I am reading Kevin Sessums' Mississippi Sissy, and the magic started early, and sanguine - with a bludgeoned head on a not-so-fresh white pillow. A sissy in the South loses his father, his mother, and his virtue - roughly in that order, and lives to tell about it.
They say, in AA, that if you listen long enough - sitting in a meeting - you will eventually hear your story, many times over. I have never had that pleasure, or felt that connection. Mississippi Sissy is not an AA meeting, but I felt the connection five pages in. Maybe it was the very sense of being "other(ed)," a fancy, grad school term, parentheses included, for sticking out like a sore thumb, occasionally also interpreted as 'black-sheep-itis.'
Little Kevin sits with his mother, a woman who will be dead sooner than he knows or understands, and she talks to him about the magic of language; of a certain, familiar word, she observed:
"I know people call you a sissy. I know Daddy did a lot of the time, God rest his soul. Even I've called you that in my own way when I'm beside myself ..." She handed me her pen and a piece of her stationery. "Write it down. Write down that word. S-I-S-S-Y ... Now, whenever anybody calls you that again you remember how pretty that looks on there. Look at the muscles those S's have. Look at the arms on that Y. Look at the backbone that lone I has. What posture. What presence. See how proud that I is to stand there in front of you."Because my parents were older - in their 60s when I was born - I heard that word, 'sissy,' often enough. My father called me a sissy, and threatened to out me to my third grade class. He beat me for having Barbies, and gave me that look that ambled about between disappointment and white-hot rage that I continued to walk 'funny' and talk 'that way.' It was a kinder, gentler time than when the kids in high school called me joto ... faggot.
I like to believe, thinking on it now, that had my mother lived that long she would have sat me down and pointed out the defensive posture of 'F-A-G-G-O-T.' She would have called upon words like 'fierce' and 'tenacious,' perhaps even working in that the "g's" in faggot can be alternate plays on gregarious - which describes the nature of so many gays, and the onomatopoetic 'grrr ...' that involves both whimsy and strength (and is a not-so-subtle nod to the Bear community, might I add).
Of the word epiphany - sounded out by a Baptist preacher on a Sunday morning, when Kevin asked after its meaning - his grandmother responded, "Oh honey, that's a pretty name for a little nigger girl." And it fits, no? In every Southern novel, and most of the memoirs - in addition to the lilting accents and the strange cadence of Southern life - a strong, black woman provides food and wisdom through her very presence, and the occasional "come to Jesus" meeting. So, why shouldn't an epiphany be a little black girl?
I wrote a paper once, "Face-Down in the Dirt," which comes to mind now, a little bit because I am thinking of returning to graduate school - to literature and its study, because I have never been good at much of anything else, and also because of all the music in this Sissy book. "Face-Down in the Dirt" was an eco-feminist read of Southern women writing; it was music and magic. I created something in it I think I dubbed "Black (magic) mysticism," a black answer to the very Latin experience of magical realism. I set up the idea that black women - by virtue of their socio-economic, historic, and gender statuses have a physical and personal relationship with the earth, with dirt. It attached both a romantic and an essential association to the crush of grinding poverty. Dirt floors seem less hellish somehow when one can be literally recharged by them remade in the image and power of pulchritude, find solace and comforts in the mud between your toes - which is, after all, the color of your skin anyway.
And then maybe it's more than just the book weighing on my mind. It's unemployment and going back to school. It's boredom - swollen to the point of ennui - mingled with the need for a smart cocktail. And it is sweating through the sheets. The HVAC unit that fell off the back of a truck somewhere is still sitting in the den. There's no money to install it, and there's no window in my bedroom. It's 80 degrees tonight, inside, and my T-shirt cotton sheets don't breathe the way they should.
I am aware of my fat, my thick thighs and the scars on my chest where a cosmetic surgeon removed 17 lbs. of flesh. I am aware of my skin, its dark color, because it shines with sweat and oil. I am aware of my smell, a not unpleasant warmth that puts me in mind of summertime. For better or worse. It is humid in my bed. And I feel the South around me tonight.
I met with a counselor today, part of the editing process after the photo-shoot, 120 days of therapy and group meetings. It doesn't work like therapy, but it is the best one can get on county funding. The woman with whom I spoke today listened to my stories and asked smart questions - including the question, "Were you addicted to selling [drugs]?"
She listened, which is more than I can say for the other people I met over the past 14 weeks. And she offered advice, which is "not part of a therapist's job, but seems fitting ..."; she suggested I find a church, and I managed not to roll my eyes this time around. Maybe that's what all this Southern talk is leading up to, or the place from which it comes; it is a big ol' mess of serendipity that pus my considerable black ass on a hard, wooden pew ... and reminds me of the lyric and vibrant thing that happens in church and nowhere else in the world.
Maybe I'm supposed to further block out those Sunday school memories, replacing them with becoming a 30-something choir-boy ... and meeting a nice church-going man, who appreciates my very Southern charm(s). And who has air-conditioning.