“Through Her Comes a World of Change: Jane Pittman, Black Lives Matter,
and Calling Communities to Action”
by Em Tielman
The life and literature of Ernest J. Gaines continues to instruct folks of all races about the struggles and the triumphs of black people living in South Louisiana. His novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is a work of historical fiction that may now be understood as a foreshadowing of some of the distinct characteristics of the now-global Black Lives Matter movement. The novel’s introduction explains that the coming narration has been reproduced from interviews between Miss Jane and an educator who eagerly requests to hear her story, one that is not provided in the textbooks from which he teaches. The novel spans from just after the American Civil War, through the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras, and into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It is not until after two important characters, Ned Douglass and Jimmy Aaron, become martyrs of movements for racial justice that Miss Jane fully embraces her role as a leader, though she had been one all along.
In the article “Rethinking Definitions and Expectations: Civil Rights and Civil Rights Leadership in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” Dr. Robert J. Patterson argues that the decision to center the narrative around Miss Jane, though other characters play crucial roles, signifies Gaines’ commentary on the long-established pattern of what he refers to as “exodus politics.” The professor of African American Studies writes:
“Not only does [Gaines] call into question the efficacy of male formal leadership that social movement theorists privileged in evaluating the success of the civil rights movement’s organizational and mobilization tactics, but he also disrupts the correlative notion that there is a unified black subject (read as black male) whose political interests align with those of the entire community. In doing so, Gaines underscores the importance of developing self-empowered communities that can sustain civil rights movements in the absence of formal leaders and encourages black communities to espouse political agendas that may include competing interests” (Patterson, 342).
The article builds upon the scholarship of Belinda Robnett to aptly interpret the novel’s implications that not only does the tradition of exodus politics tend to privilege male leadership over others, but it also has the potential to obscure or erase revolutionary contributions made in the form of “bridge leadership,” such as community service and caretaking (Patterson, 341).
In an early chapter entitled “Massacre,” Miss Jane is seen unofficially adopting young Ned just after his mother Big Laura is murdered by “patrollers” (later described as members of the Ku Klux Klan) and she serves as a maternal figure in his life even after he grows up and builds a family of his own (Gaines, 20-112). As the novel unfolds, readers may become frustrated as the challenge to gender power dynamics is painstakingly delayed; yet this is one of the ways the novel is a thoughtfully constructed paradigm of realist, historical fiction insofar as it is a truer depiction “of the times.” Gaines recreates the power structure when Ned returns to Louisiana from Kansas and is able to command support from the community and become a centralizing organizer in a way that Jane has yet to imagine for herself (Gaines, 98-112).
The co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, are clearly attuned to the pitfalls of exodus politics and have contributed significant revisions with the creation of a new model for leadership. Dr. Fredrick C. Harris, a professor of Political Science, echoes such concerns with exodus politics, and pays tribute to BLM in his article, “The Next Civil Rights Movement?,” printed in Dissent Magazine. Harris draws from statements made by various chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement when he explains, “Black Lives Matter activists today recognize that granting decision-making power to an individual or a handful of individuals poses a risk to the durability of a movement. Charismatic leaders can be co-opted by powerful interests, place their own self-interest above that of the collective, be targeted by government repression, or even be assassinated, as were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The dependence of movements on charismatic leaders can therefore weaken them, even lead to their collapse” (Harris, par. 9).
While it is not the intention to undermine the efforts of black male leaders of the past, the changes enacted by BLM are palpable and worth taking note of in order to better understand and honor the new model of leadership that is taking hold. Gaines depicts the reality of assassination plots against black leaders with the fictional deaths of Ned Douglass, who re-named himself in honor of his role model Frederick Douglass, and Jimmy Aaron, who is also referred to as “The Chosen One” (Gaines, 116, 245). But it is not only to reduce the risk of losing leadership that we are witnessing this historic departure; it also serves additional purposes of acknowledging efforts of those who may or may not have access to titled positions and for greater inclusivity when determining the multi-faceted mission of the movement. Brittney Cooper, author of “11 Major Misconceptions About the Black Lives Matter Movement,” addresses the new model for leadership in Misconception #2. She writes, “The Black Lives Matter movement is a leaderfull movement.” She goes on to say, “First, focusing on heterosexual, cisgender black men frequently causes us not to see the significant amount of labor and thought leadership that black women provide to movements, not only in caretaking and auxiliary roles, but on the front lines of protests and in the strategy sessions that happen behind closed doors. Moreover, those old models [of] leadership favored the old over the young, attempted to silence gay and lesbian leadership, and did not recognize the leadership possibilities of transgender people at all” (Cooper, par. 3). It should be noted that Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza openly identify as queer; and though they are not listed on BLM’s website as co-founders, transgender activists have been involved in the movement since its inception. Janaya Khan, Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ spouse, is a co-founder of the BLM Toronto chapter and speaks passionately on the importance of long-term commitment and togetherness. And Elle Hearns served as a strategic partner and organizer, and later founded the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, where she is now the executive director. In an interview with Mic, Hearns argues that movements for racial justice must be intersectional and states, “By centering [trans] communities, you’re actually highlighting issues that affect everyone” (Morrison, par.15).
Indeed, having a movement in which leadership is de-centralized allows for it to grow, sustain itself, to address the concerns of many, and to recognize the efforts of many, rather than a “chosen” few. When one visits the Black Lives Matter movement’s website, one can easily find resources such as toolkits and instructions on how to start a local chapter. And the variety of issues that the movement addresses with the unified goal of protecting and improving black lives, which ostensibly improves the quality of life for everyone, indicates that there are many different roles one can take in service. No longer is caretaking seen as an inferior task within the movement; rather, parents can find support, mental health is made a priority, and protestors are encouraged to bring water and supplies for others and keep one another safe (https://blacklivesmatter.com/).
In her lifetime, beloved protagonist Miss Jane Pittman is more than a witness to the steady progress of racial justice in the United States. She is an active member, a co-founder of the movement. She possesses within her a deep, personal understanding of white supremacy and the will to stand against it. It is the hegemonic power structures that delay her from taking a clearly defined space within the movement, but Gaines ends his novel at precisely this moment as a sort of ellipsis, signaling to readers that the struggles must continue and the movement must grow, for the work of dismantling white supremacy is not over. Like Jane, Ernest J. Gaines was more than a witness as he preserved an invaluable archive of American history in his works. And like Jane, he lived to see a new wave ushered in—he passed away in 2019, a few years after the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is safe to say from reading this novel, which presents his contribution to intersectional feminism, that he foresaw the need to build upon the exodus politics of the past and create the global movement we see today.
Cooper, Brittney. "11 Major Misconceptions About the Black Lives Matter Movement." Cosmopolitan, 5 Oct. 2017, www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a45930/misconceptions-black-liveslmatter-movement/.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Bantam Books, 1971.
Harris, Fredrick C. "The Next Civil Rights Movement?" Dissent Magazine, 10 Aug. 2016, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/black-lives-matter-new-civil-rights-movement-fredrick-harris.
"Homepage." Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, 22 June 2020, https://blacklivesmatter.com/
Khan, Janaya. (janayathefuture). Instagram, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/janayathefuture/?hl=en
Morrison, Aaron. "For Elle Hearns, thew Fight against Transphobia Starts with Dismantling White Supremacy." Mic, Mic, 2 Oct. 2017, https://www.mic.com/articles/184899/for-elle-hearns-the-fight-against-transphobia-starts-with-dismantling-white-supremacy.
Patterson, Robert J. "rethinking Definitions and Expectations: Civil Rights and Civil Rights Leadership in Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, no. 2, 2013, pp. 339-363.