Anne Moody (1940- ) was born Essie May Moody in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. She attended Natchez Junior College and received a B.S. degree from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964. In the early 1960s she worked as an organizer for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and participated in the SNCC and CORE voter registration drives. She was also part of the 1963 Woolworth lunch counter sit-in. She worked as a civil rights project coordinator at Cornell from 1964-1965, and in New York City anti-poverty programs. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi (New York: Dial Press, 1968), and Mr Death: Four Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). She has won awards and recognition by the International P.E.N./Faulkner Awards and the National Council of Christians and Jews. She was married to Austin Stratus but the couple divorced in the late 1960s. She has one child. Moody currently lives in New York City and continues to write and work as a counselor in New York’s anti-poverty program.
Moody was near the
same age as Emmett Till, and lived near where he was killed. The following
is an excerpt, chapter 10, from Coming of Age in Mississippi,
pp. 103-109. What follows is presented with the original pagination.
Not only did I enter high school with a new name, but also with a completely new insight into the life of Negroes in Mississippi. I was now working for one of the meanest white women in town, and a week before school started Emmett Till was killed.
Up until his death, I had heard of Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets. But I didn’t know the mystery behind these killings then. I remember once when I was only seven I heard Mama and one of my aunts talking about some Negro who had been beaten to death. “Just like them low-down skunks killed him they will do the same to us,” Mama had said. When I asked her who killed the man and why, she said, “An Evil Spirit killed him. You gotta be a good girl or it will kill you too.” So, since I was seven, I had lived in fear of the “Evil Spirit.” It took me eight years to learn what that spirit was.
I was coming from school the evening I heard about Emmett Till’s death. There was a whole group of us, girls and boys, walking down the road headed home. A group of about six high school boys were walking a few paces ahead of me and several other girls. We were laughing and talking about something that had happened in school that day. However, the six boys in front of us weren’t talking very loud. Usually they kept up so much noise. But today they were just walking and talking among themselves. All of a sudden they began to shout at each other.
“Man, what in the hell do you mean?”
“What I mean is these goddamned white folks is gonna start some shit here you just watch!”
“That boy wasn’t but fourteen years old and they killed him. Now what kin a fourteen-year-old boy do with a white woman? What if he did whistle at her, he might have thought the whore was pretty.”
“Look at all these white men here that’s fucking over our women. Everybody knows it too and what’s done about that? Look how many white babies we got walking around in our neighborhoods. Their mama’s ain’t white either. That boy was from Chicago, shit, everybody fuck everybody up there. He probably didn’t even think of the bitch as white.”
What they were saying shocked me. I knew all of those boys and I had never heard them talk like that. We walked on behind them for a while listening. Questions about who was killed, where, and why started running through my mind. I walked up to one of the boys.
“Eddie, what boy was killed?”
“Moody, where’ve you been?” he asked me. “Everybody talking about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed in Greenwood by some white men. You don’t know nothing that’s going on besides what’s in them books of yours, huh?”
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.
That evening when I stopped off at the house on my way to Mrs. Burke’s, Mama was singing. Any other day she would have been yelling at Adline and Junior them to take off their school clothes. I wondered if she knew about Emmett Till. The way she was singing she had something on her mind and it wasn’t pleasant either.
I got a shoe, you got
Mama was dishing up beans like she didn’t know anyone was home. Adline, Junior, and James had just thrown their books down and sat themselves at the table. I didn’t usually eat before I went to work. But I wanted to ask Mama about Emmett Till. So I ate and thought of some way of asking her.
“These beans are some good, Mama,” I said, trying to sense her mood.
“Why is you eating anyway? You gonna be late for work. You know how Miss Burke is,” she said to me.
“I don’t have much to do this evening. I kin get it done before I leave work,” I said.
The conversation stopped after that. Then Mama started humming that song again.
When I get to hebben,
I’m gonna put on my shoes,
She put a plate on the floor for Jennie Ann and Jerry.
