Coming of Age in Mississippi

Anne Moody

“Soul is an elusive, overworked, often misapplied term … but it fits this powerful autobiography.” —
Library Journal

“Anne Moody recounts the horror and shame of what growing up in Mississippi really means if you are black. Poverty, knives, threats, arson, miscegenation, illegitimacy, domestic service, police brutality, Uncle Toms, lynchings, the works. Miraculously, out of the quagmire the personal excellence of this extraordinary woman and writer emerges.… Her later involvement with NAACP, CORE, summer projects, rights demonstrations, ugliness, violence, she describes without a trace of see-what-a-martyr-am-I.… A lovely and true book that gives you what good writing is supposed to: catharsis, baby.” —
Publishers Weekly

“Supremely involving … written with stripped simplicity … not a single false high note.” —
Kirkus Reviews

“The most moving and honest account of what life is like for the Negro in Mississippi as one is apt to find … a far better story (and certainly far better told) than most fiction being published today … One of the most (possibly
most) engrossing, sensitive, beautiful books of nonfiction which has been published for years and years.” —
San Francisco Sun-Reporter

“Simply, one of the best … For those readers who still persist in the myth that growing up black in the South is little different from growing up white, this book should prove a shattering experience.… Anne Moody’s autobiography is an eloquent, moving testimonial to her courage; indeed, to the courage of all the young who storm the preserves of bigotry.… After reading this remarkable book, we know that this is the way it is.” —
Chicago Tribune

“Definitive … supremely human … Anne Moody tells it like it is—and tells it with sensitivity and anger and despair and frustration and wondering.… She is a hero, I suppose, by measurements of history; but she is not a profile of a hero … she is as multi-dimensional as any person I have met in print.” —
Oregon Journal

A Dell Book

Doubleday edition published 1968
Laurel paperback edition published February 1976

Published by
Bantam Dell
A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York, New York

The quotation from the song “Danger Zone” on
this page
reprinted by permission of Tangerine Music Corp., Copyright 1965.

All rights reserved
Copyright © 1968 by Anne Moody

Dell is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc., and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-0-307-80358-0


Part One

I’m still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter’s plantation. Lots of Negroes lived on his place. Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers. We all lived in rotten wood two-room shacks. But ours stood out from the others because it was up on the hill with Mr. Carter’s big white house, overlooking the farms and the other shacks below. It looked just like the Carters’ barn with a chimney and a porch, but Mama and Daddy did what they could to make it livable. Since we had only one big room and a kitchen, we all slept in the same room. It was like three rooms in one. Mama them slept in one corner and I had my little bed in another corner next to one of the big wooden windows. Around the fireplace a rocking chair and a couple of straight chairs formed a sitting area. This big room had a plain, dull-colored wallpaper tacked loosely to the walls with large thumbtacks. Under each tack was a piece of cardboard which had been taken from shoeboxes and cut into little squares to hold the paper and keep the tacks from tearing through. Because there were not enough tacks, the paper bulged in places. The kitchen didn’t
have any wallpaper and the only furniture in it was a wood stove, an old table, and a safe.

Mama and Daddy had two girls. I was almost four and Adline was a crying baby about six or seven months. We rarely saw Mama and Daddy because they were in the field every day except Sunday. They would get up early in the morning and leave the house just before daylight. It was six o’clock in the evening when they returned, just before dark.

George Lee, Mama’s eight-year-old brother, kept us during the day. He loved to roam the woods and taking care of us prevented him from enjoying his favorite pastime. He had to be at the house before Mama and Daddy left for the field, so he was still groggy when he got there. As soon as Mama them left the house, he would sit up in the rocking chair and fall asleep. Because of the solid wooden door and windows, it was dark in the house even though it was nearing daybreak. After sleeping for a couple of hours, George Lee would jump up suddenly, as if he was awakened from a nightmare, run to the front door, and sling it open. If the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day, he would get all excited and start slinging open all the big wooden windows, making them rock on their hinges. Whenever he started banging the windows and looking out at the woods longingly, I got scared.

Once he took us to the woods and left us sitting in the grass while he chased birds. That night Mama discovered we were full of ticks so he was forbidden to take us there any more. Now every time he got the itch to be in the woods, he’d beat me.

