Coming of Age in Mississippi Themes

The main themes in Coming of Age in Mississippi are racism, classism, and alienation.

  • Racism: Racism manifests in different forms throughout Anne's life, ranging from the verbal degradation she suffers from Mrs. Burke to the outright violence she faces as an activist.
  • Classism: Anne grows up impoverished in the Mississippi Delta, and this gives her a unique perspective on the barriers Black people face in the fight for equality.
  • Alienation: Due to her strong convictions, Anne often finds herself ideologically isolated from both her conservative family and the more idealistic leaders of the movement.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1319

Racism

Anne Moody’s memoir details her childhood awareness of racial injustice and tracks how her convictions led her to leave her small, insulated Centreville community and become a civil rights activist. Racism and oppression pervade every aspect of young Anne’s life, and she struggles to oppose both White supremacy and Black complacency. Her ruthless curiosity and strong sense of justice make her an outlier in Centreville, and she spends much of her childhood confused as to why she is deemed inferior for her dark skin.

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Though Anne is aware of racial differences from a young age, two events coincide that solidify her path to becoming an activist: her time working for Mrs. Burke and the murder of Emmett Till. Mrs. Burke represents everything toxic about White supremacy, and she constantly stirs up the racial prejudices of the other White women in Centreville. Mrs. Burke goes so far as to encourage her daughter, Linda Jean, to lower Anne’s wages and force Anne to call her “Mrs. Jenkins.” Working under Mrs. Burke is a challenge for the opinionated and intelligent Anne, who is forced to submit to the verbal abuse or else lose her much-needed job. This early experience speaks to the broader fears of many would-be Black voters, who avoid involving themselves politically out of fear of economic repercussions. 

Emmett Till’s murder is a different sort of awakening for Anne, and she notes that the news of his death makes her fear for her life for the first time. Anne’s sense of injustice is inflamed, but she is unable to find an outlet for it within her own family. Her mother refuses to discuss Till’s murder, and the rest of the Black community in Centreville fears repercussions from White people if they bring it up. Whereas Anne is fixated on the injustice and barbarity of the event, the rest of her community is focused on self-preservation. Anne is shocked by their apparent apathy; she has learned to expect derision and cruelty from White people, but seeing the Black community go on as if nothing happened crushes Anne and increases her sense of isolation. However, Anne does eventually find a mentor in Mrs. Rice, who tells her about the NAACP and introduces Anne to activism. 

Upon becoming an activist and working within the civil rights movement, Anne encounters racism from White people in a variety of forms: decreased economic opportunities, verbal abuse, threats, and outright violence. However, she comes to believe that the greatest weapon at White society’s disposal is Black apathy. Anne has great empathy for Black communities and does everything in her power to uplift and empower them, but their complacency, combined with her own fears for her safety, instill in her a deep sense of exhaustion and hopelessness. Yet, despite herself, Anne cannot fully abandon the work: even as she ponders whether her actions have been worthwhile, she still boards the bus with the other activists bound for Washington, DC, highlighting her commitment to the vital task of fighting racial inequality and oppression.

Classism

Anne contends with poverty and classism throughout her life. She must work from the age of nine onward because her single mother, despite working herself to exhaustion, is unable to earn enough to feed her growing family. Anne works primarily as a domestic helper to the White women in Centreville, and her experiences with her employers vary wildly. Some, like Mrs. Claiborne and Linda Jean Jenkins, treat her with respect and pay her well. Others, like Mrs. Burke, use Anne’s race as an excuse to underpay and overwork her. However, job opportunities are limited for Black people, especially Black women, and Anne is forced to take whatever jobs are available to her in order to support her struggling family, highlighting the ways in which economic oppression feeds into sociopolitical oppression. 

This lack of economic opportunity later represents a significant hurdle to registering Black voters, who fear the economic repercussions of becoming politically involved. The Chinns highlight the ways in which involvement with the civil rights movement leads to persecution: Mr. Chinn begins the memoir as a successful and respected Black entrepreneur and ends it as a member of a chain gang, as a result of his support of Freedom House. 

Despite the prevalence of economic disenfranchisement Anne witnesses in the Mississippi Delta, she notices that it is rarely discussed by the movement leadership. As a result of growing up poor, Anne is deeply sympathetic to the plight of impoverished Black people, but movement leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. tend to focus on the purely philosophical aspects of the work. Anne feels that the leadership is out of touch with the daily realities and struggles of more rural and impoverished Black people. As a result of this knowledge, Anne endeavors to address the systemic issue of Black poverty in the hopes of encouraging more Black voters to register.

Though more subtle than economic classism, Anne also encounters manufactured hierarchies within the Black community based on skin color. Lighter-skinned Black people, like Raymond’s family, look down on those with darker skin. Raymond’s mother, Miss Pearl, is scornful of Anne’s mother as a result of her dark skin, and this rejection almost prevents Raymond and Anne’s mother from getting married. 

Alienation 

Alienation plagues Anne both inside and outside of the movement. Growing up in poor, rural Centreville, Anne often feels isolated from the rest of her community, who refuse to acknowledge or resist racial oppression. Anne’s awakening conscience as an activist is at odds with the more conservative, preservation-focused mentalities of those around her, and she becomes committed to the idea of leaving Centreville after graduating high school. The few connections that Anne does make in Centreville are gradually taken away from her, as Mrs. Rice is fired and Wayne is forbidden from interacting with her by his mother. Anne’s final ties to Centreville are severed when Raymond takes a sexual interest in her, and though she briefly finds happiness with her father and Emma, Emma’s injuries force her to depart.

College is a turning point for Anne, who becomes something of a leader at both Natchez and Tougaloo. Her boyfriend at Natchez, Keemp, represents Anne’s effort at finding stability, but she ultimately realizes that she is only dating him due to peer pressure. She seems to thrive when she has a cause to support, and her strike against the unsanitary lunchroom food gives her a sense of purpose and connects her to a broader intellectual movement. However, it is not until she goes to Tougaloo that she makes real friends who share her passionate ideals about race and justice. The connections she makes within the activist community represent the importance of shared passions and open dialogue, and this newfound sense of connection allows her to weather her family’s disapproval. Anne feels as though she has to suppress herself in Centreville, and her family’s continuous refusal to respect her work only alienates her further from them, driving her to work even harder within the movement.

However, Anne’s sense of connection and belonging is short-lived; as she becomes increasingly active within the movement, she finds herself at odds with the messages of the leadership, which she views as being wholly disconnected from the realities of most Black communities. Furthermore, she witnesses a number of her friends and colleagues being brutally driven away from the movement by White violence and emotional burnout. Even her attempt to reconnect with her family is strained, and Anne is left largely alone. Yet, even though her passions and ideals alienate her from those around her, she cannot give them up; she boards the bus full of young activists bound for Washington, DC, showcasing that even though she is dejected and downtrodden, she is not yet wholly alienated from hope.

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