Our rented Kia Soul’s direction was mainly southwest down I-55 to Saint Louis before we dipped slightly further south and nudged a bit east into the Deep South. As a Yankee and expat overseas, my forays into American life had been limited to power points about Thanksgiving and begging sports bars to show American football.
It wasn’t until Memphis – 570 miles and eight hours southwest of my hometown – that the meaning of being an American abroad hit me by seeing my country from the outside in for once. And it took a Spaniard abroad to point that out.
Lucía was cooking puchero in her olla exprés when we arrived to her condo on Mud Island. Out her kitchen window sat downtown Memphis and the ghastly pyramid. And out her living room window, the Mississippi thundered by, eventually dumping out into the Gulf of Mexico. Her 18-month-old daughter played nearby with a series of books in both Spanish and English.
“Just have to wait until this is done, and we can head out,” she said, handing the Novio and I a bottle of American beer. “Oh! And I took tomorrow off of work to be your guide.”
Lucía and I have known each other since I moved to Spain. Staunchly andaluza with a world view – she’s worked in half a dozen countries as a medic and EMT – she and I have always had a lot in common. And she and the Novio have been friends for well over a decade. As we planned a road trip down to New Orleans, a stop in Bluff City was a non-negotiable pit stop, even if it meant one night fewer in NOLA.
Memphis has been a always been a thread weaved into my formative years, I’ve realized six months later. My father spent most of his working life at Federal Express, whose headquarters is in Memphis. I grew up on Elvis and rock n’ roll. My elementary school was called Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. Ask me what foods I miss most from the US, and pulled pork with baked beans push into the top five.
While reluctant to spend two nights in Memphis, I welcomed the opportunity to see Lu, cross into a new state and stuff myself, post-wedding, on BBQ. Armed with a list of my dad’s list of musts – the Peabody Ducks, blues joints and ribs – we pulled up to the condo as dusk was falling behind us in Arkansas, snaking through a construction-riddled downtown 3rd Street.
Lucía and her husband may be doctors, but they’re also history buffs, rooted in Memphian and American life with one foot firmly planted in the Spanish camp. Sounds familiar. We five piled in the car for a quick trip around Mud Island, where the city’s elite (and my other Noviom Justin Timberlake) live relatively crime-free in what is considered one of America’s most dangerous cities.
Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, the Rock River – one of the Mississippi’s tributaries – seemed to separate upper middle class from the lower class as the Mississippi did in Memphis. Downtown gleamed in the twilight against a ruddy river. I brought up the Civil Rights Movement and my afternoon trip to the National Civil Rights Museum museum, housed in the motel where MLK was shot. As I stood in the very room where he died, my mind racing back to my formative years, learning about tolerance and equal rights. The museum was among the best I’ve seen.
It’s a touchy subject, but I wanted an outside perspective on the Black Lives Matter and the race riots. Memphis’s population is predominately black and the city is considered the poorest metropolitan area in the United States. Lucía and Isra looked at each other and she said to wait until the following day, when she’d be our private tour guide through not just downtown Memphis, but the last century or so of its history.
The following morning, I woke up to the smell of Spanish coffee. Lu sped us through our morning routine, promising a muggy, hazy August morning outside. We walked south on Mud Island, the toddler holding my hand as I struggled to wade through the heat. Mosquitos buzzed all around my head – here’s the wet, hot American summer I’d been missing.
Mud Island houses an outdoor museum featuring a small-scale Mississippi River at a 2112:1 scale. From the watershed walls that feature my home state to several of the places we stopped in as we traveled south along a portion of the Mighty Mississippi’s 954 miles, I explained how Old Man River (and rivers in general) had been a feature in my entire life – like reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer hald a dozen times or using the crossing on the I-80 as a marker on my trips to and from Iowa City during college. What brought commerce to Tennessee made it the center of the world for package distribution decades later.
We were promptly chased out at 9:50am, told the River Walk didn’t open until 10.
Our next stop was St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, where both Lucía and Isra work. Having done fundraisers for the hospital as a child and volunteered with families experiencing pediatric cancer throughout college, I couldn’t believe I was finally standing in the temple that Danny Thomas built. I thought of my friend Kelsey, who died from complications with leukemia shortly before her 22nd birthday in 2011 and in whose memory I walked part of the Camino de Santiago. The whole place was magical – the entire staff smiled, despite the troubling nature of their work, and we quickly scratched our plans to donate money to Air Force Orphans.
