, the meaning of such a life.
As a reviewer,
I admire Mr. Gaines' ability to take the clay of life in his hands
and craft it into a story. What a job that must have been, even
for a writer as talented as Ernest J. Gaines. Think about it. He
captured the life of a slave who lived to be almost 110 years old.
"Here is my story, Mr. Gaines," she must have said. "Give it to
I wonder what I
may add to this. What can I say about this story that Miss Pittman
doesnt say herself? This is the life of a slave, of a woman
who saw segregation, integration, the battles produced by those
struggling for a power they thought to be theirs. Its the
story of a woman who lived a life in the middle of it all, but who
left this earth without regret. I can only tell you that its
a life worth reading about, a life worth living.
From her home in
Louisiana, Miss Jane sees "the people" through the Civil War and
the 1960s. She witnesses the rise and fall of black militancy from
the confines of her plantation home. While still a child, Miss Jane
proclaims that she is leaving when her master announces freedom.
With a group of her fellow slaves, Miss Jane begins a voyage of
escape. After white marauders attack her small band, she is left
with a young boy whom she decides to raise. For Miss Pittman, raising
Ned is simply the right thing to do.
When Ned is grown,
Miss Jane meets John Pittman and knows immediately how her life
will change. She moves in with him as Ned leaves to make his way
in the world. And so he does. Ned has a passion for helping strengthen
the black community; it is a trait no doubt influenced by his surrogate
mother. Miss Jane settles into a new life with her husband, working
on a ranch and taking care of another white family.
The years pass.
Miss Jane watches as children grow up, loved ones die, white people
try to keep the blacks "in their place" in Louisiana, and black
people learn that they are entitled to more. This is her story.
She would consider it unremarkable except that she lived to "108
or 109" at least. But the significance of her tale has less to do
with age and more to do with colorbut not that of the skin.
Her story is a colorful narrative that traces a vibrant people's
emergence from a world unwilling to change.
And the narrative
of this story is its greatest gift. Mr. Gaines delivers honesty
that is nothing if not powerful. Through Mr. Gaines' pen, Jane Pittman
sees peoples ability to hate. She sees white men hate the
very people who made their lives worth living. She sees black people
kill their own because its all they have known. Miss Pittman
sees every face of ugly that human beings can display, but she never
wants to die, and she never loses her ability to love.
Some might proclaim
this a book about the Civil Rights movement. Others would say its
about the painful life of a slave who encounters one indignity after
another. Still others might love this book for Mr. Gaines' ability
to mold a storyan important onewith what seems like
such ease. But what I found most powerful was the admonition that
we share humanity. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
reminds us that we all hurt the in same waysfree and slaved,
black or white, rich or poor. We share this life.