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In Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody reflects on her childhood as the first of nine children born to poor tenant farmers in rural Mississippi. She also provides a telling glimpse into that period in southern culture between 1940 and 1965 when African Americans still labored in fields as sharecroppers for White landowners but growing unrest led to the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. Dividing her autobiography into four distinct parts, she covers her education in segregated primary and secondary schools then relates her experiences in college and later as a civil rights activist.

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The Moody family was constantly moving from one run-down shack without electricity or plumbing to another, barely surviving on bread and beans with occasional table scraps from White employers. Anne helped by caring for her younger siblings and then working as a housecleaner and babysitter for White landowners. She was unaware of any racial divide until, when she was seven, she and two siblings followed some White playmates into the segregated lobby of a local movie theater. The ensuing ruckus brought her the sad realization that she was perceived as inferior to Whites. Rather than railing at the unfairness of this perception, she became an observer, an inquisitor into the strange idea that skin color had anything to do with who she was.

Moody attended segregated schools, initially accepting her status because she was eager to learn. Increasingly, however, her anger grew, especially when she saw the doctrine of “separate but equal” for what it was: separate and inferior, with leftovers used to furnish African American schools, cast-off texts to educate African American students, and sometimes ill-qualified teachers forced through fear into passing along the safe doctrine of “go along, don’t make waves, stay alive.”

A week before Moody entered high school in 1955, Emmet Till, a young African American visiting Mississippi from Chicago, was brutally murdered for paying special attention to a local White woman. Moody’s White employer warned her that such consequences were to be expected when people didn’t know their station. For a while, she feared for her own life, never before having thought of herself as vulnerable to violence just because of her race. She also feared that her deficient education would hurt her chances to go to college, but she was awarded a basketball scholarship to Natchez Junior College and there proved her mettle academically.

Moody’s admittance to Tougaloo College as a junior was stressful because of what was referred to as a “high yellow” student population. Discrimination was rife within the African American community, with lighter shades of skin deemed the most desirable. The dark-skinned Moody forged ahead and made a name for herself. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an illegal organization in Mississippi, and, later, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

Her defiance of long-held southern tradition through her chosen path of activism caused a severe rift with Moody’s family and among townspeople, because activist activities on the part of even one family or community member put everyone at risk. Beatings, burnings, and murder threats often resulted. Moody’s name appeared on a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) list of undesirables, but she was unrelenting.

In 1963, at a Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, Moody was slapped across the face and slammed into a wall. She was doused with ketchup, mustard, sugar, and pies and witnessed a fellow demonstrator having salt rubbed into his bleeding wound. About ninety police officers stood outside, bearing silent witness for three hours.

Moody’s activism made her subject to constant surveillance, daily threats, and repeated arrests. Once she was held captive with other protesters on a hot summer day, without water or air, in a paddy wagon with the heat turned on full blast. Finding little time for proper eating or adequate sleep while fighting for civil rights, she was on the verge of mental and physical collapse. Eventually, believing that racism was too deeply ingrained in the South for any serious change to occur, she dropped her associations and gained some catharsis through her writing. Her pain led her to a somewhat reclusive life, however, and she remained out of the limelight, refusing requests for interviews.

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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

Autobiography

Coming of Age in Mississippi is Moody’s fictionalized autobiography, which means that Moody uses fictional and novelistic techniques, such as recreating conversations and presenting events in greater detail than she could possibly remember, to tell the story of her life. Her autobiography covers her life from her earliest memories, when she was about four, until 1963, when she headed to Washington, D.C. It is likely that she chose to end her autobiography at that point because later that year she went to Ithaca, New York, to coordinate civil rights efforts. Thus, Coming of Age in Mississippi encompasses her entire civil rights career in the South.

Although the essential events of Coming of Age in Mississippi are indisputable, Moody uses authorial liberty to shape them. For instance, she chooses to describe certain events in detail, such as the Woolworth sit-in, while at other times she glides over entire years of her life. This method allows Moody to emphasize what she considers to be the most formative events over the twenty-three years about which she is writing.

Dialect and Dialogue

Moody renders the poor, rural, African-American speech that was commonplace to her background in the 1940s through 1960s. Moody captures nuances of speech, such as saying ‘‘Mama them’’ instead of ‘‘Mama and them.’’ She uses standard jargon, such as calling African Americans who kowtow to White people ‘‘Toms.’’ The figures in the story rarely speak with proper grammar or enunciation. Even the well-educated Moody demonstrates many lapses in grammar, though scenes between her and other CORE members show that she can speak perfect English when she wants. At times, however, she and her colleagues play upon the dialects that surround them. When Lenora and Doris bring guns back to Freedom House, they respond with strong accents to Moody’s questions. ‘‘I’s ooilin’ mah gun,’’ says Lenora, and ‘‘This heah baby is a takin’ a nap,’’ says Doris. Their playfulness in light of a serious incident annoys Moody, and they revert to their more customary way of speaking.

Setting

The setting of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the Deep South of the 1940s through early 1960s. This is a region marked by deeply ingrained racism. African Americans have many rights in the law books but in daily life are still enchained by prejudice. Southern society discriminates against them; for the most part, the only jobs available to African Americans are menial ones, such as domestics or factory workers. Moody notes that even though she has a college education, the only professional career open to her is teaching.

The physical location where the African Americans live and work further points out the racial injustice inherent to this setting. Her life begins in a sharecropper’s shack on a White farmer’s plantation. For the most part, her succeeding homes are flimsy, decrepit shacks in neighborhoods that usually lack paved streets and sidewalks. The African-American community in and around Canton, Mississippi, suffers in the same manner. Although African Americans in Canton own a great deal of land, laws prevent them from farming it, so they continue to be tied to the land of White farmers, as they have been for decades.

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