In Moody's autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi, readers learn that Moody was born in Centreville, Mississippi. This small Southern town, as it turns out, is only about fifty miles south of Richard Wright's birthplace, Roxie, Mississippi. The proximity of these towns and these writers' shared African-American ancestry make their life stories strangely similar. However, their autobiographies are significantly marked by the different time-frames in which the authors grew up, Wright in the 1920s and 1930s and Moody in the 1950s and 1960s.
Juxtaposing Wright's Black Boy and Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi suggests changes in black experience in the South during two turbulent periods and gives views of the development in the U.S. civil rights movement. Conditioned by their environments and times, these writers were driven by a similar combination of fear and anger. However, they chose different paths in their attempts to acquire their own freedom and promote freedom among their peers.
Early circumstances in Moody's and Wright's lives, though separated by nearly thirty years, were comparable, but with one important difference. Both writers were born into families of sharecroppers, the most common means during the first half of the twentieth century for African-American families in the South to make their living. Both Moody and Wright lost their fathers, who left their mothers behind to raise the children. One important difference is that Moody's mother had good health and eventually married a man who was able to provide a decent home and minimum meals for his family. Wright's mother, by contrast, had several debilitating strokes and never remarried. While Wright was quite young, he was forced to drop out of school and find menial jobs, pick through the rubble in the street for pieces of coal, and take care of himself and his younger brother without adult help. This pattern of working on his own began before Wright reached the age of ten and continued throughout his childhood. Wright's severe poverty also left him constantly hungry, a condition that continued until he was well past his twenty-fifth year. Although both writers suffered, Wright had less hope for future freedom.
A more obvious difference between the two writers is seen in the social pressures of their early years. So-called Jim Crow laws, under which regulations were created to promote strict segregation, prevailed in the South during both Wright's and Moody's experiences there. However, as Wright was growing up, the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active in enforcing racial separation. The Klan committed acts of brutality, torture, and murder to warn all black people. When African Americans stepped across the invisible but well-defined lines of social conduct as defined by the Jim Crow laws, they knew they would probably be severely punished. Although some social protests in the form of boycotts were carried out during Wright's youth in the South, most members of African-American communities learned survival behaviors that expressed a surface submission to the white supremacists. The KKK was so dominant in the 1920s and 1930s that some Southern U.S. congressmen openly supported activities of the KKK by attending and speaking at Klan meetings without their being considered immoral.
In contrast, during Moody's childhood, slow, but nonetheless dramatic, social changes developed. At first, these changes were subtle and were mostly witnessed by the younger generation. Moody's parents as well as the other adults around her continued to accept the mandates of segregation out of justified fear of KKK reprisals. However, despite the fears of her elders, the very young Moody experienced limited friendship with some white children, who lived close to her neighborhood. The children were curious about...
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one another and shared toys for brief periods of play. This contact contrasts sharply with Wright's experience of brick-and-stone battles between groups of his black friends and groups of young white boys, who lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. They hurled their weapons at one another so violently that serious wounds often resulted.
Moody, on the other hand, relates that the son of one of her white employers openly flirted with her in front of his mother while Moody tutored the boy in Algebra. Two elements stand out in this scene: first, the blatant cross-racial flirtation and, second, the white mother's acknowledgement of Moody's intelligence and exceptional ability in math. During Wright's childhood, whites tended to believe that an education past eighth grade was a waste of time for most African-American children, who would grow up to hold only manual labor jobs. The majority of African Americans, whose poverty forced them to take jobs early, did not challenge these assumptions; few received high school diplomas. Black children were not expected to graduate from high school, let alone go on to college. Thirty years later, however, not only did Moody finish high school and proceed to college, she did so amid discussions, albeit heated ones, about the desegregation of schools.
