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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Ernest J. Gaines

Book 2: Reconstruction

Book 1: The War Years

Book 2: Reconstruction

From A Flicker of Light and Again Darkness to Two Letters From Kansas

Summary

A Flicker of Light and Again Darkness

Life on Bone's plantation initially is good. An educated black man is the schoolteacher and teaches kids in the day and adults at night. Each night, a different family feeds him. When it is Jane's turn, she sends Ned out to find a plate and fork for the teacher but later discovers that every family borrowed the same plate and fork each night because it was the only one. Ned learns how to read, although Jane never attends the school herself.

Mr. Bone is a Republican, and the anti-slavery Republican stance allows for some black leaders to emerge in helping to reorganize the south. One day during a public political rally, a large fight breaks out, and Jane hides with Ned under the stage. Later, she finds out that the secret white societies, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Brotherhood, and the Camellias of Luzana, caused the trouble. These groups frequently beat and kill blacks or the whites who help them, with little justification. Sometime later, Mr. Bone suddenly tells his workers that he no longer owns the plantation as the original owner, a Confederate Colonel named Dye, has managed to buy it back with some money borrowed from northern whites. Within a few days, Bone, many of the blacks, and the schoolteacher leave. When Colonel Dye arrives, he says that he will hire a new schoolteacher and pay the same wage as Bone. Still, something has changed. The slaves have to identify their plantation master if they walk into town, as they would have had to in slavery days. The new schoolteacher is white and teaches only for a few months out of the year. All of the Yankee soldiers and Freedom Bureau members have disappeared, so Louisiana becomes almost as it was before slavery.

Exodus

Many black people start fleeing the south when they see that conditions are worsening. Originally many people wanted to stay because Frederick Douglass told them to and because they believed the promises of the Freedom Bureau. But with the changing conditions, they leave. At first, the whites feel glad that they are going but soon try to stop them because they need the labor. The blacks keep leaving—sneaking off in the silence of night to search for a better place to live.

Ned Leaves Home

Ned now is about seventeen and has changed his name to Edward Stephen Douglass from Ned Brown and Ned Douglass. He becomes active in a committee that helps blacks flee the plantations. One day, Colonel Dye tells Jane that Ned needs to stop what he is doing, but when Jane tells Ned, Ned refuses. Some time later a group of Ku Klux Klan members, wearing hoods, appear at Jane's cabin. They strike her several times, but Ned is not there. When he returns later that night and sees her face, he tells her that they are leaving. Jane does not want to leave because she does not feel it is her time. Ned, who treats Jane as his surrogate mother and calls her mama, is very upset and wants her to come. She insists on staying though, and they both weep when he leaves later than night.

Two Letters From Kansas

Jane starts spending time with a widower named Joe Pittman, and they decide to get married. Jane knows that she cannot have children and eventually she tells Joe. He does not mind because he has two daughters from his first wife. They all start living together. Joe Pittman breaks horses for Colonel Dye, and he wants to move to a better place where he can earn more money. He starts looking for a new place, but Jane does not want to leave until she hears from Ned. Finally after a year, she gets an old letter from Ned. He is in Kansas helping relocate black people. A second letter informs Jane that Ned works on a farm and attends school at night. Jane reflects that Ned soon will finish school and become a teacher, before joining the Army and heading to Cuba in the war.

Analysis

The opening of the second book of the novel, "Reconstruction," explicitly deals with changes in southern politics after the war. The northern government with its Freedom Bureau has thus far been involved in rebuilding the south. The ease of life on Mr. Bone's plantation demonstrates the relatively high level of freedom and respect the blacks felt at that time. Not too long after the war, however, the northern government abandons the south, and when the southerners return, they bring back their racist social order. Jane herself keenly feels the abandonment by the north. While she once met the New Yorker from the Bureau who promised her that Louisiana would soon be as free as the north, she now knows that his statement is false. Furthermore, Gaines emphasizes the irony of the northern role by explaining that while the northern government abandons the reconstruction efforts, northern businessmen and banks make thing worse by lending money to southerners, like Colonel Dye, so that they can buy back their plantations. The north then has left the south with its old ways while simultaneously helping to promote them. Jane knows that "slavery has returned" once the white secret societies start threatening and beating blacks for the smallest oversight or success.

Time suddenly begins passing much more rapidly in this section. While we received an almost day-by-day account of her adventures while fleeing slavery, suddenly Ned is almost seventeen years old. The sequence of events is clear but the exact time between the different events is not. We have no idea of how many years Mr. Bone stayed on the plantation, for example. Toward the end of the section, Jane also starts offering certain predictions of future events. Ned later will become a soldier, she reports. Jane's ability to control how quickly time moves is consistent with an oral narrative. The existence of misspelled "oral" terms, such as "sable" for "saber" also reinforces its oral context.

If Ned now is about seventeen, Jane must be in her mid to late twenties. In contrast to her earlier desire for long adventures, she chooses to remain on the plantation several times during this section: first when Colonel Dye returns and second when Ned needs to flee. Jane's unwillingness to leave can be traced to her growing realization about the nature of the world, not due to her lack of spunk. Given the betrayal by the federal government, Jane cannot imagine that life in the north can be better than life in the south, so she stays. When Ned leaves, Jane insists that she can stay because no one will treat her like a dog. Jane lives in a racist system, but she has not internalized it. Her control over her ideology makes it possible for her to remain where she is despite the problems around her.

Ned's conflict and the emergence of Joe Pittman touch upon the theme of the difficulties of black masculinity in the south. Ned's trouble with the Ku Klux Klan foreshadows his later murder and also the trouble that the other black men will face for similarly independent acts. While Ned has to flee for asserting his own manhood and humanity (by helping other blacks flee), the white men who come to attack him in the Klan are cowardly. They come in a group to attack a single man, and they wear masks to hide their true identity. The failure of these white men to stand up and fight fairly is ironic, since the whites constantly act as if they are more powerful men than the blacks. The black man's desire to articulate his manhood in a system that demeans it will become further developed with the character of Joe Pittman.

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