[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Four years after graduating from Tougaloo College, the young Anne Moody published Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968). It is noteworthy that this autobiography has been “in-print” and acclaimed since its initial publication. Similar life histories of civil rights workers, both autobiography and biography, have come and gone, getting enthusiastic receptions when they first appear. But after a few years, enthusiasm wears thin. The eagerly received life histories age rapidly and virtually disappear.
Moody’s autobiography escaped this fate.
The title tipped its hat to anthropology, and Moody’s vernacular prose is quite readable. Moody exploited the dramatic possibilities of first-person voice and perspectives. She charmed a nation of readers who wanted to know what growing up female and black in Mississippi entailed. Some of us who had been her classmates were slightly alarmed by her minimal love for our alma mater, but we had to affirm the rightness of how she saw Civil Rights Movement people and events in Mississippi and in New Orleans. Coming of Age in Mississippi had staying power. It is a keeper of memories that some post-civil rights writers would be happy to have disappear. Certain forms of “truth” may hibernate, but they refuse to disappear and give aid and comfort to fickle tastes.
In Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition (1989), Joanne M. Braxton suggests that Moody’s book belongs to the tradition of Ida B. Wells’ Crusade for Justice and that Moody, like Richard Wright and Maya Angelou, had intimate knowledge of Southern racial horror. It is also probable that what Zora Neale Hurston theorized about women’s forgetting and remembering in the opening sentences of Their Eyes Were Watching God opens a special window on how Moody speaks from a multi-gendered space that entrapped women (and men) in Mississippi rather than the dream space Hurston constructed in her novel. Moody provides rich details about the critical turning points in her life up to 1968. She records the names, particulars, and dates of all that happened to her as the daughter of sharecroppers in a part of Mississippi located around Woodville and Centreville, as a person who began working at a very young age to keep herself and her siblings in school.
Moody’s autobiographical voice often has the exactness of discourses in cultural anthropology; it justifies the echoing title of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. Moody makes a “thick description” of her life, layering detail upon detail, working out a full description of her Self as vulnerable and subject to be denied opportunities if she did not fight to control her destiny. Readers must ponder what Moody says in Chapter 11 about the origin of her misanthropic tendencies in 1955. Readers who piece together what is not in the autobiography, what Moody chose not to say in another book about how miserable life can become once a person achieves fame, will note that misanthropy sponsors nightmares, mental imbalance, and death of the spirit as a preparation for death of the body.
Moody’s life story from 1955 to 1964 is the record of how she sought through education at Natchez Junior College and Tougaloo College and through her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Council of Federated Organizations, and the Congress of Racial Equality to control the resentment, the anxieties, and the self-hatred that was her legacy from Mississippi. Her descriptions of place are intimately connected with political activity or the people who at various times were comrades in struggles. When she closes her story from a bus headed to COFO hearings in Washington, D.C., her feelings about Mississippi and what the freedom song “We Shall Overcome” proclaims are ambivalent. As the autobiographical narrator listens to the heart-gripping words —-“We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome someday”—, she whispers skepticism into the charged air: “I wonder. I really WONDER” (348).
The contemporary conditions of life in American and in Mississippi justify the doubts Moody had in 1964. Much has changed. Social and political changes have been at once blessings and curses. It is obvious that the day of overcoming is still waiting for Godot. As we remember and honor the bravery of Anne Moody and read her partial record of her combat with life, we find ourselves chanting “We wonder; we really wonder.”
Jerry W. Ward, Jr., February 21, 2015 PHBW BLOG