Memphis is blessed with a few catchy slogans for residents to latch onto: I Love Memphis. Now is the Time, Memphis is the Place. The ubiquitous Grit and Grind. These clever bits of text are, for many of us, a standard to be held high. With the force of opinion that only true love can engender, we put on for Memphis, a city with a gritty legacy whose detractors are as many as street corner barbecue vendors. Memphis is, for lovers old and new, the Grit and Grind capital of the Delta, King Cotton of the Bluff. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even though we are exuberant in our passion for our city, many Memphians have an honest, tempered approach to their love. There are no stars in our eyes. Our fair city, even in its most recent burnishing, still drops a step every so often. There’s work to be done, but overall, we love that our city is a fighter–it, through us, perseveres despite its problems. Memphis’ iron jaw is an extension of our collective indomitable spirit. We full-time grind so that Memphis can full-time shine.
Memphis is but a node on the larger tapestry that is America but local battlegrounds are still closer, more important. The issues are in our backyards, and we don’t want to see those backyards gobbled up for profit. Recently, there has been a lot of conversation in Memphis surrounding some pretty heft ideas: which spaces are allowed to be annexed for profit, whether or not local government entities should prioritize the needs of wealthy corporations and tourism dollars over the needs of the citizenry, and the public’s right to have a basic conversation with their government. Many are, rightfully, incensed at the dismissal of their concerns, their political and social capital, their very right to speech. How, some say, are we supposed to trust any representative body again? The people that we elect kick us aside, and deign not to speak to us or bother with our concerns.
This idea of Memphis as a one-sided conversation is old news among those of us who are from marginalized communities. We say, “stop shooting us” and our elected bodies say “stop misbehaving”–because violence is the state-mandated response to bad behavior for black and brown bodies. We say, “we want a piece of the wealth that we’ve been deprived of historically,” and our representatives say, “Wait your turn.”
We say “our children deserve the same kind of education that privileged children get,” and our city foams at the mouth. Those considered the least of us occupy most of this space, yet we receive the most minor of attentions, despite–or maybe because of–our grit. We haven’t been absent from the grind, but we’re shifted aside when the changes come, when the new becomes the commonplace.
I’ve seen parts of this city go from the worst of neighborhoods to brand, shining new. These are neighborhoods that I’ve lived in and walked through well before they were the playground for acceptable new Memphians. The separation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination that is our city’s–our country’s–legacy is reinforced in these spaces, with stares, whispers, and twisted lips, outright attacks or nonverbal cues of acceptability, respectability. Belonging. We have to protect our brand. No baggy jeans. We only speak English here. Black skin not allowed. Stay in South Memphis, where you’re supposed to be.
It’s been said that Memphis can walk and chew gum at the same time–that we can simultaneously walk, chew gum, and revitalize a wheezing basketball program, even. But if our love is really rooted in truth, we must admit that Memphis has historically been unable to simultaneously walk, chew gum, and give access to the people who have been systemically downtrodden for the past few centuries…and what’s more, we’ve been unwilling to just spit the damn gum out already. Thankfully, our city is full up with fighters and grinders, many of whom are already deeply engaged in the work of setting things right. Many, however, isn’t enough for this battle.
As a city, we’re going to have to acknowledge that Memphis has a legacy of discrimination and regressive policy that runs deep and wide. We’re going to have to reckon with the fact that certain privileges and opportunities are not, and historically have not been, available for all Memphians. We’re going to have to do the uncomfortable work of examining how our willful acceptance of our own privileges has served to disenfranchise others. We’re going to have to take ourselves out of this struggle for a moment and listen, actually listen to the experiences of people different from us: people from neighborhoods that have not and will not ever see a revitalization, people from racial groups that are frequent targets of state violence, people who have the audacity to worship a different being than we do, people who live outside of the hetero-normative essentialism of gender and sexuality binaries, people whose first language is not shared by us. We’re going to have to listen, and we’re going to have to understand that these experiences are the results of an intentional process to keep certain groups of people in our city from experiencing the great promise of America, that fleeting notion that hard work and tenacity–grit–will allow them access to experience and opportunity that others are given by default. And once we do all of this introspection, we’re going to have to willfully, strategically plan to change it. We’re going to have to challenge structures of power and make ourselves very uncomfortable in service to the idea that each person in our city deserves that access, that fair shot at opportunity, at equity, at happiness…without the threat of discrimination and violence.
Now is the time for everyone to work toward this goal. And Memphis is, indeed, the place.