What does Cleota symbolize in "Rose-Johnny"?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Cleota in this powerful short story is one of the African-American children who come to Rose-Johnny's store after hours to be served by her. Not only is Cleota shunned because of her race and the colour of her skin, but the second time that she comes and pays only about half the standard amount for the feed as other customers do, Georgeann understands that she is also incredibly poor, and that Rose-Johnny supports her and others like her through giving her discounted food prices. Although Cleota is only mentioned twice in this short story in passing, her symbolism seems to lie in the way that she is used as part of Georgeann's recognition of the narrow prejudice of her family and people, and the way that this prejudice is slowly but surely challenged as she spends more time with Rose-Johnny and comes to know more of her story. Note how this symbolism of Cleota's character is raised through the description that accompanies her first appearance in the tale:

The oldest one, whose name was Cleota, was shaped like Mary Etta. Her hair was straight and pointed, and smelled to me like citronella candles.

It is no accident that Cleota resembles Georgeann's sister. The similarity in appearance indicates that Georgeann is learning to look beyond racial stereotypes and other prejudices and to see the common humanity that unites all humans. This is an impression that is confirmed when, in Cleota's second appearance in the short story, Georgeann serves her for the reduced price, acknowledging her common humanity and treating her with the respect that Rose-Johnny has taught her to show Cleota, and indeed all people.

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