I will not claim to be a native son of Memphis. No, the four years I spent living there during college were not enough to qualify me a natural Memphian, but it was enough to give me a love for Memphis that bounds like the mighty Mississippi. With its world's best BBQ, warm people, and even warmer weather, it's all I can do not to squeal with delight when I visit and catch a reuniting glimpse of the iconic Hernando DeSoto "M" Bridge. Even with all that love for my transplant city, there are a few facts I learned during my time in Memphis that conjure up thoughts slightly less than squeal-worthy.
First off, I discovered I was a "Yankee," and that the title did not earn me a badge of honor. While the concept of Northerner/Southerner had evaded me while growing up in Nebraska, my oft used gathering call of "you guys" instead of "y'all" was a dead giveaway to my Southern classmates.
I also realized that when it snows, no, flurries south of the Mason Dixon line, everything shuts down. I was shocked by this at first, until I saw a dormmate scraping ice off his windshield with an unfolded metal hanger, and decided maybe it was a good idea not to have anyone driving. Of all the Southern-isms my Yankee-self noticed though, none stuck out more than the deep, storied, painful racial divisions I found existed in Memphis.
Historically, Memphis was a successful stop on the slave trade, and some of the city's biggest and earliest fortunes were made on the human auction block. When the Civil Rights Movement blanketed the South in the 1960s, it was in Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. The city's current neighborhoods even reflect the layout of grandeur plantation mansions surrounded by slave huts, as you can often find million-dollar homes enclosed amidst some of Memphis' poorest neighborhoods. A history of divisive racial issues permeates through the soul of this city.
But it's not just historical and logistical ties that segregate Memphis. When I arrived for my first lunch at the University of Memphis student union, it was unsettling to see that there was a very clear, unspoken rule indicating which half of the dining area I was to sit, based on my race.
This self-selected segregation is a scandal in the eyes of the world, and rightfully so, but in Memphis it's just one of the cruel realities. In a city that is 63 percent African-American, black people don't have to pander to a white upper class that has historically treated them so unjustly. Indeed the city's politics reflect this divide, and you can often discern who voted for which mayoral candidate simply from the color of their skin.
But why do I point this out? How is a reminder of our culture's continued struggle to stand against living in a divided nation, as Abraham Lincoln so famously spoke about, helpful to anyone?
Despite the often seen divisions among the races in Memphis, there have been moments of unity that gave me hope. During the 2011 Mississippi River floods, I saw residents of the river city, black and white, work together to stop the rising water that threatened nearby homes. Whenever Justin Timberlake returns to his hometown, his concerts are a hodgepodge of races mutually jamming to "Sexy Back." And on any given day 30,000 employees of every race, color, and creed are working together at the FedEx hub to deliver "The World On Time."
But the biggest ray of hope I ever saw, the one time I consistently noticed Memphians of all races visibly treating each other kinder, creating a wave of positivity, was when the University of Memphis Tigers were making a national championship run.
Basketball, with its deep ties to both races, was the one thing that brought Memphis together like nothing else. Even alongside the despair and injustice, somehow, when the Tigers were winning, everyone rallied around our shared joy, instead of focusing on our troubles; and boy does Memphis got troubles.
In 2011, Forbes named the Bluff City the second most dangerous in the U.S. Within the city limits, those living in poverty make up 27 percent of the residents, almost twice the national average. And the Memphis school system, struggling to bring its high school graduation rate above 70 percent, has been highlighted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as one of the neediest in the country.
The only way Memphis will ever overcome these problems is if the entire city, all races, come together and use their shared resources. Those who have historically been economically favored need to work with the mass numbers living in poverty, and figure out how to combine finance with footprints to hit the pavement and solve the city's woes.
But what colossal event could now overcome centuries of violence, intolerance, and economic injustice? What catalyst could start Memphis on a path of grace and renewal?
The one time during my four years in Memphis where I felt the city approach this tipping point, was when the University of Memphis Tigers made the NCAA men's basketball national championship game in 2008.
Unfortunately, this hope was squashed by a few missed free throws and a squandered lead with only seconds remaining. But for those few seconds before Memphis lost its lead and eventually the championship, I thought it could come; a winning feeling to last Memphis a year, and maybe, just maybe long enough to start a revolution of unity.
So here we are again. The NBA's Memphis Grizzlies have just made it to the Western Conference Finals, farther than any other team in the franchise's history. They got there on the merits of their tough play (earning the hashtag "grit 'n grind," which has been organically adopted by Memphians and Grizzlies team marketers), the on-court cohesion and "grind" of players from a diverse set of backgrounds, and especially on the hopes and dreams of a city whose slogan for the team's playoff run is, "Believe."
Memphians are abuzz with this belief. Elvis' home Graceland is lit up in "Beale Street blue" and "Grizzlies gold," the story of Marc Gasol's education and training at a Memphis high school is gaining national attention, and if my Memphis friends and Facebook newsfeed are any indicator, both races have once again come together to produce that magic I felt during the Tigers' championship run in 2008.
So I ask you, fans across America and around the world, to root for Memphis -- both the Grizzlies team and the city. Maybe your cheers, prayers, and positive energy can be enough to push this city over the edge, to bring everyone together and hold them there.
Maybe a Grizzlies championship can provide just the "grits" this Southern city needs.