Isra was in his office, studying for a procedure he’d perform that afternoon. As a highly skilled worker, he’d been invited as a pediatric resident to St. Jude’s – a testament to his brilliance and compassion. Lucía researches cures. And I teach prepositions. Consider me humbled.
Shortly after, we parked downtown on the former Cotton Row. Lucía spends most of her free time reading history books, and her running commentary of Memphis’s history against the backdrop of the brick buildings and blues joints gave the city more context than any museum could have.
Founded by Andrew Jackson for its strategic location on a high bluff, Memphis quickly grew into a commercial capital, thanks to its cotton crop and access to the Mississippi. This brought a large number of African American slaves with it, even post-war, to work as laborers. Changes in demographics would lead to decades of unrest between the affluent Whites – mainly Irish immigrants – and Blacks. We weaved throughout the downtown area, the historically Black neighborhood, and near Victorian Row to see just how different life was for the two.
Many of Memphis’s storefronts are boarded up and out of business, just steps away from the landmark Peabody Hotel or Orpheum Theatre that once played host to Blues and Rock n’Roll greats. Riots after King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel only marginalized the city’s black population, which resided mostly in the lower middle class district south of downtown, now known as the South Main Arts District.
Lucía recounted the last five decades’ history over beers at the Arcade Diner, an iconic Memphian restaurant that Elvis once frequented. The six blocks that comprised the district had once been home to the booming railway business but fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Iconic Hotel Chisca and its radio station closed. Now, it’s experiencing a revitalization and were filled with craft beer breweries, oyster bars, galleries and pop-up shops. Think exposed brick and old signs and general gentrification- this part of the city came to represent Memphis for me: a city that knows how to bounce back. A city that holds its head high. A city whose past is pushing it into the future.
Later that night, we gorged on ribs at Rendezvous before strolling down Beale Street. Blues tumbled out of bars and the neon lights lit up the night. Over whiskey, our anfitriones told us what we already knew: the Black population in Memphis were feeling the heat. Even in a city that is predominantly Black and that once tried to resist slavery, the Confederacy and even segregated schools, it’s still considered an unsafe city and one that locals decry for censoring the media. We were there just two weeks after Trey Bolton, a Memphis cop, was killed.
And Memphis didn’t riot. In Memphis, acceptance is now preached as the city moves past MLK, the Memphis Riots of 1866 and the slavery that propelled it into one of the South’s most prosperous cities. As Black Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said shortly after the shooting, “All Lives Matter.”
Like MLK’s iconic speech the night before his assassination, something is happening.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” […]
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
“I have been to the Mountaintop” – Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1968
In a 21st Century frame, it’s still relevant – and call me crazy, but I think I saw the manifestation of that in Memphis. So, yeah. I had a big crush on gtirry Bluff City and what it stands for:
And in many ways, Memphis was a representation of the values my parents tried teaching me when I was young: acceptance, humility, hard work and compassion for others. When we pulled back onto the I-55 for a long trips towards New Orleans, I grew quiet, thinking of how these lessons had shaped me.
The rest of our post-wedding road trip affirmed that: an eye-opening Civil War Museum in St. Louis and rafting on the Occee River near Chattanooga. Talking to locals over crayfish in New Orleans, nearly 10 years post-Katrina, about why they’d come to NOLA, or why they stayed. Witnessing how the sharing culture is helping millennials like me make ends meet and chase their goals down.
Memphis shook me out of my Spain haze and helped me look at my country for what it is, for better or for worse. Ticking through seven states in one summer road trip passed in a blur of county lines, of truck stop meals, of miles on the odometer. But Memphis was a real, gritty American city that reminded me where I came from, having grown up in “tough” cities like Flint and Rockford.
I am an American, firstly. Someone who knows what it means to work hard and what it means to be free to choose. Someone who trusts in the inherent aims of her country, but isn’t afraid to voice opposition (or cast a vote). Someone who is fiercely loyal to her first land but understands its context in a wider scope.
And those values haven’t in any way been muted by my years in Spain. My American Dream is far different now than it was when I finished high school or college, but it’s rooted in the way I grew up.
Have you ever been to Memphis? What were your impressions?