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Coming Of Age In Mississippi

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In Moody's autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi readers learn that Moody was born in Centreville, Mississippi. This small Southern town, as it turns out, is only about fifty miles south of Richard Wright's birthplace, Roxie, Mississippi. The proximity of these towns and these writers' shared African-American ancestry make their life stories strangely similar. However, their autobiographies are significantly marked by the different time-frames in which the authors grew up, Wright in the 1920s and 1930s and Moody in the 1950s and 1960s.

Juxtaposing Wright's Black Boy and Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi suggests changes in black experience in the South during two turbulent periods and gives views of the development in the U. S. civil rights movement. Conditioned by their environments and times, these writers were driven by a similar combination of fear and anger. However, they chose different paths in their attempts to acquire their own freedom and promote freedom among their peers.

Early circumstances in Moody's and Wright's lives, though separated by nearly thirty years, were comparable, but one important difference. Both writers were born into families of sharecroppers, the most common means during the first half of the twentieth century for African-American families in the South to make their living. Both Moody and Wright lost their fathers, who left their mothers behind to raise the children. One important difference is that Moody's mother had good health and eventually married a man who was able to provide a decent home and minimum meals for his family. Wright's mother, by contrast, had several debilitating strokes and never remarried. While Wright was quite young, he was forced to drop out of school and find menial jobs, pick through the rubble in the street for pieces of coal, and take care of himself and his younger brother without adult help. This pattern of working on his own began before Wright reached the age of ten and continued throughout his childhood. Wright's severe poverty also left him constantly hungry, a condition that continued until he was well past his twenty-fifth year. Although both writers suffered, Wright had less hope for future freedom.

A more obvious difference between the two writers is seen in the social pressures of their early years. So-called Jim Crow laws, under which regulations were created to promote strict segregation, prevailed in the South during both Wright's and Moody's experiences there. However, as Wright was growing up, the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active in enforcing racial separation. The Klan committed acts of brutality, torture, and murder to warning all black people. When African Americans stepped across the invisible but well-defined lines of social conduct as defined by the Jim Crow laws, they knew they would probably be severely punished. Although some social protests in the form of boycotts were carried out during Wright's youth in the South, most members of African-American communities learned survival behaviors that expressed a surface submission to the white supremacists. The KKK was so dominant in the 1920s and 1930s that some Southern U. S. congressmen openly supported activities of the KKK by attending and speaking at Klan meetings without their being considered immoral.

In contrast, during Moody's childhood, slow, but nonetheless dramatic, social changes developed. At first, these changes were subtle and were mostly witnessed by the younger generation. Moody's parents as well as the other adults around her continued to accept the mandates of segregation out of justified fear of KKK reprisals. However, despite the fears of her elders, the very young Moody experienced limited friendship with some white children, who lived close to her neighborhood. The children were curious about one another and shared toys for brief periods of play. This contact contrasts sharply with Wright's experience of brick-and-stone battles between groups of his black friends and groups of young white boys, who lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. They hurled their weapons at one another so violently that serious wounds often resulted.

Moody, on the other hand, relates that the son of one of her white employers openly flirted with her in front of his mother while Moody tutored the boy in Algebra. Two elements stand out in this scene: first, the blatant cross-racial flirtation and, second, the white mother's acknowledgement of Moody's intelligence and exceptional ability in math. During Wright's childhood, whites tended to believe that an education past eighth grade was a waste of time for most African-American children, who would grow up to hold only manual labor jobs. The majority of African Americans, whose poverty forced them to take jobs early, did not challenge these assumptions; few received high school diplomas. Black children were not expected to graduate from high school, let alone go on to college. Thirty years later, however, not only did Moody finish high school and proceed to college, she did so amid discussions, albeit heated ones, about the desegregation of schools.

In Wright's time, the legal precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) still dictated a separate but equal status to white and black populations throughout the states, with the sanction of the U. S. Supreme Court. It was through this court decision that the segregationist Jim Crow laws came into existence. Many prominent black leaders and intellectuals, during this time, became caught up in a debate over how to define the role of African Americans and how to fight for their civil rights. Conflicting philosophies disallowed agreement; the civil rights movement in Wright's time became embroiled in controversy and did not make much progress. Some groups, inspired by Marcus Garvey, advocated creating a Black Nation in the United States or moving to Africa. Another philosophy, based in part on Booker T. Washington's beliefs, stated that blacks should accommodate segregation and make the best of it.

However, during the 1950s, the political climate was changing, fueled in part by a new decision that was to counteract the older decree. From 1951 until 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court heard cases and finally made a decision in the case Brown v Board of Education ofTopeka, Kansas. Due to this landmark ruling, segregation of all schools became unlawful. This court decision was the first major move toward the end of legal segregation in the United States.

Moody did not feel the full effects of desegregation in high school, but she cites that, shortly after her graduation, a new, and supposedly improved, "separate but equal" school was opened in her county under the influence of the 1954 court decision.



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