Memphis is one of those cities where its history feels much too close to the surface. The blues seeps underneath your feet like a pulse, as though you were standing on the back of the beast, and the blues were its heartbeat. The ghosts of those gone by walk, ‘up union avenue’ or, can be found standing in rows, sitting on corners, writ large upon the pavements (or sidewalks as I become increasingly able to call them) unforgotten, and unforgetting. Elvis, Martin Luther King, BB King, William Sanderson, and countless others. I guess this is the case with all big cities, except in Memphis I feel like there’s a distinct lack of tourist activity which I found nowhere else, apart from maybe Jackson Mississippi which was even more of the same, but more down at heel.
I arrived in the early hours of a Sunday, sky tinged blue orange with heat, and a haze of humidity settling about the place as though to suffocate it before it awoke. Stepping down from the train my feet hit the red surface of the station platform, and tiny little clouds of dust kicked themselves up in small clouds, as though my arrival were causing an actual physical disturbance to the surrounding area. Green foliage so vivid that it looked more alive than any leaves I’d ever seen. The air hummed; with the train, with the sound of the city, with birdsong.
All over the hoardings surrounding the works being done on the town are the lyrics to songs which mention Memphis. “they’ve got catfish on the table, and Gospel in the air’, ‘if you love somebody enough, you’ll follow wherever they go, that’s how I got to Memphis’, ‘I’m going to Memphis where the beat is tough. Memphis, I can’t get enough’, ‘Memphis in June, a shady veranda under a Sunday blue sky’..… ‘Memphis’, I will be told later in a piano bar at around 2am, drunkenly, over someone butchering Mark Cohn, ‘is the most sung about song in the history of songs.’ All over the sidewalks, and on plaques on almost every corner are tiny little bits of information about streets, or buildings, as though the town itself were giving you a guided tour. The territory is suffused with the history of slavery, of emancipation, and of the fight for civil rights which is, as far as I have seen in my short time in the south, a battle still being fought.
I’m giving you all this information of my arrival, though, because I want you to understand what it felt like to step down off of a 9 hour train journey, onto an almost deserted train platform, to walk into a deserted waiting area that looked like it had been cut out of some old film about the south (think Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, or Driving Miss Daisy, or even something like Steel Magnolias.) Memphis felt, from the minute the train door swung back, like opening the dishwasher mid cycle letting in all the hot damp air, like dipping yourself in memory. Not necessarily in a hauntological sense, though. I keep thinking of that Ranciere line from Metamorphoses of the muses which goes something like ‘we should leave the ghosts alone for the time being, for they have a tendency to say too much for themselves’ which, at present, seems an apt sentiment to hold.
The ghosts of Memphis are… a different kind of ghost, I think. Rather they’re a kind of resonant energy, not hauntological in that they’re a nostalgia for a lost future, or even that they are in and of themselves nostalgic, but that the city feels like its full of the lives its lived, and uses them to propel itself forward, as opposed to engaging in the perpetual return of hauntology.
I have no personal connection to Memphis so perhaps this might be different if i did.
Mourning is an interesting turn of phrase, too, because Memphis itself is not sad. It is so full of joy in music, joy in being alive, in talking to each other, in reaching out and making connections. Yet, in all its southern hospitality, and kindness, I still feel the great weight of oppression, collective loss, and cultural grief when walking the streets, coupled with a strength in the face of adversity driven by the kindness of strangers, and the power of resurgence, and rebuilding evident in the pervasive culture of sound.
Memphis is defined by two great losses. The first, and perhaps the most culturally significant loss for African Americans in the 20th century (or maybe perhaps ever) was the assignation of Martin Luther King Junior at the Lorraine Motel Downtown. Here’s a man who symbolises the hope of a whole group of people; who symbolises strength, and calm in the wake of great oppression, violence, and racism; who offered opportunities for change, and for the reclamation of humanity in the eyes of the oppressors. For him to have been lost in Memphis, whilst fighting here for the rights of working people, and people of colour at the hands of a skinny white boy with a gun in a boarding house opposite leaves a mark that cannot be wiped away.
