Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748
Shortly before Anne’s freshman year of high school begins, a Black boy named Emmett Till is killed by a lynch mob for allegedly whistling suggestively at a White woman. In addition to Till’s death, a local Black family is murdered in an arson, which was believed to have been targeted at their neighbor, who was participating in an interracial relationship.
Anne comes to despise the racially tense environment of Centreville and hates telling herself to behave as if everything is normal at Mrs. Burke’s home. Mrs. Burke mentions Till’s death to Anne, saying it’s a shame “he had to die so soon,” almost as a caution to Anne. Anne decides she ultimately wants to leave Centreville. She approaches a teacher named Mrs. Rice and learns about the NAACP, but Mrs. Rice warns Anne not to reveal their conversations for fear she will lose her job. Mrs. Rice becomes a mentor to Anne, but she ultimately does lose her job. Anne, disgusted with the social climate of her town, concludes, “I was sick of pretending, sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day.”
Anne travels to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to work during the summer of her freshman year. However, work is hard to find. First a poor White woman hires her for two weeks’ work and leaves town without paying her; next, she works at a family store called Ourso’s Department Store, where she is undermined by a jealous coworker who falsely befriends her and gets her fired. Anne returns home and learns about a couple that was forced to leave town over an interracial affair, but when she asks her mother about it, her mother grows furious that the first question Anne asked was about racial injustice. Anne becomes angry that this can’t be discussed and remembers Mrs. Rice’s advice to her—that she should cultivate some hobbies to distract her from her justifiable and mounting anger. She decides to play piano, but she also decides she will leave Centreville as soon as she finishes high school.
During her sophomore year, Anne has trouble reconciling her changing attitudes with the reality of her social and family life in Centreville. Her mother observes her shortness with Mrs. Burke and is shocked. Anne also observes that Raymond behaves as if he despises her. She decides to keep busy: she plays basketball, tries out for the tumbling team, and continues to earn good grades. She also keeps working for Mrs. Burke, who enlists Anne to tutor her son, Wayne, in math. However, Wayne quickly becomes friendly with Anne, much to Mrs. Burke’s chagrin. She hovers and reprimands Wayne in front of Anne, creating an awkward situation. Wayne often offers to give Anne rides, and it appears he may be attracted to her.
Anne and Mrs. Burke have a brief exchange about school integration, and rather than maintaining her usual passivity, Anne provides her opinion on this topic, enraging Mrs. Burke. Afterward, the tutoring stops, and Mrs. Burke asks Anne to bring her brother Junior over to cut grass. Mrs. Burke accuses them of stealing her wallet, which she mysteriously finds at the last minute, and Anne resigns immediately, telling Mrs. Burke that she and her brother work so they do not have to steal. She works briefly for a friend of Mrs. Burke’s—who offers a nice-sounding retail position that turns out to be a janitor’s job—and goes to New Orleans for the summer with her family’s approval.
In New Orleans, Anne stays with relatives and has trouble finding work until an old Centreville connection gets her a job in a chicken factory. However, she has been hired as a temporary worker during a factory strike—a fact that Anne discovers when she leaves the factory building on a break and hears the angry response of the crowds picketing outside.
During her junior year of high school, Anne discovers that her adventures away from Centreville have begun to change her, and she becomes bored and dissatisfied with life in Centreville. She continues to devote time to her various hobbies as a way to stave off boredom. She writes two plays for a talent night, one of which is an “African dance” in which girls appear in minimal clothing, which causes a scandal.
Anne returns to New Orleans during her junior summer and works with her grandmother Winnie at Maple Hill, a restaurant where she meets a cast of characters very different from the people she knows in Centreville: ex-cons, cross-dressers, and a variety of other adults. One coworker, Lola, advises Anne on how to better arrange her hair and wear makeup, and when Anne returns to Centreville, she begins to attract attention for her looks. This causes trouble with Mr. Hicks, her coach, and Raymond, who begins making disparaging remarks about her. Anne observes Raymond eyeing her around the house and becomes afraid of possible sexual advances from him.
