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. 14 Nov. 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 November 14, 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 November 14, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Coming-of-Age-in-Mississippi/.

Coming of Age in Mississippi | Part 1, Chapter 8 : Childhood | Summary

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Summary

The family can't afford school clothes when Essie enters eighth grade. She wears her old, tight jeans to school and inadvertently starts a "tight jeans" fad.

To Essie's surprise she is elected Homecoming Queen by the boys in her class, and the eighth grade's fund-raising efforts get her elected queen of the entire school. But she is disappointed she can't afford a gown. Linda Jean offers her a faded pink gown she hates. Though Mama promises Daddy will send Essie money to buy a gown, the Homecoming parade date approaches and he doesn't send anything. Essie resigns herself to wearing Linda Jean's old gown when she gets a surprise visit from Daddy. He has brought a new, stylish gown for her. The gift causes tension and jealousy in the rest of the family, but Essie's still thrilled.

She has the fanciest outfit at the Homecoming parade, so fancy a classmate accuses her of borrowing the gown from the white people she works for. In full makeup Essie realizes she's "no longer a little girl." The entire town comes out to see the parade, including Mama and Linda Jean, who seems shocked Essie, a "Negro," looks so beautiful.

The crowd sings "Dixie" and "Swanee River" (a song also titled "Old Folks at Home"). Watching the white and black singers, Essie feels fearful. The songs seem meaningful to the white singers, and sad to the black singers. Essie thinks "older Negroes and whites" have "some kind of sympathetic relationship" young people can't share.

Analysis

As Essie matures physically, she considers the role of male attention in her life. She has a complicated relationship with the male authority figures in her family, Raymond and Daddy, who give and withhold affection in what seems to her like cruel and arbitrary ways. Essie accepts help from male benefactors, both the boys who vote her Homecoming Queen and the father who buys her a dress. Though she likes male attention, she doesn't want to be dependent on it. She sees how her mother's become dependent on Raymond in many ways, and how Raymond's broken her heart. As a young adult Essie will be dismayed by how much her young sister Jennie Ann values the attention of the boys in her class.

White benefactors are just as complex. Essie doesn't want Linda Jean's pity or handouts. And although she's glad to earn money, she realizes she has to subordinate herself by providing labor for white people. Her classmates don't have a high opinion of Essie's working for a white woman; they suggest Essie's work is a kind of betrayal, and her gown a way of flaunting the extra income she gets by aligning herself with whiteness. Essie, however, wants to show the white townspeople "Negroes can be beautiful too."

The singers' nostalgia gives Essie a realization about the history of the South. "Dixie" is a song presenting the South as a happy, welcoming place and reinforcing white Southern identity and defiance. The song was also used to defy the civil rights movement later in the 1950s. "Old Folks at Home" or "Swanee River" was written in the voice of a slave who's remembering Southern plantation life as a positive experience.

Even if the region's heritage and traditions are damaging, painful, and criminal, people will hold onto them. The older white residents have a romantic, imaginary image of the past. The older black residents have a more painful and realistic image, but they've still experienced a past that connects them in some way with older whites. Younger people, without this connection to Southern tradition, are hungry for change. But change won't come easily. Essie's fear comes from realizing how desperately Southerners will hold onto their past, including to the Jim Crow laws that keep her future in jeopardy.

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