Coming of age in Neshoba County, I considered Jackson the big city. I loved standing in the seat of our long turquoise Chevrolet, my left hand curled around my Daddy's neck as we sped from Philadelphia to Jackson, either down the Trace or through Canton if he felt like driving faster. It was the 1960s, and Jackson was larger than I could imagine. We'd visit my brother's family on Queen Margaret Lane in West Jackson, a residential city street where I learned to ride a bicycle on pavement and chased the ice-cream man and splashed in a little above-ground pool. I loved going to the old Woolworth, amid the neon of Capitol Street, where my Daddy bought me a toy Santa one year that still sits on my mantle every December.
I didn't understand the darker side of Jackson, or Neshoba County, back then. I was 3 in 1964 when Klansmen killed three civil-rights workers in my hometown, but I wouldn't know about it for years to come. Until third grade, I was so seldom around black people that I didn't know what prejudice was, or that they couldn't eat at the Woolworth counter where I loved to have a hamburger with just ketchup and onions when we could afford it. As I grew older, I slowly learned the darker realities of the state I called home. I became filled with uncertainty: I loved my mama, my daddy and later my stepfather, all passed now. I loved fried catfish and banana pudding and peanut butter and crackers, and sweet tea the day it was made. But I did not love Mississippi. I would leave someday and never return. Or so I thought.
The day after graduating from Mississippi State with a degree in political science, I left in 1983. Over the next 18 years, I lived in Washington, D.C., North Dakota, Colorado, Nantucket and in New York City four times. After teaching myself to be a journalist, I helped start several newspapers and wrote about nightlife and food and music and politics and social ills everywhere except in the state that mattered to me the most. Along the way, I learned that there are, indeed, problems and prejudice and hate everywhere. I also learned that that's no excuse for them, ever.
After a decade as a journalist, I landed in the mid-career program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I also studied in the Columbia Law School, Teachers College and the Institute for Research in African American Studies. While at Columbia, among people who like to call the writings of a Molly Ivins or a Rick Bragg "folksy," I realized that I was a Mississippian. To the core. I'd hesitate to speak up in class sometimes out of an inbred No. 50 inferiority. When I did talk, I went on way too long. I would walk up and hug my surprised Ivy League friends. I'd invite my cerebral counterparts out to urban honky-tonks with great country jukeboxes where I'd sing Hank at the top of my lungs, my leopard cowboy hat flying off my head as I forced my friends to learn to swing dance. My homing device was clearly buzzing.
A few weeks before I graduated in May 2001, about the time Mississippi voted to keep the Confederate battle flag flying, I abruptly decided to move home. Todd Stauffer, my partner in life and ideas of six years, agreed to come with me. We chose the big city of my childhood, a place filled with my memories — from the Methodist Hospital where my mother lost a breast, to Memorial Stadium where State beat Bama 6-3 the day Bear was supposed to make history, to the VA Center where I nursed my stepdad through his last week of lung cancer. I also found a shell instead of vibrancy and neon in too much of the city: Downtown, Farish Street, West Jackson. An ugly parking contraption loomed where Woolworth used to be. But from the second we stepped into a charming duplex in Belhaven where a 23-year-old Southern Miss grad, standing in front of his Andy Warhol soup-can poster, sang the praises of the city he grew up in, the potential broke through. We sensed that we could live, really live, in Jackson.
We didn't come here to start a magazine, but we quickly realized that we could use our skills to fill a void in local journalism, to bring Jacksonians the type of creative, professional, provocative, artistic and compelling publication you deserve. Todd and I and Stephen (the guy with the Warhol poster) and Jimmy and Charles and Tony and Bingo and JoAnne and Mimi and Jennifer and Jaro and Deborah and Lori and others have come together to produce the Jackson Free Press, and to help build a strong creative community here.
This is a preview issue, a hint of what the Jackson Free Press aspires to. When our magazine officially launches in October, you will find regular in-depth investigative reporting, breaking news with a twist, narrative storytelling about our unique city, and a variety of voices, some you've heard, some you haven't. This magazine isn't written for any clique — you won't agree with all the divergent voices you'll find here. And we hope that compels you to let us know your thoughts, especially on our Web site (jacksonfreepress.com). We aspire to high standards, fully realizing that not everyone agrees on what a high standard is, and we take our mistakes very seriously; please let us know when we mess up.
We want this to be a waystation for creative and progressive thinkers and have a "stronger appeal for younger readers — young in age, young at heart," as Willie Morris pledged in his first Harper's public statement. You will find emotion on every page of the Jackson Free Press: humor, sadness, anger, delight. We aim to be irreverent, lively, outspoken, entertaining, and even a bit outrageous and sassy. We want you to feel something when you read us — especially pride in Jackson. We're smitten with this city, but we are willing to kick and pummel it a bit to keep us moving forward — tough love, the pop psychologists call it.
Most of all, we are free in every sense. Not only will we offer 15,000 free copies every issue, we are also not corporate-owned and don't aspire to be. Our name pays respectful homage to the Mississippi Free Press, which was produced locally in the 1960s by civil-rights leader Medgar Evers and published by white publisher Hazel Brannon Smith. They had a tougher row to hoe, but I find hope in the struggles of Mississippians like Evers and Smith, who were willing to defy the odds and face down the status quo to make our state, and our town, more livable for all of us. If they could do that then, surely we can do this now. Evers said near the end of his life, "I don't know whether I'm going to heaven or hell, but I'm going from Jackson." We're an odd breed, we Mississippians; many of us run for a while, but most of us eventually come back. It's good to be home.