Review of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi The autobiography



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Haley Nantz


Haley Nantz

HI 373


Critical Review of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi

The autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody is story that can take a reader by surprise. This true story of a young black girl growing up in the Deep South captures important details of her life from 1945-1965. Anne Moody has had a lot dealt to her as a child and adult, but she persevered and stuck with what she believed in. She was someone who wanted to be led by a leader, not a dreamer. There were many different social, economic, and political conditions experienced by black Americans in the Deep South during this time that are shown in Moody’s story. There was also a lot of student involvement in the early years of the civil rights movement that will be discussed in this critical review. This autobiography is one to be used as a historical source in many different ways. This novel is filled with love, terror, hate, and discrimination. Anne’s story is revered because of its ability to mirror the lives of other African Americans.

Moody’s story is able to show social conditions in Mississippi by looking at her family, schooling, and general quality of life. The structure of Anne’s family changes as she gets older and shows how life affected African Americans. The story starts out with her mother, Tootsweet, and father, Diddly, together. Both her parents work in the fields so her other family members like her cousin have to watch her and her sister while they work. It was necessary for her extended family to help one another out so they could work in the field. Her parents eventually split up and Anne’s father disappears from her life for quite some time because her mother will not accept her father back. Anne notices that her mother has been seeing a soldier, Raymond, and becomes pregnant. It seems as though her mother is pregnant most of the book, extending Anne’s family. These pregnancies with Raymond cause intense stress on Tootsweet because she is lonely. This causes tension between Anne and Raymond because she associates her mother’s pain to his coming and going. Her family is not stable because her mother is not ok with her father’s drinking and gambling habits and ultimately refuses to let him see his children. Also, Raymond had been with another woman and he is pulled between the two families. As Anne gets older, Raymond settles down with her mother creating a more stable environment than before. However, Raymond’s family refuses to accept Tootsweet, creating a rift in the two families. Tootsweet is also stressed because feeding her family is a constant concern and never a sure thing. You see examples of Anne’s extended family because they talk about visiting cousins, aunts, and grandmas, and receiving help from them. There is a break in Anne’s nuclear family when she snaps at Raymond and leaves her family. But we also see her take advantage of her resources from her extended family by living with her dad to finish school and eventually living with other family to work.

In Coming of Age, Moody is very vocal with her opinions about school. During her childhood, Anne was always the star pupil of the classroom. She was competing for the highest grade point average, and also to become queen of her class. Her schools were said to be “separate but equal”. She did not attend classes with white people until she reached high school and then college. When she did have to go to school with whites, she experienced some anxiety because of the way she was treated back home. Anne mentions that her teachers growing up were not very competent. She hardly felt challenged by her teachers, and this was always a struggle for Anne. She even taught one of her math classes a few time. When Anne went to college, she knew the only way to get a job with her diploma was to become a teacher. She was pressured by her mother to advance into the “safe” profession. Anne refused to do so and wanted to do bigger and better things. She also did not want to be an “Uncle Tom”, or someone who is just subservient to whites who condemn them.

College was something high on Anne’s priority list. Since she did not want to become a teacher, she knew college would be the next step. Natchez College is the first institution that she attends and it was not up to the standards that she had expected. The facilities and furnishings were worn down, and Anne was disappointed that she wasn’t at a beautiful school. She never liked her experiences at Natchez, and Anne left at her first opportunity. Anne received another scholarship to Tougaloo, a more renowned college that was known for being integrated. She was told that the school was only for rich yellow folks so Anne was surprised that students were blacker than she was. She came across many whites in this college, which she knew she was going to have to compete with. She kept making snide remarks about yellow people that would make the reader believe that she only liked other black Americans. However, she did not like some white people, black people, and yellow people. Anne had a select few people that she could really get along with and liked.

