Anne Moody, Humanities and World Literature Enthusiast

While the world knows her as a Civil Rights activist and author of Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968), I knew Anne Moody as an aunt, humanities consumer, and world literature nerd.

This is a very famous image of Civil Rights activist and author, Anne Moody. I simply downloaded it from the Internet.

Now, I have to confess something, reader. This was supposed to be my big Black history month posting. I am late, because I have a gazillion classes to teach, children, a husband, and a publication project that is behind schedule. And, this is going to be a confessional post for me. While I pride myself on authenticity, I can sometimes be the biggest hypocrite that the world has ever seen. I have kept something secret and I keep something secret. Anne Moody is my aunt. Very few people know this about me and I would have gone on keeping it that way, but the weight of the secret was getting heavy for me. Why would I keep something like this secret and why would you take my word on something like this, reader? After all, I didn’t even provide a personal picture, though I have some. I provided a picture from the Internet.

First of all, I have declined to write about my aunt for several reasons. She was my aunt. And I never knew her as Anne, the famous Civil Rights activist. She was Essie Mae. Yes, Essie Mae was her given name, but like so many African Americans born during that time, her birth certificate was sent back with the wrong name. It was sent back as Annie Mae. My grandmother allowed her to choose her own name, whether she wanted Essie Mae or Annie Mae. Well, my aunt liked Annie Mae better. Over the years, it was shortened to “Ann” and the “e” was added for a type of distinction. My youngest uncle, who we know as Kenny, is not legally named Kenneth. However, that is what our grandmother named him and that is what we call him. All over the South, white women worked in halls of records and named Black children what they saw fit. Or, they simply could not spell. And since these were Black children, they did not even bother to correct the records. Black children received birth certificates with misspelled names and sometimes incorrect birthdays. Black parents did not have the money needed to hire an attorney and get a court order to correct the “error.”

Second, as my aunt, I want her legacy to stand on its own and I want my legacy to stand on its own. I do not want to be one of those thirsty, tenure-chasing, young academics who write a couple of articles, grab a couple of committee assignments, then use my aunt to say I have at least stamped my name on one book in order to secure tenure, get to the next rung in the administrative ladder, and never publish again. Reader, in today’s publish-or-perish academic climate, folks do that, you know. In my eyes, African American humanities have reached a stagnant point as people are more concerned about tenure, titles, and pay-grades than actually doing the work. If I am going to make it at all, I want it to be for my own research, my own work, and my own writing. I don’t want to do the one and done. I don’t want to publish articles as part of a team. I have an insatiable thirst for African American literature. I have a weird curiosity about British Victorian literature. I am probably the only American you know who reads Charles Dickens for fun. And though my route to publication seems Herculean, I keep trying. At times, my rejections are flippant and racist. What is a Black woman from Mississippi doing being able to understand British literature, let alone trying to publish on it? Why should I be entrusted to teach literary theory and criticism? Do Black people even have that type of intellectual capacity? Why wouldn’t a Black person understand Foucault’s theories that power is decentralized and stratified and that institutions ROUTINELY monitor and oppress individual bodies. Everything is discourse. Everything is power. Modern society is perverse in that it names, produces, monitors, and punishes the thing it supposedly despises. Why wouldn’t a Black woman understand that? And sure, I could get in touch with the publishing company and put my name on a forward to Coming of Age in Mississippi, but wouldn’t that be, well, cheap? I mean, the book is still in print and the book is written well enough to stand on its own. My aunt doesn’t need me to speak for her.

