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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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 the two races. Food is representative of the difference in wealth Black and white people, 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 Black people: 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 Black people, 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 Black people, as when the Claibornes invite Anne to dinner, and Mrs. Claiborne gives her candy and hot dogs.
Skin-color gradations among Black people greatly affect the characters in Coming of Age in Mississippi. Lighter-skinned Black people, whom Anne calls “mulatto” or “yellow,” (terms that are now considered outdated and offensive) often try to carve out a higher social status for themselves, despite the fact that they are legally no better off than Black people relative to white people. Thus, the motif of skin color draws attention to an important theme of Coming of Age in Mississippi: the evil of disunity in the Black community. The fact that so many Black people 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 Black people are prejudiced against darker-skinned Black people, and that Anne herself becomes so suspicious of lighter-skinned Black people 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 in Mississippi. This motif appears in every chapter. There is the prejudice of whites against Black people, and also the prejudice of lighter-skinned Black people toward darker-skinned Black people, 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 Black people. Finally, after meeting lighter-skinned Black people and whites, particularly southern whites, who do not look down on her, Anne accepts that not all members of these groups are untrustworthy.
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