MEMPHIS, TN, U.S.A. – The American city of Memphis in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Tennessee does not cease to baffle any African or African American who has a good grasp of history.
Situated in a county called Shelby, the city occupies the fourth Chickasaw Bluff – a high ground rising – south of the confluence of the Wolf River and the Mississippi, which runs through much of the length of Middle America.
America’s Memphis is famous for two reasons. First, it is scarred by the assassination of the African American Human Rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Second, it is the cradle of America’s musical civilization – the birthplace of Rock ’N’ Roll, the Blues and Soul.
This musical tradition was introduced to the area by West-African musicians and craftsmen who were scurried away to the Americas against their volition during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Equally intriguing is that Memphis, in fact, was the name of an ancient African city.
America’s Memphis hence borrows a great deal from this ancient city but the convergence of the brutality of European invaders who wiped off the natives from the land, and brought with them at all immoral costs, African slaves to farm the plains, separates this Memphis from its historical namesake in more ways than can be entirely gleaned from an understanding of European savagery.
When you enter the city, from its western border, you will see a grey unimpressive building, built of glass nonetheless, and seems more like a pointed building struggling to stand upright than an attempt, a failed one peradventure, at mimicking the ancient Pyramid of Pepi, which stood at the west corner of the ancient African city of Menefer.
Menefer, or simply Menfe, was referred to as Memphis by the Greeks who came to obtain various academic degrees from its vast Temples. Founded in 1550 BCE in the Old Kingdom under Pharaoh Menes, Menefer translates into ‘enduring and beautiful.’ Its glorious memory and its ruins, some 20km south of Cairo, remain a shining nugget in African history.
The name “Memphis” hence was originally the name of the Pyramid of Pepi. Africans believed that Menefer was under the protection of the God Ptah, the patron of musicians and craftsmen, and that Memphis symbolized the epitome of any great civilization – the arts.
But the American city, which has chosen the name of Memphis, with its lackluster glass building seems more and more a mockery of the ancient African city after which it was named. For after all, this glass building is a Bas Pro shopping mall stooped in the white-American-essence of material greed than any attempt at emulating the spirituality and godliness of the ancient Pyramid of Pepi.
The monuments here seem forced and far between. And in some ways, this American reproduction of the ancient African city of Memphis, is only one of tragedy. It is a city of Ghosts.
First, it is inhabited by the Ghosts of thousands of Mississippians who settled the area in the first millennium CE, and then the ghosts of the historic Chickasaw Indian tribe, who descended from them. They were wiped off the face of the planet by European raiders who newly arrived there beginning in the 16th century.
The Chickasaw, were slaughtered en mass. No sign is left of them, except for the restless Ghosts that dot the banks of the Mississippi.
The Mississippi is perhaps responsible for the city’s choice of its African name. Menefer was built on the banks of the Nile in the same way that America’s Memphis dots the Mississippi. With one notable difference: the American city was founded on May 22, 1819 and incorporated on December 19, 1826, by three white men in the true essence of European materialism and greed.
Quite in contempt of the character on which the ancient Memphis was built, these European invaders, named this part of Mississippi, Memphis, anyway.
This new Memphis developed quickly as a trade and transportation center to feed the gluttonous appetites of marauding European tribesmen in the 19th century because of its flood-free location high above the Mississippi River.
In addition, since it was located in the low-lying delta region along the Mississippi, its outlying areas were developed as cotton plantations, farmed by the brutal exploitation of the newly arriving African craftsmen and women and musicians, as slaves.
The city will become a major cotton exporter to Europe and it will become a formidable brokerage center. The city’s wealth will be built on this forced African labor and craftsmanship. Upon this blood-money, Memphis will grow.
Much more, its Africans, in the spirit of their ancestors, and despite their precarious condition will establish for the first time in North American history, a musical civilization the continent has never seen.
Now, with a population nearly three-quarters of a million, making it the largest city in the state of Tennessee, the largest city on the Mississippi River, the third largest in the greater Southeastern United States, and the 23rd largest in the United States, Memphis is 63 percent African American.
For many Blacks, the city of Memphis is still synonymous with one of the most significant, and saddest, events in recent American history – the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Lorraine Motel, where King was slain, has in the years since the assassination become the National Civil Rights Museum.
But long before the civil rights movement brought King to Memphis, the city had already been one of the most important cities in the South for African Americans.
After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Memphis became a magnet for African Americans, who came here seeking economic opportunities. Memphis was where they headed.
Memphis’ most famous citizen was W. C. Handy, the father of Blues music, who first put on paper the Blues that was born in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. W. C. Handy Park, with its statue of the famous Blues musician, is about halfway down Beale Street in Memphis.
Handy’s house, now the W. C. Handy House Museum, is also now located on Beale Street. At the Memphis Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum, just a block off Beale Street, other famous African-American Blues musicians who found a place for their music grace its corridors.
Perhaps the most intriguing of all is the Soulsville USA: Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which has drawn rave reviews since it opened in a resurgent South Memphis neighborhood. The Pink Palace Museum is another museum with exhibits many famous African American musicians.
Church Park, on the corner of Beale and Fourth streets, which was once the site of a large auditorium was established by Robert R. Church, who was a former slave and a Memphis businessman. He became the city’s first African American millionaire. The park was a gathering place for African Americans in the early 1900s, when restrictive Jim Crow laws, enacted by racist European Americans, segregated city parks.
Also notable is Gospel music, which was part of the inspiration for the Blues that W. C. Handy wrote, and that music came from the Churches of the African communities. The tradition of rousing musical accompaniment in church continues at many of the city’s churches, but none is more famous than the Full Gospel Tabernacle on Hale Rd.
Music in Memphis is perhaps the most compelling evidence that Africans came to the United States and that the city deserves to be called Memphis. For after all, African Americans are exceedingly proud of the achievement of their ancestors, having arrived in the Americas as slaves, they colonized all of North America through African music.
That is in itself a feat unimaginable. But again, like our ancestors in Menefer, America’s Memphis, with its restless Souls of Black folk, remains a symbol of the relentless African spirit at work, no matter the circumstance. We are here to stay!