Coming of Age in Mississippi | Study Guide

Anne Moody

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Coming of Age in Mississippi | Part 2, Chapter 10 : High School | Summary

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Summary

Anne enters high school with "new insight into the life of Negroes in Mississippi." She has heard of black people being murdered before, but Mama always blamed an "Evil Spirit." Anne is walking home with a group of classmates when she hears about the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was killed on a visit to Mississippi. The boys in the group begin talking loudly about the murder. They think white people in Mississippi will become violent. Anne realizes she's been too busy to pay attention to the events around her.

When she gets home, Anne tries to bring up Till's murder with her mother. But Mama won't talk about it and says Anne and her friends shouldn't discuss the murder either—especially not around Anne's white employers. Anne wonders why Mama is so scared.

She's surprised when Mrs. Burke brings up the murder the same night. Mrs. Burke says Till "got out of his place with a white woman" and a Southern black boy would have known better. Mrs. Burke's voice made Anne frightened of her for the first time. She has a new fear, worse than poverty and starvation—being killed just for being black.

A few days later Mrs. Burke holds a "guild meeting" at her house. Essie eavesdrops and overhears the women talk about an organization called the NAACP. She asks Mama what NAACP means, and Mama warns her never to mention "that word" around a white person.

Instead Anne asks her homeroom teacher Mrs. Rice about NAACP. Mrs. Rice explains the NAACP is an organization "to help Negroes gain a few basic rights." She says the NAACP is working to convict Till's murderers and give black people in the South the right to vote. Mrs. Rice invites Anne over for dinner and tells her more about the murder of Negroes in the South. Hearing about the murders makes Anne feel like "the lowest animal on Earth." Mrs. Rice insists all the information she's telling Anne is confidential—she can't even talk about it with the other teachers. At the end of the year Mrs. Rice is fired.

Analysis

Though she doesn't officially join the NAACP for several years, Anne is catapulted into the civil rights movement in this chapter. Her family will claim her life is at stake if she takes action. She understands her life is at stake if she doesn't.

Anne and her classmates are near Till's age. They know he could have been any one of them. While white people will try to pin Till's murder on his ignorance of the South's customs, black people know better—the murder was a symptom of the racism and white supremacy infecting the nation. The young men are especially afraid. They know white men in the South can have affairs with black women, but black men can't even be accused of looking at a white woman without fearing for their lives.

Mama, meanwhile, distracts herself by singing a spiritual about the promise of heaven. She tells Anne that Till is "a lot better off in heaven" than on Earth. Moody implies the idea of waiting for heaven to see justice and fulfillment may keep black Southerners from working to attain justice on Earth.

Mrs. Burke's remarks about Till are a veiled threat to Anne. The "chills and fear" return when Anne sees the depth of devotion white Southerners have to Jim Crow. Any discussion of civil rights is surrounded by secrecy and fear. The NAACP's work is widely known but never openly discussed.

Mrs. Rice steps into the role of a parent to Anne, educating her on the world order and her place in it. But while Mama withholds information to protect Anne, Mrs. Rice gives Anne information to empower her. Anne sees how black people are "butchered" and "slaughtered" with less dignity than animals. Her "coming of age" means a loss of innocence and an influx of knowledge. Now that she knows the truth, how will she use it?

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