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In this story, Phoenix Jackson is an elderly black woman who has lived in Southern Mississippi since some years before the Civil War. Born into slavery, she had been "too old" to go to school at the time of Emancipation. Although many decades have passed since she was freed from slavery, Phoenix's society still exhibits racist attitudes that can be identified in the story through subtle details.
For instance, Phoenix is never afforded the dignity of her own name; she is not addressed as Mrs. Jackson, or even Phoenix. The white people she encounters, even the strangers, call her "Grandma" or "Granny," using the term not out of affection but as an indicator of her social status. Also, the hunter points his gun at her to intimidate her because he assumes that right. Phoenix, however, does not flinch, telling the hunter she has seen "plenty [of guns] go off closer by, in my day." The implication is that Phoenix has seen racial violence during her lifetime. Finally, the attendant in the clinic treats Phoenix very disrespectfully, calling her "Grandma," ordering her to speak up, peppering her with questions, and demanding to know if she is deaf. Given the long tradition of Southern courtesy, one can assume that a white woman--a social equal--would not have been treated this way. Phoenix, being an old black woman, was not afforded common courtesy.
That Phoenix is poor plays an integral part in the story. She is identified by the rude attendant as "a charity case." Phoenix endures the humiliation heaped upon her to get the free medicine that will bring pain relief to her suffering grandson. Also, Phoenix steals a nickle from the hunter and asks for another nickle while in the clinic. When she has the ten cents, she has enough money to buy a toy for her grandson. It will surely be his only Christmas gift. Phoenix is a poor, uneducated country woman whose strong character will not allow age, poverty, or racism prevent her from acting on her love for her little grandson.
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