Suggested Essay Topics
Childhood: Chapters 1 – 9
1. Essie Mae meets and encounters whites with varying attitudes toward blacks in the South. Some take an interest in her education and ambitions and try to better prepare her for life in the adult world, or give her extra work because they are aware her family is poor and teach her that not every young child works to help support their family. Compare and contrast the different responses whites in the South have toward Essie Mae, both at school and at work. Discuss her early encounters with whites, both passing (such as observing her mother’s employers and landlords) and also her first work experiences with whites. What does Essie Mae conclude about her situation and that of blacks in the South at the close of part one of Coming of Age in Mississippi?
2. Farming is hard work, and even today farmers in America have a hard time succeeding in making a decent living off of the land. And yet the author notes that her mother is proud of her gardens and that the family shared good times and even came to enjoy the work of picking the cotton Raymond planted. Discuss the ways in which the life of a farmer is a difficult and conflicting one for blacks in general, and for both Daddy (Diddly) and Raymond in particular, by addressing the following questions: How did farmers on Mr. Carter’s plantation make money, and what impediments to success stood in their way? How does that situation mirror slavery? Why does Daddy (Diddly) grow frustrated at working on a plantation? How does Raymond react to learning that his land has dry soil and that his donkey is old and easily tired? How do weather and threats like boll weevils and other insects contribute to the difficulty of farming? What does the author’s nightmare about farming say about her judgment of this vocation and her family’s participation in it, and what does it say about her future?
High School: Chapters 10 – 17
1. Beginning the summer after her freshman year in high school, Anne leaves home to work elsewhere. Discuss the ways in which her summer journeys help her earn not only money but also life experience. How does she learn to look at herself physically and intellectually, and in what ways do these lessons make her life harder when she returns to Centreville? In what ways do these lessons further cement her belief that she must ultimately leave her home in order to live her life her own way?
2. While Anne uses school, sports, and church activities to “keep busy” and to distract herself from the realities that she can’t change on her own, and while those open doors for her, explain how her “real life” experiences—her conversations with teachers and adults about racism, her work for numerous employers, her summers away from home—combine with her academic experiences to help her become a strong and well-rounded person who has perspective on her environment. Explain how she has learned to supplement “book learning” with “life experience.” Ultimately, which benefits her more, in the end?
College: Chapters 18 – 21
1. At Natchez College, Anne is a troublemaker, refusing to follow ridiculous rules or to let authorities manipulate her. Explain how her reaction to Miss Adams’s unfair punishment and Miss Harris’s unsanitary cooking foreshadow her ability to both lead others and stand up to authority...
(The entire section is 852 words.)