In Wright's time, the legal precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) still dictated a separate but equal status to white and black populations throughout the states, with the sanction of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was through this court decision that the segregationist Jim Crow laws came into existence. Many prominent black leaders and intellectuals, during this time, became caught up in a debate over how to define the role of African Americans and how to fight for their civil rights. Conflicting philosophies disallowed agreement; the civil rights movement in Wright's time became embroiled in controversy and did not make much progress. Some groups, inspired by Marcus Garvey, advocated creating a Black Nation in the United States or moving to Africa. Another philosophy, based in part on Booker T. Washington's beliefs, stated that blacks should accommodate segregation and make the best of it.
However, during the 1950s, the political climate was changing, fueled in part by a new decision that was to counteract the older decree. From 1951 until 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court heard cases and finally made a decision in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Due to this landmark ruling, segregation of all schools became unlawful. This court decision was the first major move toward the end of legal segregation in the United States.
Moody did not feel the full effects of desegregation in high school, but she cites that, shortly after her graduation, a new, and supposedly improved, ‘‘separate but equal’’ school was opened in her county under the influence of the 1954 court decision. It was not until she entered her junior year in college that Moody experienced a hint of school integration. She was very nervous about attending Tugaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, because most of its professors were white. Although Tugaloo was traditionally an African-American college, it did promote an integrated faculty. Moody was also warned by her friends that only ‘‘high-yellow’’ African-American students attended Tugaloo. This comment illustrates prejudice within the black community based on skin color. Moody's skin was dark. In addition to feeling that her skin might be too dark, she also was concerned about her educational background, fearing that the white professors would demand more of her than she could fulfill given the education she received in the impoverished African-American school system. However, she soon rid herself of these apprehensions, especially after her first term grades, which renewed her confidence in her intelligence and preparedness.
With only a ninth-grade education, Wright taught himself. He was a voracious reader. Every night upon returning home from work, he devoured books on psychology, philosophy, sociology, and classic literature. In addition to this study, he found intellectual stimulation by joining young, highly educated adults (mostly white) in writers' groups that had been created during Roosevelt's administration which spanned the Great Depression. At this time, Wright left the South and moved to Chicago in desperation. He feared that if he remained in Mississippi, or in Tennessee where he had subsequently moved, he would be killed. His hunger for knowledge and personal freedom would not be tolerated in the oppressive environment of the South.
In Chicago Wright became interested in the Communist Party, which was at that time the most prominent political movement for equal rights. The Party promoted labor unions, social security, and a brotherhood that promised to be race neutral. Although Wright claimed that he did not have political interests, he eventually influenced the course of the civil rights movement. He influenced others through his writing, which took on an angry tone. His books, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and finally his autobiography, Black Boy, presented deeply personal, painfully realistic depictions of African-American experience. National bestsellers, his books affected African-American authors who followed Wright and the white population in both the North and South who read them. Many white people in the South would deny that what Wright had described was true, but other, more liberal whites, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, were educated and emotionally moved by Wright's work.
Moody's political activism took a different path. While she also became a writer, she first committed herself to trying to create change in the African-American community. Moody was in college during the 1960s, a decade when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was about to achieve some of its goals. Inspired by one of the NAACP's most outstanding speakers, Medgar Evans, Moody took part in a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. She was assaulted by a group of white hecklers who quickly gathered at the scene, while white police officers stood outside watching—a scene of law enforcement passivity that repeated many times. This was the first of many such acts of defiance against the Jim Crow laws in which Moody was involved. Jackson, Mississippi, was soon the subject of national attention as groups such as the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) focused their activities there. Mississippi was one of the poorest and most radically racist states in the South during the 1960s. Moody was right in the middle of this tension.
Moody worked hard, ending up in jail several times, depleting her health at other times, and trying hard to ignore threats against her life, all in the name of freedom. The main thrust of her political activity was to get Southern black people registered to vote. Although she fought hard, her book, Coming of Age in Mississippi, ends on a note of frustration. The precise date at the end of her autobiography is not clear, but Moody writes the words, ‘‘I wonder. I really wonder,’’ referring to her doubts about the effects of all her work. Would the demonstrations, the political rallies, the sit-ins, the fights for voters' rights ever make a difference?