“Jennie Ann! You and Jerry sit down here and eat and don’t put beans all over this floor.”
Ralf, the baby, started crying, and she went in the bedroom to give him his bottle. I got up and followed her.
“Mama, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old Negro boy who was killed a little over a week ago by some white men?” I asked her.
“Where did you hear that?” she said angrily.
“Boy, everybody really thinks I am dumb or deaf or something. I heard Eddie them talking about it this evening coming from school.”
“Eddie them better watch how they go around here talking. These white folks git a hold of it they gonna be in trouble,” she said.
“What are they gonna be in trouble about, Mama?” People got a right to talk, ain’t they?”
“You go on to work before you is late. And don’t you let on like you know nothing about that boy being killed before Miss Burke them. Just do your work like you don’t know nothing,” she said. “That boy’s a lot better off in heaven than he is here,” she continued and then started singing again.
On my way to Mrs. Burke’s that evening, Mama’s words kept running through my mind. “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing.” “Why is mama acting so scared?” I thought. “And what if
Mrs. Burke knew we knew? Why must I pretend I don’t know? Why are these people killing Negroes? What did Emmett Till do besides whistle at that woman?”
By the time I got to work, I had worked my nerves up some. I was shaking as I walked up on the porch. “Do your work like you don’t know nothing.” But once I got inside, I couldn’t have acted normal if Mrs. Burke were paying me to be myself.
I was so nervous, I spent most of the evening avoiding them going about the house dusting and sweeping. Everything went along fairly well until dinner was served.
“Don, Wayne, and Mama, y’all come on to dinner. Essie, you can wash up the pots and dishes in the sink now. Then after dinner you won’t have as many,” Mrs. Burke called to me.
If I had the power to mysteriously disappear at the moment, I would have. They used the breakfast table in the kitchen for most of their meals. The dining room was only used for Sunday dinner or when they had company. I wished they had company tonight so they could eat in the dining room while I was at the kitchen sink.
“I forgot the bread,” Mrs. Burke said when they were all seated. “Essie, will you cut it and put it on the table for me?”
I took the cornbread, cut it in squares, and put it on a small round dish. Just as I was about to set it on the table, Wayne yelled at the cat. I dropped the plate and the bread went all over the floor.
“Never mind, Essie,” Mrs. Burke said angrily as she got up and got some white bread from the breadbox.
I didn’t say anything. I picked up the cornbread from around the table and went back to the dishes. As soon as I got to the sink, I dropped a saucer on the floor and broke it. Didn’t anyone say a word until I had picked up the pieces.
“Essie, I bought some new cleanser today. It’s setting on the bathroom shelf. See if it will remove the stains in the tub,” Mrs. Burke said.
I went to the bathroom to clean the tub. By the time I got through with it, it was snow white. I spent a whole hour scrubbing it. I had removed the stains in no time but I kept scrubbing until they finished dinner.
When they had finished and gone into the living room as usual to watch TV, Mrs. Burke called me to eat. I took a clean plate out of the cabinet and sat down. Just as I was putting the first forkful of food in my mouth, Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen.
“Essie, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed in Greenwood?” she asked me, sitting down in one of the chairs opposite me.
“No, I didn’t hear that,” I answered, almost choking on the food.
“Do you know why he was killed?” she asked and I didn’t answer.
“He killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions in the boys’ heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble,” she said passionately.
“How old are you, Essie?” she asked me after a pause.
“Fourteen. I will soon be fifteen though,” I said.
“See, that boy was just fourteen too. It’s a shame he had to die so soon.” She was so red in the face, she looked as if she was on fire.
When she left the kitchen I sat there with my mouth open and my food untouched. I couldn’t have eaten now if I were starving. “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing” ran through my mind again and I began washing the dishes.
I went home shaking like a leaf on a tree. For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.
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.
A few days later, I went to work and Mrs. Burke had about eight women over for tea. They were all sitting around in the living room when I got there. She told me she was having a “guild meeting,” and asked me to help her serve the cookies and tea.
