Two Days In Memphis Helped To Restore My Soul

November 20, 2018  |  

Memphis & Arkansas Bridge

Source: Arkansas & Memphis Bridge/ Charise Frazier

Think of a place that encapsulates the spirit of music, tradition and activism. Now center that vision on the southwestern most corner of Tennessee, right along the rich depths of the Mississippi River. While there are hundreds of towns and cities that kiss the large swell of water each night, there is only one Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis is a place that’s hard to describe to an outsider, and honestly the attempt to write about a place so enriched in history is a futile effort by someone like me who has never called the “901” home. I spent 48 hours in Memphis in October and my experience in the city left me filled with a sudden urgency to visit again and again.

But for all intents and purposes, everything that I experienced in Memphis can be encapsulated with one sentence, “The possibility of Memphis is the possibility of America.”

This is the vision Anasa Troutman, the executive director of Clayborn Temple, explained when I was first introduced to her at the site. Clayborn Temple is indeed a sacred holy place, but is also undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation to expand past a place of worship. The site is sacred ground in the community and once served as the central organizing location for the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike. Troutman envisions Clayborn Temple as a cultural force in the city, one that centers on the restoration of the spirit and community, open to all no matter their gender, sexuality or any conforms people align themselves to.

Clayborn Temple deeply personifies where Memphis has been and where it’s going.

Clayborn Temple

Source: Clayborn Temple / Charise Frazier

As one of the only remaining majority Black populations in America (63 percent of the total population is Black), the influence of the Black experience permeates throughout the city.

From the artisans, to the community planners, I met Memphians devoted to abstaining from the gentrification traps of other major metropolis’ like Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Instead they are invested in preservation other than rewriting and erasure. And that has made all the difference.

Another structure that combines the strong artistic culture of Memphis with an investment in the local community is the Crosstown Concourse, a multidisciplinary space that operates as a living and workspace for creatives. The concourse also houses a public charter high school and a wellness center for the uninsured.

The musical influences of Memphis rival the contributions of other great musical cities in the south like New Orleans, St. Louis and Atlanta. Stemming from the contributions of groundbreaking Stax Records, artists like B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding who paved the way for a newer generation to use the craft of music like Eight Ball & MJG, Three Six Mafia and K. Michelle. Rising up is a newer generation of singers and performers like Talibah Safiya, an enigmatic artist who calls Memphis her home.

During a visit with members of The Collective, a group of talented Black artists who want to change the way the world views the makers of art, I saw a need to re-envision what it means to be a creator and creating a more autonomous story that aligns with the Black experience and the voices of Black creators.

From the Hatiloo Theatre, the only freestanding Black repertory theatre in five surrounding states, to Ballet Memphis, where dancers of color make up over 60 percent of the company’s population. Under the direction of founder Ekundayo Bandele, Hatiloo offers high-quality, free programming and performances staged through the city, engaging over 5,000 people each year. Just within walking distance of Hatiloo, Ballet Memphis creates works of art that speak to the current climate in Memphis, combining elements of the local and global community at large, through the power of dance.

And over the great unifier of food at restaurants like Catherine & Mary’s, Four Way, the Liquor Store and B.B. King’s, I listened as some of Memphis’ most innovate minds talked about their vision for a city embedded deep within their hearts. They explained the importance of using their collective powers–artist, activist, dancer, performer, filmmaker and community planner to forge an even greater path than before. And in recognizing the strength, love and support from the community, the city has won more than half of the uphill battle ahead.

The city’s tagline is #BringYourSoul, but I thank Memphis and all the wonderful Memphians I met for the role they played in invigorating mine.

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