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.