An analysis of Coming of Age in Mississippi and Herculine Barbin
The following is my second course autobiography that I wrote for the course I am taking this semester. I would appreciate your feedback. I am having some difficulty incorporating the required “elements of pedagogy” without making it sound forced.
The Power of a Movement
Coming of Age in Mississippi and Herculine Barbin (Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite) tell the stories of two individuals whose lives are greatly impacted by the bodies in which they were born. While Anne Moody’s life is influenced by the color of her skin, Herculine Barbin’s is shaped by the presence of “abnormal” genitalia that make it impossible to determine her “true sex” at birth. One of the elements I would ask students to analyze if I were teaching these two texts is the differences the two authors faced as one of them suffers her trials alone while the other’s story takes place within the context of a greater movement.
One of the most interesting aspects of Herculine’s story is the isolation she experiences from both the perception that she is the only one of her kind and the silence of her loved ones who attempt to pretend as though nothing is out of the ordinary. Until a doctor examines her in her early twenties, no one seems to have ever mentioned her different body parts to her in all of her life. Her own mother does not seem to have ever broached the topic to her. I even got the impression that her mother seemed surprised to learn of Herculine’s issues, as though she had somehow managed to convince herself that Herculine was a “normal” female.
It seems unlikely to me that no one else in her life would have been aware of her situation. Who delivered Herculine into the world and decided she should live her life as a girl? Were there no other doctors or family members who were informed or consulted on the matter? There had to have been other people who knew. However, as Herculine tells it, she was completely alone. She laments, “What a destiny was mine, O God! And what judgments shall be passed upon my life by those who follow me step by step in this incredible journey, which no other living creature before me has taken” (35)! How might Barbin’s story have differed had she ever had the support of others “like her?”
If I were to teach these two texts, I would ask my students to examine whether Barbin’s story might have ended differently had she lived during a time when there is an LGBTQ equality movement as there is today. I would also ask them to compare the current equality movement to the Civil Rights Movement that Anne Moody describes in Coming of Age in Mississippi.
Unlike Barbin, who passes as a female for most of her life, no one questions the color of Moody’s skin. Moody was born black, and she is treated as the people of her time have deemed appropriate. However, unlike Barbin, Moody is not alone in being perceived and treated a certain way based on her physical characteristics.
While Herculine Barbin tells the tragic tale of a solitary individual, Coming of Age in Mississippi tells the story of a woman whose trials take place within the context of a larger movement. Not only is Moody allowed to be who she is, she also chooses to embrace who she is by joining the Civil Rights Movement after college rather than starting a career. She says, “It no longer seemed important to prove anything. I had found something outside myself that gave meaning to my life” (286). However, the fact that Moody’s fight takes place within a larger movement does not completely save her from feeling alone in her struggles.
The major difference between these two stories in regards to their heroines’ being alone or part of a movement exists in how each of the stories end. Moody ends her story on a note of skeptical optimism. As her friends sing, “We shall overcome” on the bus ride to Washington for the COFO hearings, she questions whether the movement truly will overcome. “I WONDER,” Moody says. “I really WONDER” (424). However, despite her skepticism, she chooses to carry on. The movement continues to give her hope.
Barbin, on the other hand, informs the reader of her impending doom in the very first sentence of her memoir. She says, “I am twenty-five years old, and, although I am still young, I am beyond any doubt approaching the hour of my death” (3). Barbin seems to know from page one that she has determined to set herself free once she has set her story down for history to know who she was and how she suffered. In either case, it is evident that each author is a product of her own time and is greatly influenced by the context in which her individual story takes place.
- Barbin, Herculine, Michel Foucault, and Richard McDougall. Herculine Barbin Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1980. Print
- Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell, 1976. Print.
3/3/2015 update: Somehow I got an A on this paper. It just goes to show that you don’t always have to turn in a “good” paper as long as what you do turn in meets all of the professor’s basic requirements.
Read with Me
The next text I will be reading and possibly analyzing for my next paper is Plaintext by Nancy Mairs.
If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy my new book, Papers: A Master Collection on the Art of Writing, which is now available on Kindle for only 99 cents.