American Expressions returned to Memphis after a 5 year hiatus. In 2011 I received the Artist-in-Residence at the Metal Museum's Lawler Foundry. Immediately prior to that I had just completed the construction of the flag and decided that I needed to bring it with me. For the next four months I took the flag around Memphis to different events and got to learn about the people and the city. From this experience I came to understand how much love there is in Memphis. Many people do not know, or care to know what a great community it is, do not what to see past historical scars. But for those that know her, know the people there love her, Memphis knows what love is.
To begin my stay in Memphis, I did what any sensible local would do, got some BBQ. I posted up with the flag out side Ray's on South Main Street. People like to brag about southern hospitality, but it is really on display when almost everyone stops and kindly asks, "What is this about?" in reference to the flag. The folks I met outside Ray's BBQ all had something to say, even if many of them were not from Memphis. Folks from England, Scotland, Germany, New Jersey, New York, all having a ball on holiday in the birthplace of rock-n-roll. Everyone had concerns about our current state of affairs, most of them pointing to the obvious remedies we're all trying to exemplify. The most interesting conversation of the day was with Mr.Larry. A well dressed 70 year old black man, Larry strode by and noticed the slogan on the flag "Black Lives Matter". With a quick look and a sly grin he turn to me and said "I didn't know we didn't matter?" Here is a man who has lived his whole life in Memphis, a historic epicenter of racial tension in America, a man who had first hand experience with a segregate water fountain. He shared a story with me about when he was a child he examined one of these segregated fountains, inquisitively wondering how the source of the water could be coming from the same place, but unsure of the difference in the product at the spigot. He asked his momma and she had to explain to him the ugly nature of the division at an early age. But she also imparted him with the truth, "We all have the same color blood, we're all red on the inside." Larry proceed to tell me about his life as a minister and motivational speaker and how that early lesson shaped his perspective for a lifetime. The work he does now is still rooted in the same message, helping young black men have love and respect for themselves and those around them. "I tell them, "We live in a 'Gotta get mine' society. You gotta get yours, I gotta get mine, it's all on us, no sharing, no helping. What is lost is the most important thing. Love. Love is a shared thing, love is what you have with yourself when you have respect. And when you have respect for others, you can share love. It's not all about you."
Larry has always known that some people in our country don't think his life matters because he's black. But because he understands we're all red on the inside, that we all need love and respect, he's lived his life with dignity and pride despite what other people think. To Larry, love has always matter most.
American Expressions was luckily invited to the North Memphis Block Party for Peace. In its 11th year, the block party is put on by Tennessee State Representative Antonio Parkinson and provides an opportunity for the community to come together for a jobs fair, employment counseling, BBQ, music, marching bands, and of course this guy with a giant American flag. My sincerest thanks to Rep Parkinson for his civil & military service. Keep up the good work, sir!
I would like to take a moment for all the critics out there that charge the black community for not doing enough to help solve societal problems. Everyone I met at the Peace rally was gracious and kind and interested in bettering North Memphis. Their attitudes about our country are no different than anywhere else. They know we need kindness and love and respect and less killing all the way around. They're out here doing it, sometimes in the face of real desperation, helping each other, making their community better with what ever it takes. It is easy to dismiss that which you do not know, but that certainly doesn't make your perspective informed or enlightened and it certainly doesn't make it right. So what are you doing to help make the world a better place? It takes all of us.
I had the pleasure of meeting German, pictured above center, a middle school teacher and athletics coach in the North Memphis area. He explained to me about his career of constant school closings and continuous moving around. It was hard for him to contain his frustration with each story he shared. "I walk in a class room of 14/15 year olds with a 23 year old teacher who is almost in tears. No learning. No behaving. No respect. All the boys checkin out the girls, all the girls cooing at the boys. I say alright! All you young men come with me. So the rest of the year I teach these guys in a separate classroom so we can get some focus." German continues, "I try to get through to them about their choices, about each decision they're making, that one decision can change their life forever. It's hard to get them to think about consequences. Hard to get them to think about their future and that they do have control over their actions." This guy is at the front lines, pushing against tides of poverty, incarceration, gang influence. This is the guy that deserves your appreciation just like the police, just like the solider because he is part of the solution. He's meeting the problem at the source, young people without love and support, getting them to believe in themselves, develop self-respect, and making themselves into better people. Just like Larry, black lives have always mattered, when did they not?
My last stop in Memphis took me back to the origins of my affinity for this place. The National Ornamental Metal Museum is located on the south side of town, perched upon a bluff overlooking a long stretch of western flowing river. Adjacent to the museum are historic Native American Ceremonial Mounds with a plaque citing when the explorer La Salle came for a visit. This ground has always been magical and couldn't be a better place for the Metal Museum because it is a crew of magical people.
I especially want to share my gratitude to Museum Executive Director Carissa Hussong for welcoming my project (unannounced) to this years' Repair Days. I parked the flag right out front of the main gate and got many great interactions. It is always gratifying to be associated with this talented group of people. I am forever proud to be part of this crew and be included in their collection. Great to see and work with you all again.
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