Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

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Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, was originally published in 1968. I wanted this book to see if I could get an entirely different, yet still intensely personal, side of the time period compared to Malcolm X’s autobiography, published in 1965 shortly after his death. Malcolm lived exclusively in the North, whereas Moody was only in the South. Moody begins with her first memories and ends in her 20s at a church a group singing “We Shall Overcome,” wondering if they ever will. She has relationships to Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and other famous activists.

I hadn’t heard of Anne Moody before I saw her book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Most famously, she was one of the protesters who participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s.

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That’s Moody on the far right sitting at the counter. Photo for USA Today

Before that, she was a little girl who grew up poor, constantly changed addresses, gained a new sibling every year or two, and could barely get the clothes she needed to go to school. Moody worked most of her life, too, serving mostly in white people’s homes. When one racist white woman locked the front door so Moody would be forced to enter in the rear (which social norms required of black folks), Moody banged on the front door until someone else let her in. She was never subservient, though you could argue she was lucky. She saw friends and family shot, burned alive in their homes, and dragged in the woods to be stripped naked and beaten, all at the hands of white Southerners. Moody had anxiety that would earn her a Xanax prescription, plus some.

Moody is always aware of what’s really going on, even when other black people aren’t or won’t say anything. When Moody’s town gets a new high school for black students, everyone rejoices, but she points out, “As most of them, students, teachers, and principals alike, were bragging about how good the white folks were to give us such a big beautiful school, I was thinking of how dumb we were to accept it. I knew that the only reason the white folks were being so nice was that they were protecting their own schools. Our shiny new school would never be equal to any school of theirs.”

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Anne Moody, 1969. Photo for New York Times

Moody did well all through school and participated in many sports. Unlike many of her peers, she went on to college. At the time, a black student had to attend an all black college (no, Betsy DeVos, it wasn’t a “choice”). Soon, she was involved with the NAACP, which got back to the whites in her hometown. Since any hint of discontent among black citizens can easily lead to an uprising, and Southern whites know that, Moody’s membership was enough for white folks to harass her mother and ask her what Moody was doing, what her plans were, if she were coming home (she couldn’t; she would be killed). In fact, Moody worked so much for so little for the Civil Rights Movement that many times she nearly starved or was murdered.

My favorite aspect of the the autobiography as a genre is that it doesn’t try to add “flavor” to real-life events. Things aren’t reflected upon creatively; the writer needs to simply tell what happened. Moody does not add her own agenda into Coming of Age in Mississippi even though it’s her book. She doesn’t tell readers what to think about racism, but what she thought about racists during the time. Unlike Malcolm X’s autobiography, which clearly looks back from a time in the future (like when he writes about not being good at boxing as a teenager, which he believed as an adult was thanks to Allah, who kept him from “getting punchy”), Moody’s story is always in the moment. I respect this careful erasure of Moody the writer, and the focus on Moody as a girl, college student, and activist.

Moody’s book also taught me details of the Civil Rights Movement of which I was not aware, even though I’ve studied and taught the time period. For instance, when a house full of activists hear through the grapevine that a group of whites are going to kill them that night and block all the roads out of town, the young men and women lay out in the yard all night in long grass. It’s wet, hard, and they’re all shaking in terror. I felt like I was there with them. Moody’s family also turns on her quickly so they won’t be killed. Her favorite grandma treats her like a stranger. Later, I learned that in one town where Moody leads a group of activists that black people have most of the land and make up most of the population. However, land and crop contracts are only given to white farmers, so the black farmers sit on cropless land and nearly starve to death. Furthermore, I knew that activists were constantly arrested, but Moody explains that they were packed into a truck and locked in, after which the driver would crank up the heat on a 100+ degree day and leave them in their for hours until people freaked out or nearly died. When a headless black body is found, the colleges do room checks to see if it’s one of their students. The Klan shared pamphlets door-to-door with a blacklist of certain people (Moody’s picture appears on their list). This is the stuff you don’t get in your history textbook.

One thing Malcolm X and Anne Moody definitely had in common is they did not look to Dr. King for guidance. Malcolm complains King is an “Uncle Tom,” a sit-down Civil Rights activist (a play on the term for protests called sit-ins). Moody goes to see Dr. King at the March on Washington and comes to a conclusion about the black movement’s so-called leader: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about everyone of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton [a Mississippi city deep in poverty due to racism] we never had time to sleep, much less dream.” While we’re always hammered with Dr. King in school, his philosophies and actions didn’t sit well with many activists.

The most intense part of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the anticipation. Will Moody make real gains as an activist? Will she be able to return to her hometown? It’s a book that makes readers lean forward, so to speak, so the 424 pages of this mass market paperback fly by. The only complaint I have is Moody’s frequent mention of Reverend King, who is a minister from the South who helps activists. He’s the only white person she trusts, but it’s easy to confuse his name with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

coming of age

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35 responses »

  1. I didn’t know about Moody until reading this post. I am very interested in reading the book especially since its set in a time period that I have always wanted to know about. It does sound like a tough read though. Just looking at first picture is upsetting. I have always wondered why people acted the way that they did at that time.