Anne focused her time and energy in school to distract her from struggles at home. She did this when she was younger too. “I’d begin helping Adline them with their lessons so I wouldn’t even have to talk to Mama or Raymond. On Wednesday and Friday nights I took piano lessons. On Sundays I taught Sunday school and B.T.U.” (pg.158) The church played many roles in the lives of blacks in Centerville. The church became another place of escape for Anne. She was a skilled pianist and dedicated Sunday school teacher. Ministers were looked at as leaders, and people sought their advice. There were different churches just like there are today, and Anne was constantly being nagged about the “correct” one to attend by her mother, while struggling with wanting to go where she wanted. Religion was a huge component in Anne’s life. She often leaned on God to guide her and served and learned in the church. However towards the end when Anne broke down and become furious at God, she did not know where to turn or what to do. The church was a place where the students and members of the SNCC and NAACP would hold their registration events. Anne was one of those workers who were sent to churches to try to speak and recruit the congregation. She was sent to some of the biggest churches. Churches played positive and negative roles for the lives of blacks in Centerville.

During this time period, “Jim Crow” is still in existence in Mississippi. Anne had the opportunity to see the March on Washington, where a “group of men acting as pallbearers carried a casket that said BURY JIM CROW” (pg.337). It was evident that blacks wanted change, and that segregation was at a high. There were different sections for blacks and whites to sit in restaurants, bus stations, etc. The practice of segregation was a way of life for people in Mississippi. This led and inspired Anne to participate in sit in demonstrations in hopes of change. Black Americans wanted was to be served in the white sections and this idea of equality angered whites. There were instances of brutal attacks on the demonstrators of sit ins because of the atmosphere of hate. Anne had to be conscious of her actions in public and seemed to always watch her back. This leads the reader to believe that “Jim Crow” and segregation was alive and well during Anne’s story. She pushed for equality, but Anne’s hope constantly dwindled.

The economic status of blacks in Mississippi during this time was extremely poor. Anne had to work as a maid for white families in the community to help her mother support their family as well as have money for her personal life and school. It was clear that she needed funds for the most basic of items like bread and clothes. Anne was always scrambling to bring home at least ten dollars a week. She could live off of this amount of money, but her family could not. There were not very many well paying jobs in Mississippi, so Anne wanted to leave to go to New Orleans in the summer to work as a waitress to bring in more money for the next school year. She ended up making more working this type of job than she ever did at home. The types of jobs that were held by black men would be working on plantations, factories, lumber mills, or anything they could find. The women were either waitresses, worked at chicken factories, or family maids. The children would normally pick cotton in the fields to bring home what little money they could.

The family’s economic status also revealed to readers the true colors of whites during this time period as well. Anne thought she finally figured out why white women needed black women to work for them, “Because they were lazy” (pg.37). Anne made comments that would prove that blacks had it worse off in the economy than whites did. If whites could be lazy and hire blacks to do their dirty work, then they would be better off than the blacks. There were poor white families mentioned in this book, but they did not have the racial problems that blacks had to deal with.

The economy in Mississippi was a constant flux for blacks. In this autobiography, there was no specific mentioning of labor unions; however it can be assumed that the workers at the chicken factories were a part of one. When they protested the conditions at the factory, this was a sign of a labor union. We also saw blacks who needed the money despite poor conditions who were willing to take their place. Blacks who took their place were scolded just like Anne was. The economic impact of migration on the economic status of blacks was known to be a gamble. It just depended on what area the blacks decided to migrate to. When Anne moved during the summer to work, she normally would save up enough money to last her until the next summer. Living in the country, she was able to survive off of her savings, because she only had to buy the necessities for school and to help her family. The area that constricts black economic development would be segregation. Anne talks about how if black men had an easier chance at finding a decent job then they would not be struggling as much as they are. When Emma was shot and was lying in the hospital, she tried to explain to Anne that it was not Wilbert’s fault, but the stress that incurs from work and lack of money.

