Oh how I love this city! Sometimes when I mention I love Memphis, I get questioning looks from people, especially people who assume that Nashville (where I live) is the preferable city of the two.
I came to Memphis for the first time (I think) when I moved all my stuff into my dorm freshman year. If I had been before that, I don’t remember it. I loved my college experience, my friends, the church I became a part of, the people I babysat for, the MidSouth fair, the “new” bridge, walking around downtown and in midtown…so much more.
I remember in my sophomore year of college, a Black man was elected mayor for the first time in Memphis. He was re-elected several times, and was still the Mayor when I left for a new city 5 years later. I honestly don’t remember much about his administration when I was there. But what I do remember clearly is this: watching people, some of whom I called friends, respond to his election was my first experience hearing racist remarks or jokes by people who I considered friends. To be clear, though, I would not have identified it as racism then. I had been taught that racism looked a certain way, and sounded a certain way, so while the comments of my friends and classmates made me uncomfortable, I am sure I thought of it as rude or, in my quintessential southern way, just “tacky” rather than racist.
In my junior year of college, the National Civil Rights Museum opened. It took me a few months to get there, but I was amazed at all the things I didn’t know about civil rights history and about Dr. King’s life and work. I have been back several times, including with students about 4 years ago, and I learn or pick up nuances of something different each time. If you haven’t been to this museum in the past few years, you should go. (While you are in the city, you should also check out Stax record museum. I went for the first time in summer of 2022 and it was amazing.)
It was my senior year in college and first year in graduate school, when I was spending most of my days in the Memphis City Schools and the Memphis Housing Authority, that I was able to more deeply see the racial tensions in the city. I was fortunate to have good mentors, supervisors, and some friends who had a different lived experience than I did and who helped me see the tension without taking on the fragility. As I look back into that time in my life, it was these experiences plus my work with people in poverty in Memphis that has shaped me more than anything else has, with the exception of my faith.
“”It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line.” (James Baldwin)
To the Nichols family, I am praying for you with words I really can’t define because nothing will bring back your son/brother uncle. To Memphis, my city of brothers, the city where I grew up, the city I am hopeful for… I am praying for you too.