From Soldiers to Heading North
The editor introduces the novel by explaining that after years of asking Miss Jane Pittman to tell her story to him, she finally did in the summer of 1962. He wants to hear her history because he is a teacher and her experiences have not been included in the history textbooks he uses. The teacher records Miss Jane as she speaks. Miss Jane is over a hundred years old, however, and sometimes forgets things. When she does so, her friends fill in the gaps with their memories. Since a group is contributing to her story, the editor feels that the tale belongs to all of them. Sometimes after the story has been gathered, Miss Jane dies, and the editor meets many of the people from her life at her funeral. Upon meeting them, the editor again reflects that Miss Jane's story applies to all of them not just herself.
It is a hot summer day on the plantation where Miss Jane Pittman lives as a child. Her name during slavery is Ticey. Troops from the retreating Confederate Army, referred to as "Secesh" (for secession), come by. Jane's master hides in the swamp with the silver, and Jane's mistress orders her to give them water. Jane does so and hears one of the soldiers grumpily suggesting that they should just give up and free the slaves. The Confederate soldiers soon ride off when they hear that the Yankees are coming. When the Yankee soldiers arrive, the mistress tells Ticey to give them water too. One soldier, Corporal Brown, tells Jane that she will be free soon, and she can come see him in Ohio. When he hears that her name is Ticey, he says that she needs a non-slave name and offers her the name of his daughter, Jane Brown. After the soldiers leave, Jane insists that her name is now Miss Jane Brown and refuses to answer when her mistress calls her Ticey. Once the Master returns from the field, they beat Jane until she bleeds, but she insists that her name is Jane Brown. The mistress is so angry that she sends her to work in the fields instead of in the house as she had previously done.
Jane and the other slaves hear the bell ringing, which means that they should stop working in the field. After some initial confusion, they all stop and approach the house. Their master is standing there with a piece of paper in his hand. He tells them that they all are now free. The slaves cheer and start singing. After a moment though, they ask the master what they are supposed to do. He tells them that they can stay, and he will pay them, or else they can leave. One of the older slaves, Uncle Isom, takes the ex-slaves back to the quarters where he discusses the issue with everyone. Jane stubbornly insists on leaving and going north to Ohio. Other slaves fear the outside world and decide to stay. Jane has no reason to stay, as she never knew her father and her mother was killed when she was young. The mistress and master offer everyone potatoes and apples before they leave. Jane grabs some food, her other dress, and assembles with the people who are leaving.
The ex-slaves have no idea where to go, where the north is, or what freedom means. As they walk off the plantation, they break some of the cotton out of spite and grab some corn for food. When they must walk through the more difficult swamp, a woman named Big Laura starts leading the group. Big Laura is as strong as any man and very brave. They walk until night when they camp. Once stopped, everyone starts renaming themselves, becoming Abe Washington, Job Lincoln, and Ace Freeman. One slow-witted man decides to call himself Brown, but Jane protests because it is her name and starts hitting him with a stick. As he fights back, the slow wit gets a strange look in his eye, and when he grabs Jane, he does so in a sexual way. Big Laura appears and starts hitting the slow wit with a stick, telling him go back to the plantation if wants to sexually force young girls. She hits him until he cries. As it gets darker, the group finds the north star in the sky. They walk again, and then everyone sleeps under bushes for the night.
With his introduction, Gaines sets the tone to come by explaining that it shall be an edited oral narrative by Miss Jane Pittman, a woman aged over 100 years, who was born in slavery. The oral narrative has been an essential ingredient in the black literary tradition since the earliest slave narratives, best exemplified in works such as the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, but also consistent with some modern works such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The oral narrative allows for Gaines to retell the history of rural Louisiana through the eyes of one person. Her story becomes a composite tale of the African-American experience since slavery, primarily in the south. The events that she experienced were experienced by multitudes, and in her story lies details from the stories of many others. It is significant that Gaines uses a female narrator to tell his communal story. Rarely has the voice of a black woman chronicled American history. By writing Jane's autobiography, he grants her the power of self-definition in written speech, something to which the illiterate Miss Jane has rarely had access. Overall, Gaines's narrative technique illustrates his interest in expanding the concept of what makes up American history to include perspectives by Americans of all races. At the time of the novel's publication, 1972, few attempts had been made to correct one- sided history books, as Gaines wants to do here.
The opening of the novel introduces the reader to Miss Jane Pittman's voice, which will persist throughout the novel. In order to find a realistic voice for Jane, Gaines studied texts of slave narratives that the government recorded after the Civil War. Miss Jane speaks in the southern dialect with which she was raised. Her tale proceeds with an occasionally circular motion, while neglecting the regulations imposed by the formal English grammar that she never learned. Miss Jane's tendency to use informal colloquial terms can be seen when she refers to the Confederate Army as the "Secesh." In the very first chapter, Jane also describes that the Confederate Colonel had a "sable" hanging from his waist, so that it almost dragged to the ground. This "sable" is obviously a "saber," a long sword used in battle, and Jane's confusion over the terminology provides a slightly humorous edge that also suggests the level of her formal education.
Jane's personalized history manages to retell classic events in a more vivid, real manner. The institution of slavery usually exists as an abstract concept that, while horrible, is removed from present-day life and reality. By describing slavery with a personalized view, the abstraction disappears since the way that slavery affected individual people comes forth more clearly. Since we feel drawn close to the narrator and the brutality that she sees or suffers—such as being whipped or seeing people killed—becomes very real and in its reality more painful. Jane's personal narrative also helps to point out the historical facts that few ever consider, such as the idea that the slaves had no idea what to do when slavery ended.
The motif of naming appears first in this section with Jane's renaming by Corporal Brown and then the renaming of the slaves by themselves. The ability for Jane to choose her own name, even though Corporal Brown suggests it, is a powerful statement against the slavery system that controlled all aspects of her person. In addition to Jane picking her own name, an act worthy of a human, she also initially refers to herself as "Miss Jane Brown." The "Miss" before her name is a title used only by blacks toward whites or by whites toward each other. Jane's use of it is akin to calling herself a free person, instead of a slave. Her master and mistress are well aware of the significance of her act. They beat her severely for it, contemplate selling or killing her, and finally send her to the fields. Jane's ability to choose her own name represents her first act of defiance.
Jane's defiance itself is a theme that will persist throughout the book. Its presence in these opening chapters foreshadows the obstinacy that will keep Jane alive and vigorous, despite the numerous hardships that will follow in her hundred years of life. As a child, Jane's obstinacy is almost too much as she fights not just with her master but with the other slaves as well just after the emancipation. Jane also picks a fight with the slow wit, who responds by trying to rape her. If not for Big Laura, Jane's aggressiveness could have led to physical trauma. While Jane's spunky attitude will motivate her through the years, as a child fleeing slavery it could have certain downsides if not governed by an equal sense of prudence.