While riding in an Uber last week — traveling from Memphis International Airport to the hotel I was staying in — I asked the driver if she, a 60-something Black woman and life-long Memphian, had any recommendations on which BBQ joints I should sample during my short stay in town. To my dismay, she suggested Rendezvous — the same touristy and homogenized place Alex Hardy was specifically told to avoid when he traveled to Memphis two years ago. Which made me wonder if this was some sort of elaborate rouse to see if I’d bite. Or, even worse, if she took one look at me and surmised that I’d appreciate Rendezvous more than the real. Like a stamp reading “This nigga wants some bland shit” was etched into my forehead.
After checking into the hotel, I linked up with my man Raymar — a deputy director at My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) — who invited me to Memphis. Thursday, MBK planned to host approximately 500 16-to-29-year-old Black men and boys at the Cook Convention Center for Pathways to Success: Boys and Young Men of Color Opportunity Summit — an event providing opportunities to interview with employers for on-the-spot hiring, access to community resources and social services, and career preparation and leadership development training. I was there to moderate two panels that afternoon. But again, that was Thursday. I needed some iconic Memphis BBQ in my belly immediately. Fortunately, Raymar shared that the entire MBK team was planning to eat at Central BBQ later that evening, and I excitedly tagged along.
At 7pm, we — me plus the dozen or so MBK team members in town for the event — hopped in a few rentals and made the 10 minute drive there. We parked in the lot beside the building. I jumped out, ready to gain somewhere between four and eight pounds of swine fat, and then HOLY FUCKING SHIT. Sitting right in front of me was the Lorraine Motel. Where Dr. King was assassinated 49 years ago.
I knew that Dr. King was murdered in Memphis. I knew about the Lorraine Motel, and I knew that the National Civil Rights Museum was attached to it. But this knowledge existed in an abstract sense; a theoretical and academic and ultimately limited understanding derived from the hundreds of books I’ve read, shows I’ve watched, and conversations I’ve had about it. The Lorraine Hotel was in Memphis, but it might as well as been on the moon. So while I was keenly aware that this city was the last city Dr. King would draw a breathe in, I still wasn’t prepared for the jolt of actually seeing the spot he stood when shot by James Earl Ray.
This surreality was shared by several other members of MBK, who hadn’t realized Central BBQ was right next to the Lorraine. We all walked over there in a collective trance, completely transfixed by the hallowed ground and the still resonate spirits of Dr. King and the rest of our forebearers who stood on that ground, walked before and with him, and either died or were willing to die for the same cause. It was a too pertinent reminder of the necessity and the responsibility and the privilege of building on that legacy.
And then, after we’d consumed enough sights, touched enough bricks, felt enough chills, and shed enough tears, we finally ate.
Back at the hotel later that evening, I had a few drinks with the homie Shahidah Jones — known to VSB as Shay-d-Lady — who naturally told us that Central BBQ was some touristy shit too. (For the record, I thought it was amazing. But I’m a Pittsburgher so my BBQ bar is quite low.)
Thursday began with a breakfast where Bakari Sellers (who you probably recognize as “that guy who tells White people about themselves on CNN”) shared a stage with Mo Bridges — the 15-year-old wunderkind behind Mo’s Bows — and Mo’s mother (Tramica Morris) to discuss his path, their plans, and his lucrative new deal with the NBA(!!!). From then it was onto the main space in the convention center. Dozens of businesses and corporations, from FedEx to the Memphis Grizzles, had stations there ready to interview and hire. Another section of the space had a hundred or so desks and laptops available for young people who needed to work on their resumes, with mentors helping them through each stage of the process.
They even set up a makeshift barbershop, with a dozen barbers ready to cut anyone who wanted to look fresh.
My favorite part of the room, however, was the tie tying station. There, the young men and boys who didn’t know how to tie ties got on the spot tutelage from one of the several men there, as well as conversation about who they were, what they wanted to do, Kevin Durant, the best Memphis BBQ spots, whatever. I spent much of my time over there, and I was joined by Raymar, Bakari, and actor Lamman Rucker — who actually was my teammate in the Connie Hawkins Summer Basketball League in 1999. (I knew him then as “L Ruck.” And he was known for his tomahawk dunks — approximately 5% of which he’d miss but would attempt with such force that the ball would bounce off the back rim to half court. He’d dunk like the rim owed him and rescinded promised BBQ.)
The first panel I moderated featured Shay, David Rose (Founder and Executive Director, Inner L.I.G.H.T.), DJ Vaughn (Snr. Communications Specialist, FedEx Corporations), and Rolanda Gregory of the Memphis Grizzles, and they told the young people how they utilize social media with their respective jobs — a conversation that eventually segued into a discussion about internet dos and don’ts. (Considering the audience, much more focus was on the don’ts.)
My day concluded with a panel on the value of mentorship — featuring Lamman, Mo Bridges, FedEx VP Donald Comer, and Kevin Woods (executive director of Workforce Investment Network) — that was supposed to last an hour but stretched to 90 minutes because the conversation was so engaging.
Throughout this entire event, the influence of President Obama loomed over us, as MBK is his baby. He wasn’t there physically, but either his name or his picture was on nearly every flyer — including the image providing the backdrop for the main stage — and he was referenced countless times. With this event existing in Memphis, there’s an easy and natural connection between King’s legacy and Obama’s presidency. And before 2016, one could make the argument that Obama’s ascension and position was a natural progression of King’s work. (It wouldn’t have been a complete or correct argument. But at least it still could have been made.) Today, however, with our status as citizens and the protection of our personhoods under a clear and constant and unambiguous assault, the necessity of this work — and the mountains of progress that still needs to be made — has never been more evident. And sometimes, although I know that the writing that I do and the platform I created matters, it’s so abstract and removed from the day-to-day minutiae of surviving while Black in America that it doesn’t feel like it. Last Thursday, however, after seeing and interacting with the hundreds of Black men and boys there and the dozens of volunteers committing their time and resources and attention to helping them stay alive and thrive, it felt like it.