Mama: Nicknamed “Toosweet” by some members of her extended family.
Daddy: A plantation worker named Fred who is known as Diddly to adults.
Essie Mae Moody: The narrator of the novel and oldest child in her family.
Annie/Anne Moody: The narrator, after her name is changed in eighth grade.
Adline Moody: The narrator’s infant little sister, the second youngest in the family.
Junior Moody: A newborn boy, the third youngest in the family.
James Moody: The fourth youngest in the family and the child of Raymond.
Virginia: The fifth youngest child in the family, also known as Jennie Ann, and another child of Raymond.
Raymond, Jr./Jerry: The sixth youngest child in the family and another child of Raymond.
Ralph: The seventh youngest child in the family and another child of Raymond
George Lee: Mama’s brother who is Essie Mae’s and Adline’s abusive babysitter.
Raymond: The soldier Mama dates and marries after they have several babies.
Mrs. Claiborne: The white home economics teacher who hires Essie Mae and encourages her.
Miss Pearl: Raymond’s mother who snubs the Moody family.
Darlene: Raymond’s sister who is Essie Mae’s age.
Cherie: Raymond’s sister.
Mrs. Burke (Miss Minnie): Linda Jean’s mother, a white woman who is racist.
Mrs. Jenkins (Linda Jean): The white woman who hires Essie and is nice to her.
Mrs. Crosby: Mrs. Burke’s mother who is nice to Essie.
Wayne Burke: Mrs. Burke’s son who is Essie’s age and wants to befriend her.
Coming of Age in Mississippi is a memoir that begins in the early 1940s in Mississippi on a plantation owned by the Carter family. The book’s narrator Anne Moody born Essie Mae Moody, is a young child when the book opens up. In the first section of the book, entitled “Childhood,” she describes her family’s poverty over a two- to three-year period in its many manifestations, noting that her family is among the many Negro farming families living in wooden shacks and working for low wages.
As a result of their poverty, Essie Mae and her siblings are left in the care of an abusive uncle, George Lee, who frequently succeeds in shifting the blame to Essie Mae for his misdeeds. For instance, he sets fire to their home, lying to her father and telling him that she did it, which results in Essie Mae getting a severe beating. Essie observes that her father is upset about the prospects of making money from unhealthy cotton crops and how little money he makes after paying his due to Mr. Carter. She also observes a gradual rift between her parents: Her father begins spending time away from home, gambling and eventually having an affair with Florence, the widow of a former friend. Meanwhile, she hears her mother crying at night, and she learns her mother is expecting another child who will be named Junior, after her father.
Daddy soon abandons the family, leaving them with relatives. Essie starts school at Mount Pleasant, a ramshackle Baptist church, and doesn’t see her father again until her mother takes her to see her grandfather, Uncle Moody, on his deathbed. When Essie Mae runs into her father, he tries to win her affections with presents, but Mama won’t let her accept. Essie Mae, her mother, and siblings frequently move while her mother pursues jobs as a domestic and waitress. They settle near Centreville, and Mama begins dating a soldier named Raymond, eventually having a child, James, by him.
At the age of ten, Essie Mae gets her first job doing domestic chores in exchange for 75 cents a week and milk, but her mother makes her quit as Essie Mae’s employer exploits her by asking her to work increasingly long hours. Essie Mae also observes her employer selling milk to blacks, even though the cats have drunk from it. She then begins working for Mrs. Claiborne, a white home economics teacher at the white school who supports and encourages Essie Mae by mentoring her and paying her good wages.
Raymond builds the family a house along Highway 24 and moves the family there. Essie Mae notes that since they left the Carter plantation, they have moved six times.
The home Raymond offers them is an improvement upon their prior quarters, with more space, and they are able to buy new furniture. But it is also near his extended family’s property. Raymond’s mother, Miss Pearl, snubs Mama and lives in a larger and better-appointed house (with indoor plumbing). The children and Mama grow accustomed to living with Raymond and get along with Darlene and Cherie, Raymond’s sisters who are their age. It becomes clear that Essie Mae will excel in school academics and sports, especially basketball, but her siblings lack either that aptitude or ambition.
However, it also becomes clear that Miss Pearl will not accept Mama. When Mama has another baby, Miss Pearl comes to visit and snubs her—examining the baby but barely acknowledging Mama. Through this episode, Essie Mae becomes aware that class distinctions exist not just between whites and blacks, but also among blacks. She reflects on the white employers and teachers who encouraged her, then notes that Miss...
(The entire section is 2206 words.)
Emmett Till: A teenage boy who is killed for flirting with a white woman.
Mrs. Rice: A teacher who tells Anne about the NAACP and who mysteriously vanishes.
Mr. Fox: A white sheriff who is having an affair with a young black woman.
Bess: A high school girl who is having an affair with Mr. Fox.
Sheriff Ed Cassidy: The sheriff who beats Jerry, a black boy in Anne’s high school.
Jerry: A classmate of Anne’s who is beaten up by police without reason.
The Taplins: A black family murdered by white arsonists.
Mr. Banks: A mulatto who may have been the murder target in the Taplin arson case.
(The entire section is 2224 words.)
Mrs. Evans: The repressive schoolmarm at Natchez College.
Miss Harris: The cook Anne works for at Natchez College.
Miss Adams: The coach of Natchez College basketball team and strict disciplinarian.
Keemp: Anne’s first boyfriend.
President Buck: The president of Natchez College.
Trotter: The dark-skinned Tougaloo roommate who introduces Anne to the NAACP.
Dave Jones: One of Anne's boyfriends at Tougaloo.
Joan Trumpauer: A Tougaloo classmate involved in SNCC.
Rose: One of Anne's classmates who is also involved in SNCC and with whom Anne stages a bus stop sit-in.
(The entire section is 1193 words.)
John Salter: The professor at Tougaloo who urges Anne to participate in sit-ins.
Reverend Ed King and Jeannette King: Organizers of groups church-visiting trying to integrate churches.
C. O. Chinn: A well-established black entrepreneur who runs a café in Canton.
This final section of Moody’s memoir opens during the winter of her senior year at Tougaloo, shortly before the NAACP annual convention is scheduled to take place in Jackson. Anne receives a letter from Mama discouraging her participation in civil rights activities and warning her she won’t be able to come back to Centreville if she keeps it up, noting that the...
(The entire section is 1911 words.)