It is also unclear what Moody has done with the remaining years of her life, as she refuses interviews, tired of public attention. Rumors have her living in New York, removed from many of the reminders of her Southern childhood. In the end, Wright's and Moody's lives once again take on similar elements. Wright, frustrated and demoralized by prejudice in the United States, made a permanent move to Europe during the last decade of his life. Both writers, once fueled by the anger caused by injustice, turned their frustrations into unselfish acts. Wright had the courage to expose his most personal emotions through his writing; while Moody fought off her fears in an effort to break the barriers that inhibited African-American life. They chose different ways to voice their antagonism, and then both of them, as if depleted by the intensity of their work, disappeared from the scene.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Coming of Age in Mississippi, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and is a published writer of literary themes.
Coming of Age in Mississippi is a stark testimony to the racial injustice that characterized the southern United States until the civil rights movements of the 1960s brought lasting changes to the region. African Americans had been given full voting and citizenship rights after the Civil War, but with the exception of a brief period immediately following this conflict, many southern African Americans were unable to enjoy these rights for close to one hundred years. The southern world into which Moody was born in 1940 was one ruled by whites. Her autobiography is filled with incidents that serve as a reminder of this disheartening truth. Seen as a whole, they can help explain Moody's lack of optimism as expressed at the end of Coming of Age in Mississippi and her departure from the civil rights movement, which had already occurred by the time she wrote her autobiography.
The racial oppression that Moody describes is insidious because it is so pervasive a part of southern society. Mississippi is a state where a member of the legislature can kill an African American ‘‘without provocation’’ and still be found to have acted in self-defense. The majority of adult African Americans, in Centreville and other rural areas, have come to accept this oppression and try to avoid bringing the anger of the whites upon themselves. They often speak of African Americans who have been killed by whites as going on to a better place in heaven. As a young child, Moody hears adults talking about ‘‘Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets.’’ The only explanation given to her is that an ‘‘Evil Spirit’’ killed these people. Moody is left to figure out for herself that this Evil Spirit is actually the white southerner.
Moody comes to comprehend the African American's place in the white world at the age of fourteen. At this time, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old from Chicago, is killed. Although other teenagers have heard about his murder, Moody is taken by surprise. She recalls how she suddenly ‘‘realized I didn't really know what was going on all around me.’’ The African-American complicity in ignoring the murder, which arises out of justifiable fear, is inherent in Mama's reaction: she gets angry when Moody asks about Till's murder and refuses to talk about it. Her reason for doing so is clear when she says, ‘‘Eddie them better watch how they go around here talking. These white folks git a hold of it they gonna be in trouble.’’ In contrast to Mama, the racist Mrs. Burke is more than willing to talk about the murder. She explains to Moody that Till was ‘‘killed because he got out of his place with a white woman.’’ Perhaps she sees some suggestion of anger on Moody's face, for when Mrs. Burke learns that Moody is the same age as Emmett Till was, she comments, ‘‘It's a shame he had to die so soon’’—what certainly could be construed as a veiled threat from the ''meanest white woman in town.’’ On some level, Moody senses this threat—‘‘when Mrs. Burke talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.’’ Till's murder and Mrs. Burke's reaction to it give Moody a new fear: ‘‘the fear of being killed just because I was black.’’
