Coming of Age in Mississippi Style, Form, and Literary Elements
by Anne Moody

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,238 words.)