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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 Black people were genetically inferior to whites. One of the most memorable episodes of Coming of Age in Mississippi 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 since it is not at all evident why they should be better off than Black people, and that is the only part of a white person’s body or life she has not seen. The fact that so many Black people have at least some white ancestry serves to highlight how arbitrary a distinction race really is.
When Black people refuse to band together to improve their situation, improvement becomes difficult if not impossible. Throughout Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne is repeatedly frustrated by how willing Black people are to accept injustice. This includes her family, as well as numerous other Black people who work to perpetuate racial inequalities despite being Black themselves. Anne is also shocked by the fact that lighter-skinned Black people try to give themselves a social distinction relative to darker-skinned Black people. They all share a common oppression at the hands of whites.
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 Black people, and also the prejudice of lighter-skinned Black people toward darker-skinned Black people, 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 Black people. 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 Black people 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Coming of Age in Mississippi!