From then on, Moody becomes increasingly aware of racial and social injustices. She willingly talks about the incidents of racial violence that take place and actively seeks out information. There are few other members of the community who are willing to talk about these subjects. However, Moody learns from a teacher about the NAACP as well as about ‘‘Negroes being butchered and slaughtered by whites in the South.’’ Despite acknowledging this truth, the teacher wants to keep their conversation secret and then advises Moody, ‘‘It's not good for you to concern yourself too much about these killings and beatings and burnings,’’ because the ‘‘Negroes here ain' t gonna do nothing about them.’’ When Moody talks with a schoolmate, Jerry, about his beating at the hands of a gang of white men, he says that his parents wouldn't even take him to the hospital because ‘‘they were scared to take me to white doctors.’’ A few weeks later, the occupied house of an African-American family is deliberately set on fire. Along with about a hundred people, Moody silently observes the debris and charred bodies. The expressions on the faces of the African Americans would haunt her forever in their ‘‘almost unanimous hopelessness.’’
Even more appalling is the revelation that African Americans themselves are sometimes involved in these murderous incidents. Samuel Quinn is killed for attempting to organize the Centreville African Americans into the NAACP. The whites found out about his efforts because he went among the African Americans ‘‘he thought he could trust’’ to get people interested, but ‘‘someone squealed.’’ This ‘‘someone’’ is later revealed to be the high school principal who, ‘‘[I]t was said … also helped plot his death.’’ Also, it was African Americans, not whites, who put the fatal bullets in Quinn.
Her understanding of the racial violence that wracks the South causes Moody to hate people, the whites who were ‘‘responsible for the countless murders’’ as well as the African Americans ‘‘for not standing up and doing something about the murders.’’ For a few years, however, Moody attempts to replicate the behavior of the African Americans who surround her. She immerses herself in school activities and studies, and while Quinn's murder brings ‘‘memories of all the other killings, beatings, and abuses inflicted upon Negroes by whites’’ and makes her take to her bed for several days, Moody does not follow through on her fleeting idea of ‘‘waging a war in protest against the killings all by myself.’’ Instead, she internalizes her feelings of self- and race-hatred and ‘‘slowly began to escape within [her]self again.’’ Her only outward reaction is her sustained plan to leave Centreville and Mississippi.
Forced to remain in the state to obtain a college education, Moody is drawn within a few years into the civil rights movement. While she participates in sit-ins and other demonstrations in the city of Jackson, back in Centreville her protest activities bring threats upon her family. When Moody goes to Canton, in Madison County, a place ‘‘where Negroes frequently turned up dead,’’ she finds many of the same problems that existed in Centreville. To intimidate the African Americans and keep them from working with CORE and registering to vote, the whites of Canton rely on violent scare tactics. They shoot at high school students with buckshot pellets. They fire at a pregnant woman who is walking with her two sons. A man rapes a high school girl while she works in the cotton fields and then goes ‘‘around talking about it.’’ The African Americans react as anticipated: they drop their participation with CORE and look at Moody as if to say, ‘‘Why don't you all get out of here before you get us all killed?’’
In Canton, Moody comes to have first-hand experience with the intensity of whites' desire to continue to oppress African Americans. Even the so-called law enforcement officers actively participate in the harassment of the CORE workers, and one police officer in particular seems to target Moody. Even federal officers show disdain for the rights of the African Americans. FBI officers who come South to find out about the shooting of the Canton teenagers do little to investigate and nothing to prevent such violence from happening again; Moody senses their unspoken words: ‘‘What a shame these niggers have to come into a place and open up a joint like this and cause all this trouble for us.’’ In another incident, the FBI impassively observes Canton police officers brutally beat a protest marcher. Another killing might have been prevented if the Justice Department had paid attention to Louis Allen, who identifies a white man as a murderer and later reports threats on his own life. However, this law enforcement agency tells Allen, ‘‘‘We can't protect every individual in Mississippi.’’’ Moody affirms this base injustice when she notes that ‘‘the United States could afford to maintain the Peace Corps to protect and assist the underprivileged of other countries while native-born American citizens were murdered and brutalized daily and nothing was done.’’
