Coming of Age in Mississippi Analysis

Form and Content (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Anne Moody’s stark, often bitter, and always compelling autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, records the events in her life as a young African American from the South from her fourth to her twenty-fourth year—1944 to 1964. Written in the first person, the book is a detailed, chronological narrative, rich in characters and dialogues evocative of the earthy, often raw vernacular of impoverished and racially oppressed African Americans in Mississippi during the formative period of the Civil Rights movement. There are thirty chapters grouped in four parts: “Childhood,” “High School,” “College,” and “The Movement.” In keeping with the story’s grim, poignant tone, it is unadorned by illustration, except for the funereal black boxes demarcating each part and chapter. While there is no necessity for notes, a bibliography, or appendices, either a cast of characters or an index (given the unusual range of personalities and the mix of colloquial and real names) would have proved helpful. Given the book’s quality, however, this is a minor complaint.

As an intelligent and increasingly well-trained and experienced young woman, Moody has made her frustration, alienation, and doubt the central themes of her work. Given her abilities, frustration was nothing less than a virulent social disease to which she inevitably fell victim: frustration with her family’s hand-to-mouth existence, with its quarrels and instabilities, and with the brainwashed acceptance of its assigned inferiorities; frustration over the brutalities that white dominance forced blacks to impose on one another; and frustration with alternately contemptuous, manipulative, and violent white treatment of, and reactions to African Americans. These feelings were all traceable to the stranglehold locked on her people by a traditionally racist white society, as was this otherwise normal young woman’s alienation. Moody’s intelligent sensitivities cast her lot between two seemingly incompatible and often openly hostile worlds. She was too bright for her own sadly ignorant and indifferent kin, too dangerously independent and outspoken to solicit understanding from local “Uncle Toms,” and too dark-skinned for acceptance by most whites.

Unable to find any tolerable fit for her views in the immediate world around her, Moody moved almost inevitably into the early activist ranks of the Civil Rights movement, providing her with a sense of fulfillment while lending meaning to her life. As her story develops, Moody’s interlarded and increasingly frequent descriptions of white violence clearly reveal why she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as she was seeking the liberation of her people.

Coming of Age in Mississippi Form and Content (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody reflects on her childhood as the first of nine children born to poor tenant farmers in rural Mississippi. She also provides a telling glimpse into that period in southern culture between 1940 and 1965 when African Americans still labored in fields as sharecroppers for white landowners but growing unrest led to the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. Dividing her autobiography into four distinct parts, she covers her education in segregated primary and secondary schools then relates her experiences in college and later as a civil rights activist.

The Moody family was constantly moving from one run-down shack without electricity or plumbing to another, barely surviving on bread and beans with occasional table scraps from white employers. Anne helped by caring for her younger siblings and then working as a housecleaner and babysitter for white landowners. She was unaware of any racial divide until, when she was seven, she and two siblings followed some white playmates into the segregated lobby of a local movie theater. The ensuing ruckus brought her the sad realization that she was perceived as inferior to whites. Rather than railing at the unfairness of this perception, she became an observer, an inquisitor into the strange idea that skin color had anything to do with who she was.

Moody attended segregated schools, initially accepting her status because she was eager to learn. Increasingly, however, her anger grew, especially when she saw the doctrine of “separate but equal” for what it was: separate and inferior, with leftovers used to furnish African American schools, cast-off texts to educate African American students, and sometimes ill-qualified teachers forced through fear into passing along the safe doctrine of “go along, don’t make waves, stay alive.”

A week before Moody entered high school in 1955, Emmet Till, a young African American visiting Mississippi from Chicago, was brutally murdered for paying special attention to a local white woman. Moody’s white employer warned her that such consequences were to be expected when people didn’t know their station. For a while, she feared for her own life, never before having thought of herself as vulnerable to violence just because of her race. She also feared that her deficient education would hurt her chances to go to college, but she was awarded a basketball scholarship to Natchez Junior College and there proved her mettle academically.

