Mississippi is my wondrous monster. I’ve tried to get over her, turn my back on her, deny, denigrate, and disown her. Safely cocooned in Minnesota, I’ve rebuked and renounced my own family. I’ve changed my name and homogenized my accent. I’ve been civilized, psychoanalyzed, de-fundamentalized, liberalized, rebirthed, and white-guilted. I’ve sobered up, asserted my manhood, honored my feminine-side and come out as gay and proud. I vote Democratic and pray Unitarian and think globally.
In other words, I’ve done my damnedest to put my past behind me.
Ah, but there’s the rub. That’s the worst of all places to keep your past—behind you. It’s From there it can wreak its havoc. Even in my adopted home of Minnesota, on the cool, clear, reasonable end of the river, the muddy Mississippi of my past still seduces me in her half-crazed voice, raspy from Camel non-filters, her breath a blend of bourbon and peppermint church candy, she whispers into my ear, “Explain me or I’ll drive you crazy.”
And instantly I am there again, hooked and reeled back through time, my senses taken hostage. I see her and smell her and hear her and taste her and I shiver as she draws a cool, moist finger down my spine like a trickle of summer sweat.
“See, I’m not dead,” she purrs, mimicking her boy, Faulkner, “I ain’t even passed yet.”
Everybody knows what Tom Wolfe said about never being able to go home again. Tom only told half the truth. The fact is, you can never completely leave either, and I’ve been trying most of my life.
I once heard that the first part of a person’s life is about mastery. The second, about meaning. That seems about right. My initial years were spent trying to master the narratives of my family, community and culture, those intractable stories that were set out for me a hundred years before I ever showed up on the scene. Like most places, the Mississippi I was born into was a world already well populated with stories, but three were critical to master if I was ever gong to survive. One was being a man. Another was being white. The last was being a Christian, namely a fundamentalist. My youth was spent absorbing the nuances of my Mississippi story— interpreting the cues, mimicking the behaviors, learning the coded language that insured my belonging.
The second half of life is recovering from the first half.
At some point most of us come to the conclusion that mastery, perfecting somebody else’s story for us, is the booby prize in life. The real prize is creating our own meaning. Authoring our own story.
I suppose some folks wear their birth stories more comfortably than others do, buying into the ongoing storylines they were dropped into. But when it came to sex, race and religion, I was an abysmal failure at all three. Not that I didn’t go to extraordinary lengths to pass as one of my people.
When I was 13 I even wrote a book about Mississippi as a way to gain inclusion. It was also the beginning of my lifelong compulsion to explain my home state, to others and to myself. The book was indeed a love letter to my people, a last appeal for clemency. Mississippi is the best place in the world, if you belong. It’s hell if you don’t. In Mississippi, belonging is everything and I was pretty sure I didn’t.
It was then that my story began unraveling. The “being a man” part of the script was impossible to maintain. It was becoming evident that I wasn’t what they called, “a real boy.” I wish I could have said, “To hell with what other’s think. I’m going to be true to myself.” I would have happily dumped Little League to write poetry. But at 13, I didn’t know a boy got to do such a thing and live, or at least not be institutionalized. About this same time, Hodding Carter, a Mississippi newspaper editor who nearly got thrown out of the state for being too soft on race, summed up the nature of my people. He said they “are the nicest folks in the world until they get it in their mind to kill you.” I believed him.
This was 1963, and not only was I under siege for my sexuality, but the entire state was under attack. Mississippi’s white population was engaged in an all out war defending its way of life.
It was the bloodiest period of the Civil Rights struggle, and I was living in the epicenter of that white hate and fundamentalist fervor fueling the violence. I was also a Southern Baptist kid, horrified at the growing realization of my gayness. So I doubled down on my righteous racism to compensate.
Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley condemned Mississippi each evening on the dot at 5:30, offering as proof black-and-white film footage of smoldering churches and synagogues, snarling dogs, black bodies beaten, bitten and hosed, or dragged from our muddy rivers. The governor said that it was all lies spread by the communists to discredit the noble people of Mississippi. My preacher swore even our sacred institutions were under attack from a godless Washington. This was a holy war, he pronounced.
I could sense the impending disaster. I was witnessing what my people were capable of doing to “outsiders.” The day might soon come when I would be turned on as well. I desperately needed the world to make sense to me.
Even more urgent, I needed for me to make sense in the world.
I’ve been trying to explain Mississippi ever since. First as her staunch defender, because the events were scaring the people I loved the most, and I thought by standing up for them, they might allow me to stay. Years later as her relentless prosecutor, because those same people would eventually reject me. And lastly, as her storyteller, because I’ve completely given up on understanding her. And that’s just fine. In fact it’s better than fine. It’s the only way back home. I suppose each of us eventually is called home to settle unfinished business, to gather up the loose ends.
Sometimes to belong, to fit in, to survive, there were are parts of ourselves that have to be silenced, hidden, even denied. Often times it was is the best, the most genuine pieces, those parts that shined the brightest, that have to go. We may have even been taught to hate those parts. To fear them. To persecute them when we see them reflected in others. We bury them. Sometimes we forget them, but do they forget us?
Now, in that second part of my life, where meaning is paramount, the question haunts me: What becomes of those cast away pieces? Do they stay in the past? Do they die? Or do they insist on being known until the day we ourselves pass on?
Those things that we are too young, too afraid, or too alone to embrace and welcome into our lives, do they disappear? Or do they wait on us to come back to recover them? Instead of living in the past, could it be that the past lives in us? Eternally. Waiting. To be explored like a hidden continent.