After more than a year in the civil rights movement, Moody comes to question the workers' ability to bring about change in the South. As Moody heads off to Washington, D.C., on the CORE bus, she brings Coming of Age in Mississippi to a close. She ends her story in remembering all the bad things that have happened: ‘‘the Taplin burning, the Birmingham church bombing, Medgar Evers' murder, the blood gushing out of McKinley's head, and all the other murders.’’ She thinks of her friends, the Chinns, the first African Americans in Canton to welcome the CORE workers. On this last day, Mrs. Chinn tells her, despite all the work they have done in Canton, ‘‘things are even worse than they were before.’’ Mr. Chinn, who has ‘‘sacrificed and lost all he had trying to get the Negroes moving,’’ is now locked up with a chain gang. She wonders if Mrs. Chinn is right when she says, ‘‘This ain't the way. We ain't big enough to do it by ourselves.’’ On the bus to Washington D.C., the other African Americans begin singing ‘‘We Shall Overcome,’’ but Anne is left with the following words that echo in her head: ‘‘I wonder. I really wonder.’’
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Coming of Age in Mississippi, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.
‘‘I couldn't believe it, but it was the Klan blacklist, with my picture on it. I guess I must have sat there for about an hour holding it,’’ says Moody in her autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi. In Moody's response to the list, it is easy to see that she is different, different, in fact, from many young teenagers of her race, gender, time. She is one of the many voices of the Civil Rights movement, one of the unsung heroes courageously following in the steps of Martin Luther King, Jr., to realize freedom and gain self-respect, for herself and for her people as well.
Early in the autobiography, the author describes her experience as a victim of racial injustice in a vivid example. In a particular moment in a local movie theater, Moody begins to understand the far reaching implications of the color divide, what it is to be black in her own community. Arriving at the same time as her white playmates, Moody and her siblings are naturally compelled to join their friends in the white lobby. Amidst the joy comes confusion, when Moody, along with her sister and brother, are violently snatched away from their friends; she writes, ‘‘when we got outside, we stood there crying, and we could hear the white children crying inside the white lobby.’’ Moody explains, ‘‘I never really thought of them as white before. Now all of a sudden they were white, and their whiteness made them better than me.’’ Moody's curiosity, her need to question the world around her, is perhaps also defined at this moment. Moody is determined to discover the meaning the skin color imposes on friendships and the secret to the benefits of being white. Playing the game doctor, she looks over her white friend's ‘‘privates,’’ and puzzled, responds, ‘‘I examined each of them three times, but I didn't see any differences. I still hadn't found that secret.’’ Moody is not content to accept the role society imposes on her. As a child, she is able to question social convention, and this ability defines her actions throughout the autobiography.
Moody continues to push at the boundaries of society, in part as a way to define her individuality, her blackness. After the wife of a Klan member mentions the NAACP over tea, Moody asks her mother to elaborate and receives harsh words; Momma commands her never to mention ‘‘that word’’ to ‘‘no other white person.’’ Moody responds, ‘‘With a momma like that you' ll never learn anything.’’ Without hesitation she asks another adult about the organization and is offered five hours of history from a teacher who eventually disappears. As Moody learns about the NAACP, and as events in the community unfold, Moody's refusal to remain silent increases her sense of alienation. In response to the racism and violence surrounding her, Moody states, ‘‘I couldn't go on pretending I was dumb and innocent, pretending I didn't know what was going on … I was sick of pretending, sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day.’’ Apart from her racial identity, she is truly a woman of unusual beauty, as well as intellect. These gifts certainly distinguish her from her peers. Moreover, her wisdom, her clarity of vision, and purpose, all set her apart from her classmates. It is this different perception and the willingness to act on it that isolate Moody from the people most familiar to her.