One day he said, “I’m goin’ huntin’.” I could tell he meant to go by himself. I was scared he was going to leave us alone but I didn’t say anything. I never said anything to him when he was in that mood.

“You heard me!” he said, shaking me.

I still didn’t say anything.

Wap! He hit me hard against the head; I started to boo-hoo as usual and Adline began to cry too.

“Shut up,” he said, running over to the bed and slapping a bottle of sweetening water into her mouth.

“You stay here, right here,” he said, forcing me into a chair at the foot of the bed. “And watch her,” pointing to Adline in the bed. “And you better not move.” Then he left the house.

A few minutes later he came running back into the house like he forgot something. He ran over to Adline in the bed and snatched the bottle of sweetening water from her mouth. He knew I was so afraid of him I might have sat in the chair and watched Adline choke to death on the bottle. Again he beat me up. Then he carried us on the porch. I was still crying so he slapped me, knocking me clean off the porch. As I fell I hit my head on the side of the steps and blood came gushing out. He got some scared and cleaned away all traces of the blood. He even tried to push down the big knot that had popped up on my forehead.

That evening we sat on the porch waiting, as we did every evening, for Mama them to come up the hill. The electric lights were coming on in Mr. Carter’s big white house as all the Negro shacks down in the bottom began to fade with the darkness. 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 our porch Mama told me stories about what was going on in that big white house. She would point out all the brightly lit rooms, saying that Old Lady Carter was baking tea cakes in the kitchen, Mrs. Carter was reading in the living room, the children were studying upstairs, and Mr. Carter was sitting up counting all the money he made off Negroes.

I was sitting there thinking about Old Lady Carter’s tea cakes when I heard Mama’s voice: “Essie Mae! Essie Mae!”

Suddenly I remembered the knot on my head and I jumped off the porch and ran toward her. She was now running up the
hill with her hoe in one hand and straw hat in the other. Unlike the other farmhands, who came up the hill dragging their hoes behind them, puffing and blowing, Mama usually ran all the way up the hill laughing and singing. When I got within a few feet of her I started crying and pointing to the big swollen wound on my forehead. She reached out for me. I could see she was feeling too good to beat George Lee so I ran right past her and headed for Daddy, who was puffing up the hill with the rest of the field hands. I was still crying when he reached down and swept me up against his broad sweaty chest. He didn’t say anything about the wound but I could tell he was angry, so I cried even harder. He waved goodnight to the others as they cut across the hill toward their shacks.

As we approached the porch, Daddy spotted George Lee headed down the hill for home.

“Come here boy!” Daddy shouted, but George Lee kept walking.

“Hey boy, didn’t you hear me call you? If you don’t get up that hill I’ll beat the daylights outta you!” Trembling, George Lee slowly made his way back up the hill.

“What happen to Essie Mae here? What happen?” Daddy demanded.

“Uh … uh … she fell offa d’ porch ’n hit her head on d’step …” George Lee mumbled.

“Where were you when she fell?”

“Uhm … ah was puttin’ a diaper on Adline.”

“If anything else happen to one o’ these chaps, I’m goin’ to try my best to
you. Get yo’self on home fo’ I …”

The next morning George Lee didn’t show up. Mama and Daddy waited for him a long time.

“I wonder where in the hell could that damn boy be,” Daddy said once or twice, pacing the floor. It was well past daylight when they decided to go on to the field and leave Adline and me at home alone.

“I’m gonna leave y’all here by yo’self, Essie Mae,” said
Mama. “If Adline wake up crying, give her the bottle. I’ll come back and see about y’all and see if George Lee’s here.”

She left some beans on the table and told me to eat them when I was hungry. As soon as she and Daddy slammed the back door I was hungry. I went in the kitchen and got the beans. Then I climbed in to the rocking chair and began to eat them. I was some scared. Mama had never left us at home alone before. I hoped George Lee would come even though I knew he would beat me.

All of a sudden George Lee walked in the front door. He stood there for a while grinning and looking at me, without saying a word. I could tell what he had on his mind and the beans began to shake in my hands.

“Put them beans in that kitchen,” he said, slapping me hard on the face.

“I’m hungry,” I cried with a mouth full of beans.

He slapped me against the head again and took the beans and carried them into the kitchen. When he came back he had the kitchen matches in his hand.

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