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Fitting Memphis Into The Southern Narrative


Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee has announced he's retiring, setting up a scramble to fill his seat. One city in that state ranks among the poorest in the country. That place is Memphis, Tenn., which has one of the largest African-American populations in the U.S. It's also the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated. We've been checking in with authors about the regions they write about and live in to see what the national conversation misses when places are in the news. Zandria Robinson is a professor from Memphis, Tenn. And she recently wrote an essay called "Listening For The Country" about growing up black in the South and the tensions between her dad, who grew up in the countryside and her mom who grew up in the city.

ZANDRIA ROBINSON: My mom, who had been raised in Memphis, you know, very sort of city-sophisticate - she was sort of a progressive black woman with progressive family values about how men and women should share labor and interact with one another, what a marriage should be like. My daddy was from the country, grew up in the Mississippi Delta. The trauma from his childhood of growing up poor in the Jim Crow South in Mississippi in particular really manifested in a lot of different ways - addiction and arguments and infidelities. And this was who we were. And we understood our father and his behavior as country, and we understood our mother as city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So these tensions between black and white and country and city - do these tensions still exist today in Memphis?

ROBINSON: Oh, yes. These tensions are the things that make our city so hot. Visitors come, and they say, you know, everyone here seems to wear race on their sleeve. And I think that's true. But I think it's because of those hurts, that trauma, that country that hung around my dad. It hangs on our city.

I was at the National Civil Rights Museum the other day, and there were a lot of tourists outside kind of looking up at the balcony. And I just felt like this is not right (laughter). This is painful for us to be walking on this space of memorial when right now in the city, people are still suffering around the same issues of labor, fair compensation, fair wages that brought King here in the first place. A lot of times people say, we're far away from reaching King's dream, but we've made progress. Most days, I don't feel the progress part of that narrative. I don't feel that we have, in fact, moved beyond that moment because it's hanging on us. It's not an albatross. It's like a James Brown jacket but not a fun one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does that just feel like nothing really changed after that achievement of, you know, the civil rights movement in Memphis? Nothing really has moved forward?

ROBINSON: To me, it doesn't. And empirically, that plays out. One of the things I set out to do in the beginning of my research was to take stock of where we had been. By the time I was doing my work, schools had resegregated to the point that they were shortly before desegregation. And this is a similar story across a lot of American cities but an especially painful one here in Memphis, where we also have to grapple with the fact that this is where the dream in certain kinds of ways was assassinated. And so when we think about housing, when we think about labor, when we think about transportation - these are the ways in which things feel the same and, in some ways, worse in terms of what's possible for a movement about the city, for wages, for a living and to educate children in environments that are safe and invested in them as people and citizens of our city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are we missing in the way we, outside of the South, talk about the South in the media and in our literature? What are we missing about Memphis?

ROBINSON: About the South, I think what's missing is an attention to the ways that we have progressed but the paradox of that progress here for many folks. We're not getting to those deep structures because the South is so glittery now. We have Starbucks, and we have Whole Foods. And there are cranes in the sky, as Solange Knowles would say, all across the South. We're in the newest New South. There are lots of stories about growth and progress. But, again, at what cost? On whose backs?

And so about Memphis, I think what we miss is that because we have seemingly healed in the form of a museum, in the form of commemoration, in the form of reckoning with this assassination that we're on the upswing, that we're moving forward. But as I mentioned earlier, I feel that time has stood still and gone backwards and circled around us in a lot of ways here and that what gets missed is that there are people in the middle of this play of politics, in the middle of this history who are crushed but that still are striving in ways that are remarkable and beautiful. There is joy. There is dancing. There is singing. Sometimes, I hop into a church just to hear the sounds of joy that come out. And I think that gets lost in the way that we talk about the city in the national media.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zandria Robinson is a sociology professor at Rhodes College and a Memphis native. Thank you very much.

ROBINSON: Thank you.


Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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