Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1878
In the 1940s, Anne Moody’s family lives on a plantation in Mississippi, where they work as sharecroppers. 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 Black farming families living in wooden shacks and working for low wages.
As a result of their poverty, Anne—then called Essie Mae—and her siblings are left in the care of an abusive uncle, George Lee, who frequently succeeds in shifting the blame to Anne for his misdeeds. For instance, George sets fire to their home, lying to her father and telling him that she did it, which results in Anne getting a severe beating. Anne 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 opening 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 that her mother is expecting another child.
Anne’s father abandons the family, leaving them to live with relatives. Anne 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 Anne runs into her father, he tries to win her affections with presents, but her mother won’t let her accept them. Anne, her mother, and her siblings frequently move while her mother pursues jobs as a domestic worker and waitress. They settle near Centreville, and Anne’s mother begins dating a soldier named Raymond, eventually having her fourth child, James, with him.
At the age of ten, Anne gets her first job: doing domestic chores. She is paid seventy-five cents per week and given free milk, but her mother makes her quit, as Anne’s employer exploits her by asking her to work increasingly long hours. Anne also observes her employer selling milk that cats have already drunk from to Black people. Anne then begins working for Mrs. Claiborne, a White home economics teacher who supports and encourages Anne by mentoring her and paying her good wages.
Raymond builds the family a house. Anne notes that since they left the 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, looks down on Anne’s mother and lives in a larger and better-appointed house. The Moodys grow accustomed to living with Raymond and get along with Darlene and Cherie, Raymond’s sisters. It becomes clear that Anne excels in both academics and sports, especially basketball, but her siblings lack either aptitude or ambition.
However, it also becomes clear that Miss Pearl will not accept the Moodys. When Anne’s mother has another baby, Miss Pearl comes to visit and behaves rudely—examining the baby but barely acknowledging Anne’s mother. Through this episode, Anne 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 have encouraged her, then notes that Miss Pearl and her people, who are also Black but who have lighter skin than the Moody family, snub other Blacks. Anne finds this difficult to process.
Raymond and Miss Pearl attend the city church, Centreville Baptist, while Anne’s mother still belongs to and attends the more rural Mount Pleasant. Anne’s mother ultimately tricks Anne into joining Mount Pleasant, where she is baptized in a muddy stream at a packed public ceremony.
Raymond buys land to begin work as a cotton farmer, but the enterprise is a difficult one. The land he buys, formerly used by the military, contains buried grenades. In addition to having to worry about the weather conditions and whether the cotton will grow, they have to worry about accidentally detonating the hidden explosives.
Raymond’s mule shows signs of exhaustion. Anne has vivid nightmares about dying of heatstroke under the summer sun while out picking cotton, and she ends up fainting on the first day she’s in the fields with her family. She briefly enjoys the work—observing that some of her family members are tied to the land—but eventually the crops fail, and the family returns to poverty.
The family resorts to day labor, picking pecans for money, and Anne seeks more work to offset the family’s poverty. Fortunately, she is hired by a harried mother—Linda Jean Jenkins—who pays her more than the usual wage for a combination of domestic work and babysitting. Linda Jean’s grandmother, Mrs. Crosby, admires Anne. Linda Jean treats Anne with respect, but Linda Jean’s mother, Mrs. Burke, is a well-known racist and intrudes on the work relationship, trying to convince Linda Jean that she is too permissive to Anne. Mrs. Burke succeeds in convincing Linda Jean to reduce Anne’s wages. Meanwhile, Anne's mother has another baby and finally marries Raymond, despite his family’s disapproval.
Anne enters eighth grade, and her family is so poor that she can’t afford new clothes. She continues to wear her old clothes, now tight and form-fitting, to school, where she draws attention from boys. She secretly nominates herself for homecoming queen and is surprised when she is elected. However, she is too poor to buy a dress for the school parade. Linda Jean offers her an old dress, but Anne dislikes it, so she and her mother write to Anne’s father for help. Anne’s father sends her a beautiful blue gown, but this upsets Raymond, who continues to struggle with work.
