Voices from Lafayette's Black community consider democracy and the Black experience.

Ned’s words by the water: Gaines and his definition of a Citizen

Woman smiling
Cheylon Woods is the Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center and an Associate professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Photo by Travis Gauthier

In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Dr. Ernest J. Gaines tells a compelling story about one woman’s memory of life from enslavement to the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. This novel, which was internationally acclaimed and celebrated, does something interesting with the character of Ned and the concept of citizenship in America.

Ned Douglas, Miss Jane’s adopted son, is most prevalent throughout the “Reconstruction Era” chapters of the novel. For context, the Reconstruction Era of American History is the 10-15-year period after the Civil War. During this time many African American thinkers, like Booker T. Washington, were contemplating what American citizenship meant for the newly freed and Black Americans as a whole. 

This conversation was not just one focused on rights, but on what defined the soul of a citizen — what makes a person fit for citizenship in the broader sense of the word. The character of Ned does an interesting job of personifying these complicated conversations into one perceivable person. One man actively working toward the established definition of citizenship, both in America and within society, since his birth.

Throughout the “Reconstruction Era” chapters, Gaines shows us how citizenship was granted and snatched away for Black people in what seemed like the blink of an eye. The transition of tenant and sharecropping plantations from Union supporters back to Confederate supporters meant those who lived on that private land could, and often were, disenfranchised and once again marginalized. The fight scene between the Democrats and the Republicans in the town square illustrates how dysfunctional the politics of the day were as the entire country tried to define a new normal after the fall of the antebellum South.

With all of that as the political backdrop, Gaines crafts a character with integrity and a deep understanding of his noble purpose. Ned Douglas is the personification of the “bigger picture”. He was a man born into an unimaginably oppressive system and strove to develop his own understanding of human-ness and a kind of global citizenship.

Throughout his adult experiences, Ned learned what citizenship could and could not give a person. As a member of the Freedman’s Bureau he saw how the United States Government failed/couldn’t protect Black men and women from being disenfranchised under the emerging Jim Crow. As a soldier in the Spanish-American War, he learned what it meant to fight for your country, and in his sermon on the river he shared all of these experiences with his entire community.

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At the moment in the novel when Ned gathers his community by the water to talk to them about what we would now consider being a global citizen, Gaines does something amazing and transformative. In those few pages, he does not define what is required to be an American citizen, instead, he shows us what is needed to be a good citizen, regardless of your nation of origin. Ned knew he was being watched and there was a threat to his life. He knows his family is scared and that his community is scared, but his message was important and needed to be shared. Ned showed us that a citizen is brave when times are scary. In the face of danger, Ned spoke his truth and encouraged his community against the will of the greater powers that be. He knew the danger and did not run. He stood firm and spoke with conviction and encouraged others to do the same.

Through his sermon, we see he is educated; not necessarily in the sense of the word as we use it today, but he has listened and engaged with many schools of thought and understands why he is a citizen. He knows he has a right to be a citizen. He has things he wants to contribute to this world, and he will not be denied that opportunity.

Being a citizen is not just about a vote, it is about belonging. And Ned tells his community that they belong in the southern landscape. That the land is their land. That they have a right to be there as much as anyone else. That they have a right to exist, learn, grow, and shape that space as much as anyone else.

In these same pages, we see Ned is rational. This is a little more nuanced, but what I mean is Ned is not swayed by emotion or trauma. Ned acknowledges the danger he is in and acknowledges the fear tactics used to silence Black communities, but he does not encourage violence or retaliation against white people. He takes a moment to name the ignorance that fuels the hatred Black people are experiencing during the time. He sees how the experiences in Southern spaces, specifically in Louisiana, are not happening in a vacuum and are part of a larger systemic issue affecting people across the globe.

In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman we are presented with Ned, a man who understands that citizenship is bigger than one person. That it is something everyone has a right to, and is something that should carry an extraordinary amount of responsibility. Being a citizen is about being present, brave, educated and informed, and perceptive of all of the forces impacting you and your community. Through Ned, Gaines provided a glimpse of citizenship in action, allowing us to think about how the traits Ned possessed can influence the world around us today.