Inescapable how it felt to grow up black in Memphis

  • A just and noble cause: people hold signs resembling the placards carried by striking sanitation workers in 1968 as they join in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, who was in Memphis in support of the workers (Photograph by Mark Humphrey/AP)

    A just and noble cause: people hold signs resembling the placards carried by striking sanitation workers in 1968 as they join in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, who was in Memphis in support of the workers (Photograph by Mark Humphrey/AP)

The assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr occurred eight years before I was born, but in Memphis, it has never quite seemed like the past. It is so deeply imprinted on the city’s collective psyche that it hovers somewhere above the present, tingeing the air with grief.

Although I grew up in Memphis, I didn’t visit the Lorraine Motel — the site where an assassin’s bullet felled King 50 years ago on April 5 — until I was an adult. It had been easy to avoid. For much of my childhood, the motel sat dilapidated and forlorn as a local foundation scrambled to turn it into a civil rights museum. But I could never dodge my personal connection to that place: my father, Marrell McCollough, witnessed the shooting and attempted to render first aid to King. A famous photograph froze in history the moment my father kneels over King as three people point in the direction from which the shot came.

I steeled myself for the simplistic and sanitised tributes to King’s legacy that accompanied the assassination’s 50th anniversary — most of all, the cherry-picked, innocuous quotes from his speeches. Whenever I hear the quote from his I Have a Dream speech about little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls, I think back to the day I learnt I was black. The year was 1980, and I was a four-year-old on a daycare’s playground swing set in Memphis. Two white girls played near by, one sitting in a swing next to me and the other pushing her. Both ignored me. I asked the one who was standing to push me, too, and they stared at me, their faces twisted and mocking. She spat out her response:

“We’re not playing with you — you’re black!”

I cried, loudly and impotently, as the girls laughed. My wails echoed around us, beyond the earshot of any grown-ups who were supposed to be watching us, but were nowhere to be found. Although other children romped on that playground, to me there were only the three of us, bound together in an agonising tableau. When my mom picked me up that afternoon, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain what had happened. “You look like you’ve been crying,” she remarked. “They wouldn’t play with me,” I said. “I don’t want to go back.”

My place in society now cemented, I began to see the city with new eyes. Over time, it dawned on me that I was still living under segregation. I knew what that was because I had seen faded childhood photos of my mother with her brothers and sisters sitting next to a sign indicating that it was coloured day at the zoo. They were dressed nicely, smiling broadly. I can’t believe how happy they look, I thought as I flipped through the crinkling pages of my grandparents’ plastic-coated photo albums.

My segregation experience wasn’t like my mother’s: she attended all-black schools with outdated textbooks handed down from white schools, sat in movie theatres’ coloured-only balcony sections, played in coloured-only parks. My experience was subtler. I went to school with whites, sat next to them in movie theatres, played in the same parks. I had white friends, although I saw them mostly at my inner-city magnet school. As with my mother’s generation, whites largely lived in neighbourhoods with other whites. Relatives warned that the day would come when those friends would become more race-conscious and abandon me. When you’re older, you’ll see, they said.

I did not believe it at first — they didn’t know my friends. But one by one, many of those friendships did fall away. Some ended naturally as our interests diverged, or when they transferred to different schools. Others ended abruptly, as with the girl from the liberal family who took me roller-skating one weekend. A group of older white boys harassed me — the only black person there — to the point of tears, and my mother confronted the girl’s parents when she learnt they had done little to intervene. The family would have nothing to do with us after that.

Still, Memphis was home, and I searched for comfort there. I loved it, even if I got the feeling it didn’t always love me back. I loved the Hernando de Soto Bridge, a giant “M” spangled with golden lights that spanned the Mississippi River. I got a kick out of the weekly local wrestling programme with its rowdy, braggadocious cast, although its intro music — a variation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme song — and twirling Greco-Roman statue on our TV heralded the end of Saturday morning cartoons. I steeped myself in historic sites such as Beale Street and Victorian Village, the town’s charisma soaking down into my bones. But the oppression that black people had suffered in those places loomed in the back of my mind, souring the visits I longed to savour. Stalked by the past, I moved in the shadow of Jim Crow’s ragged, outstretched wings.

