Sunday Morning ~ Walking in Memphis
Diso la lumbe lili m’kamwa, nkulinga utaliona. ~ That the eye of a nightjar is in the mouth, you can only know that after you have seen it.
October 27, 2019
If Sarah hadn’t wanted to see Graceland, I may have skipped Memphis altogether and headed south on the Natchez Trace from Nashville. But traveling with friends means being open to alternatives and I’d never been to Memphis, so good time to go. We could pick up the Trace in Tupelo, Mississippi. I figure I’ll do the northern part another time. I liked Elvis as much as the next person, but was not planning to spend an outrageous amount of money to see his house and jumpsuits. I am all for museums and love them, but I’m against extortion. I sat in the sunshine and read while Chris and Sarah toured the property which seems more shrine than museum. I did find out from one of the security guards, however, that you can walk to his grave for free from 7:30-8:30 a.m. but I didn’t go back.
We checked in to our apartment in Memphis and I was completely blown away by how sweet the city is! Very walkable and safe, and the setting on the Mississippi is spectacular. Why had I not been there? We only had a day and a half so chose three of the dozens of museums to see and started out with the tiny Sun Studio where so many great singers recorded. I knew of this place only from seeing the stage play, The Million Dollar Quartet about the jam session with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis secretly recorded by Sam Phillips. We got there for the first tour and waited in the lobby, a vintage soda fountain, and drank a one dollar cup of coffee. I had no idea that Elvis started his recording career by stopping in to this studio on his lunch hour to record a song for his mother. Not a music scholar, I knew of this studio only from seeing the play with my cousin. I loved hearing the history about Sam Phillips who built this business and the luck and perseverance that led to his success. I always find those stories inspiring. The actual recording studio is just as it was when the great stars recorded there. The only thing they let you touch is the original microphone that they used during recording sessions. People can go have their photos taken with it, or just caress it. I was much more moved by that tour than I expected. I’m not sure if it’s just all the history I hadn’t known, or the thought that kept running through my mind of…this was during the depression and then World War II. All this life and talent kept rolling. That somehow felt reassuring. We left there and walked across town, chatting and laughing, to the Civil Rights Museum. OMG. That’s when the laughing stopped.
I was eleven years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I knew of him from watching the news every evening in my house. The television occupied a quarter of the den with it’s small screen in the big wooden frame. The big knob protruding to the right had to be turned like a shower faucet to change to one of the three channels. Evenings it was always tuned to the news and Walter Cronkite. That Thursday my mother and I were shopping for fabric in Framingham, which was a special outing. We had a fabric store in Maynard, but the one in Framingham was enormous and had a huge selection. It was a treat to go there. We went to find fabric for Easter dresses and left right after supper, leaving the dishes for when we got home. Thursday evenings my father had office hours so my mother could use the family car. It was the one night the store was open late. I remember being happy in the ocean liner-sized station wagon on the way home. It was that early spring damp and cold, the kind where you need to wear a coat but you are still chilly with the lighter weight apparel. I remember walking into the kitchen with our shopping bags and being all happy about what I was about to start sewing. My brothers were in the den with the television on and I heard my mother say as she was bending to pick something up, “Oh no. They shot him too?” But not in a shrieking kind of grief stricken voice. It was more of a resigned voice, like you’d say when you overwatered a plant and it died. Oh crap. This one died too. I don’t remember what I did then, but it wasn’t sit in front of the television waiting for more news or hover around waiting to hear of the collapse of our country. It was a school night. I may have been told go get ready for bed. I was in sixth grade. Bedtime was nine.
On this past Thursday, as I slowly walked through the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s assassination, I was overcome with shame for not knowing so much of the history. Did our teacher talk about it on that Friday? I have no recollection of that. Did we discuss it at the dinner table? I don’t think so. There was sadness, yes, but no attempt to understand any of it. I never knew he had a brother. I never knew his parents were still alive then, but he was only thirty-nine! Of course they were still alive. I have a child who is thirty-nine! I didn’t know why he’d been in Memphis in the first place. I didn’t know Jesse Jackson was with him. The most shameful thing is that I never tried to find any of this out.
This museum is one of the best I’ve ever gone to, and I go to a lot of museums. I met Chris and Sarah outside afterward and we couldn’t even speak. Over and over I wondered if I’d have been that brave had I been a little older. Would I have marched? Would I have attended student protests? Would I have sat at those lunch counters risking arrest and beatings? I have no idea. Growing up white in a white town I reflected on what a tiny bubble I existed in. Where was the attempt at understanding such monumental shifts in our civilization? The Vietnam War, the murder of our leaders: what was in the minds of adults back then? Is it at all similar to what we feel now? Our marches aren’t all resulting in firehoses being turned on us, so it seems safer. National Guard aren’t shooting students as they protest but are we less racist as a whole with the racist leadership we have now? What kind of museum will stand as an education to those who come after us? Will it hold the bullet-ridden doorways of schools? Or the cigarette packs of young men strangled by policemen? What kind of species are we?
Now having followed south the ancient route of bison and indigenous people on the Natchez Trace I’m trying to grapple with a line between hope and despair. I can see how we can come back from dark times in our history but then think, it doesn’t really change. It’s only the methods that change.
Love to all,