This month I went to Memphis, coincidentally during the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. This country can fold over the year 1968 and 2018 and compare the similarities between the economic systems and political structures that perpetuated poverty then and how they are still just as powerful now. To offer a little background about April of 1968: two black sanitation workers were accidentally crushed when a trash truck mechanism was triggered during a heavy rainstorm and separately 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white supervisors were compensated for the day. These incidents lead to strikes for job safety, better wages and union recognition. Dr. Martin Luther King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign for economic opportunity and equality and agreed to extend his support to the workers in Memphis by speaking at rallies. King also agreed to lead a nonviolent march in April. He stepped out of his room at the Lorraine Motel on April 4th to join his colleagues for dinner when he was assassinated.
Fast forward to present day, it’s 2018 and I’m in my own hotel room looking at my social media accounts, watching protesters back home in Philadelphia demonstrate inside of a Starbucks because two black men were arrested because they didn’t purchase anything while waiting for their friend to arrive. The video is disturbing and reminiscent of the discrimination that Rosa Parks brought to our history books, although it’s much deeper that one instance. I am witnessing too many people having to endure humiliating experiences based on hierarchical constructs like race, class and gender. In 2018 we are still trying to figure out how to live in a country with a supremacy system that’s inherently designed to challenge our humanity.
‘Sides, they can’t run us all out.
That land’s got more of our blood in it than theirs’
Not all us s’posed to leave. Some of us got to stay,
so y’all have a place to come back to.
– A Sharecropper from the book Long Distance Life by Marita Golden
A study conducted by Mandala Research, a tourist research firm, reported that the African American traveler market is more likely to visit a place that resonates with our heritage, culture or that has historical significance to the civil rights movement. It is not enough to simply want a change of scenery; the study is disseminating the perception that black people are more apt to visit a place that offers us insight into why we feel unwanted on this land that we were born on. I would argue that race, class and gender impose a restricted sense of belonging; they are constructs based on hierarchies and I believe that these systems can only be challenged if we stop relying on them for security, safely and self-preservation.
Visiting Memphis for five days gave me space to meditate on what people have the capacity to handle and how we are showing up and living right now, and what responsibility we have to each other to live a communal life in a system that has been in place for centuries. Before 1910 more than 90 percent of the African American population lived in the American South. The Great Migration occurred in this country between 1916 and 1970, when black people fled from the South in search for better opportunities. And now, we are nearly 100 years later and young people are erasing color lines by setting off to occupy spaces that will expand an intrinsic self-formed identity, not an identity justified by external prejudices like race, class and gender.
On one hand I did yearn to see the caste systems in the American South because I wanted to know more about the continuum from the civil rights movement into today’s black lives matter movement and to see parallel storylines that are linking the present and past. And on the other hand I didn’t want to be too picky about the destination of this escapade, because more than anything I feel an existential desire to just expand. My real reason for arriving in Memphis was because I wanted to feel a sense of freedom that could evolve into a time of discovery. I understand that not everyone who desires a change of scenery has the ability to obtain it, however I see this trip as a protest against restrictions.
My soul yearns to move about the country and visit places that do not require me to be an emissary based on my race, class or gender. With no cogent itinerary and no demarcation, I reached out to an old friend and made new friends on social media who gave us tours of the city. We were able to find restaurants with vegan options, and attain a bit of buoyancy from nature walks, we drove over to Arkansas, wandered around landmarks like Beale Street and Civil Right Museum and rode bikes around the University of Memphis. My new friends cautioned us that our habit for jaywalking could cause us to be ticketed or arrested, and I can feel how afraid they felt to break rules. Jay walking while black is what precipitated Mike Brown’s confrontation with Ferguson police. We talked a little about a Gallup Poll that concluded that young black males in the U.S. suffer a wellbeing deficiency because they evaluate their own lives far lower than any other race and gender when they are constantly seeing reflections of their self experiencing difficulties with law enforcement and dying at the hands of the police.
Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers. And this ability is the secret to their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction. – Frederick Dougless
I have intentionally decided to not repost and share divisive images and news stories too frequently because I don’t want to promote this behavior as ordinary. I see possibilities for progress and balance if we change the images and narratives that we share. People that do repost are stuck on trying to generate awareness, however this isn’t working to dismantle the system. Instead I feel as though it’s causing people in this country to experience a frustrating psychological toll. Concerns about inequality and social justice do not feel as though they are being advanced as far as they should be today. I don’t want the poor and disenfranchised to be invisible, but I also don’t want to amplify these stories to the point where we’re living with these infrastructures as if it can be the norm. I need more of a balance. It is traumatizing to see that racism was not something outdated and far away, that enslavement transitioned into a prison system and that movements for justice are still necessary. When I look around the country I see that wellbeing and human rights have been at the center of American culture and life now more than any other year in my lifetime. Images occupy a realm within our imagination, and I believe that narratives of black people being debased, negated and removed from spaces can only be countered with the emergence of more images of black majestic subjectivity and progress.
I do this for my culture, to let them know what a nigga look like when a nigga in a roaster. Show them how to move in a room full of vultures. Industry is shady, it needs to be taken over. – Jay Z