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.