Something I hear on a regular basis is that no one believes in Memphis anymore. For all of the momentum we have going, it's just an unsustainable, rundown, burned out city, too tarnished by decades worth of crime, corruption, and (worst of all) indifference, to recover any hope of promise. That's what I keep hearing, from people I know, people who live here, people from around the country, visitors, tourists, people who ran away because they were too afraid to stand up and fight for their home. Sadly, that's what people say about this city.
Do you know something though? Most people don't feel that way about Memphis. The problem with social media and news outlets is that the people who are heard these days are the people who have only negativity to breed. Most people who gripe about how awful Memphis is are people who visited us once, maybe twenty, thirty, even forty years ago, and have no idea exactly what they're talking about anymore. Those of us who have stayed to fight for our city, those of us with pride for our home, those of us who are willing to shout out how much this city has to offer, are simply being drowned out and ignored by the naysayers. It doesn't have to be that way though.
Do you know what I see?
I see my home here in Memphis. I see a city on FIRE with potential. I see a phoenix rising up out of the ashes. I see a generations of citizens that have been itching to stand up and fight for her--not just for her future, but for her history.
What does Memphis have to be proud of?
Seriously, I hear this all the time. Let's start with the obvious, and that is her history. Let's talk about Memphis' role in the Civil Rights Movement. Let's talk about the impact that Dr. Martin Luther King had on this city. Let's talk about how Memphis is the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Let's talk about it's place in the history of American music. I'm not just talking about Elvis Presley, although it is absolutely worth noting that arguably the most prominent singer in the history of Rock and Roll, who made millions and could have chosen anywhere in the world to live, adamantly refused to leave Memphis. I'm talking about the role Memphis has played in the development of the blues, it's place in the engine that steam rolled rock music on the radio waves. I'm talking about Memphis as the home of Stax Records, now Stax Music Academy and Museum, where a generation of musicians from all over the world--and of all races--not only worked together for the love of music, but embraced one another, fought for one another, grieved for each other.
Let's go further back, and look at the Yellow Fever epidemic that nearly wiped Memphis off the map, not once, but twice. How a group of priests and nuns stayed in Memphis to tend to the sick and dying, and most of them lost their lives as well. They remain in Memphis, buried in the historic Elmwood Cemetary, and are regularly referred to as Constance and her Companions--the Martyrs of Memphis.
These are just three small examples of how important a place Memphis has had in the development of this country. There is more history--real, important history--in one corner of Memphis than there is in the entirety of many cities of comparable size, but the sad truth is that most people now don't care about history or historical importance. They care about the here and now. So fine, let's look at what Memphis is now. Let's look at the reality of what this city is, and what it has the potential to be.
Memphis is a singularly unique place. It's a bona fide city, with the feel and attitude of a small southern town. There is genuine affection amongst Memphians, even total strangers (often, especially amongst strangers). There is fierce pride in its communities: Raleigh, Frayser, Binghampton, Midtown, Orange Mound, Hickory Hill, and many others. The problem is that the same pride that gives steam and energy to the continued revitalization of those communities seems to be lacking in the larger collective. There is Frayser pride, there is Binghampton pride, there is Downtown pride--there is a distinct shortfall of Memphis pride. We here in Memphis have a tendency, like many places, to fall victim to the mentality that it is "us vs. them." The only time it abates is when it involves sports.
Memphis is a town that is damn proud of its basketball legacy, whether it's the Grizzlies or the University of Memphis Tigers. When they are winning, the city is proud of the University of Memphis' football program too, which appears to be on an upswing. Sports fans are often fickle, and Memphis is certainly no exception. We're also proud of our food. Memphians LOVE to eat, and we know what equals good food. So anytime a Memphis restaurant gets national attention, or is the subject of a documentary or a visit from one of those tv chefs over on Food Network, you'd better believe it's going to be celebrated and plastered all over every piece of news media, social media, and news print that we can find. During these times, Memphians are Memphians, no matter what suburb or community you live in, no matter what school or church you attend.