Around this time, Anne’s name is changed from Essie to Annie due to a fluke with her application for a new birth certificate. She graduates to a summer of poverty, in which work is so hard for Raymond that he is forced to go out of state to look for better prospects. Anne’s mother has another baby, Ralph. Without work lined up, and with much trepidation, Annie begins working for the racist Mrs. Burke, who tries to teach her to “know her place” in both subtle and deliberate ways, such as encouraging her to call Linda Jean “Mrs. Jenkins,” locking the front door so Anne will use the back, and correcting her ironing technique. Yet Anne notes that Mrs. Burke’s son, Wayne, treats her as an equal.
Rather than fully submitting to the rude treatment by Mrs. Burke, Anne chooses to be detached and observant of her employer’s behavior—a foreshadowing of how she will react to racism as she grows increasingly aware of its manifestations around her.
“In a way, working for her was a challenge for me,” she writes of Mrs. Burke. “She was the first one of her type I had run into.”
Anne Moody’s memoir starts with a depiction of life on a plantation that she says haunts her for the rest of her days, establishing themes that run throughout the rest of the book: White dominion over poor Black workers; the fact that children must grow up at an early age; the lack of opportunities for Black people in the South to earn a living wage, live in adequate utilities, have enough food, or arrange adequate childcare; the role of extended family in raising children; the mixed emotions that occur within expectant mothers living in poverty; the difficulty of farming as a career; and racial segregation.
Moody fills her memoir with her personal experiences of the South rather than the political context in which these experiences occur in order to outline how the conditions into which she was born affected her personally. As both author and narrator, Anne Moody is both participant and observer of her social surroundings. She doesn’t fully subscribe to what she is taught or the assumptions of those around her. Her mother, highly emotional and frequently depressed, is often overwhelmed from the demands of alternately working on a farm and raising children, especially after her husband leaves.
Anne doesn’t complain about beginning work at a young age to contribute to the family, and though her family is often too tired for fun and games, they are grateful for little things—such as being able to make sandwiches from bread instead of biscuits, having work, having access to a spiritual life at Centreville’s church or Mount Pleasant. Yet Anne knows at an early age that she wants to go to college one day, possibly to teach or pursue another kind of career. Much of her youth is spent contributing to her family’s quest to secure shelter, and the family moves frequently, encountering difficult financial and occupational situations.
Through her social interactions at school and with a series of employers, Anne gathers a clear message about the existence of racism and the role of Black people in the South. Rather than seeing White people as evil or as enemies, Anne looks at the ways in which Black people consciously and unconsciously participate in their own oppression. She observes how her mother has internalized her status as a second-class citizen, urging Anne not to get “high-minded” ideas from spending time with White people like the Claibornes. Anne also notices how Black people with lighter skin, like Miss Pearl, adopt the racist attitudes of Whites by snubbing darker-skinned Black people, which to Anne seems unproductive.
Anne also recounts a vivid dream she has about dying beneath an ominous sun while doing grueling farm work. The dream occurs the night before she joins her family in Raymond’s newly-planted cotton fields, and while she doesn’t analyze it for the reader, the dream provides a hint that the author is aware she must move beyond the difficult farm work that has never adequately fed or sustained her family. She notes that her mother and Raymond are tied to the land and that her mother may wish for her to follow in the family’s agrarian tradition. Unspoken but implied in this dream is her observation that following in her family’s footsteps will only perpetuate their poverty.
Anne notices that some White adults and employers, such as Mr. and Mrs. Claiborne or Linda Jean Jenkins, encourage her and praise her aptitude, while others, like Mrs. Burke, do the opposite, trying to make clear to Anne that she must speak to White people with more deference and submit to a second-class social role. Rather than accept this, Anne tests the limits of her place in this social hierarchy. She is aware of Mrs. Burke’s agenda but makes it clear she doesn’t plan to participate. During her childhood, she doesn’t fully rebel, but neither does she fully obey. She sets in motion a tense relationship between the role that society issued her and the role she has chosen for herself—a theme that gains momentum throughout the rest of the book.
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