At the beginning of Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Mary asks the unnamed history teacher why he wants to interview Miss Jane. He tells her that he teaches history and that his students would benefit from Jane’s story because “Miss Jane is not in [their history books]” (v). Because of this omission, like the missing pages in the schoolhouse that Mary Agnes teaches in towards the middle of the novel, the teacher seeks to provide an account of Miss Jane’s life from Emancipation through the start of the Civil Rights Movement, essentially filling in the gaps that the constructed history eliminated. Gaines relied on B. A. Botkin’s Lay My Burden Down (1945), and the novel appeared only four years after Julius Lester’s To Be A Slave (1968). Both Botkin and Lester constructed their texts based on the Federal Writers’ Project’s interviews with ex-slaves during the 1930s. These texts, along with many that would come afterwards, sought to reconstruct the historical narrative that either totally left out or simply glossed over the African American experience in this country.
Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2012), like novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987 ), Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), and others, continues to interrogate the history that we continually encounter in our classrooms and in our daily lives. In the case of Locke’s novel, this history becomes situated in the way we view structures that, while aesthetically appealing to our sense of beauty, exist because of the institution of slavery that submitted individuals to less than human conditions both physically and psychologically. The Cutting Season, from the very outset, causes us to question narratives that make people invisible. In the case of Locke’s novel, this occurs historically with slaves and African Americans, but it also manifests itself in the contemporary moment with migrant workers such as Ines Avalo and Gustavo. Throughout the text, these characters become visible.
Locke confronts history through the telling of Jason’s story both in Caren’s memories and in Donovan’s play, a counter to Belle Vie’s The Olden Days of Belle Vie, a script that whitewashes the plantation and focuses solely on the white ownership of the land while presenting African Americans in a stereotypical manner. People from all over the country, students and tourists, would flock to Belle Vie to learn about plantation life from a state funded institution; however, the history they received only worked to maintain control for white hegemony in the past and the present. The retelling of Jason’s life in Donovan’s play and in Caren’s realization that Jason, not the Clancys, owned the land serves as the counter narrative that reveals the true past that became washed over after Reconstruction and during the twentieth century with texts like Gone With the Wind (1936).
When Donovan realizes that the history he received, and continues to receive at Belle Vie, contains inaccuracies, he becomes infuriated and wants to correct the narrative by creating his own story of historical facts, one that explores the life of the parish’s first African American sheriff in 1872 (5 years after the Civil War). While telling the sheriff’s story, Donovan also tells the story of Jason and the life he lead. In the novel, we learn about Truth and Consequence: The Straight Story of the South near the beginning, and it becomes clear that Donovan is furious with the fact that he did not know about this past before. Donovan, fed up with “this cracker-ass bullshit,” writes his own history.
While Donovan learned about the real history and sought to rewrite it, others did not know anything about plantation life or the lives of slaves until they began working at Belle Vie. As Caren tells the workers that Raymond Clancy may sell the plantation, Shauna, an African American teenager who plays “Young House Slave” in the plantation play, speaks up and comments on the potential closure of Belle Vie. She tells the assembled workers,
I never knew even half of this stuff before I started working here . . . The way slaves worked the fields, cutting all that cane by hand. I never really seen it up close like this, not before I got a job here. The way they lived and stuff, people like us. I mean, black folks really did something here. There wouldn’t have been no sugar hardly anywhere if it weren’t for what we did out here. (122)
It is not clear, from this section, the extent of Shauna’s knowledge, whether or not it includes the history some exhumed and expelled from the records or not. It can be assumed that the history she speaks of does contain these omitted sections because we learn throughout the novel that Donovan has been filming his script and that the Belle Vie players, of which Shauna is a part, have been serving as the cast.
Shauna’s comment here, unlike Donovan’s is interesting though. The way it is framed, and the discussion surrounding the plantation’s potential closure, frames the discussion around history and family. However, as I showed in the previous post and here, that history comes from a specific source that seeks to eliminate certain aspects. Even if this is the case, I would posit that the workers’s discussions and Shuana’s comments point us towards the conclusion that both histories need to be told, not separately but in unison. We cannot fully comprehend one without comprehending the other. As well, we cannot whitewash the “idyllic” history of the South, we must tell it in its entirety, lesions and all.
Thankfully, there is one place that seeks to reverse the historical narrative in regards to the image of the magnificent plantation. Whitney Plantation is the only plantation in the country that tells the stories of the enslaved individuals who worked the land on which it sits. By doing this in close proximity to Oak Alley Plantation, it does what Donovan, Morrison, Williams, Gaines, and others have been doing in literature for decades, it illuminates the obscured in the historical record.
There needs to be a broader discussion on this topic, and others, in The Cutting Season. Hopefully these past two posts have provided a basis for discussing the novel, especially in relation to other literature and to history. As usual, leave your comments below so we can continue this discussion.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
Locke, Attica. The Cutting Season. New York: Harper Perinneal, 2012.
I do think that that seeing the Whitley this past weekend while reading this novel helped me to better “get” what Locke (and even Gaines) is getting at in terms of whose voice gets told in history books. The space of the tour (i.e. the Big House being last in the tour) at Whitley made me better understand the violence of slavery and the story of Caren’s ancestor Jason opened up other possibilities to assumed stories as well. And I loved the mystery in this book and the connection to the contemporary exploitation of Hispanic workers in this country. I appreciate the framing of the novel that you did here — thanks!
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