    Thanks for sharing. I will look for the book and also for more information about Moody.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t heard of her either. Typically, leaders get more attention than activists, so you’re more likely to hear about Medgar Evers than Anne Moody, even though they knew each other. I’d seen that picture of the Woolworth’s sit-in many times before, but didn’t know that was Moody. I always wonder the great shame someone must feel that their dad or grandpa is the one dumping a drink on the heads of other human beings. And I hope that shame translates into awe in the bravery of the individuals sitting on the stools.

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  2. One of the things a quality autobiography does, in my opinion, is bring major events (like the Civil Rights movement) to the human level. I think that makes it easier for us to understand them. But that said, I also like the fact that Moody doesn’t appear overly self-absorbed.

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    • Agreed. The are a couple of Britt is in which she questions her faith because why would God let people be killed or suffer. Mostly, though, it’s telling events from a single perspective, which has its own flaws, but which I also think makes the time period more memorable because of that connection you point out.

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  3. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I will look for it! I read a biography of Ethel Payne last year, called Eye on the Struggle. That was really fascinating as well, since it gave me a very close look at the Civil Right Movement, too.

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    • Ah! I’ve heard about Payne before! She sounds more courageous than I can even imagine! I do really like reading about how media circulated in Black communities when the was segregation. One of my favorite stories is about Broadside Press, started on the streets of Detroit by Dudley Randall.

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  4. Very interesting review. I always find it interesting to hear other perspectives of MLK Jr. Never learned in me schooling that he beat his wife for example. And gotta love the women’s stories. I think I will add this to me list. Have ye read HeLa? That book was full of interesting perspectives and heartbreak regarding black lives and the medical profession.

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    • I did read Skloot’s book, but I struggled through. I felt like I didn’t get what I wanted to get from it, and then near the end we learn that Lacks’s children are all suffering and living in poverty while the medical companies make billions of dollars off of their mother’s body.

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  5. It’s easy to forget that history is an argument, like any other discussion, that incidents are alternatively foregrounded or concealed to advance a particular point of view. I appreciate you demonstrating that the civil rights movement has a radical history which differs from mainstream liberal history. We have the same story here in Australia where it is taking Indigenous and left wing writers to point out that white settlement was built on wars and massacres, not the peaceful occupation of empty territory that we were taught.

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    • Do you read a lot of autobiographies written by Australians, especially indigenous folks? As I said my in review, Moody’s book goes well with Malcolm X’s. I think next I want to read Assata Shakur’s autobiography. She was in the era of the Black Panther/Black Nationalist Party, a time that most people misunderstand because the group was so vilified in the media.

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    • And we have their faces captured forever. Imagine the way we can still today point out the faces and know they’re likely alive still…that they have kids and grandkids who have to look at that picture and see such hatred. And I hope it changes their hearts in a positive way. There are pictures of people having a jolly good time at the local hanging. Those are even worse in terms of posterity…

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  6. I don’t read nonfiction but I love to see this kind of stories in films, I’ve always been fascinated by coming of age stories in the south. And what you say about the civil rights movement…wow I didn’t know that either. Reverend King… yeah, it might get confusing 😄

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  7. Wonderful recap/review! Like you, I am not familiar with Anne Moody, but she has my attention now. I really enjoy books that give you a “behind the scenes” glance at history… the history they didn’t teach us in school, or the “watered down” version.

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    • There’s so much of it in African American history, literature, culture, etc. If I could do things over again, I would get a PhD in African American lit. As it is, I’ve studied it so much that I teach the class to freshman/sophomore students, but I’m always learning more. Moody’s book gave me a new perspective. I try to always look at a male and female perspective of the same time period because the will wildly differ. For instance, everyone right now is talked about Frederick Douglass. Well, if you read Douglass’s slave narrative, you should also read Harriet Jacobs’s. Same time period, wildly different experiences due to gender.

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  8. Wow! I am so glad you reviewed this book, Melanie. I hadn’t heard of Anne Moody prior to today, but I’m glad you shared her story. It sounds like this book was incredibly gripping. It must be so hard to write a memoir like this– both due to the memories you need to dig up, as well as the “erasure of Moody the writer” as you put it.

    If Moody erased herself as the writer, did she still reflect on these events in her life? If so, how did that feel different from other memoirs you had read?

    I’m definitely adding this to my TBR. Great review, as always!

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    • Thanks, Jackie! Well, there wasn’t nearly as much reflection as I’ve seen in the other autobiography I mention, Malcolm X’s. He is clearly about 37-38 years old, looking back, thinking back, and adding what could have gone differently in various situations. You never forget he’s telling the story from hindsight. Moody, on the other hand, tells the story more like it’s happening to her right then. There are benefits to both. Usually memoirs make more significant connections, whereas autobiographies tell it like it happened without adding a ton.

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