Despite the fact that she grows up in a sharecropper’s shack on a former plantation, Anne Moody does not know the real state of race relations in American society. Her life is that of a typical sharecropper’s child: her parents work from “cain’t see to cain’t see” and only make a pittance for their troubles. Her family splits when her father decides to start seeing another woman. When her mother moves the rest of the family off the plantation, she must settle for work cleaning homes and working in restaurants, but her wages don’t even put groceries on the table, more often than not. This means that Anne is out in the workforce while she’s still in elementary school. Her mother’s new boyfriend, Raymond, marries her and builds them a house, but Anne still has to work long hours after school to help the family make ends meet.
When Anne enters high school, the realities of race in America hit her squarely. An African-American boy (Emmett Till) whistles at a white woman and is murdered as a result. While few would describe her earlier childhood as sheltered, she had never known the violence of racism until that murder. Even though she finds out about the work that the NAACP does, she initially hates everyone – white people, for murdering the young man and other African-Americans, and other African-Americans who do not actively protest such actions. When racial tensions in her town worsen, someone in Anne’s class is beaten and a family is almost killed by an arsonist. One of the last straws for Anne, though is the controversy that erupts when she tutors Mrs. Burke’s son, Wayne, and his friends in math. The friendship that develops between Wayne and Anne makes his mother anxious, and Anne quits, disillusioned by the racism that she encounters every time she turns around in her home town.
The death of Emmett Till is just one of several events that shape Anne’s development into a dissident about matters of race. Even if a black man whistling at a white woman showed disrespect, that was no reason for violence of any sort – let alone murder. In the case of Anne’s development, this event dramatically exposed her to the hatred that whites had for blacks during that time period (Anne was born in 1940). His death also led to her hearing about the NAACP and to her thinking about overthrowing the power structures that held her and her fellow African-Americans in poverty and oppression.
I would say that one of the most crucial events happened very early in Anne’s life – the departure of her father. While the life of a sharecropper was certainly not a pleasant one, her father’s departure marked the first instance of instability in her life, making her cynical about the possibility of a sound romantic relationship that would be mutually supportive. When her father left her mother, her mother was forced to fend for herself financially – a situation that would happen too many times in African-American (and in all American) homes.
Anne’s college graduation is an important event, because it symbolizes her separation from her family. The first in her family to even attend college, Anne accomplishes something that her parents do not understand when she graduates. One reason why the idea of overthrow did not occur to blacks before the era of Dr. Martin Luther King is limited outlook: they simply did not believe that such a thing was possible, so they did not even conceive of it. So when she graduates from college, her family cannot even understand the possibilities that have now opened for her.
The end of Anne’s involvement with CORE (Coalition for the Organization of Racial Equality) is perhaps the defining moment of the memoir. She is frustrated because the racial equality movement is focusing on the franchise rather than the development of economic equality. As the memoir closes, Anne begins to doubt that blacks will ever get past the burdens put in their path by racism.
Going to college exposes Anne even further to the social realities of the late 1950’s. Her mother does not want her to join the NAACP, but she does – even after the sheriff has warned her mother that Anne’s membership could end up endangering the family. Nonetheless, she becomes an active participant in protest activities during that time period, including the famed sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, which took place to protest segregated restaurant facilities. Because her education opens her eyes to the available opportunities out there in the world for white people, she becomes increasingly angry about the power of racism; the fact that prejudice, and prejudice alone, forms the basis of such an odious institution that can keep her from succeeding makes her even angrier about the lack of opportunities afforded to her. With a college degree, she could go out and become a lawyer or a doctor; instead, she feels like the color of her skin has branded her an “untouchable” in society, only good for the same menial tasks her mother had to do, despite her advanced education.
During Anne’s college years, both at Natchez and Tougaloo, the racial tensions that were boiling throughout the United States, and particularly throughout the South, were not the only tensions. As the 1950’s changed to the 1960’s, other student movements would form, particularly in opposition to the continuation of the Vietnam War. The license for protest, which started in Birmingham, Alabama, and would spread across the nation, for a variety of causes, would not only work for civil rights marches but would also support marches against the war, against unfair labor practices – against any force that dissidents wanted to protest. The violence that erupted at Kent State University when students protested there, and the chaos that ensued with protests at other universities across the United States, highlighted the fact that change would have to come – and in many areas.
Godowin, Richard. Remembering America. New York: Little, Brown, 1988.
Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New Orleans: Delta, c2004.