Thursday, April 4, 2013

Not In My Wheelhouse

Oh, hey there. I've spent the last eight months writing a weekly column over at The Memphis Flyer's website so things have been pretty quiet around here, but recent budget cuts have sent my Wheelhouse feature into the great pixel graveyard (you can catch up on previous columns here). I'd already written this week's piece before I got the news, though, and due to its timely nature, I thought I'd go ahead and share it today. Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading.

New Heart, Old Soul

In direct response to the Ku Klux Klan’s undersized mobile unit appearing in Memphis, our city leaders sponsored an event to celebrate diversity. By all accounts, the Heart of Memphis festivities were a successful undertaking, despite the consistently uncooperative weather. I was not in attendance, however. Instead, I spent the afternoon at an event that celebrates diversity on a regular basis: Saturday shopping at Target.

There, under the fluorescent lights, every shade and shape of Memphis was represented, all ages and multiple creeds. We didn’t need an organized program or all-star line-up to get us there. We just needed dish soap and Pull-Ups and a shower curtain.

I appreciate the sentiment behind Heart of Memphis, and based on what I’ve heard from those who attended, it was a good time. I’m happy it happened. But as my friend Melissa Bridgman (who took her whole family to the event and greatly enjoyed it) Facebooked afterward, “we should not be such a reactive city - react to the state legislature, react to hate groups. Why don't we set the tone ourselves?”

And for my money, the best way to set the tone is often the least intentional. There is no Diversity Day at Target. There’s no multicultural mission to eat lunch at Memphis’ fine assortment of Asian buffets. There isn’t a unity banner over the entrance of the Woodland Discovery playground at Shelby Farms. And yet, all of these places naturally bring together a wide swath of our community, freely and peacefully.

I mention these places not as random examples but because I’ve taken specific notice of this phenomenon there. And I notice because it’s still not the norm. There have been plenty of other venues where I’ve looked around and thought, “Wow, this sure is a lot of white people.” And that’s on me, I’ll admit it. I control where I spend my time. But I also think Memphis, like most cities with anything like a diverse population, struggles to blend cultures and comfort levels.

Unlike other cities, however … well, we’re Memphis. After the violence and struggle and tragedy on either side of April 4, 1968, huge portions of downtown practically disintegrated. It took forty years to bring back the area surrounding the Lorraine Motel, and those were just buildings. Memories hold up much longer, and ideas about who is expected to be where are pretty hard to knock down.

And here we are, forty-five years from that terrible day. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Klan chose this week in particular to stop by, but I hope they were a little surprised by their reception. Living in the past as they do, I’m sure they felt comfortable in the knowledge that ours is a city clearly divided between black and white. I’m guessing they didn’t factor in that 2013 Memphis has not only progressed, but that it’s also not just black and white. The number of Memphians identifying as Hispanic doubled between 2000 and 2010, and we have the highest population of Asian descent in the region. In the average classroom, a couple kids speak a language other than English at home. In other words, we’re not a place where people are stuck. We’re a place where people choose to be.

And that, ultimately, is what we create whenever we join our neighbors, without motive or agenda, to simply participate in each other’s lives. I wasn’t raised here, but my peers have made it clear that the color lines have softened since their childhoods, and that our own children are growing up in a different city altogether. Of the six children living in my house, every one of them has a best friend of a different racial background than themselves. As adults of our generation, we still observe these things, but they don’t even notice.

And that’s something to celebrate.