Bantam Books
Reissue edition (August 1, 1982)
ISBN: 0553263579
Miss 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 can’t remember why, and they can’t 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 don’t get tied up." And maybe this is why those same recalcitrant students will take up this book again and again in their lives—in youth, we aren’t 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 the world."
         I wonder what I may add to this. What can I say about this story that Miss Pittman doesn’t 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. It’s 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 it’s 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 color–but 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 people’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 story—an important one—with 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 ways—free and slaved, black or white, rich or poor. We share this life.