Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)
A stark book, Coming of Age in Mississippi is an unusual one because there have been relatively few eloquent African-American autobiographical accounts of grow-ing up in the Deep South. Some major writers, distinguished also by being Southerners, such as Mississippian Richard Wright, have helped to fill this gap, as he did brilliantly in Black Boy (1945). Most major Southern African-American authors, however—James Weldon Johnson or Ralph Ellison, for example—have fictionalized their personal experiences as those of African-American migrants in the North. Teenage readers, therefore, may appreciate not only Moody’s bravery but also her contribution in this regard. While much of her dialogue is fictionalized, it rings authentically Southern.
Like many African-American Southern writers, Moody escaped from life in Mississippi, in her case, to New York. Unlike most of them, however, her autobiography betrays so little humor and such a slight sense of history that questions arise as to whether both humor and historical sense were not also victims of the poverty and racism to which she was exposed. The redneck police officer who dogs her and the shotgun-armed louts sallying forth in their perverted and fumbling attempts to spread terror, however frightening, are ultimately sad and ridiculous—as sad and ridiculous as the crazed African American who, enraged, mindlessly shoots poor Emma. Moody cannot be denied reason for bitterness, but she fails to reveal the sources of the sense of justice that generated it.