‘Coming of Age in Mississippi’ still speaks to nation’s racial discord, 50 years later

‘Coming of Age in Mississippi’ still speaks to nation’s racial discord, 50 years later

Photo by Jack Schrier

Most memoirs are soon forgotten.

A rare exception is Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which was published in 1968. It spoke to the day’s pressing issues – poverty, race and civil rights – with an urgent timeliness.

Fifty years later, the book still commands a wide readership. Read each year by thousands of high school and college students, it remains a Random House backlist best-seller – a title that continues to sell with little to no marketing.

As I research Anne Moody’s life for my upcoming biography, I often wonder what her memoir’s continued popularity means. Does it signal dramatic progress on race relations in the U.S. – or does it instead show us that, as former Sen. Ted Kennedy wrote in 1969, “If things are somewhat different, then they are not different enough.”

Till’s death opens Moody’s eyes

Written when Moody was 28 years old, “Coming of Age” is a gripping story. In spare, direct prose, she takes readers into the world of African-American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. As a child, she chopped and picked cotton, cleaned houses for white people, and wondered why whites had better everything – better bathrooms, better schools and better seats in the movie theater.

That mystery remained unsolved when, in 1955, Moody learned that white men had killed a black boy her age just a few hours’ drive north. The killing felt personal.

“Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil,” she wrote. “But now there was … the fear of being killed just because I was black.”

Closer to home, whites ran her cousin out of town, brutally beat a classmate, and burned an entire family alive in their home. Amid such horrors, Moody feared a nervous breakdown.

But she resolved to resist.

In 1963, Moody became infamous in Mississippi after she challenged racial segregation in what would be the era’s most violent lunch-counter sit-in. At the Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi, white men shoved Moody off her stool, dragged her across the floor by her hair and, when she crawled back, smeared her with ketchup, sugar and mustard.

Photographer Fred Blackwell captured a now-iconic image of this day, with Moody seated in the middle.

Anne Moody endures harassment from a crowd of whites at a Woolworth’s in Jackson, Miss. Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News, via Associated Press

In the early 1960s, Moody worked tirelessly as an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality in Canton, Mississippi. But after facing daily death threats, she fled to the North, where she moved from city to city, raising money for the movement.

At each stop, she described what it was like to come of age, as a black woman, in Mississippi. At one, she shared a stage with baseball great Jackie Robinson, who urged her to write down her story.

So she did.

Readers react

After “Coming of Age in Mississippi” was published, the response was split.

Some readers viewed the book as – in the words of one reviewer for The New Republic – a “measure of how far we have come.” To them, the worst of racism was over, and Moody’s account served as a stark reminder of how bad things once were.

Many readers praised Moody’s story. Many in her home state, however, spurned it. Dell

Others, however, read Moody’s experiences of racism as simply one chapter in a current and ongoing struggle – “the sickening story of the way it still is for thousands who are black in the American South,” as Robert Colby Nelson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor.

Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy read it both ways.

He called the memoir “a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed.” Still, he regretted that the book did not mention recent advances, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled the election of several black public officials in Moody’s own hometown.

Meanwhile, for decades, Southern media outlets and public institutions shunned “Coming of Age in Mississippi” and Anne Moody herself. Hostile whites in Moody’s hometown of Centreville, Mississippi even threatened to kill her if she ever returned.

How much has really changed?

By contrast, today, “Coming of Age” shows up on high school and college reading lists throughout the South, and Anne Moody appears among 21 authors pictured on the Mississippi Literary Map. Her crumbling childhood home sits on the recently renamed Anne Moody Street and Anne Moody Memorial Highway, which now connects Centreville and Woodville, the town where she graduated from high school.

In Moody’s day, local public officials were all white. Now they more closely reflect the county’s 75 percent black population.

In 1963, Moody mourned the assassination of her beloved colleague, Medgar Evers, president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and watched in horror as local whites refused to convict his murderer. Thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of homocide and imprisoned for life. Today, visitors who fly into the Mississippi state capital, land at Jackson-Evers International Airport.

These shifts make “Coming of Age” seem, to many readers, an inspiring account of survival, resistance and victory.

But to others, the book is anything but a triumphalist story. Instead, its lessons are grim: In retrospect, civil rights victories seem superficial, while the brutal poverty and racism Moody described endures.

Compared to whites, black people in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to die in infancy, three times more likely to be poor, three times more likely to be killed by police, five times more likely to be imprisoned and seven times more likely to be murdered. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that emboldened states around the country to create new restrictions that prevent black citizens from voting.

Anne Moody was one of the lucky ones. She graduated from college, moved north and published a best-selling memoir.

But despite the accolades, television appearances, radio interviews and speaking engagements, she could never really escape Jim Crow Mississippi. It had deprived her of her family and a place to truly call home.

“Coming of Age” ends with Moody listening to civil rights workers sing the anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

“I wonder,” she wrote. “I really wonder.”

Fifty years later, many of us are still wondering.The Conversation

Leigh Ann Wheeler, Professor of History, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Post-Racial in the Segregated South

Post-Racial in the Segregated South for Urban FaithKathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.

I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.

Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.

And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.

Kathryn Stockett Post-Racial in the Segregated South for Urban FaithIn The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.

Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.

Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.

The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.

The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.

Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.

From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.

Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.

I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.

She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.

I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.

Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.

What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Ailibeen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.

Hard to Say ‘Sorry’

pop circumstance impactIn this Juneteenth edition of Pop & Circumstance, we consider the U.S. Senate’s late-but-official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, Tweets from a revolution, Jazz at the White House, ‘Speidi’ and the problem with reality TV religion, and what will Mary Mary sing at the BET Awards?

Senate Apologizes for Slavery — and Spartacus Wins

This week in “Current Events You Thought Shoulda Happened 40 Years Ago,” the United States has officially given its “my bad” on slavery. On Thursday, led by Iowa lawmaker Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “enslavement and segregation of African-Americans” and recognizing the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” Though the apology is official, there was concern among some senators that the language in the resolution would leave the door open for lawsuits or a demand for reparations.

While African Americans are certainly delighted with the apology, presumably 92-year-old Spartacus film icon Kirk Douglas is also happy. The actor had been petitioning Congress for an apology for slavery for years. Just this past April, Douglas wrote on his MySpace page: “As I told you quite some time ago, in my last book Let’s Face It, I wrote about the importance of our country showing the world that we are capable of humility by making an apology for our behavior towards African Americans before and after the Civil War.” The veteran actor also collected signatures in support of the apology on MySpace. Isn’t it interesting that a resolution like this hadn’t happened already? Well, better late than never.

The Revolution in 140 Characters or Less

Lest we think Twitter is just another useless digital platform to share a constant stream of the minutiae of our lives, the social networking site that asks members to share what they’re doing in 140-characters or less just got more interesting. Following the controversial election in Iran, protesters who were blocked from using other forms of online communication by government officials took to the Twitterverse to share their discontent. Sympathetic Twitter users from all across the world joined in the protest, spreading word about the election and even encouraging greater mainstream news media coverage of the events. Some even helped protect Iranian protesters from being tracked by changing their Twitter location and time zone to act as “proxy or ghost Iranians.”

The viral nature of Twitter allowed those of us who may not be politically savvy or aware to instantly participate on the front lines of a massive international protest against a Middle Eastern government from the convenience of our laptops or mobile phones. I had no idea about the Iranian election, but found out about the protest from my friend Kyle Westaway who is an attorney in New York City. He sent out the following Twitter update to all of his followers: “Twitter Friends: Change your location and time zone to Tehran and +3.30 to help the protesting Iranians from being tracked. #iranelection”. Since his Twitter account links to his Facebook profile, he alone spread word of the event to hundreds of people with just one click.

The implications of this kind of mass mobilization are great, particularly for people of faith who are called to bring the needs and concerns of society’s marginalized people to the forefront of our culture.

Jazz at the White House

As much as I’m trying not to be all Obama all the time, I can’t help it. The First Family just keeps getting cooler. On June 15th, the White House hosted a Jazz Studio, featuring musicians from the Marsalis family, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute. In her remarks to the 150 high school students who attended the event, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to jazz as “America’s indigenous art form” and the best example of American democracy with its emphasis on “individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, calls jazz more than music. He says, “[Jazz] is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.” We couldn’t agree more, and it’s a pleasure to see the Obama White House encouraging creativity and re-imparting value on artistic expression.

Reality TV Piety

When Stephen Baldwin baptized Spencer Pratt a couple of weeks ago on television’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, we let it slide. It didn’t seem right to comment on such a clearly misguided publicity stunt, despite the Christian relevance. Besides, the rest of the media was already making a mockery of the incident. NBC, the network that produces the show, titled video clips of the baptism as “Stephen Baldwin shoves the devil out of Spencer” or “Saved by Stephen.” The whole thing was ridiculous, but this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to the former MTV Hills reality show star Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag. The couple has been injecting itself into tabloid headlines for months with self-generated drama. For a while they bought a few extra minutes of reality star fame by selling the story of a feud between Montag and Hills co-star Lauren Conrad. Then it was plastic surgery and a botched music career for Heidi that culminated in a Pratt-directed beach video. Most recently the couple invited paparazzi to their rushed wedding in Mexico.

But now things have gone too far. Montag, a self-proclaimed Christian who often “tweets” about her faith, is posing for Playboy, and she’s justifying the decision by calling herself a “modern day Mother Teresa.” As my mother would say, if she thinks she’s Mother Theresa, then she’s got another think coming. And though we’re not in the business of judging anyone’s faith here at UrbanFaith, we can express our disappointment over how “Speidi” is portraying Christianity in popular culture. We wish they would keep quiet about their faith until they figure out what they really believe. In the meantime, they’re probably doing more damage to the Church’s reputation. What do you think?

The Word on BET

A couple of weeks ago we shared with you the gospel nominees for the upcoming 2009 BET Awards. Now we have more information on the performers. Set your DVRs for 8pm ET/PT on June 28th because Mary Mary will take the stage. We hope the gospel gals sing something deep from their recent album, and perhaps bypass the secular-friendly “God In Me” single. It’s a toe-tapper, but with this kind of platform, they might want to deliver a message with a little more gospel truth. Also scheduled to perform are Beyoncé, Kanye West, Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, and Soulja Boy.