Tag Archives: novels

Miss Pittman

Miss Jane PittmanI read twenty-five books in 2017, another twenty-five in 2018, and another twenty-five in 2019. I share that with the pride that comes from the rarity of setting a long-term goal and sticking to it. My goal was another twenty-five in 2020 to make it an even hundred in four years, but much to my surprise I am already through twenty in just half a year, so the odds are in my favor.

It isn’t that work has even hinted at letting up. Instead, this sudden reading feast appears to be a combination of no evening events to attend, no sports to follow on television, and a persistent need to escape the present circumstances. I am reading constantly.

Book number twenty was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Years ago, while living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, my friend, Bruno, gave me a copy of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, one of those novels that crawls into your heart and builds a nest. Last Christmas, while stocking up on used books at McKays with my family, I couldn’t pass up a copy of Gaines’s Miss Pittman. However, it sat in a stack for the first several months of 2020, but as enduring racism claimed global attention alongside the raging pandemic, it seemed like the time to read this particular story.

The stunning plotline of the novel is the reflection of a 100+ year old woman whose life stretched from the 1860s to the 1960s, from birth into slavery through a life of unrelenting white supremacy and into the pain of the Civil Rights era. Alice Walker described it as “grand, robust, a rich and very big novel,” to which I add a humble Amen.

As I read the frustrating, humiliating, yet strong and courageous journey of the novel’s heroine, given the time in which I was reading I thought of decade after decade of so many thinking that the American Civil War ended something that it did not. And one does not even have to try very hard to connect the dots and recognize that the American Civil Rights Movement was not a finish line either.

It is shameful that we had to argue over such an innocuous phrase, Black Lives Matter. I guess that shows how deep-seated racism actually is.

Miss Jane Pittman is technically a fictional character, but of course she was oh so real. It occurred to me that many more Miss Pittmans were born in the 1960s and are now over halfway through another century’s journey. I wish their story was less painful than it is, but I have seen them on the television mourning the loss of their children, too.

I am thankful to Mr. Gaines for introducing me to Miss Pittman and teaching me that even being shown and told that one does not fully matter for over a hundred years is impotent compared to the capacity of the human spirit. May such extraordinary fortitude be rewarded in the lives of real people.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

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“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His.  They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Read more novels. That was #2 on my list of 20 goals for 2020, and I have read four so far, including the classic from Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was probably Oprah’s made-for-television adaptation in 2005 that placed the captivating title in my subconscious, and I am glad. Whatever made me pick up a copy at the used bookstore has my deep gratitude. What a powerful and beautiful story.

I won’t soon forget the primary characters, including the moment I walked with them into the line that generated the title of the book. Having lived through a powerful hurricane myself, sitting in the dark with Janie and Tea Cake as a reader was easy to do, straining and staring in awe at God.

Nor will I forget the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as he attempted to share the author’s complicated life and legacy. Gates introduced me to Hurston, Barnard grad with multiple Guggenheims, prominent author and figure of the Harlem Renaissance, who died an ignominious death in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave. Gates showed me Hurston, criticized by her rival, Richard Wright, for the way she approached Black America in her novels, who responded that she wanted to write a novel that was “not a treatise on sociology.”  As Alice Walker (The Color Purple), whom Hurston inspired, wrote, Hurston portrayed “a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” Black people as, in a word, people.

It took all this to help me understand what captivated me so about this particular love story. I appreciate treatises on sociology, particularly those that help me develop a greater sense of race consciousness, but this was quite simply—and by “simply” I mean that highest compliment of somehow making the ineffable obvious—a human love story.

It helps me remember today that, although Black History Month is now over for 2020, black history month is, in fact, every month.