slave narrative maintains a unique station in modern literature. Unlike any other body of literature, it provides us with a first-hand account of institutional racially-motivated human bondage in an ostensibly democratic society. As a reflection on the author, these narratives were the first expression of humanity by a group of people in a society where antediluvian pseudo-science had deemed them to be mere animals. These works, although they provide us a keen insight into the nature of the period, all but disappeared following emancipation and the end of the Civil War. As black liberty was thought to be a vindicated cause, the accounts of former slaves lost their general appeal and were party only to a cultural heritage attended to only by other freed black slaves. However, black writers of both fiction and non-fiction in the 20th came to reflect the work of Frederick Douglas and others in the style in which they wrote. Anne Moody and Malcolm X reflect this legacy of struggle and redemption through literacy, which they share with other authors of the 20th century such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

In the early 1960’s, James Baldwin, a homosexual black man writing in self-imposed exile in Paris, made the observation to his nephew that in the last hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation, nothing much had changed for black people. Whether in the Jim-Crowe afflicted communities in the south or the ghettos of the urban north, black people were outside American society. This idea resonated with blacks in the United States, who started a protest movement designed to foster inclusively. This movement included Anne Moody, a young woman in Mississippi, and Malcolm X, a former prisoner and convert to Islam in the north. These writers were quick to realize that blacks in the United States needed to develop a positive identity for themselves, or would always be underneath white society in terms of economics and perception.

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Anne Moody portrays Mississippi of the 1950’s and 1960’s as a land of oppressive whites and complacent Negroes. As an activist affiliated with the NAACP, Moody attempts to break this cycle by involving herself in a number of sit-ins and other forms of non-violent protest. Her account is part testimonial and part journalistic; she seeks both to inform her audience of the events that transpired and of the personal effect that it had on her as a young woman.

Moody portrays her crowd as that of rational, intelligent Christian activists. This differs from many of the accounts of black men growing up in the same environment – many of the narratives portray the lives of young men as being successive attempts to hide from the violent feelings that accompanied oppression. Moody turns to God and to her friends for strength in hostile situations. Of her experience in a sit in where she and several other young women refused to leave their seats at a restaurant, Moody writes:

We kept our eyes straight forward and did not look at the crowd except for occasional glances to see what was going on. All of a sudden I saw a face I remembered — the drunkard from the bus station sitin. My eyes lingered on him just long enough for us to recognize each other. Today he was drunk too, so I don’t think he remembered where he had seen me before. He took out a knife, opened it, put it in his pocket, and then began to pace the floor. At this point, I told Memphis and Pearlena what was going on. Memphis suggested that we pray. We bowed our heads, and all hell broke loose. A man rushed forward, threw Memphis from his seat, and slapped my face. Then another man who worked in the store threw me against an adjoining counter.

Although Moody’s reaction to the violent actions of her white oppressors is instinctively angry and hostile, she attempts to resolve matters in peaceful ways designed to make her look more like the victim of an endemic social ill than like a hooligan. White southerners are usually portrayed as violent, scary bigots, bereft of any explicit merit that would earn them the social privileges that they have come to demand at the expense of the black population.

Moody’s more personal narrative accouts reflect her coming to grips with the fact that some people hate her merely because she is black.

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 was 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.”

Whereas much of the book is of note in that it provides eye-witness accounts of civil rights-era conflicts, other parts are fascinating I that they reveal the effect of bigotry upon children and young adults.

Whereas Moody’s work is quick to demonize Mississippi society, Malcolm X reflects the wider-scale condemnation of whites by blacks that was to characterize the latter half of the civil rights era. As Richard Wright wrote earlier in Black Boy, many southern blacks made their way to the north because the north was characterized as being an egalitarian haven free of southern-style bigotry and then became disillusioned after experiencing life in a northern ghetto, where the social activity of whites and blacks was just as segregated and blacks often had little or no economic opportunities available to them.

Malcolm X tries to focus on the idea of reclaiming the pride of the black people, through Islam and a rejection of white ideas and culture. Malcolm X grew up the son of a Black Preacher in Omaha, Nebraska, from which he escaped as a teenager only to find himself lost in the vice culture of Boston where he became involved in gambling and prostitution rings. After landing himself in prison for burglary, Malcolm discovered Islam through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm moved to Detroit where he changed his name and became the national minister for the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X and his contemporaries rejected ideas of racial equality, wishing instead to deepen or at the very least acknowledge the divide between whites and blacks as one that precluded any cursory or illusory attempt at racial harmony. Whereas Baldwin first addresses the idea of the Black need for religion and whether or not Christianity had hindered Black spirituality, and Anne Moody turned to her faith to provide her with guidance in the face of white oppression. Malcolm sees moving away from Christianity as a way to further divorce Black culture from what he considers the taint of white influence. White influence included conventional vices such as drugs and alcohol. Malcolm X refused to believe in the principles of nonviolence, believing instead that the blacks should be able to protect themselves. Because of this, many people saw him as a dangerous radical.

When Malcolm X made his pilgrimage to Mecca as is required in the Islamic faith, he discovered that Islam was color-blind and rejected the Nation of Islam. Thereafter he founded a non-sectarian group promoting black nationalism and was killed in what was thought to be a hit by those within the black power movement who thought that he had become too powerful.

Moody and Malcolm X have radically different philosophies: whereas Moody believes that blacks can overcome oppression and must struggle for equality, Malcolm X thinks that blacks should estrange themselves from anything white. Over the years, one mentality (the convergence mentality) has come to be thought of as mainstream whereas X’s thoughts have become increasingly marginalized.

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), 121-38.

Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965

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