If we could only have that sense of pride all the time about our city, and WE SHOULD, because here are a few things that Memphis has to be proud about right this minute--
A city that is steeped in history, that survived years of fiscal mismanagement, political corruption, and social indifference, still managed to score an NBA team and nurture a college basketball program worthy of national attention. A city that was almost removed from the map due to disease in the early 20th century suddenly became an industrial giant, and houses the headquarters for such companies as FedEx, AutoZone, and International Paper, just to name a few. Bass Pro Shops just turned a stagnant arena shaped like a pyramid into a first class outdoor park, shopping center, entertainment venue, and resort. I see a city that suddenly has the attention of corporations and business across the globe, that now want to settle down in our little corner of Tennessee.
A city that grew its musical heritage from just Elvis and Beale Street, and is now known around the world for its depth, inclusion, and diversity across all music genres.
A city that fights for the continued preservation of its parks, and that (despite the currently divisive nature of their arguments) simultaneously prides itself on it's world class zoo, one of the top ten in the nation.
Our city overcame what many view as one of the greatest tragedies of American history, and used it as a means to create something positive out of the horrific; the assassination of Dr. King in downtown Memphis has given rise to the National Civil Rights Museum, and educates thousands and thousands of visitors every year on equality, perseverance, and the work that still needs to be done to guarantee real freedom for every single citizen of the United States, not to mention around the world.
I see a city that is rich with possibilities. Do we have issues that need to be addressed as quickly as possible? OF COURSE WE DO. Everyone does. There is no perfect town that doesn't have its trouble. In the last year, Memphis has gotten attention for its continued problems with youth violence, black on black crime, and shake-ups with its public education system. Those problems are not going to go away, and let's face it--the reason that these issues have grown the way that they have in the last decade is because we spent several decades before the last one dealing with a government that did not care about it's children. Those children grew up feeling neglected by their leaders and with no options for their futures. Those children gave birth to children themselves, and the vast majority have no idea how to raise them.
I am a librarian. I work with children every single day, and have worked with children for the last ten years that ranged from babies to high schoolers. Do not let the news media fool you--there is no such thing as a bad child. Bad children do not exist. Children who need to be shaped, molded, helped, and given a path DO exist, and that has been sorely lacking in our city. Is anyone surprised, after 25 years of city government that cared more about industry than its future, that our children have no direction or idea how to make something of themselves?
They are our future. The children in Memphis, Tennessee today will be our future councilmen, government officials, community leaders, and educators of the NEXT generation. We owe it to every single child in this city to make sure that they are our priority. If you are a citizen of Shelby County, whether you are a parent yourself or not, it is your responsibility to care about what happens to its youth. Stop complaining. Stop casting blame. Start making suggestions on how to fix the problem, because you cannot tell an eleven year old child that he or she is a "bad seed" and then walk away. You have just condemned that child to being the bad seed, because children listen. They listen, and they believe you.
As a librarian in the Memphis Public Library system, we are making it a priority to find a way to reach every single child in our community. We are addressing problems, and reaching out to the schools to offer assistance in any way we can. We just can't do it alone. I am so proud of my city. I am so proud to say that I am from Memphis. I want to see this city continue to gain momentum and grow and thrive and become every bit as outstanding as it can be. If every single person who reads this stood up and offered to do one thing--volunteer to be a mentor, a tutor, become a member of Leadership Memphis, start a support group to help guide wayward youth, SOMETHING--then this city is going to be bigger than anyone can imagine, because our children are going to be the ones that benefit from our involvement. They will lead this city into continued success, if we show them that we believe they can make a difference, and give them the tools to do just that.
I do not believe that Memphis is merely the "liberal stepchild" of Tennessee. I can see its future. I believe that Memphis is sustainable. I believe that Memphis has an important role in our country. Every single day I witness some act that proves to me just how much people want to have pride in where they live. I am committed to being a leader, not a naysayer, for the future of Memphis, and I invite along anyone, ANYONE, who wants to make the journey with me, to jump on for the ride. I am Memphis. I am my city, my home. I will make a difference, because Memphis and I both are hell on wheels, with a path and a goal for the 21st century. No one is ever going be able to convince me otherwise.