Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Moody considered herself more of a civil rights activist than a writer, but Coming of Age in Mississippi provided its readers with a significant new perspective on the turbulent years of the Civil Rights movement. Moody was the first to write from within the society of those needing the help: the undereducated, disenfranchised, tenant farmers whose livelihood depended on staying in the good graces of the white population. Hers was the most direct voice of the most oppressed rural African Americans, not coming from the wealthy or middle classes of Martin Luther King, Jr., or W. E. B. Du Bois. She also made it possible for readers to see her fellows’ horrific living conditions and growing anger through the eyes of a child, as she detailed the grinding poverty, the backbreaking labor, the violence, and the hunger amid which she grew up.
Moody’s account avoids the easy polemics of good triumphing over evil, a noble cause fought for by noble people with good intent. Instead, it is balanced, in that she faults both sides, sometimes hating whites for perpetrating unspeakable acts of horror, sometimes vilifying African Americans for going along with the sham of a quiet smile in response to an insult. In struggling with conflicting feelings, Moody allows readers to share her dilemma. Her book speaks for and about all those who have endured an oppressive system and continue to fight for rights that should be guaranteed at birth. It goes beyond Mississippi to all places where people are oppressed. She explores the role of race and racism in America, helping readers understand the South before and during the Civil Rights movement, forcing people to see both how far the nation has come and how much further it needs to go.
Moody earned widespread critical acclaim. She received the Brotherhood Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews and the Best Book of the Year Award from the National Library Association. The work is considered a classic, and Senator Ted Kennedy called it “ . . . powerful . . . a timely reminder that we cannot . . . relax in the struggle for sound justice in America.”