Course Hero. "Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide." Course Hero. 16 Oct. 2017. Web. 7 June 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/>.
Course Hero. (2017, October 16). Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 7, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide." October 16, 2017. Accessed June 7, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/.
Course Hero, "Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide," October 16, 2017, accessed June 7, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/.
Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Part 1: Childhood, Chapter 1 of Anne Moody's memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.
Anne Moody's story begins in rural Mississippi in the 1940s, where her family lives on "Mr. Carter's plantation" with other black farming families. As an adult Moody is "still haunted by dreams" of plantation life. Her family of four—Mama, Daddy, young Moody who went by "Essie" or "Essie Mae" as a child, and her younger sister Adline—lives in a two-room shack. Mama's eight-year-old brother George Lee watches Essie and Adline while their parents work. George Lee sleeps during the day and often leaves the girls alone while he explores outdoors.
In the evening the plantation workers sit on their porches and talk. Mama imagines what the Carters do in their large, wealthy house, where "Mr. Carter was sitting up counting all the money he made off Negroes." One night Essie has a large bump on her head, and Daddy blames George Lee for neglecting the girls. The next day George Lee threatens to burn down the house with the girls in it. Essie and Adline are sitting on the porch when they see smoke coming from the house. Daddy and Mama race to put out the fire. When they confront George Lee, he blames the fire on Essie, and Daddy beats her.
After the fire Daddy becomes more irritable. The farming is going poorly, and Daddy's best friend dies. Daddy begins an affair with Bush's widow Florence, whose "mulatto" features, "high yellow with straight black hair," are the envy of the plantation. During Daddy's absence, Mama gives birth to her son Junior. Soon the family moves in with an aunt, and Essie realizes her father isn't coming back.
Mama gets a job working for Mrs. Cook, a white woman. Since her wages are so low, Mama steals corn from Mrs. Cook's garden to feed her children. Essie turns five and starts going to Mount Pleasant School, where her daydreaming gets her in trouble with the strict teacher.
Essie and her siblings spend time with Grandfather Moody, her father's father, an old, sickly man who treats the children and Mama well. When Grandfather Moody (also called "Uncle Moody") dies, Daddy is at the funeral. Mama angrily rejects Daddy's offer of money and gifts. Essie doesn't understand why. The money could buy them meat instead of beans to eat all the time.
Moody writes the book from an intimate first-person perspective. The reader is immersed in a child's point of view from the beginning. Moody describes what young Essie notices—the physical objects in her environment and the details of nature. As the character of Essie/Anne learns and matures, the point of view grows more insightful and sophisticated.
As the adult narrator Moody is able to see some things she couldn't as a child. She admires her parents' skill at making the small shack "livable." She's sympathetic to Daddy's grief at his friend's death and his economic struggles, but she doesn't excuse his decision to leave the family.
The narration doesn't immediately provide the time period. Certain environmental cues may remind the reader of the "antebellum" South, or the American South before the Civil War. Moody's parents and other black farmers live on a plantation and work for a rich white family. Her parents are sharecroppers, or farmers who rent and work on a portion of a landowner's land. Sharecropping began in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. When the slaves were freed, the Southern economy needed to be restructured. Sharecropping combined free black farmers' desire for independence and white landowners' need for a labor force. Soon the system, remarkably similar to slavery, dominated Southern agriculture.
The Moody family's lifestyle bears many resemblances to slavery. The white family lives in a "big white house, overlooking the farms and the other shacks." White landowners are physically higher than their black employees—"on top." Moody shows how sharecropping has failed to give black farmers any real financial stability or freedom, even in the 1940s. She questions the nature of "freedom" throughout the book.
Colorism, or prejudice based on skin color, also recurs. "High yellow" or light-skinned black people have higher social status than black people with darker skin. A "high yellow" spouse is considered a prize. Mama and her children fight strong colorism prejudices within the black community. Essie doesn't yet understand the concepts of "whiteness" and "blackness," but she knows lighter skin color means more privileges and an easier life.
Essie's childhood is full of violence. She gets into the scrapes and accidents common to young children. In her rural environment she is close to the dangers of nature, like the crows, the swamp, and the snakes. But she also survives significant trauma at an early age. George Lee's attempt to burn down the house is one of several destructive fires Essie will witness. She sees her parents' frustration and exhaustion as a form of violence harming the bodies and souls of black workers.
Mama experiences trauma along with Essie throughout the book. But as Essie grows and becomes stronger, Mama seems to regress. In the beginning of the chapter Mama is "the liveliest woman on the plantation." When her husband leaves her, she's consumed with the financial burden of caring for a growing family, and her liveliness starts to disappear. Moody's delicate narrative tone means she tries not to judge her mother for her decisions—like refusing to take Daddy's money, though the family needed it—she interprets the way Essie felt as a child.