Meanwhile, a man named Samuel O’Quinn is murdered on suspicion of being an NAACP member or organizer. Anne expresses the sentiment that Black people need to fight back:
I hated myself and every Negro in Centreville for not putting a stop to the killings or at least putting up a fight in an attempt to stop them.
O’Quinn’s death turns Anne into more of a loner than she had been before, and she retreats further into her high school activities to avoid her family.
When Raymond is rude to her one day, she reacts with anger and decides she will leave home immediately. She has an uncharacteristic temper tantrum, and her family locks the doors so she can’t come back inside until she cools off. She fetches the town sheriff to convince them to let her in, and she gathers her clothes and belongings. She then goes to stay with her father and his wife, Emma.
The situation is an improvement in some ways, but she realizes Emma isn’t as excited to host her as she initially thought. In some ways, Emma is using Anne’s visit to justify purchases she wants to make for herself rather than purchases that a household with a teenage guest would require. However, Anne enjoys Emma’s family and the good times she has in the café they run, an experience that contrasts with her own family’s life in Centreville. The good times change when their neighbors begin a domestic dispute and Emma’s foot is severely injured while trying to help.
Meanwhile, Anne finishes the year at a different high school. When she graduates, in 1959, she observes that her ceremony will take place in a large, segregated county high school, and though it is new and many people are grateful for it, she thinks of “how dumb we were to accept it”: a new segregated Black school is nothing more than a gesture to preserve White supremacy. She sees her family at graduation and agrees to visit her mother before leaving to work for the summer.
In the wake of Emmett Till’s murder, Anne becomes deeply aware of the hypocrisies and racism in which she has been living and awakens with horror to discover the ways in which these phenomena have been disguised or hidden from her by both White and Black people. She not only becomes aware but also begins to form her own angry opinions about the situation, concluding that she must leave Centreville and take action to make changes. Centreville’s Black residents, she has come to believe, are too passive about the events they’re observing.
As in any bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, Moody builds her story by showing how her character develops through a series of trials and how she moves further and further from her origins to become the adult who ultimately narrates the tale. In this part of her memoir, she shows herself deepening the philosophical and also physical shifts she must make and the many ways in which she must separate herself from her family in order to go out in the world and pursue her activism. While her family lives in fearful acceptance of the murders that have happened, Anne feels like she and other Black people should fight back, and she even fantasizes about taking up arms.
Another way Anne begins to separate from her family and environment is by testing the boundaries of her relationship with her employer, Mrs. Burke, a well-known racist. Her mother is shocked to hear how Anne turns down work from the White Mrs. Burke. Mrs. Burke puts more social pressure on Anne by making her tutor her son, mentioning the Emmett Till murder in a foreboding way, and growing enraged when Anne offers opinions. Mrs. Burke ultimately tries to scare Anne and her brother into thinking she could frame them for robbery, but rather than submit to the manipulation with subservience—Mrs. Burke’s likely intention—Anne resigns and works elsewhere until she can leave town again.
In addition to forming opinions about what is happening in Centreville, Anne also concludes that she needs to see what is happening beyond the boundaries of her own city. When she travels to Baton Rouge and New Orleans to work during the summers, she feels awakened to a kind of life she can’t experience in her hometown. She also matures physically, blossoming into a more attractive young woman—but for her, this has a price: both her coach and her stepfather, Raymond, give her special treatment, respectively too positive and too negative, that makes her feel sexually threatened. She has to leave home to escape the added pressure.
When she goes to live with her father and his wife, Emma, Anne experiences what being part of a close family can feel like while observing the interactions between members of Emma’s family at the café they own. This experience further cements her belief that her own life is lacking and compounds her feelings that the Black community in Centreville is dangerously passive about its plight. She remarks that it is ironic how many people are grateful for the new Black high school, built after a 1954 “separate but equal” act. To Anne, the school is a monument to racism and an assurance of continued White supremacy—and that others don’t see it that way further proves to her that her philosophical difference with her hometown is irreconcilable.
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