Coming of Age in Mississippi | Study Guide

Anne Moody

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Anne Moody's memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.

Coming of Age in Mississippi | Themes


Struggle of Social Change

Anne spends Parts 1 and 2 of Coming of Age in Mississippi learning the trials of racism in the American South, and Parts 3 and 4 determined to dismantle Southern segregation. She learns even when the goals are clear, the reformers united, and the change desperately necessary, it isn't easy to make a better world.

White Southerners are passionately committed to their segregated lifestyle and will kill to preserve Jim Crow laws. In Part 1, Chapter 8 Anne sees the power of white nostalgia when the town sings at the homecoming parade. After the Woolworth's sit-in she sees the resistance to change as a "sickness" for which there may be no cure. The movement doesn't just want to get new laws passed; they want to radically restructure an entire society from the ground up. And nonviolent direct action, a revolutionary method of protest, doesn't always achieve immediate results. Anne struggles to see the purpose of nonviolence after a Baptist church is bombed in Alabama.

Black Southerners can also be resistant to change. One of the movement's goals is to transform the way black Southerners see themselves—not as second-class citizens, but as Americans worthy of dignity, respect, and rights. Anne Moody points out many ways black people can perpetuate their own oppression, or be too trapped or "brainwashed" by white supremacy to seek freedom. Anne's mother has lived under Jim Crow laws for so long she insists her children follow them, too. Many black authority figures will turn on black activists in order to keep the approval of whites, such as Principal Willis turning in Samuel O'Quinn. Black Mississippians are reluctant to vote and resent the movement's presence. Even the movement's leaders have to negotiate with white authorities, like the ministers meeting with Jackson's white mayor, and any progress is frustratingly slow. Anne learns how many old patterns and behaviors must be dismantled before transformation can happen.

Racism as Violence

Moody writes about many kinds of racially motivated violence in Coming of Age in Mississippi. Much of the violence is physical—assaults, shootings, burnings, bombings. The "terror killings" of Anne's relative Clift and other black men in Mississippi are meant to scare other black Southerners into maintaining Jim Crow. Law enforcement uses state-sanctioned methods of violence at movement rallies and protests, creating physical barricades and shoving activists into overheated cars. The bodies of dead black Southerners are "left lying on a road or found floating in a river," treatment Anne thinks is worse than the treatment of animals.

Verbal violence is more insidious. White Southerners use racial slurs consistently. Even smaller verbal exchanges display a power dynamic meant to keep black people "in their place." Mrs. Burke insists young Anne address her employer the way a servant would, and implies Emmett Till deserved his death in a chilling speech to Anne. The specter of physical violence and power—the idea white people can do anything they want to black people and get away with it—is present in many interracial conversations.

Racism perpetuated by governmental or organizational policies has a broader effect, but it's just as damaging. Because employers favor white workers, black people are often relegated to physically demanding and exhausting work. Mama labors for long hours at the homes of white women, and Anne takes a brutally challenging job at a chicken factory. The governmentally sanctioned system of sharecropping creates dangerous conditions for black laborers, with no hope of economic independence.

Poverty's Oppression

The more Anne learns about the conditions of black sharecroppers in rural Canton, the more she thinks the federal government has deliberately created a situation where discrimination and poverty can flourish. Black sharecroppers, for instance, depend on their white employers for food and housing as well as income. If the sharecroppers—or any black people with white employers—register to vote or join a civil rights organization, they risk losing their jobs. They don't want to vote; they want food on the table. They fear and avoid civic participation, and the white supremacist power structure remains in place. Before the civil rights organizations can truly dismantle oppression, they'll have to tackle poverty.

Economic instability and the anxiety it provokes can cause havoc in black families. After a nearly fatal argument Anne witnesses between her mother-in-law Emma's neighbors, Emma observes the family wouldn't have gone to such extremes if the parents could earn enough money to live well.

Anne discovers black Canton residents need food and clothing more than they want to vote. She's impatient with the people coming to the Canton office for handouts without showing interest in the movement. But she's more frustrated with the local and federal systems' failure to care for American citizens.

Anne's own childhood is dominated by poverty. When Mama or Raymond can't find work, the household becomes a more stressful environment. Anne often takes jobs she can't stand so her family can eat. Her educational and personal goals are compromised. As a college student she has to scrape by to earn enough for school. As a young adult she meets black children in rural Mississippi who have to limit or end their education to work, or care for younger siblings so their parents can work. Poverty deprives the children of education and consumes their thoughts with worries. When children are forced to live in poverty, Anne discovers, it's harder for them to develop critical thinking skills and for their talent to flourish. They're less likely to become independent adults who can challenge corrupt systems of power.

A Girl's Growth

Though it's an autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi is similar to a bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel where the protagonist transforms from a child to an adult through trials, learning experiences, and often a physical journey. Anne's search for her identity, and her discovery of the civil rights movement, show a woman writing her own life story.

Anne's story includes many experiences common to coming-of-age narratives. She embarks on a quest to secure civil rights and freedom for African Americans. She undergoes spiritual doubt and a crisis of faith, and develops a worldview different than the one she's been taught. She transcends an impoverished childhood through education and determination, but the effects of her childhood linger. She travels on a physical and psychological journey away from home. Perhaps most importantly, she has to choose between following the rules and roles society dictates for her and taking the risk of carving her own path.

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