April 27, 2007
Song of the South
A moving memoir of growing up gay in the civil rights era
Sometimes, books are simply too painful to get through. Sometimes they bring up memories too lightly buried, brush against scrapes and scratches too fresh.
Other times, they’re simply too difficult to pronounce.
Kevin Sessums’ autobiographical Mississippi Sissy (St. Martin’s, $24.95, hardcover) may fall into the first category for many readers, while others with more sedate childhoods will just fail to know when to stop with the syllables.
Sessums had led an interesting life as an editor at Andy Warhol’s Interview, Vanity Fair and Allure, in addition to writing for Elle, Travel and Leisure, Playboy, Out and other magazines. In his decades of journalism, he has probably traveled far and wide and seen it all.
Probably none of it compares to the drama and trauma, triumphs and travails of his first 18 years.
While the story moves in a forward direction overall, there are jaunts back and forth in time, so a chapter dealing with his teenage years might also recount a tale of him in first grade. Once that conceit is absorbed, it is easier to focus on the linear storyline and simply accept the out-of-sequence events as daydreams, almost.
His father was a basketball coach who had been drafted by the New York Knicks. However, when Kevin’s mother became pregnant, she decided that she could not live in New York City and raise an infant, so Coach Sessums returned to the land of lawns and honey and got on with his life, later siring Kim and Karole. Leave it to Southerners in the 1950s to think that it was “cute” to have children whose cumulative first initials were KKK.
The elder Sessums died young, in a car crash, leaving seven-year old Kevin with memories of fear--his father’s fear of him, not vice versa--and a secret bordering on an isolated incident of molestation.
A year later, Kevin’s mother passed away of esophageal cancer, having imbued her son with a love of the English language, and a reclamation of the word others used to hurt him: sissy. She pointed out to him how muscular the trio of S-es are, how strong the arms of the Y, and what a fine head was on the shoulders of the I. She showed him that, just because he was different, it did not mean that he was bad, or less than, or not powerful in his own right.
Going to live with his maternal grandparents, Kevin and his siblings quickly adapted to their new surroundings. These weren’t unfamiliar surroundings, since the children had spent time at their grandparents’ house all throughout their young lives.
It was through his grandmother’s maid and oldest, closest friend Matty May that Kevin learned about racism, and about how a two-syllable word can be used to crush a person’s spirit. LGBT readers can connect that with the word in the title, or with a nastier one for a gay man. For Matty May it was another word used all too frequently around her, without any thought of what effect it had, bearing its weight down upon her elderly shoulders. Hearing Kevin use it twice in his life was more than the poor woman could bear, almost dashing her hopes for this sensitive scion of a new generation.
Sessums’ thoughtfully constructed and emotionally loaded tale takes the reader through a staple of coming out in a bygone day: the pickup in the movie theater as well as two incidents of being masturbated by a respected clergyman.
It journeys through not only the deaths of his parents, but also that of his mentor and greatest friend, a life cut tragically short in a grisly murder.
However, it also follows his first forays into consensual adult sex and romance, his victories as well as his defeats, until he ultimately escapes to New York.
The book’s prologue begins with words from the author Flannery O’Connor, a favorite of Sessums’:
“When I am asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it’s because we are still able to recognize one.”
Well, in this freak, most readers will recognize a bit of themselves.