What is great about the modern era is that so many people can read and write. It’s an underrated thing that I don’t think very many people think about but it gives us all the chance to discover stories from people who we would never get a chance to hear from in years past. One of those people is Anne Moody and the very interesting story she tells in Coming of Age in Mississippi, which recounts her childhood and the years she spent being an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Because of her book and her later life, I guess you could say that Moody was very mildly famous, but in the times she lived and her position in the movement, she was really just another cog in the machine. She was talented, she was smart and driven, but she wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr. or Medger Evers or Malcolm X. She was one of the many thousands of people who followed men like them and made their fame and power and ability to affect change possible. In many ways her story is unique, but in other ways, it’s decidedly not; much like the nameless but nonetheless courageous soldier from WWII, her story is remarkable despite it’s relative anonymity. Regardless, her story is fascinating, interesting and well worth the read.
The book is split into four parts, titled “Childhood,” “High School, “College” and “Movement” respectively. Each section focuses on that part of her life and tells a series of stories that help us understand how and why she was shaped into the woman she was when she grew up. She recounts several stories from her childhood that expose the racism she experienced as a child. From overt acts of violence and murder to more subversive social acts that remind her of her second-class status, the amount of abuse she was exposed too as a child is mindboggling. She incorporates larger events into her small world, like the murder of Emmett Till, in a way that clearly shows how those events affect her life and probably other black people in the South.
In some ways the first two sections are the most interesting. They show the relatively normal and everyday life of a black girl living in the South. The life of the common man has always interested me and Moody does a great job of showing us what she did on a day-to-day basis. She goes to school, she works, she watches her little siblings and she worries about her mom, who has a rather difficult and tumultuous love life. You get a really good feel for how she lived her life and got by. Her section about high school is interesting because it shows that teenagers and students are always, always the same. There is a respectable amount of mean girl type shenanigans going on at her segregated high school to make Regina George proud and even though I’m half a century away, it all read true and rather entertaining. It’s during this part of the book that I began to see just how smart and talented she is.
Her college years are where things get more interesting and rarified. A star student, Moody gets into college and that’s where her more radical tendencies grow deep and strong. She joins the NAACP and becomes politically active. Again, while she mostly focuses on her personal experiences, she still weaves in broader events, like the death of Medger Evers and later the death of Robert Kennedy. Her viewpoint, from the middle out, instead of from the top down, or todays view back at the events of that time, is an important one to keep in mind when we think about the Civil Rights Movement or any moment in history really. It’s easy to watch Selma or read Malcolm X’s autobiography and only think about the individual men who led these movements from the top and while those men are certainly more important on a 1:1 scale, we shouldn’t forget that without thousands of thousands of followers like Moody, their goals and dreams would have gone nowhere.
What the book does well is show us the personality of Anne Moody herself. She is smart, strong, independent and extremely defiant against the world she was born into. Her courage, some would say lack of awareness maybe, is outstanding; at each turn, when she should be scared or lower her head, she buffs up her chest and holds her ground. It’s really quite amazing. We don’t get much insight into why she is the way she is, but memoirs usually don’t offer that kind of insight; it’s hard to analyze yourself. That being said, the book is a great look into the daily life of Americans who had to stand up and face violence and death for equality in our country not even a full lifetime ago. It was a remarkable and important time that I think people would find useful and interesting in the modern context of what’s going on right now in our country.
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