“Mississippi isn’t a state, it’s a club,” the late Willie Morris once wrote.
The Yazoo City native and author of such classics as “North Toward Home” and “My Dog Skip” is just one of the many Mississippians featured in the new book “Coming Home to Mississippi” edited by Charline McCord and Judy Tucker and available through University Press.
The 230-page anthology with its rustic front porch cover art by Clinton painter Wyatt Waters, is a perfect sequel of sorts to McCord and Tucker’s 2008 work “Growing Up in Mississippi.”
“Coming Home” is a collection of thoughts and vignettes about Mississippi from Mississippians who have left the state for love or loss, for a career or just to chase a dream.
“(The book) is another look at what’s good about Mississippi,” says McCord. “So many people have fond memories of growing up here. When they come back you want to know why.”
The common theme of the book is that the Magnolia State truly is a special place to many people who still call it home even if they live halfway around the world. The soil still clings to their souls be it from the rich Delta farmlands or the sun-washed sands of the Coast.
Many of the Mississippians featured in “Coming Home” like actors Morgan Freeman and Sela Ward are familiar to millions while others may need further introductions. Some of the subjects have returned to their native state for a season or for good, while others keep a respectful distance.
“It’s been an outstanding group of writers,” McCord says. “Interesting people that you don’t know about.”
Some of the stories are full of heartache. Dolphus Weary talks about growing up in D’Lo, the son of a sharecropper living in a house with no plumbing. The sting of being black in a Jim Crow South drove him away to California, swearing, “I ain’t never comin’ back.”
Weary would eventually come back as a community organizer and one of the founders of racial reconciliation in Mississippi. “I suddenly caught myself longing for the cool green fields and woods of Mississippi,” he writes. “Was this really where God wanted me… (My wife) Rosie and I came home to Mendenhall in 1971 and we ain’t never looked back.”
One contributor Norma Watkins writes about her decision as a young Jackson mother to leave her husband and children and run away with a civil rights worker in the 1960s. The resulting scandal shocked and horrified her family and friends, including her college writing instructor Eudora Welty.
Later when Watkins mailed a manuscript and reference request to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Welty scolded and rebuffed her in a letter. “I was the bad child. I had been cast out of paradise and I couldn’t come home,” Watkins writes.
Former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley writes about growing up in Brandon before all of the crowns, titles and TV and movie roles. “Do people from other states feel the same way?” Mobley asks the reader. “Do they experience the same magnetic pull toward home? I don’t know but I hope they do. I think for most Mississippians, this is the question: Do you ever really leave home, or is home simply inside of us wherever we go?”
The editing process was two-fold for McCord and Tucker: A combination of requesting fresh vignettes from some of their subjects or getting permission to reprint previously published material from others who were inaccessible or deceased.
Tucker remembers that a manuscript from the late writer Wyatt Cooper was particularly hard to get. “He had one memoir and we could not find who held the copyright,” Tucker said. She contacted both Cooper’s wife fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and son CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Finally an email came from Vanderbilt saying the family would be delighted for the Quitman native’s thoughts to be included in the book.
Tucker and McCord, who met more than a decade ago at a festival honoring Eudora Welty, say their work styles complement each other.
McCord grew up in Laurel and earned two English degrees from Mississippi College where she won the Bellman Award for creative writing. “Judy is a really good reader,” she says. “We mark up individually and discuss and get together and agree or disagree.”
“Charline like me is a very driven person,” Tucker says, “She’s an extremely good manager. I’m never worried about misplacing a paper or copyright. I’m more the free spirit. She’s the straight arrow.”
“It happened that every once in awhile an idea would come to me and I’d write a short story about it,” Tucker says. Subjects ranged from domestic life in the South to her personal reflections on racial segregation.
Tucker grew up in near poverty on a farm in rural Leake County and says that reading and writing was always an escape for her. As an adult, Tucker moved around with her engineer husband while he helped develop the first national interstate highway system.
“From that I got a feeling of self worth,” Tucker says. “I remember walking through the Jitney and thinking ‘I’m a writer, a writer.’”