After helping her, I started cleaning the house. I always swept the hallway and porch first. As I was sweeping the hall, I could hear them talking. When I heard the word “nigger,” I stopped sweeping and
listened. Mrs. Burke must have sensed this, because she suddenly came to the door.
“Essie, finish the hall and clean the bathroom,” she said hesitantly. “Then you can go for today. I am not making dinner tonight.” Then she went back in the living room with the rest of the ladies.
Before she interrupted my listening, I had picked up the words “NAACP” and “that organization.” Because they were talking about niggers, I knew NAACP had something to do with Negroes. All that night I kept wondering what could that NAACP mean?
Later when I was sitting in the kitchen at home doing my lessons, I decided to ask Mama. It was about twelve-thirty. Everyone was in bed but me. When Mama came in to put some milk in Ralph’s bottle, I said, “Mama, what do NAACP mean?”
“Where did you git that from?” she asked me, spilling milk all over the floor.
“Mrs. Burke had
a meeting tonight--”
“I don’t know. She had some women over—she said it was a guild meeting,” I said.
“A guild meeting,” she repeated.
“Yes, they were talking about Negroes and I heard some woman say ‘that NAACP’ and another ‘that organization,’ meaning the same thing.”
“What else did they say?” she asked me.
“That’s all I heard. Mrs. Burke must have thought I was listening, so she told me to clean the bathroom and leave.”
“Don’t you ever mention that word around Mrs. Burke or no other white person, you heah! Finish your lesson and cut that light out and go to bed,” Mama said angrily and left the kitchen.
“With a Mama like that you’ll never learn anything,” I thought as I got into bed. All night long I thought about Emmet[t] Till and the NAACP. I even got up to look up NAACP in my little concise dictionary. But I didn’t find it.
The next day at school, I decided to ask my homeroom teacher Mrs. Rice the meaning of NAACP. When the bell sounded for lunch, I remained in my seat as the other students left the room.
“Are you going to spend your lunch hour studying again today, Moody?” Mrs. Rice asked me.
“Can I ask you a question, Mrs. Rice?” I asked her.
“You may ask me a question, yes, but I don’t know if you can or not,” she said.
“What does the word NAACP mean?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know?”
“The lady I worked for had a meeting and I overheard the word mentioned.”
“What else did you hear?”
“Nothing. I didn’t know what NAACP meant, that’s all.” I felt like I was on the witness stand or something.
“Well the next time your boss has another meeting you listen more carefully. NAACP is a Negro organization that was established a long time ago to help Negroes gain a few basic rights,” she said.
“What’s it gotta do with the Emmett Till murder?” I asked.
“They are trying to get a conviction in Emmett Till’s case. You see the NAACP is trying to do a lot for the Negroes and get the right to vote for Negroes in the South. I shouldn’t be telling you all this. And don’t you dare breathe a word of what I said. It could cost me my job if word got out I was teaching my students such. I gotta go to lunch and you should go outside too because it’s nice and sunny out today,” she said leaving the room. “We’ll talk more when I have time.”
About a week later, Mrs. Rice had me over for Sunday dinner, and I spent about five hours with her. Within that time, I digested a good meal and accumulated a whole new pool of knowledge about Negroes being butchered and slaughtered by whites in the South. After Mrs. Rice had told me all this, I felt like the lowest animal on earth. At least when other animals (hogs, cows, etc.) were killed by man, they were used as food. But when man was butchered or killed by man, in the case of Negroes by whites, they were left lying on a road or found floating in a river or something.
Mrs. Rice got to be
something like a mother to me. She told me anything I wanted to know.
And made me promise that I would keep all this information she was passing
on to me to myself. She said she couldn’t, rather didn’t,
want to talk about these things to the other teachers, that they would
tell Mr. Willis and she would be fired. At the end of that year she was
fired. I never found out why. I haven’t seen her since then.