Coming of Age in Mississippi
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Absurdity of Racial Distinctions
While Anne does not question that race and racism are very real facts of life, she does show how absurd and arbitrary racial distinctions are. During Anne’s childhood, many whites publicly argued that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. One of the most memorable episodes of Coming of Age is when Anne, as a child, has her white friends undress so she can examine their genitalia for the secret of their better luck in life. Her reasoning is logical: it is not at all evident why they should be better off than blacks, and that is the only part of a white person’s body or life she has not seen. The fact that so many blacks have at least some white ancestry serves to highlight how arbitrary a distinction race really is.
The Evil of Disunity Among Blacks in the Face of White Oppression
When blacks refuse to band together to improve their situation, improvement becomes difficult if not impossible. Throughout Coming of Age, Anne is repeatedly frustrated by how willing blacks are to accept injustice. This includes her family, as well as numerous other blacks who work to perpetuate racial inequalities despite being black themselves. Anne is also shocked by the fact that lighter-skinned blacks try to give themselves a social distinction relative to darker-skinned blacks. They all share a common oppression at the hands of whites.
The Destructive Power of Prejudice
One of the most important themes of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the destructive power of prejudice. There is the prejudice of whites against blacks, and also the prejudice of lighter-skinned blacks toward darker-skinned blacks, and of people with money against poorer people. Anne experiences each kind of prejudice, which causes her great pain. In fact, being the victim of prejudice tends to prejudice Anne herself against whites and lighter-skinned blacks. Her prejudice is demonstrated by the fact that she nearly refuses to attend Tougaloo College, the place where she joins the civil rights movement, because she fears that it has too many light-skinned black students. She also distrusts her professors because they are white, and the Reverend Edward King, who is, worse yet, a southern white. Finally, after meeting lighter-skinned blacks and whites who do not look down on her, Anne accepts that not all members of these groups are untrustworthy. However, prejudice nearly costs her important opportunities in her life, and makes her a suspicious and pessimistic person.
Moody repeatedly uses food to remind readers of the extreme poverty in which she grows up. For most of her childhood, Moody and her family live a hand-to-mouth existence. On many days, they truly eat nothing but bread and beans. In good times, they supplement their diets with table scraps and milk or peanut butter from middle-class white families. Moody rarely makes any mention of the suffering that accompanies this deprivation, but the details alone are enough to make the reader dizzy.
Food is also used to mark the powerful distinctions in status between blacks and whites. Food is representative of the difference in wealth between blacks and whites, as when the Moody family survives on the white Cook family’s table scraps, and Toosweet steals corn meant for the Cooks’ cows. Food is also indicative of how dependent middle-class white families are on blacks: Moody notes that these families seem unable to cook for themselves, and many do not even know how to prepare food hygienically. Moody also uses food to draw attention to the low regard in which some whites hold blacks, as when a white woman lets her cats drink out of the vat of milk that she then sells to black people. Generosity with food is also a sign that a white person is kind to blacks, as when the Claibornes invite Anne to dinner, and Mrs. Claiborne gives her candy and hot dogs.
Skin-color gradations among blacks greatly affect the characters in Coming of Age. Lighter-skinned blacks, whom Anne calls “mulatto” or “yellow,” often try to carve out a higher social status for themselves, despite the fact that they are legally no better off than blacks relative to whites. Thus, the motif of skin color draws attention to an important theme of Coming of Age: the evil of disunity in the black community. The fact that so many blacks look almost like white people also highlights another important theme: that racial distinctions are ultimately absurd, since they are socially constructed and have no real basis in physical reality. Finally, the fact that some lighter-skinned blacks are prejudiced against darker-skinned blacks, and that Anne herself becomes so suspicious of lighter-skinned blacks that she herself becomes prejudiced, serves to highlight the theme of how destructive prejudice can be.
Prejudice, while intangible, is a powerful force in Coming of Age. This motif appears in every chapter. There is the prejudice of whites against blacks, and also the prejudice of lighter-skinned blacks toward darker-skinned blacks, and of people with money against people who are poorer than they are. Anne experiences each kind of prejudice painfully. Anne even herself becomes prejudiced against whites and lighter-skinned blacks. Finally, after meeting lighter-skinned blacks and whites, particularly southern whites, who do not look down on her, Anne accepts that not all members of these groups are untrustworthy.
Anne’s Personal Growth
Anne’s own growth and maturation are symbolic of the concurrent growth and maturation of the civil rights movement. The symbolism is made possible by the fact that Anne’s maturity coincides very closely with the 1950s civil rights era. Since she is born in 1940, she becomes a precocious young adult around the early 1950s. Earlier, as a young child, she had already found that there were no real reasons to consider whites superior to blacks, which was an argument that the earliest civil rights thinkers had made. Early in the twentieth century, there had been failed attempts to stop lynching, and also to unionize black workers. It is in the early 1950s that a new civil rights movement is born that combines lawsuits with activism. In Mississippi, the movement is kicked off when the NAACP fights for the prosecution of the murderers of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old visiting Mississippi from Chicago, who was supposedly murdered because he had whistled at a white woman. The murder occurs just as Anne is starting to become exasperated with racial inequalities and the ridiculous prejudices of many white people.
Around the time that Anne is graduating from high school in the late 1950s, the movement to end segregation has prompted the government to build new, better schools for black students. But Anne, like the movement, realizes that they should not settle for anything less than complete equality as represented by integration. Once she is finally an adult, Anne realizes, as the movement must realize, that the future of the movement is in the youth, and the movement must focus on practical affairs. Symbolically, she has become an old woman, just as the civil rights movement has become mature and also faded. It is time for a younger generation, and a new version of the civil rights movement, to take over.
The Twelve-Year-Old Boy
On the bus to Washington at the very end of Coming of Age, Anne sits down next to a twelve-year-old boy who has unbridled energy, contrasted with Anne’s exhaustion and frustration. The boy is symbolic of the younger generations who are the hope of the struggle for equality.
Clothing serves as an important symbol for transitions or stages of growth in Anne’s life. Tight blue jeans signal her maturation. The pageantry of homecoming, with her beautiful gown, marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, though Anne is barely a teenager. As an activist, Anne buys clothing for children who have no school clothes, and she makes sure the movement distributes clothing to needy blacks in the area. She has grown from someone scraping to clothe herself and her own family to someone who can provide clothing for others.
When Anne graduates from college, clothing is once again an important symbol of transition and growth in her life: her sister Adline celebrates her college graduation by giving her a beautiful green dress. The green dress symbolizes both her attainment of a college degree and Adline’s acceptance of Anne’s goals. Earlier her family had not given her much support in her academic ambitions; no one had gone to her college graduation ceremony. Now Adline herself says she would like to get a college degree.
The importance of clothing as a symbol underscores Anne’s earlier poverty. Adline chooses between buying Anne a graduation present or paying to travel to her graduation; she cannot do both. This symbol demonstrates the way in which Anne’s growth as a person has been aligned with her basic struggle to survive.
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