Moody’s admittance to Tougaloo College as a junior was stressful because of what was referred to as a “high yellow” student population. Discrimination was rife within the African American community, with lighter shades of skin deemed the most desirable. The dark-skinned Moody forged ahead and made a name for herself. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an illegal organization in Mississippi, and, later, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

Her defiance of long-held southern tradition through her chosen path of activism caused a severe rift with Moody’s family and among townspeople, because activist activities on the part of even one family or community member put everyone at risk. Beatings, burnings, and murder threats often resulted. Moody’s name appeared on a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) list of undesirables, but she was unrelenting.

In 1963, at a Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, Moody was slapped across the face and slammed into a wall. She was doused with ketchup, mustard, sugar, and pies and witnessed a fellow demonstrator having salt rubbed into his bleeding wound. About ninety police officers stood outside, bearing silent witness for three hours.

Moody’s activism made her subject to constant surveillance, daily threats, and repeated arrests. Once she was held captive with other protesters on a hot summer day, without water or air, in a paddy wagon with the heat turned on full blast. Finding little time for proper eating or adequate sleep while fighting for civil rights, she was on the verge of mental and physical collapse. Eventually, believing that racism was too deeply ingrained in the South for any serious change to occur, she dropped her associations and gained some catharsis through her writing. Her pain led her to a somewhat reclusive life, however, and she remained out of the limelight, refusing requests for interviews.

Coming of Age in Mississippi Historical Context

Civil rights activists Published by Gale Cengage

African Americans in the 1940s
World War II offered increasing economic opportunities for many African Americans, as...

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Coming of Age in Mississippi Literary Style

Autobiography
Coming of Age in Mississippi is Moody’s fictionalized autobiography, which means that Moody uses...

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Coming of Age in Mississippi Compare and Contrast

  • 1950s: Before 1965, fewer than six percent of African Americans in Mississippi are registered to vote.

    ...

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Coming of Age in Mississippi Topics for Further Study

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi is divided into four sections. Which do you think is the most powerful section? Why?
  • ...

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Coming of Age in Mississippi What Do I Read Next?

  • Mr. Death: Four Stories (1975) is Moody's only other published work.
  • Richard Wright's autobiography

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Coming of Age in Mississippi Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Degler, C. N. Review of Coming of Age in Mississippi. In Nation, January 11, 1969, p. 83....

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Coming of Age in Mississippi Bibliography (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Andrews, William L. “In Search of a Common Identity: The Self and the South in Four Mississippi Autobiographies.” The Southern Review 24, no. 1 (Winter, 1988): 47-64. Presents an excellent overview of Mississippi life as detailed in works by two white and two African American autobiographers: William Percy (1941) and Willie Morris (1967), and Richard Wright (1945) and Anne Moody (1968).

Bloom, Lynn Z. “Coming of Age in the Segregated South: Autobiographies of Twentieth-Century Childhoods, Black and White.” In Home Ground: Southern Autobiography, edited by J. Bill Berry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991. Good at putting Moody’s work into the context of autobiographical literature of African Americans, both male and female. Equates Moody’s work with that of Richard Wright, Harriet Jacobs, and Willie Morris.

Hart, Joyce. “Coming of Age in Mississippi.” In Nonfiction Classics for Students. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Draws parallels between Moody’s and Richard Wright’s lives and shows how the tenors of their differing times, the 1950’s and the 1960’s, led Wright to communism and to political self-exile and Moody to activism followed by self-imposed social exile.

Korb, Rena. “Coming of Age in Mississippi.” In Nonfiction Classics for Students. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Provides a backdrop to Moody’s autobiography and an in-depth analysis of the author’s motivations for joining the Civil Rights movement as well as her possible reasons for leaving it.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. “Anne Moody.” In African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Compares Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi to the autobiographical writings of many other prominent African Americans.