Second, I live in ArkaMemphiSsippi. I have already been hazed to the point where some days I want to turn my back on academia forever. At one point, I made a very good living in the medical field working up cancer cases, sorting out insurance, and arranging surgeries. I had a job that I loved helping people through a very difficult time. They appreciated all that I did for them and did not care what I sounded like, looked like, or dressed like. All they cared about was the fact that somebody was there to help them get well. The vagaries of academic life seem small and so inconsequential in that world. I could go back to doing that. I have already posted on how painful it is to watch other Black academics cringe in embarrassment when I show up. And it is painful. And compared to the job I used to have, quite stupid. In this petty world of academia where life is guaranteed and cancer does not exist, folk have worked hard to secure their very tenuous positions (read, brown-nosed their way into their jobs), and they don’t need me rocking the boat. Since I tend to ask very tough questions (like, why didn’t my Christian HBCU have a theology degree), some people have already stopped speaking to me. Some people do not want it to be known that they even know me. Since I actually care about the “Q” in the QEP, rather than people’s fragile egos, I have been told by numerous people to “tone it down.” Heaven forbid if their tenure committees know that they have my personal emails and phone number. Other folks faked a blow-up so that they could remove me from their “friends” list on Facebook. Lordy, Lord, Lord what if they knew that I were that close kin to a Civil Rights icon. I could probably never secure full-time employment in this area again. I’m pretty sure, since I have a 16-inch Afro that is already the source of much contention in the Blackademic community, they would expect me to start wearing a black beret, a black leather jacket, a “kill whitey” t-shirt, and an automatic rifle. Good-googedy-goo, why I’d be tarred and feathered out of the academic community here.

Third, Anne was my aunt. She was not just a Civil Rights icon to me. She was my mother’s oldest sister. When people are looked upon as any kind of icon, their humanity is somehow stripped away. The rest of the world sees my aunt as this:

They do not know my aunt who had the sing-song, soprano-pitched voice. I remember the first time I ever heard my aunt’s voice. She’d called my mom at our home in Centreville, Mississippi. Do you want further proof of our kin? Our old phone number was 601–645–5581. It is no longer working, as we have moved, but if you Google that number, it belonged to my mother. Anne lived in New York at the time. She called and sang out, “Hellllooooooo, who am I speaking with?” I answered, “This is LaToya.” She said, “Oh, LaToya. This is your Aunt, the writer. Anne Moody. Do you remember me?” Well, I did not. I had not seen this aunt, according to my mother, since I was maybe four or five years old. At the time, I must have been about ten and she had faded from my memory. Standing there in that moment listening to this upbeat and happy woman, I did not know what to do, so I handed the phone to my mother. My mother, whose name is Virginia, but who we call, JennAnn, talked to her for the longest.

Some kind of way, the conversation turned to music. Auntie Anne learned from my mother that I loved Leontyne Price and was getting on her last good nerve trying to hit an operatic note. Well, it was not too long before my mother received a package in the mail. It was the first modern-day operatic concert I ever heard.

From that conversation on, Aunt Essie Mae took an acute (and sometimes annoying) interest in my interest in the Humanities and literature. Yes, she was every bit the annoying and quirky aunt that you sometimes see on the sitcoms. What I learned with my Aunt is that she was a Humanities enthusiast and a world literature nerd!

When Anne decided it was safe to move back to the South (my aunt was harassed mercilessly by the agents of the Counter Intelligence Program, but that is another posting), she moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana at first. More specifically, she moved close to the LSU area. Anne LOVED world literature. On one of her sporadic and fussy phone calls, she mentioned a name to me, Charles Baudelaire. I promised (lied) to her that I would one day get around to reading this Charles Baudelaire. Do you know, reader, that she followed that phone call up and told me that the name of the collection that she wanted me to read was called, Flowers of Evil? Eventually, I did read some Baudelaire. I didn’t find it as appealing as my aunt did, but as I read more world literature, I am appreciating Baudelaire more and more. In fact, my favorite poems by Baudelaire are: “Her Hair,” and “Invitation to the Voyage.”

Once when I visited my aunt with my second oldest aunt, she made me sit through one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, Titus Andronicus. According to Anne, we should not write off Shakespeare’s early dramas simply because the critics continue to say they are bad. This movie, I mean it was a 3-hour-long affair, just would not end. It went on-and-on-and-on. Anne made me watch this Chinese water torture on screen because according to her, everything Shakespeare wrote was derived from somewhere else and if I were really smart, I would research where the story of Titus came from.

