- The Narrative Absence of Interiority in Black Writing:Suffering Female Bodies in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
The 1980s and subsequent years have seen—influenced by poststructuralist advances in literary studies as well as in history—a surge of interest and a new approach within African American Studies regarding the recuperation of slave narratives. Whereas previous generations of scholars have mostly read slave narratives as transparent documents, as mimetic acts of faithful reproduction of reality, they have now come to be seen as acts of narrative representations. Olney describes the genre's own self-authorizing fiction as follows: a slave narrative was constructed to appear as a "clear, unfailing record of events sharp and distinct that need only be transformed into descriptive language to become a sequential narrative of a life in slavery . . . a mold with virtually obligatory figures, scenes, turns of phrase, observances, and authentications—that carry over from narrative to narrative and give them as a group the species character that we designate by the phrase 'slave narrative'"1 and, as such, it could not possibly be a "transparent rendering of 'historical reality.'2
Different from the slave narratives proper, in the late 1960s, author Ernest Gaines in his The Autobiography of Jane Pittman did have the freedom to shape a fictional narrative and he employed those elements of the genre's conventions that were useful to him. Gaines's novel, published in 1971, then, may be seen as the re-construction of a construction, partaking in the slave narrative's truth claims, while displaying its own particular narrative interests, excesses, and lacunae. As for those excesses and lacunae, I couldn't help but wonder: Why [End Page 87] do all the upright African American men Jane has been associated with, have to die, only to leave "Me and Robert"3 (246), that is, the old black woman and the old white master, alive, close to the narrative present?
Gaines's text needs the iconic African American female to be the surviving teller of the tales, someone unassuming and bold, and at the same time, as wizened and mature as Jane Pittman. This old African American woman, an icon of moral strength and empathy, is the witness Gaines's novel relies on to make broader national audiences believe African American testimony as a story of individual hardship that, however, gains representative quality by incorporating collective voicings of the community. The Autobiography puts to use a character such as Jane to incorporate the longue durée of African American experience, as well as to create an embodiment for the eventual and inevitable transition of African American struggle from endurance and resistance to militancy.
The novel's final scene points to that transition, when Jane's toughness, having survived generations of men, alludes to but does not carry through yet, a changing quality of confrontation with "the man." Ms. Pittman defies Robert by not letting herself be stopped by him; but she does not engage in a militant confrontation. It is, rather, a reserved defiance: "Me and Robert looked at each other there a long time, then I went by him" is the novel's foreboding last sentence. A number of critics have commented on the embeddedness of Gaines's novel in the particular historical momentum of the late 1960s, and early '70s—decisive years riveted by the explosive radicalization of the young civil rights movement generation.4 Within this momentum, Gaines placed Jane Pittman as a bodily bridge, as it were, to mediate between the experience of slavery and oppression in the African American past, and the hope for and promise of a future of fuller American citizenship.
Jane Pittman is strong; Jane Pittman endures; Jane Pittman is a pillar of the community. She is, also, humble. She is Gaines's teller and anchor of his tale of African American survival against formidable odds; in that function, she figures as a larger-than-life medium of African American history, but not necessarily as the operatic hero of the text. Hence, the question that begs an answer—even though by right of the novel's title, and by right of the novel's ubiquitous plot, which...