My Day In Memphis With President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance » VSB

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My Day In Memphis With President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance

Damon Young/VSB


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.


Damon Young/VSB


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.

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Damon Young/VSB


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.

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Damon Young/VSB


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.)

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Damon Young/VSB


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.

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Damon Young/VSB


They even set up a makeshift barbershop, with a dozen barbers ready to cut anyone who wanted to look fresh.

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Damon Young/VSB


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.)


Damon Young/VSB


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.)


Damon Young/VSB


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.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at Or don't. Whatever.

  • Soul Glo Model

    I didn’t learn how to tie a tie until i was 18 and at my H.S. graduation commencement. I was in the bathroom for what seemed to be ages trying to tie the damb thing (I youtubed a how to video the night before and thought I had the steps down…I didn’t.) Finally agitated at my lack of success. I refocused on the fact that I was graduating, and looked good, even if I couldn’t tie the dang tie.

    As I walked somewhat dejectedly to my moms car to toss the tie in the passenger seat. A history teacher -who always would get on us brothas for being a bag of shenanigans in the hall way- called me over to inquire why I was headed in the opposite direction of the venue.

    I mumbled something about not liking the tie and he simply stared at me. Without saying a word he took his tie off, stood right beside me, and started doing and redoing the steps until I finally got it. One of the poignant small moments in my life. So much so that I now work with a minority male program to instruct middle school males on how to properly tie a tie.

    This stuff truly matters. I know because it mattered to me. Continue the great work, bro.

    • miss t-lee

      I remember at my grandfather’s funeral, the young man who lived across the street at the time got up to give condolences. He started to tell us a story. The story was that he had a job interview and needed to wear a tie, but he didn’t know how to tie it.
      He came over and knocked on the door and asked my grandfather if he would show him how, and he did. I’d never heard that story ever until the funeral, and I always just thought that it was a super awesome thing. Something small, but huge at the same time.

      • I remember one time i was sweeping and weedwhacking my old block, and a young guy and a girl were standing there staring, talking. Here i am thinking, “these fools trynna run up on me. ” Eventually she shoves him in my direction.
        Dude says, “Mister can you tie my tie?” Shoooo…heII yeah. He whips out a tie and explains hes going to his first interview. I hook him up, wish him luck. He goes back to chick, she says, ” I told you he would do it.”…and playfully popped him in the head.

        • Tam

          Aww. That is a sweet story pops. These are things we can anthologise

        • Mary Burrell

          I love that you are a good man.

          • Tam

            He is. I can say that 99% of the men are can be counted among the good ones.

          • Well thanks Mary!

            • Mary Burrell

              That’s a wonderful thing to help someone. We all need kindness.

        • miss t-lee

          That’s too cool.

    • ???

      I learnt to tie a tie at age 11. It was a part of my school uniform:P. But I can see how it was problematic, I have taught several boys how to do theirs.

      • Kas

        First girlfriend at 11 and oddly enough also when I learned to drive a stick shift. Sadly, it would be many more years before I would need to make use of my devirginizing water.

        • Tam

          Lol. You still drive stick? Your dad taught you early. You were late on the gf, lot of youngsters these days got you beaten.

    • Diego Duarte

      “How to tie a tie” is still the most googled “how to” to this day, if I’m not mistaken.

      • I can even count how many times I printed out the “Windsor Knot” lol

        • Tam

          Somehow I always figured you were born knowing how to do that

          • We learned ties in grade school, but a Windsor knot… that’s a whole nutha thang.

            • Tam

              I learnt both way but the simple kind was what my school required. I feel some sorta pride doing the windsor knot

              • When that triangle pops out for the first time all perfect….yeah.

                • Tam

                  Funny thing was once I learnt how to do the windsor knot that was the only way I did my school tie.

      • D-Nice

        My dad taught me pretty early, and I can tie a decent knot, but to this day (decades later) I can only use THAT technique. I never branched out and learned other knots/techniques. I’d assume there’s different ways to do it.

    • Mary Burrell

      Great story pay it forward.

  • Cheech

    I’ve had good ribs at the Rendezvous. JS.
    My memory, though, is that it was not full service (i.e., I don’t remember chicken, sausage, brisket, or pork shoulder options). I think the choices were basically, half rack or full rack, and, beer or coke? Negligible slaw came in a plastic thimble. The dry rub was tasty, though.

  • BrothasKeeper

    I love to see Black youth wanting more out of life in a positive way with us helping them along.

    • ???

      Do you have any programmes that are similar at your school?

      • BrothasKeeper

        Yes, we have Men/Women of Distinction clubs. They’re not well-attended, but we persist.

        • Mary Burrell

          At least you are trying I admire educators who truly care for about creating successful students.

        • Kas

          What grades do you teach?

          • BrothasKeeper

            9-12, a.k.a. The Hormonally Challenged.

            • Kas

              Houston right?

        • Tam

          Good. At least the start is there

  • NICUGRAD2016

    Did you find another BBQ place tho? Lol

  • nillalatte

    OT: I just got a text that states “Breaking article says Facebook’s hate speech rules protect white men over Black children.”

    • Mary Burrell

      I read about that today on another site.

  • I learned to tie a tie in the sixth grade. My daddy told me to stand in front of him and demonstrated the process. I was taller than him already (he was about five foot five) and I snickered looking over the yop of his head. He didn’t break stride with his demo and in his baritone growled rhetorically “what?”

    “What?” translated into “I can end you in ways that you couldn’t imagine.”

    That was the day I learned a key lesson in haberdashery and not to f*** with Steve Young, Sr.

  • Mary Burrell

    It’s a beautiful thing to empower young brothers to live up to their full potential, i loved the tie tying.

  • PurpleIntrovert

    This is awesome! Resume building, interviews, tie tying, etc. This is really dope to see.

  • This is great. It will always be a necessity regardless of the times because young people always need to be mentored and taught. All black men aren’t bad – we know this. But the general population needs to know this also. Thanks to President Obama for shining a spotlight on this.

  • This is one heII of a report Damon. What an outstanding experience to participate in. I love seeing events like this, because it gives one hope.
    Keep doing what you do.

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