Coming of Age in Mississippi | Study Guide

Anne Moody

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Course Hero. "Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide." Course Hero. 16 Oct. 2017. Web. 22 Oct. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/>.

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Course Hero. "Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide." October 16, 2017. Accessed October 22, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/.

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Course Hero, "Coming of Age in Mississippi Study Guide," October 16, 2017, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/.

Coming of Age in Mississippi | Part 1, Chapter 3 : Childhood | Summary

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Summary

Domestic work takes a physical toll on Mama. She leaves her employer for another white woman, Mrs. Johnson, who's kinder to the family. They move into a nicer house, in a section of town where they are the only black people.

Essie, Adline, and Junior befriend white children Katie and Bill. Essie envies the white children's skates and playhouse. She gets in trouble for going into the white section of the town movie theater to talk to Katie. Mama explains how "we couldn't do this or that with white children." Essie realizes the white children own better things and can access better resources because they're white. She wonders what "the secret" is. She thinks the secret might be in the children's "privates." She's even more confused when Mama tells her Sam and Walter aren't white because they have a black parent, even though they resemble Katie and Bill.

Essie does chores for Miss Ola, an elderly woman at the Johnsons' house. The two enjoy spending time together. Essie is fascinated by the Johnson home, where she uses a bathroom for the first time. Still trying to discover the "secret" of whiteness, Essie decides white women are lazy since black women do all their work.

Mama's seeing Raymond again, and she struggles to feed the family on five dollars a week. She makes the children biscuits out of flour for lunch and buys "clabber milk," which they eat with crumbled cornbread. Essie stops drinking the clabber milk when she realizes the white woman they buy the milk from feeds it to cats, too. At nine years old Essie gets her first job sweeping the woman's porch. When Mama makes her quit the low-paid job, Essie's disappointed; she likes earning her own money.

Essie soon finds work for a white teacher, Mrs. Claiborne, and earns almost as much as her mother does. The Claibornes teach her about "a balanced meal," praise her hard work in school, and invite her over for dinner. Though Essie enjoys her time at the Claibornes' house, she worries she'll have to quit school and work full-time when Mama becomes pregnant again. Raymond comes back to Mama, but Essie doesn't trust him. She changes her mind when she learns Raymond built the family a new house.

Analysis

In this chapter Essie learns to see her skin color as a source of shame and exclusion. As young children Essie and her white friends haven't yet learned the rules to survival in a segregated society. They don't feel fear when they play together. Mama's fear, meanwhile, is both for Essie's safety and for her own.

Essie has enough clues to know she lives in a world which puts her at the bottom of the pecking order and decides she doesn't deserve the good things her friends have. But, crucially, she doesn't accept this as the way it should be. She wonders what makes a person white or black—it must be more than skin color. What do these categories mean? What will people do to defend them? How do they order and structure her society? What happens if she challenges her society's assumptions because she feels they're wrong? Throughout the book Essie/Anne grapples with these questions.

The Jim Crow South subscribed to the "one-drop rule" of racial identity. According to the rule, anyone with a black ancestor was considered black, even if they had white skin and white family members. Despite Sam and Walter's mixed-race heritage, they're black. Essie sees whiteness is more complicated than "the straight hair and the white skin." Whiteness seems to be seen as better—but why?

As Essie enjoys the luxuries white people experience, like Katie and Bill's toys and Miss Ola's furniture, she contrasts them with her family's "clabber milk" and their constant hunger. As Mrs. Claiborne describes her travels and shares her balanced meals, Essie sees how white people can actually experience a bigger and broader world. The difference doesn't make sense to her, and she starts to question the foundations of her society.

In Essie's tough environment, she discovers what gives her pride, dignity, and confidence. She shows an aptitude for school and learning which will help her transcend her upbringing. Many coming-of-age stories feature a similar journey, where the intelligent protagonist survives a violent childhood through grit and education. Earning her own income gives Essie a sense of self-worth. She begins to connect clothing with dignity and hard-earned achievement. For the first time, she takes pride in a new dress.

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