Coming of Age in Mississippi Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction Coming of Age in Mississippi Analysis

This is a sobering and serious book for young adults—for any readers, in fact. Without remorse for her bitter assessments, Moody clinically describes the festering wound of racism in American life. It is an unhappy book, filled with Moody’s voiced hatreds of the behavior of both blacks and whites, whether they are her miscegenated kinfolk, neighbors, ministers, teachers, employers, or, even in some instances, other civil rights activists and leaders. Prophetically, she closes her story hoping, but basically doubting, that her people would indeed “overcome some day.” Even as her book was being published, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose nonviolent tactics she had sometimes questioned, though she worked with and admired him—was assassinated.

The book is not, however, a strident or moralistic presentation of the author’s views. Moody is as candid about herself as she is about others. She frankly confesses the self-loathing that she feels, making nothing of the fact that this may be one of the cruelest consequences of racism. She is also frank about the deficiencies of her background, about her social awkwardness, and about her confusions and doubts. Her fears about holding on to desperately needed jobs and about the imma-nent threats of physical violence within her community are expressed almost palpably. Moody realizes that the timidities of other Wilkinson County African Americans mirror her own, although she manages to control them. More important, she realizes that her hatred of despicable whites and her occasional urge to kill not only extends to many African Americans—for their cowardice as well as for the indignities that they perpetrate upon one another—but also reflects her own self-hatred.

If Moody was perfect for the Civil Rights movement, then the movement was also perfect for her. Her efforts to move a largely indifferent, frightened, and implacably traditional African-American population away from kowtowing to whites—or away from effectively collaborating with them by rejecting change and activism aimed at alleviating their plight—lifted her out of herself and gave her a sense of purpose. These efforts did so, moreover, without depriving her of her independent spirit and without blunting her criticisms or ameliorating her impatience.

Activism in a just cause also dulled her alienation from her hardworking but feckless family, particularly her implicit rejection by Mama Moody, by her real but separated father, “Diddly,” and by Mama’s lover and eventual husband, Raymond, and his extended family. There is genuine pathos in Moody’s reactions when they distance themselves from her in disapproval of her views and actions—just when she feels the most need for constancy in their love for her. The Civil Rights movement also helps to fill the void created when Emma, Diddley’s girlfriend—and in the fullness of her strength a role model for Moody—declines physically and spiritually after being shot.

In the midst of her travail, Moody provides insights and correctives to some popular views of Southern black activism. It has been supposed, for example, that since African-American churches—in her case two Baptist churches—were centers of the community’s values and social organization that they were also in the forefront of the early battles against white oppression. In Moody’s experience, however, this was not true, at least in Centreville and the rest of Wilkinson County. African-American ministers there, on the contrary, appeared threatened by criticisms of the traditional system and, thus, by activists. Expecting more from them and the God that they represented, Moody denounced most of these ministers as “Uncle Toms,” in effect collaborators with white supremacists. Similarly, African-American leadership existed in Mississippi before it enjoyed a significant following. Despite the awareness of the appalling price that they were paying for white racism and for their own subservience, many African Americans, particularly the older generation, confronted voter registrations, boycotts, and enlistment in the movement with indifference, fear, and even hostility—so thoroughly, in Moody’s view, had they been “brainwashed.” Readers may wonder, therefore, when the rights due Mississippi’s African Americans would have come without the initial heroism of Moody and a handful of others.

Ed. Scott Locklear