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Black history month may have come and gone, but April is still a good time to read Coming of Age in Mississippi: An Autobiography by civil rights activist, Anne Moody. Originally published in 1968, this unsentimental portrait of growing up in racist Mississippi is at once distressing and inspiring.

Moody’s story begins on a Mississippi plantation around 1944, with the almost four year old author watching her parents leave for the fields every morning. Her parents separate not long afterwards and her mother struggles to put a roof over their heads and a loaf of bread on the table, as she ekes out a meager living as a waitress or housekeeper. Frequently pregnant, or between pregnancies with her new boyfriend, Raymond, the author’s mother is often sad and emotionally unstable. Raymond’s family never accepts her mother, ostensibly on account of her being dark and their being a high yellow. As in much of the world, there are caste systems within caste systems and bubbles within bubbles.

Although always aware of the color differences between her own family and the whites they work for, Moody becomes cognizant of the implications of being black at about seven years of age.

…not only were they better than me because they were white but everything they owned and everything connected with them was better than what was available to me.

Moody begins paid work at nine years of age, sweeping porches and later graduating to babysitting and housekeeping. On the other hand, her step-father, an ex-soldier, struggles to find a regular source of income.

White businesses in town employed Negroes as janitors only, and there was never more than one janitor in any single business. The Negro man had a hard road to travel when looking for employment. A Negro woman, however, could always go out and earn a dollar a day because whites always needed a cook, a baby-sitter, or someone to do housecleaning.

While this meant that black women often had a more reliable source of income, being The Help meant that you had to deal with white prejudice (sometimes white friendliness too), subtle Klan threats, or with your white master’s advances.

I had never heard of a single affair in Centerville between a Negro man and a white woman. It was almost impossible for such an affair to take place. Negro men did not have access to white women. Whereas almost every  white man in town had a Negro woman in his kitchen or nursing his babies.

A straight ‘A’s student and eighth grade’s homecoming queen, Moody enters high school and learns how the daily life of blacks is fraught with danger as she hears about black men being killed for getting out of place. She experiences a new fear, “the fear of being killed just because I was black”. She resolves to stand up for her rights and leaves home at fifteen , “sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day”.

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmet Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders…. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.

Writing about her own feelings of anger at fellow blacks’ seeming apathy, and their real fear of white fury, and white animosity towards blacks,especially insubordinate blacks, Moody paints a picture of the desperate life in the 1960s, towns seething with passionate hatred and shaking with palpable terror.

Moody’s real involvement with the civil rights movement begins when she wins a basketball scholarship to the highly ranked Tougaloo College, and gets involved with various organizations involved in the movement, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Moody evolves from being a discontented high school student to a passionate and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and becomes what she calls a professional agitator, participating and leading demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins. Before she turns 23, she becomes a prominent agitator, gets arrested, gets blacklisted by the Klan and eventually becomes dispirited with what seems a hopeless battle. Towards the end of the book, she reaffirms her life’s mission knowing that she can never really leave the Movement.

Coming of Age in Mississippi  is not only the personal history of a civil rights activist, but a lesson in American History, a lesson in courage and persistence, and the story of how a people fought to make their dreams happen. “We shall overcome some day”, they said, and they did.

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