The last major conditions that blacks had to deal with around 1945 to 1965 were political issues. Blacks in Mississippi were not allowed to vote during this time. The movement was about trying to get blacks to register to vote in the freedom vote. Even if the blacks did vote, they needed a certain number to be considered. The majority of the blacks in Mississippi were scared out of registering to vote because of white tactics. Killings that took place throughout this book sparked Anne’s interest in becoming involved in the organizations to fight for freedom. It was never mentioned if blacks held elected office during this time; although one can assume that there were no blacks because of how blacks were treated when they tried to be a part of the NAACP freedom vote. What prevents full black participation in politics is the hatred that whites have for blacks in the south and the fear they instill in blacks if they want to vote. They do not believe that they should have equal rights to public facilities, so the equal and full participation in politics was out of the question.

Student involvement in the early years of the civil rights movement was a major facet of Anne’s autobiography. It wasn’t until Anne was fifteen years old that she started having negative thoughts and hatred towards people. She hated whites because of the murder they committed against Emmett Till, but she also hated the Negroes for not standing up for what they believed in. Anne was a strong and independent girl who wanted justice. If she felt lead to do something and felt strongly about it, she was most likely going to get involved. This caused Anne to join the civil rights movement. During college, she was introduced to a girl that was a part of the NAACP chapter at her school. Anne wanted to put her hatred into use by joining the NAACP and the SNCC. She knew of the huge risks she was going to be putting on herself and her family when she joined, but she did it anyways.

In the beginning of the movement, the number of students that were participating was high. They were interested in what it had to offer and joined for the right reasons. However, once the organization was challenged at sit ins and had violence imparted on them, people started to drop left and right. Anne and other students who were involved in sit ins at a bus station and in a restaurant were an example that change was coming. When Anne and her friend first decided to sit on the white side of the bus station the white people did not exactly know what was going on. Eventually, they were forced to leave or they would have been in serious danger. One of the first and most influential sit ins that Anne was involved in, would have to be when her and two other students were sitting at the white side of Woolworth’s lunch counter. The waitress refused to serve them because they were not sitting on the right side. Other people that were already in the restaurant left because they did not want to be there if it became a violent scene. They were correct to leave because it did become extremely violent, as Anne and her friends were beaten and drug out of the restaurant.

The news crews were interested in the movement, so they showed up asking Anne and her friend’s questions, which led to other interests in blacks and whites. The majority of the black communities’ reaction to the student involvement was a negative reaction. They were scared and intimidated by the involvement because they thought it would bring about change and allow blacks to experience equality. They were right to be scared because no matter what, someone was always being killed in the black community to instill fear or serve “justice” for a crime. Whites also had negative reactions because they wanted to end the black’s trial to have one hundred percent freedom. Whites were involved in many of the killings in the communities. There were three people found dead in their car, a church in Birmingham was bombed, Clift was murdered, and people in the movement rallies were almost beaten to death. The reaction on the white side was extremely negative. Even though a few whites worked within the NAACP, it was not enough to overpower the whites who fueled so much hatred towards blacks.

I do not think that students today are as involved in “causes” as the students in Moody’s autobiography were. These students had so much to fight for, their freedom and happiness that they were willing to do whatever to make it happen. One major example I can think of where students did stand for what they believed in was the Obama campaign in 2008. It is no secret that Obama focused on speaking and rallying at colleges and universities, and therefore had a large following. Also, organizations like GLBT are major support systems for students in institutions across the nation. These students have GLBT and straight allies who stand for respect and acceptance. While these organizations and followings have great students support, they are few and far apart and not on the scale of the student organizations during the time Anne was in college. I think part of what accounts for this apathy in students today is the fact that many students are lazy and unmotivated. We have not seen any of the rising leaders that we have seen in the past in this generation. This generation is extremely fortunate in what we have been afforded so many of us have not had to fight for basic rights. Overall, students today are not as involved in causes as they were back then.