Moody's refusal to accept social limitation and her dogged determination to rise above her family circumstances put her in conflict with those close to her. This conflict further alienates Moody. There is a force moving Moody, a spirit compelling her to do the next right thing. Prior to her attendance at her first NAACP convention she receives a condemning letter from her mother. Moody comments on the probable reaction of her hometown of Centreville to her participation: ‘‘I knew I could never go to Centreville safely … I kept telling myself that I didn't really care too much about going home … it was more important to me to go the convention.’’ This sense of spirit, this willingness to forsake her former life to follow her beliefs about activism, pervades the text. In her quest for civil equality, Moody takes a stand without family support. In letters, her mother repeatedly pleads with Moody, as she summarizes here: ‘‘Why was I trying to get myself killed? [Momma] kept asking. What was I trying to prove?’’ Moody reports that her mother pointed out the uselessness of trying to change racial givens in the South: ‘‘Over and over again she said that after I was dead things would still be the same as they were now.’’ Moody's participation in CORE does not come without great personal expense—to support the group's efforts, she sacrifices teenage life, the support of her family, and possibly her future.
The courage Moody demonstrates in her quest for social equality is phenomenal considering the humiliation and danger she confronts. Ketchup, mustard, and sugar are smeared all over her hair and clothing at a lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth's. After another arrest on a hot summer day, Moody and fellow marchers are confined in a police wagon with no water or air with the vehicle's heater left on to torture them. In this instance, her release from the truck does not earn her freedom. Moody and her companions are herded into cattle buildings at the State Fairgrounds, surrounded by barbed wire, guarded with policemen bearing rifles. Her immediate associations are those of Nazi Germany: to her the Nazi soldiers ‘‘couldn't have been any rougher than these cops.’’ In another moment, with only the tall grass to disguise her, Moody hides with other residents of Sonny's house to avoid being killed by white vigilantes.
In addition to danger, Moody faces repeated rejection by members of her own race. The role of a CORE worker is not only dangerous but also thankless. Time and time again Moody's work goes unfulfilled. In one instance, she responds to the murder of Medgar Evers by taking the opportunity to recruit students at Jackson State College for a march. After a heartfelt speech, Moody's frustration shows: ‘‘How could Negroes be so pitiful? How could they just sit by and take all this [sh—] without any emotions at all? I just didn't understand.’’ Any success in her work is tempered by the prospect of interference by hostile whites. In Canton, for example, Moody speaks of the great success CORE realizes in its ability to gain support of the black community. Although large numbers of blacks register to vote, only a few are actually registered; the rest are rejected by white members of the community who oversee the process. To face such passivity and frustration, to meet danger head on and continue to work for the advancement of Civil Rights despite great personal risk, these traits distinguishes Moody from her fellows. Her vision and what she personally describes as her inability to suppress feelings of discontent motivate her.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights leader, wrote Why We Can't Wait, a classic exploration of the events and forces behind the Civil Rights movement. In his ‘‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’’ King discusses what propels the movement in the face of great opposition and at such great personal expense. The objective in a nonviolent direct-action program for King, first and foremost, is ‘‘to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will eventually open the door to negotiation.’’ The impact of sit-ins, of peaceful demonstrations is found in the activities of the objectors. By subjecting themselves to violence and abuse without retaliation, King recognized the power of creating crisis to ‘‘foster such a tension that the community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.’’ In light of racial violence that has historically plagued the black community, King's vision is not hard to understand. He adds, ‘‘For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’’’ In King's view, this justice too long ‘‘delayed’’ is ‘‘justice denied.’’ The motivations of Moody and countless others are beautifully summed-up by King, as he explains why ‘‘we’’ can't wait:
when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Moody's autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi is more than just the story of a young woman's transitions into adulthood. It is the chronicle of a brave young woman who refuses to sacrifice her self-respect, a woman who stands up for her beliefs, despite great personal cost. The final words of her personal account mirror the frustration of such taxing work. As she sits listening to her friends singing, ‘‘We shall overcome,’’ she responds: ‘‘I wonder. I really wonder.’’ One has to wonder how such vision, such courage, carried Moody in her journey, and if she, like many of us, is still wondering today.
Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Coming of Age in Mississippi, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer.