The violent history of slavery permeates so many aspects of American history. Jane Pittman begins her life in slavery, but the social framework of slavery continues for almost the rest of her days, even after her emancipation. Although she lives for a hundred more years and becomes free, she still lives on a plantation. Likewise, the rigid race relations of the south affect all of its residents. Most people in the south, both white and black, stay within the boundaries of what they are supposed to do. The few people who attempt to change what is happening, such as Tee Bob Samson, Jimmy Aaron, and Ned Douglass, all end up dead. Tee Bob most clearly demonstrates the difficulty of being trapped in one's historical legacy. Although he would like to love Mary Agnes, he cannot free himself from historical significance of being the heir to a southern plantation. Weighed down by guilt and frustration at his own enslavement in his past, he kills himself.
Although The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman concerns Jane's life, the idea of manhood permeates the novel. The four sections of the novel roughly follow the lives of four men: Ned Douglass, Joe Pittman, Tee Bob Samson, and Jimmy Aaron. All of the black men in the novel struggle to articulate their masculinity. Joe Pittman conquers horses as a means to prove his worth. Ned Douglass openly defies the social order by becoming a schoolteacher and teaching about race relations. Jimmy Aaron also is defiant by organizing political protests. All of these brave black men meet their deaths through struggling for manhood, although the richness of their lives make their efforts worthwhile. White men also need to demonstrate their manhood by controlling people or using violence against them. The white landowning men, like Robert Samson, govern as clear patriarchs. Everything on the plantation happens as he says so, and he even enjoys sexual relations with a black woman there. The poor white men often use violence against blacks in order to prove themselves. But as shown with Albert Cluveau, their need to use violence against others actually indicates their own cowardice. Gaines suggests that all of these men, both white and black, have an inherent need to conquer creatures, such as Joe's horse; things, like the river; or people, like the slaves. It is this desire for control and conquest that usually leads to their downfall.
Gaines exposes the striations of class and racism within the white and black race as well as between them. The white race divides itself upon economic grounds. The landowning whites look down on everyone else, mostly the working class Cajun whites. These poor whites serve the landowning whites by using violence to maintain the racial order. Despite their efforts however, the landowning whites still detest and scorn them. In the black race, the Creole culture shuns all darker skin blacks. The Creoles are light skinned blacks who come from the original French colonists in Louisiana. When a Creole girl, Mary Agnes LeFarbre, goes to work on the Samson Plantation with common blacks, her family disowns her. Even though local whites consider the Creoles common blacks, the Creoles themselves refuse to mix with the general black population and act superior. The concept of racism within the black community itself suggests the ridiculousness in using skin color as a means of social division.
This motif is a textual one and refers to the fact that Gaines mimics a classic slave narrative with his novel. Slave narratives tell stories of enslavement, suffering, endurance, and escape. Abolitionists once used slave narratives in order to illustrate the cruelty of its practices. Most accounts remained oral, but several notable exceptions were published in the nineteenth century, especially the story of Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Women's stories also fit into this literary tradition such as Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
The image of a man on a horse is one of the novel's most dominant and recurring images. The image is an emblem of the old South and recalls the chivalric tradition that is part of southern mythology. Traditionally, the ability to ride a horse embodies southern manhood. Gaines both reinforces and alters the meaning of this motif in his book. Robert Samson, for example, uses his horse as a classic southern master would. He rides to a black woman's house on his plantation and seduces her. His son Tee Bob also uses a horse to court Mary Agnes. The noble idea of a man on a horse is inverted though with the role of the Patrollers, white men who do nothing honorably. Joe Pittman's obsession with horses testifies to his desire to claim a manhood that the southern culture denies him. As a black man, however, his playing with horses is a dangerous activity and will ultimately lead to his death.
Miss Jane Pittman's name changes from Ticey, to Jane Brown, to Jane Pittman throughout the course of the novel. The repeated motif of naming oneself testifies to the importance of the act for the ex-slaves. The novel opens with a Yankee soldier naming Ticey, Jane Brown—a name that Ticey clings to even though she is beaten for it. After slavery, the other slaves all choose their own names: Ace Freeman, Abe Sherman, Job Lincoln. The ability to name themselves demonstrates their newfound freedom. Later in the book, the younger blacks often name themselves again. Ned becomes Ned Brown, then Ned Douglass, and then Ned Stephen Douglass, and finally Edward Stephen Douglass. Calling themselves by what they believe is their true name, is the ex-slaves' first symbolic act of defiance against the slavery system. In naming, the blacks assert their personalities, their wills, and their ability to use language—all of which had been denied them before. When Tee Bob proposes to Agnes Mary, he says that he will give her "his name" that very night, but she turns it down. At the very end of the book, Jane closes by saying "Robert and me" looked at each other and walked away. Here she has renamed him, from Mister Samson—the appropriate away she should refer to her white Master—to using his first name. With the civil rights movement, the ex-slaves appear to suddenly stand upon equal ground as Jane's terminology suggests.
The black stallion symbolizes a creature that is almost unbreakable. Ernest Gaines says that he modeled the stallion after Moby Dick. He wanted to make it a creature that drives man to destruction in his desire to control it. While Moby Dick ultimately gets away, a man will break the black stallion even though Joe Pittman will die first. The black stallion represents an object that is just beyond the control of man but also one for which men will always strive, even if it will ruin them.
After the murder of Big Laura, Ned carries her flint around as they journey. Jane uses the flint to light fires during their trek. Ned keeps it with him constantly as a reminder of his mother; he even gets in a fight over it when they stop at the orphanage. The flint suggests the symbolic fire that Ned will attempt to light much later in his life. Although he may not use the flint as he ages, his mother's death, as well as other injustices, inspired the desire to fight back against a system that oppresses him. As he ages, Ned gathers the ability to light metaphorical fires with the tools of language and education.
The river, which comes into play during the novel's second and third book, symbolizes the inability of a social order to control nature. The river floods several times during the 1920s, killing people, destroying houses, and breaking up dams. Jane uses this imagery to symbolize the ineffectual attempts of man to conquer things that are inconquerable. On a metaphorical level, however, the river represents the human spirit. Just as the white men cannot control the river, they also cannot control the emotional spirit in black people that demands their equality. Likewise, the tendency for the river to overflow also could be compared to the tendency for the river of love to overflow Tee Bob's heart. Tee Bob was not supposed to have his love transcend the social constructions of race regulations, but it did anyway. These emotions for love and equality, like the river, are natural currents such that nothing can keep them down forever.