Coming of Age in Mississippi | Study Guide

Anne Moody

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Coming of Age in Mississippi | Part 1, Chapter 5 : Childhood | Summary

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Summary

Mama is still a member of Mount Pleasant, her old church. But she starts attending Centreville Baptist, "the largest Negro church in town," to impress Raymond's family members who also attend there. Mama and Raymond are nervous taking the children to Centreville Baptist. Essie notices the differences between a country church and a larger town church. She's upset when Darlene and Cherie ignore her. The minister, Reverend Polk, moves many of the women to tears. Essie thinks Miss Pearl should cry because of her bad behavior toward Mama. She is shocked to learn Reverend Polk has been to prison.

When Raymond's family snubs her in church, Mama returns to Mount Pleasant. But she makes the children keep attending Centreville Baptist. Essie joins Centreville Baptist groups and activities, and becomes more attached to the church. Meanwhile Mama's friends at Mount Pleasant pressure Essie to become a member there. During "revival" week, Mama and Essie fight over which church she should pick. During an emotional revival service led by Mount Pleasant's Reverend Tyson, Essie ends up becoming a "candidate for baptism" at Mount Pleasant against her wishes.

Essie considers running away the morning of her baptism, but eventually attends. She and the other young people being baptized are dipped in muddy water. She smells like wet mud for weeks.

Analysis

Southern black life in the 1940s often centered on religion. The church was a community. Church membership and baptism were significant rites of passage. Like many group initiation rites, they gave the initiate a sense of meaning and belonging.

Performance in these community-based rites is a crucial part of social acceptance. Mama pushes Essie to do well in church activities so the Moodys will earn more respect, especially the respect of Raymond's family. But Mama eventually prefers the Mount Pleasant community she knows will accept her.

Meanwhile Essie's determination to attend Centreville Baptist is her first real step in achieving independence from her family. The Moodys try to keep Essie part of their family unit, and this time they succeed.

Essie's own spiritual journey is a complex part of her growth. Her ideas about God are informed by watching human behavior and seeing whether churchgoing people follow their own moral code. As a child she has a punitive view of God; she feels wrongdoers should be punished and express visible guilt. But her view is complicated by real life, like the situational irony of Reverend Polk being a spiritual authority after serving time in prison. Later she'll contend with the crimes of the white people worshipping next to her, and her view will be complicated further.

Her baptismal wardrobe is significantly white. When she looks at "that white dress, those white socks" she thinks about how the color white represents everything pure, holy, and good, an idea again reinforcing the self-perceived superiority of white people. She doubts the importance of the service even more. She also notices the discord of Reverend Tyson telling a working-class congregation not to care about "fine cars" and "fancy clothes" when they can't afford these objects anyway.

Though young Essie/Anne is skeptical about religion itself, the author shows the significance of hymns and worship to black religious communities. The revival service has a visceral energy and rhythm, and the reader can feel the crowd's excitement. The civil rights movement will unite through the singing of religious spirituals, and channel a similar energy into rallies, finding strength in a shared past.

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