In this essay, I argue that Ernest Gaines’s (1971) The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman deploys black freedom struggles as points of departure to elucidate the shortcomings of what I theorize as exodus politics. I employ the phrase “exodus politics” to articulate the political strategy African Americans have invoked to argue for civil and political rights, including defining civil rights as pertaining only or primarily to “racial rights” and idealizing black men as the necessary “leaders” for civil rights attainment. Situating Gaines within the context of his contemporaries, I deploy civil rights historian Belinda Robnett’s notions of bridge and formal leadership to demonstrate how Gaines’s historical fiction serves as an early corrective to the masculinization of civil rights, civil rights leadership, and even the civil rights movement. While Gaines rightfully invokes the explicit and implicit measures white people took to abrogate black people’s civil rights, his text might be better understood as challenging black people to eschew their long-standing tradition of exodus politics because adhering to such a tradition has been counterproductive to civil rights attainment for black men and black women. By emphasizing male formal leadership, African American communities not only have failed to recognize the importance, necessity, and complexity of female bridge leadership, but also have bound the civil rights movement’s longevity to a small cadre of male leaders. Shifting the gaze from formal leadership to bridge leadership and conceptualizing civil rights as always already intertwined with issues of race and gender (and class and sexuality), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman rightfully helps readers to conceptualize models of black politics and leadership that consider the varying political interests that exist within African American communities.
Rethinking Definitions and Expectations: Civil Rights and Civil Rights Leadership in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Robert J. Patterson; Rethinking Definitions and Expectations: Civil Rights and Civil Rights Leadership in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 April 2013; 112 (2): 339–363. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2020235
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