Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Week 2: A Narrative Introduction to White Supremacy in America

40 Books in 40 Weeks: I'm reading one book from my to-read shelf per week through the end of the year. Afterward, I write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It's keeping me accountable.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines
Dial Press, 1971

This is the book that ties it all together. In history class, you learn about slavery, you learn about sharecropping, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow laws, segregation, and then the Civil Rights era. But this book links all of that in one person's life, one narrative. It helps you understand how, truly, there never was a time in our country's history where black people were treated fairly, decently, like full citizens, like humans. The government had to legislate equality. But legislation can't abolish racism.

Found this on Wikipedia: "Because of the historical content, some readers thought the book was non-fiction. Gaines commented:

Some people have asked me whether or not The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is fiction or nonfiction. It is fiction. When Dial Press first sent it out, they did not put "a novel" on the galleys or on the dustjacket, so a lot of people had the feeling that it could have been real. ... I did a lot of research in books to give some facts to what Miss Jane could talk about, but these are my creations. I read quite a few interviews performed with former slaves by the WPA during the thirties and I got their rhythm and how they said certain things. But I never interviewed anybody. (Ferris, Bill (July–August 1998). "A Conversation with Ernest Gaines". Humanities. 19 (4).)"

There's just so much in here to be ashamed of as a white American, from the grand sweeping societal norms to the little details, like how the black narrator very naturally sees Jesus as a blond-haired "White Man" and the devil as "jet black" in color.

As a girl of about twelve at the end of the Civil War, Jane ends up trying to travel north to Ohio from Louisiana with a small boy. After travelling for several days, they get food and water at an old man's house. He's got a map. She asks how long it'll take them to Ohio. He spends three whole pages in one run-on paragraph guesstimating how much ground they can cover based on their weight, in bad weather, running away from dogs, keeping out of sight of people, but then reaching a place where the news of emancipation hasn't gotten to yet so they get roped into essentially slavery again, years pass, she gets saddled with a bad husband . . . "The boy'll never make it. You? I figure it'll take you about thirty years. Give or take a couple."

She's stubborn and tired of people telling her she shouldn't be trying to get to Ohio, so they set off anyway. But it's all so true. She didn't ask that question, but he answered it anyway. These are all the obstacles black people have been fighting in this country since the Civil War. It didn't all of a sudden get easy.

Miss Jane, she tells her story the way she wants to, though. And I loved the way she tells it, the people she knows, her world, her matriarchal society, mentioning women before their husbands, pointing out the house where Grace Turner lived, oh, she was married to so-and-so.

But she never did make it to Ohio. A hundred and ten years old, and she never left the state of Louisiana.

Next up: Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag, tr. Srinath Perur