Racial Inequality and Poverty in Ann Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi
The year is 1968 and we find ourselves in the middle of a civil struggle that has long been in the making. The Civil Rights movement, which has gained much ground with the changing of federal equality legislation in recent years, is now shifting its focus to undoing the conditions of deep poverty that have been created by sustained inequality. This struggle is especially well-pronounced and explored in Ann Moody's recent memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. The text provides one person's reflection on the Civil Rights struggle as it unfolded across the last two decades, and in doing so, makes a clear connection between the need to cure black poverty and the ambition to achieve true equality. Indeed, as the Ann Moody text advances, the maturing narrator realizes that the poverty which surrounded her was not felt by everyone and was connected to the structure of white power. This frames her analysis of the civil rights problem and her approach to the fight for equality and freedom.
Moody's childhood is described with the sort of disassociated innocence that could only be channeled through a child's eyes. She describes the circumstances of her life frankly and without reflection on the implications. In doing so, she makes little explicit mention of the concept of racism. Instead, her narrative tells of a life ensconced in poverty. It was not just her life, but the lives of those around her as well, that seemed to reflect a matter-of-fact acceptance of the order of things. It was natural to her that she was impoverished in that she had little to compare it to without attaching associations to racial inequality.
Still, the inequality seems always present even if the child narrator doesn't fully comprehend it. Its connection to her poverty is pronounced in early memories such as her time at the Carter's plantation, before the dissolution of her parents' marriage. According to Moody's narration of night on the plantation, "once it was completely dark, the lights in Mr. Carter's house looked even brighter, like a big lighted castle. It seemed like the only house on the whole plantation. Most evenings, after the Negroes had come from the fields, washed and eaten, they would sit on their porches, look up toward Mr. Carter's house and talk. Sometimes as we sat on the porch Mama told me stories about what was going on in that big white house."
The reflection in the first part of Moody's memoir carries this tone. The narrator seems fully aware of her family's difficulties as they are impacted by poverty. She understands that her family persists in a one room shack with rotten walls, that her parents labor in the fields from sun-up to sundown and that in this very same context, there is a grand house where a family lives in lavish comfort. Even after the family departs from the plantation and her father leaves them, Moody finds that poverty is all around her. Her first forays into education showed that hers was one of many families and communities that were struggling. At the age of 5, when she began to attend the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church day school. Descriptions of the school match those of her family's recently departed plantation shack. Moody reports that "the school was a little one-room rotten wood building located right next to [the church] There were about fifteen of us who went there. We sat on big wooden benches just like the ones in the church, pulled up close to the heater. But we were cold all day. That little rotten building had big cracks in it, and the heater was just too small."
What is remarkable about such passages is that they give ample demonstration of how racial inequality persists in the present day without making explicit acknowledgment of a struggle for individual rights. What this should say to those of us on the outside looking in is that for most, the abstract concept of rights is manifested in the very concrete realities of survival. While at a systemic level African-Americans have been denied the right to equality, it is at the individual level that this denial is shown in the deplorable living conditions and purposefully obstructed educational opportunities experienced by Moody and others.
Still, it isn't until she is older that Moody begins to recognize that her disadvantages implicate a much broader pattern of racial inequality that will ultimately shape the course of her entire life. Specific events that would bring her persistence in Mississippi into contact with the broader struggle of African-Americans around her would finally begin to illuminate the connection she had missed during her childhood. When word began to spread of the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, it was the first time that Moody truly came to understand the implications of her race.
She remembers learning about the murder and its implications all at once. She tells that "Standing there before the rest of the girls, I felt so stupid. It was then that I realized I really didn't know what was going on all around me. It wasn't that I was dumb. It was just that ever since I was nine, I'd had to work after school and do my lessons on lunch hour. I never had time to learn anything, to hang around with people my own age. And you never were told anything by adults."
It was at this point that the distinction between the experiences of blacks and whites finally began to sink in on a more direct level. Certainly, if it wasn't clear to her that separate laws of the land governed their experiences at that juncture, her employer would make it quite explicitly clear to her. In raising the subject on the day of its occurrence, Mrs. Burke asks Moody if she understands what happened to young Emmett Till. When the young girl claims she doesn't, Mrs. Burke takes the time to explain to her that Till was a black boy from Chicago who didn't know his place, who got out of line and, essentially, who deserved what was coming to him.
This proved a catalyzing moment in Moody's life. At the age of 14, she finally and suddenly understood that all the challenges up to her life at that point were the product of her race. Moreover, she understood that to that point her mother had done her best to shelter her from the yet harsher realities that would face her as she came of age. But the death of Emmett Till and Mrs. Burke's insulting and revealing comments would make her fully aware of the unequal world into which she was coming of age. She recalls that "before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me -- the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn't have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn't know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought."
It also is of importance that Moody first learned of the NAACP in this same week, and also through the derogatory conversation of Mrs. Burke and her white friends. Discovering that there were organizations dedicated to furthering the interests of black Americans would be a revelation to Moody and it would ultimately direct the course of her future affiliations. Soon, she would not only come to understand poverty as a consequence of racial inequality, but she would come to fight directly against both in direct concert with one another. By combining efforts such as clothing drives with voter registration efforts, she would come to confront institutional challenges even deeper than simple racial divide.
Centuries of conditioning toward inequality, the same conditioning that Moody herself had experienced directly, had created an uphill climb within black culture itself. This speaks to the ingrained poverty and disenfranchisement that so many had essentially accepted as the natural order of things. As Moody would observe while trying to encourage political movement and activism, most of her fellow African-Americans were too directly impacted by poverty to concern themselves with political activism. Mrs. Chinn perhaps phrases it best following a clothing and voter registration drive. Here, she observes that "It's a shame. Some them had the never to tell me, 'Minnie Lou, I can't sign my name, but you know me. Let me know when you people get some more clothes in."
This response typified the attitude of many that Moody would encounter during her years in…