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Coming of Age in Mississippi [Book Review]

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody is the story of a young Black woman coming of age in rural Mississippi during the 40’s and 50’s. The book begins with Anne Moody’s early life as the eldest child of sharecroppers on a large plantation. Her father, Daddy, is a womanizer and gambler. While her mother, Mama, struggles to maintain stable committed relationships with her husbands/lovers. Moody’s parents’ dysfunctional relationship exposed her to heated and sometimes violent arguments.

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Having grown up in the city, I enjoyed reading about Moody’s experiences growing up in a small rural town. Her descriptions of the country and her childhood shenanigans reminded me of my mom’s stories of growing up in the Caribbean. I haven’t spent time in any rural areas in America but Moody’s descriptions made it easy to imagine in my mind’s eye. Her gossipy writing style when it came to small-town happenings was very enjoyable. Prepare to be grossed out and giggle a bit about the stories of Miss Ola and the old milk lady.

Moody’s parents’ breakup and her father’s undependable financial support left the family struggling. Mama worked hard but had to move the family around while trying to find work that would pay enough without being too exhausting.

Mama’s lack of education left her unable to help her kids with their school work past grade school and limited her options for finding work. Moody’s siblings’ inability to grasp basic school work seemed like a foreboding of a continuation of limited life options.

Moody’s intimate conversations with her grandmother, Winnie, and the glimpses they offered into her life were some of the best parts of the book. Winnie had many children, all out of wedlock and had to work hard into old age. This played a part in the family’s cycle of poverty. It also added another layer of depth to Mama’s life and hardships.

Yet, I wished that Moody had the opportunity to have similar conversations with her mother and father. It was good to learn about who and where they were during points in Moody’s life. But, I wanted to learn more about their lives before Moody and how they became the people they were and came to live the lives they led.

It was inspirational that despite many setbacks, the people in Moody’s life continued to aspire for and work towards greater things. Some of the disappointments are sad but I still chuckled a bit as they were humorous in a dark way. Moody’s nightmares about and reluctance to farm set her on a path to wanting a different life for herself.

Mama’s constant pregnancies made me think about the advent of safe and dependable birth control. The family was poor and had difficulties supporting two adults and the first three children. Yet, Mama’s many pregnancies seemed to add to the family’s financial burdens. How much further could Mama had gone in life if she’d received a proper education and had a more manageable amount of children?

Tension develops within the house between Moody and Mama’s second husband, Raymond. It starts out simple but escalates as Moody gets older. Raymond knew Mama had children and still began a relationship with her. Yet, the children never knew about or met him until after Mama became pregnant and had his child. This says a lot about how he felt about the importance of a relationship with Mama’s children. I got the feeling that he put up with Moody and her siblings so he could be with Mama.

Raymond also seemed insecure about Mama’s past relationship with Daddy. This further motivated Mama to limit Daddy’s contact with the family. Though it wasn’t the sole reason Daddy stayed away. Things might not have been this simple. But, Raymond’s strained relationship with Moody made it impossible to understand his true thoughts and feelings.

There’s a theme, more like a feeling throughout Coming of Age in Mississippi where even in happy moments it seems that there’s tension brimming below the surface. There are moments in Moody’s childhood that seem positive and promising at first glance. Yet, there’s an undercurrent of things not being quite right. Everyone seems to get along on the surface. But, there’s a little gnawing feeling that hints at racial inequality and the upheaval to come.

At the same time, Moody’s handling of events as a child foreshadowed that she’d be one to watch as an adult. Her willingness to stand up for herself only grew stronger as she matured into adolescence and young adulthood.

Moody’s introduction to and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement unfolds in a beautifully written story. As Moody matured and began to understand more of the world. The subtle racial discrimination that she experienced as a child gave way to more blatant racism. It’s possible that the escalation to more violent and intense racism was a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement challenging the status quo. But, the reality was probably a mix of Moody’s greater awareness and the turbulence of the times.

The more I read about the global Black experience, the more I realize how little I know. Moody’s recounting of her socio-political awakening offered me a new perspective on the Civil Rights Movement. Most books that I’ve read about the Movement have been about older and/or more prominent activists.

It was refreshing to read about the development of an activist juxtaposed against a young woman’s journey to define herself. Hushed whispers introduce her to the NAACP and lead her to political demonstrations. But, there was something sweet about her scandalous talent show performance, teen crushes, and first kisses. The two facets of Moody’s life help to bring balance to Coming of Age in Mississippi.

Recommendation

I recommend Coming of Age in Mississippi if you’re interested in the Civil Rights Movement. Like Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land, Moody is a young person rebelling against the limitations of her environment. Both books take place during the same period. But, Moody’s gender and rural Southern location offered different outlets for rebellion. You might also enjoy Coming of Age in Mississippi if you’re a fan of Watch Me Fly though this book doesn’t have life advice and inspirational soundbites.

Coming of Age in Mississippi

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