She will always be known as Miss Jane Pittman to me. I don’t recall exactly when I was first introduced to Miss Jane Pittman during my grade school years. Was it in Middle School or was it in High School (which I think). Regardless, her story left an impact on so many through the decades. But first, if you don’t know Miss Jane Pittman, let’s quickly catch you up. Miss Jane Pittman is a realistic fictional character. I first read about Miss Jane Pittman in the book The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman as a mandatory class assignment as part of our advanced curriculum. At the end of our assigned reading and after we were tested on the subject of the book, we all watched the subsequent movie as a class (which is now available on Amazon Prime Video and elsewhere). I always love reading the book and then watching it come to life on the screen. This was in the early 1990s; the film first aired for broadcast on CBS in 1974.
The story opens with Miss Jane Pittman; an old, former slave lady rocking in her chair on the front porch at the last cabin on the left. She is visited by a reporter that wants to write a feature story to publish in their magazine — he wanted to tell the story of a former slave that happens to be still alive and is now a sharecropper. He wanted to better understand and share for his readers what life was like “back in those days.” When presented with the idea, Jane gets up to walk in the house and says “tomorrow” for she is tired at 110 years old. The following morning when the reporter returns, she asks “how far back you want to go” as her life spans five wars (American Civil War, Spanish-American War, both World Wars, and the beginning of the Vietnam War). It’s at this point when we cut to the scene at the state courthouse with a “Whites Only” drinking fountain as we are right in the middle of several Civil Rights Movements in our country. Only whites can drink at the water fountain. The book has many fictional characters portraying the difficult times during these eras and also makes references to many other non-fictional people including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rosa Parks.
Miss Jane Pittman came to life by legendary actress Cicely Tyson which won her several awards including Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie, Emmy Award for Actress of the Year – Special, and she was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
On June 28, 2021, Cicely Tyson passed away at the age of 96. Cicely Tyson’s film career began in 1956 but it wasn’t until 1972 when her rise to stardom actually began. In 1972 she played Dottie in the film Carib Gold (I haven’t watched) and in 1974 she was the lead actress in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She has had an amazing career across film, television, and theater over the last 70 years. Many people may know Cicely Tyson by one of her most recent works as portraying Ophelia Harkness, Professor Annalise Keeting’s (cast by Viola Davis) mother in the hit TV show How To Get Away with Murder. She was in 10 of the 90 episodes.
As I heard the news late last night while I was wrapping up and going to bed, I was saddened to hear about her passing. Cicely Tyson and her on-screen portrayal of Miss Jane Pittman will leave a lasting impact on my own, personal life. When I was a young boy and bussed to a predominately black elementary school during my second and third grade years, I started to learn early that the value of a person wasn’t based on their skin color. And although I started to pick up friends that were different from me, I don’t think I really understood nor appreciated the lives of my new found friends. It is true that if you don’t walk in someone else’s shoes, you most likely will never experience their experiences and you may remain in the safety of your own, small bubble. It may be difficult for some to understand the outcries that are happening today unless you have the capacity to take it upon yourself to take a long, hard pause to consider the challenges that people may face in their lives based on an inconsequential attribute (like skin color, eye shape, home country / immigration status, etc.). These attributes should have no meaning on a person’s worth or value.
The thing that hit me most after watching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is that although we are making progress in this country, we should never forget the life long struggle of the perceptions, the attitudes, the biases, the institutions, etc. that may negatively affect others and that the needed change is often slower than it must be for the most vulnerable. In fact, the very first thought processes I have when I hear someone say “hey, the slaves were freed and they have the same rights as me” is “great. But when they were freed, where were they supposed to go, where were they supposed to work, where were they supposed to live, and how were they supposed to eat or drink?” Just because a law changes like the switch of a light, the foundations and institutions that were set against them don’t magically go away. We are only 160 years post the American Civil War and only 50 to 60 years removed from the Civil Rights movement.
So, I want to end with a huge “thank you” to Miss Jane Pittman by giving all of us a realistic interpretation of your life and giving us the opportunity to deeply understand the humanity that is in each and every one of us. You allowed us to walk in your shoes. I’m sure it changed countless hearts over the decades and hopefully made many of us more empathetic and to take that pause to think about the journey and life of others. We all need to be reminded that it wasn’t so long ago when we weren’t all free.
On January 26, two days before Cicely Tyson’s passing, her book, Just As I Am: A Memoir, was released by HarperCollins Publishers. At the time of this writing, the hardcover print edition is currently sold out but you can still get it on Kindle.
THANK YOU Cicely Tyson (December 1924 – January 2021) for your beautiful, honest, and perfect portrayal of Miss Jane Pittman. You will always be Miss Jane Pittman to me. May you Rest In Peace.