The museum tracks the oppression of people of African Americans in American society from the very beginning of the transatlantic slave trade in brutal detail. Laid out here are all the atrocities of white ownership, and of white supremacy for all to see. How anyone could fail here to see these as abysmal treatments of fellow humans is beyond me. Yet this great centre for knowledge, which not only details the very states of oppression, and how these have been overcome, but also offers a space specifically for artists of colour to exhibit their work, and for people to learn about this history in a way that does not feel like some kind of gore-porn meant to absolve you of white guilt, or punish you for these crimes, but merely ensure that you know about them.
In the museum’s final section you learn about MLK’s assassination, and his final “the mountain top” speech in which death plays very heavily to the forefront. ‘I may not get there with you, but you will make it to the promised land’. The promise of hope, and the feeling I had of his knowing his own matyrdom, was overwhelming. He was cut down at 39, cutdown looking out in the direction the bullet came, resolute, strong. What might the world have looked like had he not died? I think he knew, I think he knew he might have to be the sacrificial lamb for the movement. His final speech, the mountaintop speech:
‘Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’
Yet, I couldn’t help but think about how much hope had been born out of that loss. How the museum itself had sprung up in the wake of it. Full of knowledge, of learning, and of a promise that these rights will not be scaled back, and that one day, at some point, true equality will be afforded to all.
Even blues, the city’s beating heart, winding out of the cities open doors, and down its gridded streets, flashing in neon reds and yellows and greens, smoky and rousing, was born out of the grief and mourning of the transatlantic slave trade; a translation of traditional west African music, made blues, made Jazz.
All of this, the rebirth of the motel from the ashes, bearing the hope of MLK’s words; the continual rebirth of blues; the cyclical return of the 8 bar format; to be lost in the music; are public losses, mutual experiences of grief that are played out accessibly in public spaces, so that no barriers of personhood have been transgressed. The civil rights museum, and the bars on Beale offer a public space within which to process that loss. The museum offers knowledge, recollection, memory, and understanding as ways in which to process; where Beale offers joy found in the darkest of spaces, and finding it at the bottom of beer bottles.
Compare this to the experience I had at Graceland, though, and its an entirely different story. For ‘some reason I cannot explain’, Graceland had become a symbol of my recovery. Perhaps because I listened to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ almost exclusively last summer when I was chronically depressed. for Paul Simon ‘had reason to believe, we all will be received at Graceland’ and so, upon my arrival in Memphis, I sought out that white pillared house in order to be received warmly and safely there. The ‘ghosts and empty sockets’ of my transatlantic journey, which itself symbolises my recovery, really, bearing me on to those musical gates. In a way, Graceland, had become a symbolic kind of heaven.
I arrived to some kind of Disneyland frontage, plastic-y and devoid of personhood, a diner called Gladys’, sticky floors, ‘Suspicious Minds’ being tannoyed out over the place tinnily like they’d trapped Elvis in the speaker and made him sing Suspicious minds every hour on the hour for the rest of eternity. This was, to me, not the promised land I had hoped for, but a corralling ground filled with hundreds if not thousands, of middle aged white couples coming to see Elvis’ house, take some photos, and tick it off the itinerary.
I don’t really know what I had expected, but this wasn’t it.
In a direct contrast to the uplifting presentation of collective loss presented in a public space in which there is enough space and time afforded to you in order to absorb the weight of those losses for yourself, this was the loss of a single man who, whilst yes, very talented, hadn’t really changed the world. I have never been, myself, much of an Elvis fan. I can bop along to blue suede shoes as much as the next girl, and Always on my Mind does make me cry; but that’s about as far as it goes.
I felt like an intruder, not on the enjoyment of the other people wearing their headphones and milling between their timed spots from room to room, but an intruder on one man’s private space. They had hooked up the TVs to all play one clip from Elvis’ interviews in which he says “the greatest times of my life have been with my family. I just can’t wait to go home.’ And here we all were, in our thousands, milling about in his home, his bolthole, gawping at his things, hearing about how he made peanut butter and banana sandwiches that ended up contributing to his weight gain, seeing videos in which he is so clearly off his face and self medicating against some kind of issue, and only hearing about how the public loved him. I couldn’t shake this horrible feeling that he had been an incredibly sad man. That despite it all; the fame, the planes, the cars, the house, something wasn’t quite alright with Elvis himself, and we were all intruding on his rest.