Anne’s interest in literature began in much the same way that mine began. She was a young girl in Centreville, Mississippi aching to see the world. When she graduated from Wilkinson County Training Center, she went on Natchez Junior College on a basketball scholarship. Natchez Junior College was a private, Histoically Black College that was founded in 1884 under the leadership of the African American Baptist Convention of Mississippi, a fellow Wilkinson County native, George Washington Gayles, pictured below.

Anne moved on from Natchez Community to Tougaloo, where she studied under Dr. Jerry Ward, a legend in Black literary studies in his own rite. I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with him during my graduate studies, and I can say that the man is a walking encyclopedia of Black literary studies. I can see why Anne was so astute.

When I was a student at Ole Miss, my aunt, being the overbearing and quirky aunt, just had to visit me. She came and stayed at the Ole Miss hotel. She wanted to come. She wanted to come. She wanted to come! Anne came and sat at my work study job, the blues archive and B.B. King collection, all day long! You know what, reader? Anne really did not want to come to visit Ole Miss just for a leisurely stroll. Having lived through the Civil Rights Movement, she just couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe somebody in her family actually attended Ole Miss. Lord, did my aunt enjoy that Blues Archive. Lord, did she enjoy walking down Magnolia Lane, seeing what Meredith saw, strutting about soldier free, and eating on the Square. The Square where soldiers once prevented Black folk from walking! My aunt just couldn’t believe it! She walked in and out of stores like a boss! Her eyes glinted like a school girl’s. And I watched her do it all. It was like Christmas for Anne.

Then, she got down to business. She picked up the latest copy of her book, flipped open the front cover, pulled me to her with a vice grip, and whispered hotly to me, “Do you see this? They have stamped my name. Never, EVER LET A PUBLISHER STAMP YOUR NAME!” I asked in my ignorance, “Why, Auntie?” She inhaled sharply and said, “That means you are dead.” Anne knew that when she caught the bus back home, she would be in for another publishing battle. With her frequent moves and sick days, it was sometimes hard to keep up with her, but my Aunt was smart. She knew the publishing business. She would often give me advice. Over the many decades between the publication of Coming of Age and her death in 2015, my aunt received many offers to turn the book into a movie. And she rejected them all. My aunt knew that she would not have been able to write the screen play and therefore, she would not receive many royalties should the movie be a hit. She also knew that she would have to sign over the rights to her book, and she did not want to do that. My aunt guarded her work very carefully and challenged me to do so.

Perhaps, that is why I have guarded her kinship to me so closely. She was my aunt, and she never talked the Civil Rights Movement with us. She was not a “Civil Rights Movement icon,” because she was our aunt. She was quirky. She was funny. She loved birds. She had too many love birds. She loved ice cream. She loved those horrible early Shakespeare plays. She could play the piano. She liked Broadway. She wore wide-brimmed hats and was too thin for my mother’s liking. She loved opera. She played classical music for her birds in the morning. She called my middle brother, “Pickles.” She read world literature widely. She loved art, particularly the Impressionists. She loved pictures and made HUGE collages. She was sick. She grew old. She died in 2015 in her childhood home of Centreville, Mississippi. She had a family who loved her.

You know, reader, for a very long time, I have avoided writing about my aunt. But having written about my Aunt Essie Mae, and not the Civil Rights icon, Anne Moody, I feel something lifting from me. We often forget that icons and historical figures are people with families who loved them. While I want to forge my own path in life, it is no crime in acknowledging that yes, some of the trailblazers come from my own family. I am second generation Civil Rights Movement. I am third generation educator. No pressure. Right?

This does not come from my teaching binder, but from my personal professional diary. Thank you for reading.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora & cultural criticism. And her class never ends! Welcome.

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