People warned me that Memphis was dirty and crime-ridden. They asked why I wanted to go, and I didn’t have any real answers. I just felt drawn. Maybe I had taken Paul Simon to heart: “For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland…”
I also didn’t know what to think of the hostel where I had booked a room. It was in a church. Like inside a church. And the website said that they require all guests to do a chore assigned by the hostel staff each day as part of staying there. Was this going to be a vacation or a punishment?
On my way out of Nashville, I stopped at The Hermitage, which is the plantation built by President Andrew Jackson (i.e., the dude on the $20 bill). I had never been to a real plantation before.
The house has been restored to look as much as possible like it did when Jackson died there in 1845, including original wallpaper and furnishings. During its peak, it had up to 150 slaves living and working on it.
It is impossible to fathom what slavery was really like from our modern perspective. Even assuming the best conditions, the work was unbelievably grueling. For example, Jackson’s house slaves (who had it far better than the field slaves) prepared meals for upwards of 25 people a day with no running water or electricity, in the intense Southern heat, over open fires in a back kitchen. They began cooking at 3am for a meal that would be eaten at 3pm.
Jackson was a businessman who saw slavery as completely necessary. He was also a politician and military leader who gave orders to relocate Native Americans in order to further European expansion.
As much as I intellectually understand that Jackson lived in a different time, and that he, himself, overcame great odds—an Irish immigrant orphaned at 14, fighting in brutal wars as a teenager, a self-made frontiersman with little support who became a prosecutor, an army colonel, and the seventh president of the United States—I was unsettled by the whole experience at the plantation.
The museum and tour emphasize that the people oppressed by Jackson and our other forefathers would later use their rhetoric about democratic equality to fight for their full rights as U.S. citizens. I suppose that is something. But it really makes you think about who we revere as heroes in this society.
I arrived in Memphis later that night and found the hostel, which took up an entire floor of the church and had its own separate entrance.
The staff was young and cool. In the morning, they post a card on the entry table with each guest’s name and a requested chore for the day, which ranges from sweeping the kitchen floor to filling ice trays or wiping down the counter. It wasn’t bad at all.
The best part of the hostel was the location, right off the intersection of Young Ave. and Cooper St., in the midtown area, where there were several places to eat and drink, a popular bar called the Young Ave. Deli, a bookstore, and the Soul Fish Café, where I had the BEST blackened catfish in the entire world. I feel bad for you that you are not eating it right now. It was amazing.
A few blocks down was a coffee shop called Otherlands Coffee Bar, where I had an excellent pimento cheese sandwich. (I mean, DAMN, the food was good). They had this bumper sticker:
I had a long list of things I wanted to see—from Sun Studios and Aretha Franklin’s birth home to more macabre landmarks like the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the spot where Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River. In the end, I didn’t even make it to Graceland. After all the museums in Nashville, I was just too burned out.
But I did make it to the Stax Musuem of American Soul Music.
That night I hung out with a couple named Medhi and Carine. He is Haitian and she is African-French. They are exploring the States before going to Haiti, where they are going to teach schoolchildren.
They were incredibly beautiful souls—kind, generous, and warm. They said that they, too, had been warned about Memphis. It probably seems odd that a young black couple would choose to vacation in the American south.
It somehow made me proud of our country, that we were all pleasantly surprised. Not only was Memphis more racially integrated than any other city I have visited, but the locals were genuinely nice. (And did I mention THE FOOD? Holy cow.)
Meeting Medhi and Carine was the perfect counter-balance to my experience at The Hermitage. It gave me hope. Love prevails. Sometimes it just takes a long, long time.