Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | December 2018 | 9 minutes (2,360 words)
A few days after my father’s funeral, I rented an Airbnb on Memphis’s Second Street, two avenues over from the Mississippi Riverfront. From one window, in the mornings, I could see riverboats slowly slinking by. From the other, a view of the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Named after the conquistador who arrived from Florida in 1541 in search of gold, the bridge was constructed in 1982. It connects Tennessee to Arkansas and is in many ways a dividing line between America’s east and west coasts.
During their heady romance, my father drove the length of that bridge from West Memphis, Arkansas to court my mother. She once told me they’d ended their relationship in a teary conversation while driving across. The night of my first date, at 16, I parked and walked along Riverside Drive, just south of the Memphis entrance to the bridge. It was late in August, the dog days of summer, the start of my junior year in high school. The air was sticky and sweet, mosquitoes nipped at my shoulders. I had a feeling of expectation in my heart, an idea of a future that I could construct.
The Mississippi River is a marvel. It is filthy, contaminated, and mostly unsuitable for swimming, drinking, or fishing. It is also, for me, steadying and grounding. It is a site of many beginnings, and something told me it was where I could grieve my father privately after many days of public ceremony. About a year before he died, I’d started missing home and made plans to go back for an extended time, for longer than a visit. In my longing, the reasons I left nearly 20 years before seemed a nebulous mix of striving and progress and running from something, or some things, I was not yet ready to name.
Memphis is a place where, if you’re Black, and you can, you leave. It is a proud majority Black city, and Blacks have power, but it was and is a tenuous kind of power, slow-coming and distributed in a scattershot way among a selected few. We elected our first Black mayor during my lifetime, in 1991, nearly 20 years after Atlanta. And I remember when white students left my school by the dozens and how my mother labored to enroll me in another school, to follow the current of good teachers to a better place.
My mother grew up and raised all of her children in Memphis, but five years ago, she, too, left, to live out her retirement elsewhere. In the years since, I heard a lot about a “reverse migration” where young Blacks, disappointed and frustrated by the urban North, went back to the Southern states of their ancestors for better weather and lower costs of living. Last December, Memphis’s monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general responsible for the brutal Fort Pillow Massacre and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, came down. This year, a new cadre of progressive leaders like Tami Sawyer, London Lamar, and Lee Harris became elected officials. My dread about home and my longing for it began to work on me anew.
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“Americans do not share a common memory of slavery,” Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle write in Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, a powerful account that uses the history of Charleston, South Carolina, the “cradle of the Confederacy,” or “slavery’s capital,” to trace the origins of the nation’s competing visions of slavery. One view, of slavery as “benevolent and civilizing,” say Roberts and Kytle, supported by “former slaveholders and their descendants” is “a whitewashed memory,” ignoring or minimizing how brutal it was when human beings were chattel, and how central slavery is to our nation’s history. The other vision, maintained in memories and ritual by “former slaves, their progeny, and some white and black allies,” has a gorier truth.
Memphis, founded as it was, on the Mississippi River, situated at the borders of Arkansas and Mississippi, has long been a commercial port. Americans purchased the land from the Chickasaw Nation in 1818, and the city incorporated in 1826; soon after, it became a point to transport and sell Mississippi Delta cotton. It also became an important slave market, and trading in slaves was how Nathan Bedford Forrest made his name. He was, according to scholar Court Carney, “one of the largest slave traders on the Mississippi River,” and a two-term city alderman before enlisting in the army. Tennessee was the eleventh and last state to secede from the Union. Its mountainous eastern end, far away from cotton country and less dependent upon slavery, retained pro-Union sentiments throughout the war.
According to Kytle and Roberts, the myth of the “Lost Cause,” a term coined in 1866, took root among former Confederates in the decades after their loss. It emphasized the valor of the Confederate army and how’d they’d been outmatched by better resourced Union soldiers, but fought anyway. Standing in moral defeat (and with federal troops still occupying the South initially), former Confederates and sympathizers “scrambled to distance the Confederacy from the peculiar institution.” They claimed that while slavery played a part, it was loftier goals like states’ autonomy that the secessionists had fought for.
Yet this revision of historical memory was not benign. It coincided with losses of recently acquired rights of citizenship for freed men and women. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 when federal troops left the South; by the 1880s, state governments began erecting barriers to voting rights and mandating separate accommodations for Blacks and whites in public spaces. Lynchings, usually committed as punishment or warning against some breach of social order, spiked in the 1880s and 1890s. According to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the biggest increase in dedications of Confederate monuments and memorials was in the early years of the 1900s. Memphis’s Forrest monument was dedicated at a ceremony attended by nearly 30,000 in 1905. Throughout the years, proponents of the monument included prominent leaders in business and city government, and they celebrated the former general’s “rough-hewn, unschooled martial style,” and held him up as a “pinnacle of southern manhood,” writes Carney. At least, publicly, they mostly minimized or ignored his history of brutality, but sometimes, when Blacks were particularly vocal and assertive, like during the push for desegregation during the 1960s, Forrest enthusiasts resorted to threatening an unruly populace that the general would be somehow resurrected to avenge something lost.
