Fresh off MLK51, Memphis now turns its attention to celebrating 200 years since its founding, while the nation observes the 400th year since the first enslaved Africans — “20 and some odd” men kidnapped from present-day Angola— were brought to these shores to literally build a nation with their bare hands: Now is an auspicious time for lessons learned — if we just will.
Founders and investors, John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson, named this city after the ancient Egyptian city on the Nile, and the men who ran it proceeded like pharaohs, using unpaid labor to develop a trading powerhouse, known for the sale and distribution of agricultural products and people, black ones. The reality of the past 200 years is fraught: After all, this land was first home to Chickasaw natives. And for some time now that reality has been overwhelmingly black, poor, underpaid and unhealthy.
This foundation suggests that a narrative embrace of a new future must include showing up for these people. Strategic and development planning by government entities, corporations and civic organizations must purpose themselves to let go of the status quo: Paying a living wage is non-negotiable.
And yet, the narrative around Mem200.com, created by Memphis Brand Initiative, vexes as it declares the next 200 years the “new century of soul,” referencing one of Memphis’ most resilient cultural productions — music. And in a quintessential Memphis way, the celebratory narrative belies the real-life tension of being, doing and living and Memphis as workaday folks who live and strive here. Mem200.com points to development projects that dot our landscape, like Crosstown Concourse and the One Beale gateway project. As a celebratory site is wont to do, it evokes our higher selves in mentioning life-saving hospitals like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
And, of course, there’s the music.
Signposts of Memphis’ most stubborn issues like economic injustice, cultural erasure and systemic racial inequality — well, not so much.
This is Memphis, after all, and we will have to live with the stain of being the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated 51 years ago. King’s agenda points to the better future we still have a chance to create because he was here in the first place to protest deplorable working conditions and the low wages the city’s black sanitation workers had been forced to accept. Now as then, Memphis is microcosm of the need for economic justice, even more acutely so as the second-largest poor metro in the nation.
Memphis, you’ve got some soul-searching to do
“Bring your soul,” Mem200.com urges us. But bring our souls to where?
This year, the nation also commemorates 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in the American colonies — at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1719. While some in our midst are loath to acknowledge this, the slave trade is the industry that fueled our growth and development quite specifically. Remembering, reconciling and truth-telling about this provides another chance for Memphians to get right and get real by simultaneously acknowledging its own bicentennial, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the beginning of the American slave trade, events that have had a massive influence on this 320-odd square mile patch of land we call home.
Convergences are interesting things. We often view them as anomalies of time and space, de facto events in the universe we accept without question. But convergences, especially those that occur around human actions, can be mapped. Convergences are the meeting sites of time, place, patterns and power, and Memphis often sits at the nexus of significant historical moments. Given these facts, Memphians who labor for justice and freedom cannot afford to ignore this convergence. Memphis is, word to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, at “tha crossroads,” and the decisions we make from here are of life and death import for many of the Memphians, whose needs are often ignored by their city’s powerful, elite, and comfortable.
How we got our mojo workin’
Let’s take a quick detour: Memphis is the northernmost node of the “Mojo Triangle.” The term, coined by music writer James L. Dickerson, describes a triangular shaped section of the Southern United States bounded by Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans. This region has produced most of the country’s foundational music: blues, jazz, country and rock n’ roll, the convergence of musical styles that created the “soul” packaged and sold in Memphis for tourism dollars.
The “mojo” comes from African-American folk magic practice known as hoodoo, itself a cultural convergence: Enslaved blacks merged, among other things, the traditions of their West African ancestors, daily rural survival practices, interactions with indigenous Americans, Christian beliefs, and the need for access to personal power into a folk magic practice that made its way into many art forms, including modern literature, art and music.
Crossroads are of great importance in the hoodoo tradition. They are places of power, and practitioners harness that power to make sweeping change in their lives.
Oh, Memphis, that hoodoo that you do
Now, historically, Memphis has trailed peer cities like Dallas, Indianapolis, Louisville and yes, even Nashville when it comes to economic development. Memphis has a higher poverty rate — and high crime rates due to lack of access and wage equity. Memphis’ economic development strategy uses cash grants, tax abatement and the allowance of continued poverty wages as business incentives. Despite these strategies, large scale corporate projects, like the Electrolux PILOT, don’t always pan out for the most disenfranchised Memphians.
The economy is only one lane leading to this crossroads. Memphis has a multitude of other issues: continued reliance on policing as the resolution to crime, rampant housing segregation and renter injustice, public development that serves to remedy very few community ills, facilitated by business, government, and nonprofit sectors.
Many Memphians have recognized this crossroads exists, and has asked itself where it wants to go from here. For the past 200 years, this city has been characterized by the oppression and exploitation of its most vulnerable. Memphians have created magic despite that oppression, but if Memphis truly wants to be a shining city on the bluff, these same historical tactics cannot continue. It is time for Memphis to embrace the spirit of justice that will transform it for the next 200 years and beyond. The city, its citizens and its leaders must immediately declare that to create the bright future they want to see, they will not rest until freedom — economic, racial — and otherwise — is a reality for every Memphian. The soul of our city depends on it.
Troy L. Wiggins is from Memphis, Tennessee. He was raised on a steady diet of comic books, fantasy fiction, and role-playing games. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Griots: Sisters of the Spear, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, The Afrikana Review, Literary Orphans and Memphis Noir. Blog: Troy L. Wiggins Twitter: @TroyLWiggins
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.