Being able to examine the Coming of Age in Mississippi as a historical source, it has added to my knowledge of the civil rights movement. Even though this is a book about a young girl living in the Deep South of Mississippi, it can provide any reader first hand insight as to what actually took place around 1945 to 1965. Textbooks unfortunately can give students a very generic or sugar coated version of the Civil Rights Movement. They are not able to get on a personal level that Anne’s autobiography gives. This book allows a person to really get to know Anne and the struggles that she faced during her childhood and young adulthood. They are given the opportunity to experience the pain, lost hope, and constant worry that Anne deals with in daily life. She does not know if this country will ever overcome these situations, and that is just not something that a student can get from a textbook. She is somewhat the “other view” we do not always get. A textbook can give you plenty of information like dates and important people’s names; however, this book gives a real story with real accounts of the movement and the struggles of life as an African American during this time. Being able to sympathize with a person and their story is one of the best ways to understand that, as a country, we cannot let this happen again.

Alternately, there are some disadvantages of using this first-hand account as a historical source. Yes, it does mention President Kennedy’s assassination, and the black celebrities that Anne met. She also mentions the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream speech, but it does not mention everything that is going on during the Civil rights movement. We cannot expect her to because she is only one person with one experience. Since it is only focused on her efforts of the NAACP, it leaves out other important events that involved this organization. There were also court cases that were happening during this time period that a student would miss out on, if they were to only read this book. Also Anne’s experiences were not like everyone’s in Mississippi, or even in other states in the south.

Even though Anne faced problems that other blacks were facing, someone just reading her autobiography would have the ability to see all of the efforts that the blacks were giving at this time. This book is best read in conjunction with a class, so the reader can make connections to the story, but also get missing information. She did not know of everything happening in this country. There is evidence of this when a white man comes to help members of the NAACP, and she is unaware that whites up North have different views from whites in the South. Either way, this autobiography is one that every student taking history should read. It is also the role of the teacher to note that this book only covers one story, but to point out what it is able to show. It is historically significant, and also entertaining.

My initial reaction to this book was this it is extremely long and it is going to bore me. I have rarely come across a book that I have had to read for class that I actually found interesting. I was proven wrong however, because I found myself wanting to keep reading more. I became attached to Anne and her circumstances, and I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I have never experienced the pain she has felt, or the difficulties that she went through, so I wanted to see how she would persevere. One of the most interesting things that I learned about Anne was her stance on Martin Luther King Jr. I have never met anyone that thought that his I Have a Dream speech was not compelling. “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had “dreamers” instead of leaders leading us.” (pg.337). This definitely added to my knowledge of the civil rights movement. Since I had only thought that everyone enjoyed his speech and was moved by it, I was only seeing it on one side.

This is actually extremely beneficial to my future career choice to become a teacher. With the recent push for Common Core and the reading of nonfiction books, Coming of Age is a book to add to my shelf for students to pick up. If I think that my students see every historical event the same way that I do, then I am not doing my job. Some students need a first hand account of history to help them understand what they are learning. History is one of those subjects that can be experienced and understood in so many different ways. I think through this book I was able to see the true hatred that whites had for blacks during this time period. Textbooks often sugar coat events like this and it is my job as a teacher to give my students the most truthful information possible. Any teacher can stand in front of a classroom and talk about how much whites hated blacks, but until you really get into the root of what they did, it will only be surface level understanding. As previously stated, when a reader is able to make a connection to the character or author’s situation, the reader is able to become invested in their story. Students would be able to use this book to get a meaningful grasp of this time in history.

In this autobiography Anne Moody was a young girl trying to get by in the beginning. Later she realized that she would become someone she hated if she just sat around and ignored what was happening to blacks. I really enjoyed being able to see her family and her experiences in school through this book. It added to my knowledge of the modern day civil rights movement by allowing me to see the movement hard at work back in the day. They had to deal with the terror and the modern day people have to deal with being turned down. Even though there are no more lynching’s taking place that does not mean that discrimination is not present. I know that Anne Moody went through a hard time as a child and young adult, and in the end she kept wondering if they would ever overcome, I am glad to say we have overcome some, but there is still room for improvement.

References



Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. Newyork, Newyork: Bantam Dell, 1968.

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