It surprises me how many people think that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is an actual biographical/autobiographical work. It is not -- it is fiction. It is a brilliantly crafted work interweaving historical references and recollections into an overall framework of the life of a woman born into slavery who survived to the point of the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The style of the book is one of oral history. The editor interviewed and transcribed Miss Jane's stories beginning in 1962 and going on for nearly a year. The editor also talked to other people, particularly when Miss Jane would fall silent or forget things (he couldn't tell if she was doing this deliberately or not), and also talked to people after Miss Jane's funeral.
In a small space, the author (who is to be distinguished from the editor, a character in the novel) shows his intention -- this is to be an overarching story of black experience from the Civil War to Civil Rights, seen primarily through the experience of one woman, but incorporating and representing the experiences of all others.
The telling of the tale begins in the Civil War, where Miss Jane is child (she can't actually remember when she was born). Her name at that point was Ticey. Her first story deals with negotiating the delicate balance between fleeing Confederate soldiers, arriving Union soldiers, and the dominant presence of the mistress of the plantation. It was a Union soldier who suggested the name of Jane to Ticey ('Ticey is a slave name' the corporal said). Thus she became Jane. Jane Brown, adopting the last name of the corporal.
Unfortunately for Jane, the mistress didn't like this, and tried to beat the name out of her. Jane refused to recant the name, and got put out in the field for her 'sass'. A year later, when the war ended, she set out for Ohio, the state where the corporal who named her had lived. The decision was a tough one -- the older folk didn't want to risk the journey, perhaps a case of better the devil you know. The young folks, however, were having none of the continuing presence of a master and mistress. They set out right away. Jane bid farewell to her Uncle Isom and set out with a group of people, some misfits, some smart.
Soon they had their first run-in with the forerunners of the Klan. From her hiding place, Jane watched the 'patrollers' kill Big Laura, the mother-figure of the group, and all of the rest of the travellers. Suddenly she was alone save for Ned, Big Laura's little boy. She was a mother figure right away. Being resourceful and pragmatic as a slave is forced to learn to be from earliest days, she grabbed the supplies and left with Ned, still hoping to travel to Ohio.
However, fortune and lack of proper directions led Jane and Ned into many encounters through the south, and when finding someone who has a map, they also come to the realisation that there might be difficulty in finding soldier Brown in Ohio. Which part of Ohio is he in?
Jane and Ned end up on a plantation, doing work like they had done before. Jane remained behind to experience ongoing strife and trouble, encountering carpetbagger politicians, business dealings, and abandonment. The plantation was purchased by an old Confederate office, Colonel Dye, and the people supporting the blacks all left.
Ned left for the North, having changed his last name to Douglass, after Frederick Douglass. His life was in danger, so he had to go. After Ned left, Jane began her relationship with Joe Pittman; living together outside of marriage at first, which Jane justified in a way by explaining that black folk didn't have church marriages in slavery times, and they just weren't sure what to do now.
Joe and Jane left for east Texas for their own land after a time, after having an altercation with Colonel Dye over $150, plus surprise interest. Joe worked at breaking horses, becoming 'chief' Pittman, something of which both Joe and Jane were proud. Jane worked in a house as a servant. They did this for about ten years. Joe was killed by a horse no one could break, including Joe -- Jane had premonitions of the death, but Joe had to go 'a man's way'.
The story of Miss Jane continues apace through experience on another plantation and finally ending up in the Quarters. This is where she helped give birth to and raise Jimmy.
Anytime a child is born, the old people look in his face and ask him if he's the One. No, they don't say it out loud like I'm saying it to you now. Maybe they don't say it at all; maybe they just feel it -- but feel it they do. "You the One?" I'm sure Lena asked Jimmy that when she first held him in her arms. "You the One, Jimmy? You the One?"
Jimmy was the one who would get Miss Jane involved in the Civil Rights struggle, a struggle which she had in fact been participating in all her life. Jimmy, like so many in Miss Jane's life, like so many in black experience, would end up being killed over protests for drinking fountains and bathroom privileges. But as Miss Jane said, just part of him was dead.
The greater part of Jimmy was still alive, and with the courage and example of Miss Jane, they went to Bayonne to stand up for their rights. Miss Jane was affected by many events; Miss Jane finally stopped reacting and acted up.
The author, Ernest Gaines, was born on a Louisiana plantation. His descriptions and situations are authentic and mesmerising. He left Louisiana and was educated at San Francisco State and Stanford. He has other novels and collections of short stories, but The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman published in 1971 is undoubtedly the work for which he will be remembered. Cicely Tyson's portrayal of Miss Jane in the film of the same name is an endearing performance, but one misses much if one relies solely on the film (plus some of the details are changed, sometimes inexplicably). One thing I would recommend is watching the film and reading the book as companions to each other -- some of the dialogue in the film supplements the book (like Miss Jane's final speech to the reporter), and the book fills in (as all books do) many of the details glossed over in the film.