OFF TO MEMPHIS
I let myself wander. By fidelity to the little boy fed with Westerns who always sleeps in me, how could I not to take a second to imagine the Indian warrior and cowboy crossing these great outdoors?
As a more mature man today, and while my car rolls on the highway, I can imagine how it must have been for the Europeans to come here. I imagine them as peasants from Normandy –not so different from those that I have known –discovering these vast landscapes on horse and without the ads for factory outlet types of sex shops…
The billboards continue their parade. Health as a business, a market just like any other. “Do you suffer from cancer? Come see the Dr Smith!” Or “Lawyer Jones, specialist in thingamajig!”All this with a smile showing flawless yet carnivorous teeth.
ARRIVAL IN MEMPHIS
The streets and the historic downtown have been disneyfied. From the world famous Beale street, only the facades remain. The rest is a bit rotten, and rough. Derisory tourist attractions, like this illuminated “sleeping beauty”style carriage that visitors can ride. This has nothing to do with the poverty that prevails for a large part of the population residing just blocks away.
Why are infrastructures so miserably maintained in poor neighbourhoods? Thick weeds growing right between the decaying stoned pavements.
Along the road, some black women walk with their children in full heat sometimes pushing archaic vehicles, caddies, and carts. There are some stray dogs not too far.
THE 3Bs FORMULA
I now apply what has become at this stage of the journey my favorite magic formula to meet people: Blues, BBQ and Barbershops, the 3 Bs.
I need a close shave, and I have developed a fondness for the graphic “lines” that black barbers define so well around the capillary contour of their clients. The hair salon that I find after asking half a dozen people –just another excuse to socialize –is called “Hi, Gorgeous“. I swear, I’m not making this up!
I eventually meet the brother of my friend from Houston and his partner. She was in the army. They live in the beautiful part of the city, along the Mississippi river. He is in a sort of subdivision on the edge of the Mississippi, populated with small and neat houses that all look alike. He’s Muslim and vegetarian (like his mother, from the Black Panthers generation). Like most of the black emancipated bourgeoisie, they no longer – or very rarely –go to the poor black neighbourhood, as, with reason, they see none of the charm that I find so picturesque.
When I want to go for BBQ in a greasy spoon that was recommended, they advise me to properly close the car doors, even when the car is in motion.
I am starting to deeply feel that I have left the rural South for the heavy machinery of the North. It’s already more aggressive and cold at the same time.
Very rudimentary hair salons and a nauseating number of churches are distinguished by there naively hand painted advertisements, just like in Africa. It makes me think of those street salons in Togo with signs that proclaim: “GOOD HAIRDRESSER HERE”.
Here, I find again the little teddy bears and bouquets of flowers hanging from electric poles to remember the dead by stray bullets. At a crossroads, there are four or five crosses on the grass.
I’m intrigued by some enormous barrel-shaped workshops in metal. This is where vinyl discs were pressed, before they were sent across the world.
I meet the curator of the Stax Museum. He gives me an appointment in a Jamaican restaurant on the other side of the historic studio where Jerry Lee Lewis recorded. An old Cadillac is parked in front. We talk about music and inevitably of racial segregation. I learn about how census categories make it impossible for someone to define themselves as black Hispanic for example. You can only choose “African-American” or “Hispanic”. And under the Hispanic category are only two choices: “White” or “other”.
A general impression after the Obama hangover common to all the people I meet is the disillusionment of having been duped, deceived, cheated. Of course, there are different interpretations on the nature of the deception, various conspiracies, but the feeling is general.