Even in Memphis of the 1980s and 1990s, when I grew up, remnants and relics of the Lost Cause mythos were everywhere. My first job was as an actor in a city theater performance of Tom Sawyer, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I played a friend of Amy Lawrence, essentially a chorus girl, and had two speaking lines. I was thrilled to have the job — I was 12 and got to be out of school for more than half the day for rehearsals and performances. I earned a weekly stipend and adored learning from the veteran actors in the theatre’s resident company. The cast was a mix of company members and actors from outside, and we were a multicultural crew. A Black actor played Tom Sawyer, and I was the one Black girl in the chorus. Nigger Jim was played by another Black girl; we only called her character Jim. The actress had several speaking lines and performed a solo musical number to the song “Buffalo Gal,” a song I now know is from a minstrel written by early blackface performer John Hodges. Throughout his life, Mark Twain wrote about his love of minstrel performances, calling them “nigger shows.” He said in his autobiography, “If I could have the nigger-show back again, in its pristine purity and perfection, I should have but little further use for opera.”
Watching the actress’s adroit performance every afternoon and night, singing along with the rest of the chorus to songs about the glorious Mississippi and the whistle of steamboats, I don’t remember feeling anything I would call embarrassment. I sometimes got a vague feeling of discomfort, but, truth be told, I thought I was different from the other Black actress. I was, after all, playing a schoolgirl, not a slave on the run. Weren’t we simply celebrating the glory of Mississippi River towns? Our shared land and culture? I was a child and I was deluding myself.
It is only now, looking back, that I realize that none of the theatre’s resident company, the actors with guaranteed jobs and pay for the season, were Black. While researching this piece, I learned that is still the case.
A subterranean racism is intertwined with many Southern artifacts and practices. It is an incomplete nostalgia, a false memory, a longing for an old South stripped of the truth of what living then meant for many people. At Memphis’ Sunset Symphony, a seemingly benign, popular, old-fashioned outdoor picnic was held on the Mississippi River every May. “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical Showboat, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was performed for 21 years by local bass singer James Hyter as the crowd-stopping finale, with encore after encore. Hyter would change the lyrics many times throughout the years, removing words like “nigger” and “darkey.” Even without the hurtful words the song still describes a Black man’s life of impossible toil.
It is only now, looking back, that I realize that none of the theatre’s resident company, the actors with guaranteed jobs and pay for the season, were Black. While researching this piece, I, learned that is still the case.
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Late last month, the investigative journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted a long thread about the failed slave revolt allegedly planned by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822. “This man was free and prosperous,” she wrote, “but never separated himself from the enslaved, recruited 9000 ENSLAVED PEOPLE — 9000! — to his plot to liberate enslaved in SC, overtake the armory, commandeer a boat and then sail to Haiti…” She said she learned “next to nothing” about Vesey, despite being an African-American studies major in college, and that omitting or minimizing the truth of Black resistance is a form of “social control.” Indeed, the details of Vesey’s plot, its scale and depth, explained in a comprehensive biography by David Robertson, are remarkable.
In high school, what I learned about North American slave rebellions and resistance was cursory. I knew they happened; I learned them as facts — a laundry list of who, what, when, and how: Stono’s in South Carolina before the American Revolution; Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia; John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
I didn’t learn that they were more than isolated incidents — that those individual instances of resistance acted in concert with other global eruptions. They were also proof of how utterly unsustainable slavery was. Rebellions, small and large, were “frequent and were ferociously put down,” throughout the Americas, according to a website dedicated to information about Bristol, England’s role as a trading port in the transatlantic slave trade. This resistance is a missing link in the gap between the two strands of collective memory about slavery. It disrupts the Lost Cause narrative of slavery as benign, and its history has been deliberately suppressed. Robertson writes, “In order that his life and actions not be publicly commemorated, any black person, man or woman, seen wearing mourning in the streets of Charleston within a week of his [Vesey’s] execution was to be arrested and whipped.”
…the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
From,”The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison; Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
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Identity is nothing if not a collection of memories, strung together over time, lunging forward to inform and create a future. Who and what we mourn, too, is bound up in what we love and value. According to Kytle and Roberts, newly freed people held countless public commemorations and a “yearlong wake,” to celebrate the end of slavery, including, in one instance, a procession with a “hearse carrying a coffin labeled ‘Slavery.'” The first Memorial Day, held May 1, 1865 was an occasion when Black volunteer associations in Charleston reburied the remains of Union soldiers in properly marked graves.
Walking in the new Memphis, twenty years after the last time I lived there, I was often lost. There was little pedestrian traffic, but many police cars in the tourist spots I visited. An old Black man, ostensibly homeless, asked for my carton of takeout food. In an old place I loved years ago, sitting at a piano bar alone, having a cocktail, I was the only Black person who was not obviously an employee. In the new places, a fancy coffee shop and a fancier restaurant, it was the same. Chicago’s South Side monument to Ida B. Wells-Barnett may be erected before the end of 2019. There is a marker for her in Memphis, on Beale and Hernando Streets, near the offices of the Free Speech, the newspaper for which she wrote columns, investigated lynchings, and urged Blacks to leave the city if they were not treated more humanely. Wells-Barnett took up that work after grieving the March 1892 lynching of her friend Thomas Moss, a postman and an owner of the People’s Grocery, as well as two of his employees. That May, the Evening Scimitar printed an editorial about Wells-Barnett threatening “to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison streets.” At Main and Madison, a few blocks from the bridge, the river, and where I’d gone to rest after burying my father, there is no marker.
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Danielle A. Jackson is a writer and associate editor at Longreads.