The American South of the 1960s was no place to be different, much less a freak. Back then, boys grew up to become football heroes and marry girls who were taught to be perfect Southern belles. Segregation ruled, and you never voted for a Democrat in a national election, especially not a Kennedy. As far as music was concerned, you never sang anything in public other than a hymn. But Craig Gray knew he was different. His hero wasn’t Mickey Mantle. It was Arlene Francis. He knew the lyrics to Broadway show tunes as well as he knew the Baptist hymnal, and his grandmother’s African American maid, Matty May, taught him that the color of a person’s skin was not as important as what was underneath.
In his growing up, Craig Gray was a decidedly different resident of Forest, Mississippi, a solitary little boy whose parents died by the time he was eight years old. But he learned how to survive by drawing his family close to him, keeping dark secrets others feared to tell, and learning how to turn the word sissy on its head, just as his mama had taught him.
In a memoir set in Mississippi’s small towns, as well as the wider world of Jackson, Mississippi Sissy is a memoir of Southern voices now gone that mixes the tart-tongued, race-conscious patter of Craig’s Aunt Lola with the artistic, politically liberal musings of one of his early mentors, the great American writer Eudora Welty. It remembers the literary and theatrical lessons of journalist Frank Hains as well as the opportunistic and sinister preaching of a traveling evangelist who taught other, darker lessons. And, finally, it looks clear-eyed at the bittersweet truth of a Southern life touched by a violent and brutal act, an act that brings home the lessons America’s South can teach to those who are different.
In Mississippi Sissy, Craig Gray, one of our best-known celebrity journalists, creates a great panorama of the American South at mid-century as seen through the eyes of an odd little boy who took one small word—sissy—and made it bigger and stronger than anyone ever knew it could be.
“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.”
— Flannery O’Connor