Unlike in the Civil Rights museum there was no opportunity to feel inspired by achievement, or to feel motivated to enact the changes you want to see in the world. No. I felt dirty, like i’d spied on him getting changed, or peeked under his death shroud and found rotting flesh. I was in my group of audio tourers and accidentally getting in the way of their selfies in the Jungle Room, and their snaps of his grave. Feeling more and more like I had walked into a nightmare, where I felt like something was very very wrong and nobody else did.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I really do think it has a lot to do with the difference between public and private space, and the ways in which minorities experience loss, and the ways in which the oppressor experiences it collectively. There was a consumptive quality to the way in which Graceland was set out that wasn’t present in the CRM. Those at Graceland wanted to bite a bit off and take it home, I felt like if they could have stolen it all in their tote bags they would have done. If they could’ve gotten into his grave and taken a bit of him back they would’ve. I sat in the meditation garden for a while before I realised that they’d buried him there, and that every twenty minutes another group comes a long to snap a photo of the words ‘Elvis Presley’ written there. I didn’t look at the grave myself, so I don’t know what it says there.
When does public grieving become possessive?
We saw it in 2016 when so many celebrities fell to the wayside of age and disease; David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Carrie Fisher’s mum. The possessive nature of loss, even when that loss is not personal, but cultural. Elvis’ loss has no direct ramifications on the lives of “fans”, and so the performance of grief in the space of his home becomes disconnected from the ways in which we process real loss within the sphere of our personal connections.
In answer to the question: public grief becomes possessive or consumptive when there is no opportunity for regrowth, or for the cycle to begin, or for progression to be made.
Memphis lives and dies in an 8 bar cycle, again and again repeating the refrain. one song ends allowing the next one to begin. I felt this in the Civil Rights Museum, too, that MLK’s death was incendiary to the movement, allowing greater progressions, allowing more steps to be taken towards the promised land. (I also wondered if he knew. If he had foreseen it somehow, that he would take up the shroud of Matyrdom for the cause he was fighting for). Such a great tragedy, but still the things that spring up in his wake are new refrains, new modes of strength against oppression, new modes of breaking the system.
Graceland, on the other hand, festers. No longer home, nor hearth, nor safe space away from the world; but a highly trafficked tomb to excess, spent to alleviate what seems to me to be a hole unable to be filled by possessions, or drugs, or peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
If he wanders the halls of his home, I bet he’s yelling ‘fuck off’ as loud as he can.
I have been writing this in view of the Mississippi River, and gazing out at it from the city side you could believe that it hasn’t changed in 100 years. It has. It’s certainly a much more inclusive city than it seems to have been, and being majority non-white, the focus on African American culture is higher than anywhere else I’ve been whilst I’ve been in America. Yet, it seems evident to me after visiting the CRM that the fight that was fought here in the ‘60s, and countless years before that, and many subsequently still needs fighting; in Memphis, throughout America, and throughout the world.
It is important, too, to remember that we are all complicit in perpetuating injustices so long as we continue to try to ‘just get by’ without rocking the boat too much. By saying ‘I will stand up later’. The greatest stumbling block for African American’s in the fight for civil rights, according to MLK himself in his letter from Birmingham Jail is not ‘the white citizen’s counsellor, or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.’
The fight I saw in the CRM, all the people going out of their way, putting their lives and livelihoods at risk, coming together in order to help each other and themselves is something we need to pick up and use, especially now when the bellies of the unions have been ripped out. Whilst flying from New Orleans to Los Angeles I watched Knock Down the House on Netflix, chronicling the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a grass roots movement to take down a previously unopposed Democratic candidate in the Bronx.
She, and many other women like her, stood up in the face of oppression an adversity. Strong, working class, and fully representational of the communities they were standing in, and whilst only Ocasio-Cortez got through the barricades of the establishment, at least someone did.
There is so much we could be doing in the face of the great political tides of the now. In the face of classism, racism, sexism. institutional takedowns and lashbacks against establishment regimes that we are not collectively doing. We are many, they are few. I feel moved to be guilty. Guilty that I am not doing enough, and by not doing enough I am complicit in institutional oppression. More than this though, I feel motivated that one voice can change the world, if only everyone would get behind it.
This is not the time for mourning, though. Now is the time for action.
To end with Martin Luther King Junior:
The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do no stop to help [others] , what will happen to them?” That’s the question.