Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

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Coming of Age in Mississippi is the memoir of Civil Rights activist Anne Moody. Born in rural Mississippi, Anne (known as Essie Mae as a child) grows up on a plantation without electricity. After her father, Diddly, leaves the family, Anne, her mother, and the rest of the family live in poverty. The first part of the book is about her development into a scholar in spite of her poverty. It also focuses on the development of her awareness of racial injustice. Though her mother warns her never to mention Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was brutally killed in Mississippi, Anne feels herself drawn to him and his story. She learns about racial prejudice from Mrs. Burke, the cruel white woman whom she works for. Mrs. Burke warns her not to get above her station, as Emmett Till did (according to Mrs. Burke).

In the middle part of the book, Anne attends Natchez, a college in Mississippi, and then transfers to Tougaloo, where she joins the NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Anne begins to be active in the Civil Rights movement, though her mother warns her against doing so. Anne's mother is afraid of the ways in which whites might retaliate against Anne. Another theme of the book is the forces that whites use in Mississippi to scare African Americans away from advocating for their rights.

The final part of the book details Anne's involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Anne at times questions the wisdom of the male leaders, mainly preachers, who she feels are disconnected from the poverty and needs of African Americans in Mississippi. She becomes disenchanted when trying to register voters through the Coalition for the Organization of Racial Equality (CORE). She feels that the male leaders don't understand the poverty of the people they are working with, and, while listening to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, she wonders if the leaders themselves are out of touch. Her disenchantment with the movement is one of the themes of the book. 

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...

(The entire section is 4,233 words.)