We rolled into Memphis around dinner time to a hotel called The Exchange, which ended up being half apartment units and half “hotel rooms” (full service apartment-style). For $85 and a downtown location, we were surprised to see a full working kitchen complete with pots and pans and a separate living room area. I wish I’d had time to cook. Since it was a Sunday night, we weren’t sure how busy the touristy Beale Street would turn out to be, so we grabbed dinner at the only place along Main Street that wasn’t quiet and dark. “Flight” turned out to be a super awesome restaurant concept where every course, including wine, came in mini flight-sized portions. You could get a salad flight with 2-3 choices, soup flights, entrees and desserts. This was literally my dream restaurant, since I am eternally indecisive and always want to be able to order multiple entrees (but lack the stomach capacity). I got a “flight” of tender lamb porterhouse with mushroom ravioli and redfish over cheesy grits. Dessert was a cheesecake flight that included maple bacon, and a flight of port which was like tiny glasses of heaven.
After dinner, we strolled along the car-less Main Street which boasted daytime trolley service, and ended up at Beale. Despite its kitschy nature (neon lights? Beer to go?), it was a hotbed of live blues venues. As a perk, we learned that the city passed an ordinance to boost downtown visitation that lets you legally drink on Beale Street, New Orleans-style. Trouble.
The music was a definite change from Nashville. Bluesy, soulful, and raw. The city had an overall old-school, un-touched feeling to the buildings and streets. It felt like parts of it hadn’t been changed much in the past few decades, but that nostalgia was a positive factor. It felt homey—protected from influence. Our first bar was a hole-in-the-wall kind of place that had a lead singer who went to college where we both currently go to graduate school in NYC—a seriously, seriously small world. We plopped down at our next bar with beers in plastic cups, and made quick friends with a local drummer who was on a break from the stage that night. After hearing that we were from New York, he inquisitively asked if we were those “non-talking kind of folks from NYC”. When we asked him what he meant, he told us that the one time he visited the city, he went around waving hello to everybody he passed and nobody said a word. Foreign concept to most.
The streets were on the quiet side, and as the night dwindled (so we thought), we ended up at one last backyard-style bar with a little wooden stage. An energetic band tapped away on their drums and strummed their instruments, stopping spontaneously to ask where people were from. A few minutes later, the main singer started calling people to the dancing area via their places of origin, “New York, come on up here!!” One girl ran up to us and said, “You’re from New York? Well I’m from Nebraska, so you need to come and dance” Reluctantly, and half exhausted, we hopped on over and moved along to the music. The “end of the night” quickly spiraled into dancing on top of the bar at Coyote Ugly down the street with our new Nebraska friends (who were in the process of moving/road tripping to Florida) and downing shots of whiskey. I couldn’t have planned my night that way if I tried. When in Tennessee, folks…
The next day we took a quick walk along the river and then headed over to visit the civil rights museum, which is set inside of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was killed. The motel was preserved in its original state from the outside, including the balcony where he was shot. It was an eerie and surreal experience to see it, but the museum itself proved to be significantly heavier. The layout of the exhibits is extremely well done, and you are led through each in a specific order and given a solid history of American slavery before moving onto exhibits about the civil rights movement. As an avid follower of recent events surrounding racial tension in this country and the need for police reform, I walked into this expecting to be prepared for its impact.
Every exhibit cut me like a knife. Watching the story unfold from beginning to end is powerful and truly sickening. It’s extremely difficult to watch news clips and hear voices of people who were alive and surrounded by a level of hate that was so ingrained in our culture that it turned human beings into monsters. I cried as I listened to a Freedom Rider’s voice explain the twisted, vein-popping look in a woman’s face as she screamed, “Kill them N***” with an infant in her arms. My stomach hurt as I made myself watch footage of the day that the Little Rock Nine went to their first day at a white school, where thousands of grown men in a blind rage beat news reporters with baseball bats in an attempt to get at children holding school books. It’s hard to write about it, because it must have been so horrifying to have the weight of change resting on the shoulders of a child. I would never have been able to do what they did. I would never have been able to walk into a school every single day with the fear that somebody might kill me. The dehumanization and demoralizing life that African Americans faced was so consuming that it’s almost hard to believe that this is the same country I live in. I am ashamed. But it also reminds me why there are still so many problems. I have marched in Black Lives Matter protests, and I have never denied the seriousness of the racism still ingrained in our day-to-day. The problem is that too many people do deny it. Too many people have the audacity to tell a black person that they shouldn’t be so angry, shouldn’t react the way they choose to react, and that there is no longer a problem. As a white person, it’s hard for me to comprehend that level of elitism. The problem lies in the fact that the racism today is veiled behind animosity and people’s rights are trampled through inequality that is less glaring and less apparent than black-and-white water fountains. But when you visit a place like this museum, the reality of “why” we still have a problem could not possibly be clearer. A history this dark does not evaporate in a single lifetime.
Our greatest weakness as human beings is our ability to be so blindly consumed by hate. But there are heroes in our history, from 6-year-old children who lived through hell to get an education, to leaders that mobilized millions to fight a battle that must have seemed insurmountable. And every person living today owes enough respect to that to educate themselves, listen to those who are affected instead of pretending to know better, and refusing to perpetuate it—whether that perpetuation is through conscious action or naïve denial. Black lives matter, and silence is as deadly as hate.