Mary: An Autobiography Critical Context - Essay

Mary E. Mebane

Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

An autobiography is, by its very nature, subjective. Yet Mebane’s remarkable memory for detail gives the reader a vivid child’s-eye view that is both credible and unforgettable in its imagery. Comparing scabs, picking blackberries, and churning butter are described with a detail that gives the reader a “you-are-there” experience.

The author was motivated to write this book because of the unique time in American history in which she lived. She was twenty-one years old when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the nation’s schools. At the age of thirty-one, she witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act. All of her formative years then were directly influenced by the norms and laws of a society designed to keep her and all African-American people in a subservient position. It is one thing to read about the existence of Jim Crow laws and the changes brought about by the courts in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is quite another experience to read the effects that the system of segregation had on a child growing up just prior to these changes.

It is unfortunate that the autobiography ended when it did. Readers will want to know what happened to Mebane after the completion of her bachelor’s degree. The book’s jacket flap informs the reader that she took both a master’s degree and a doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the time of the book’s publication, in 1981, she was teaching composition at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. At the book’s end, one is certain that Mebane’s story is far from completed.

Mebane’s book contributes to the growing genre of biography and autobiography about women and members of racial and ethnic minorities. Although less well known, Mebane’s book is akin to such titles as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968). It is a story of courage, both in the living of a life and in the telling of a tale with a true voice and a stout heart.