I noticed the references to cotton that peppered the town and insinuated themselves into my life. Even the sandwiches I brought to school in my E.T. lunch box brimmed with King Cotton-brand lunchmeat. Cotton, that sustainer of the Confederacy, picked by slaves and sharecroppers, somehow maintained its kingship, even if only as a figurehead. I knew from trips downtown that a cotton boll adorned the middle of the city’s seal, a recognition of the cotton industry’s central role in Memphis economy and culture. The industry’s economic importance had declined by the time I was born, but the city still celebrated the Cotton Carnival every year. (The name had officially changed by the 1980s, but everyone I knew still called it that.) The local newspaper’s society page was in the same section as the comics, so I knew that the king and queen were usually white.

I resolved to leave Memphis when I was old enough. When the time was right, I would go someplace where I could shed the sad and shabby history that had been handed down to me and make my own. I would go someplace that was the opposite of Memphis — maybe a big city up north. In the meantime, I went through school with the single-minded purpose of building a track record that would earn my admission into a good university far away. I entered academic competitions, joined clubs, got involved in student government. In high school, I ran for “Minority Vice-President” of the student council — a position set aside to ensure the election of at least one non-white candidate in a student body that was roughly 60 per cent white and 40 per cent black. My escape plan succeeded in 1994, during my senior year of high school. Hands shaking, I opened the envelope that cleared the path for my exit: I would be attending a renowned university near Chicago in the autumn.

Recently, as I gazed at glassy, mountain-ringed Lake Tahoe from my back deck here in Incline Village, Nevada, it occurred to me that I had finally achieved the goal I set so long ago: I had moved to a place that was the opposite of Memphis, which turned out to be a tiny hamlet in the High Sierra. But far from feeling victorious, I felt depleted, like I had succeeded only in wrenching myself from my roots. A flood of pain engulfed me, the pain of estrangement from and longing for home.

I had run from Memphis, but hadn’t Memphis run from me, too? Like the girl on the playground who refused to push me on the swing, hadn’t the city excluded me, sneered at me, set me apart? And hadn’t it been running from itself, too, in concentric rings of white flight away from its centre, towards its edges and beyond?

It seemed to flee from its own heart, where the Lorraine sits. That site isn’t just a landmark or a place where something terrible happened; it is a wound from which the city never fully recovered — a gash in the civic soul that still aches, maybe even festers. I spent much of my life recoiling from that trauma, from the ugly and enduring circumstances that precipitated it and the family connection that tied me to it.

Maybe I had written off the city unwisely, as one cutting off a parent for slights long past. I had read with pride about how it employed a clever end run around the state legislature to rid itself of its most notorious Confederate statue. Was that not a sign of a course correction, a gesture towards change? I questioned relatives who still lived there — my mom and stepfather, plus a younger brother and sister — hunting for clues about what Memphis had been like since I left. During my visits, I tested the air for a shift in the winds.

With great curiosity, I followed the city’s observance of the assassination’s 50th anniversary, wondering how it would address the inequality that brought King to town and persisted throughout my time there. Would officials acknowledge past mistakes and try to correct them, or would they run from them?

I learnt that the city had, within the past year, announced that it would pay some amount of retirement restitution to the surviving sanitation workers on whose behalf King had been working when he was killed. I scanned the calendar of upcoming events, a flurry of ceremonies, retrospectives and symposiums featuring civil rights luminaries.

And then I came across the transcript of a speech that political commentator Angela Rye gave at an event commemorating the sanitation strike, where she castigated the city for its staggering child poverty rate, its disregard for activists’ civil liberties, its discriminatory law-enforcement tactics. “Revisionist history is what makes us love Dr King,” she said. “It’s the pulling of the quotes that are the easiest to digest.”

In response to her remarks, the mayor claimed not to know who Rye was.

Just as I feared, the only quotes that were really ubiquitous as the anniversary approached were those easy-to-digest ones. The ones about economic justice and government-sponsored violence get much less press. But the seemingly safe quote about the children is not that easy to digest, either, all these years later. It still sears my soul as I picture myself on that playground swing set, sitting next to the other girls, yet alone.

Lita McCollough Seletzky is working on a book about her father

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Published Apr 7, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 7, 2018 at 8:16 am)

Inescapable how it felt to grow up black in Memphis

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