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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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COMMENTARY: A Bicentennial letter to Mempho

by Howard Robertson Jr., Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Howard Robertson

During this, the bicentennial of Memphis, my birthplace and hometown, I celebrate with a sense of pride, loyalty and appreciation that this is where my ancestors established roots, toiled, strived and made a way for me and all my family. As a black man though, my feelings are inextricably infused with ambivalence. From that perspective, there are some things (I believe) that need to be said and some truths that need to be told. So, I wrote my city this letter. Maybe you can relate.

Happy birthday Mempho,

Wow, two centuries is a long time.

I’ve only been here about 30 percent of that time, but it’s been real. I tell people all the time, I would not have chosen to be born at any other time or in any other place. I consider myself blessed to have been born and raised in a city so richly endowed with spirit, character plus the most brilliantly creative, talented and genuine people on the planet.

So I’ll say it…I love you Memphis. But like some kinfolks, you’ve been hard to love sometimes. You’re my home. But you’ve also been the home of evildoers and the site of evil deeds perpetrated on African-American people for generations.

Slavery and bondage are evil. Lynchings and murder are evil. Segregation, discrimination and deprivation are evil. But you’re blessed Memphis, because only a powerful God can snatch good and righteousness out of the jaws of evil and wrongness. And that’s the way it’s been.

From the evil of the infamous Memphis massacre in 1866 that left black men, women and children senselessly mutilated and murdered, came the good of a courageous spirit, fearlessness and resolve still embedded and imbued in Black Memphians.

When the yellow fever epidemic hit in 1873, 70 percent of the white population that contracted the fever died versus only seven percent of the black population that died. Black folks saved you, put you back together, helped heal your citizens and rebuilt you as a city. I believe that’s where our collective grit, grind and never say die attitude truly began.

But once your survival was imminent, for the next 90 years, you showed your “appreciation” with revved up racism, Jim Crow and horrendously hateful and inhumane actions.

And you still miss the essence of who you really are, even today. Like the Mighty Mississippi is a confluence of rivers, we’re a confluence of cultures…black, white and brown, haves & have nots, city & country, religious & secular. It permeates everything we’re known for…food, music, art and history. And like all the rivers in that river, we can’t be separated. Our best look has always been together. Too bad we rarely see it other than at sports or music events.

You are the birthplace of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs, every day people and ideas that have rocked the world. You have irrepressible swag, legendary status and cool cache like nowhere else on Earth. Yet you’ve got really low self esteem and a pervasive inferiority complex.

Look MEM, this is a one love thing. No matter what colors, we are historically, culturally and socially conjoined like Siamese twins. But we’ve got to do better realizing, accepting and appreciating our dichotomy.

It’s like the way I feel about you. I despise you when you’re guilty, but I love you because you’re my home.

With sincerity and respect,


(Howard Robertson is a husband, father, entrepreneur, marketer and communicator. He is a child of the 60’s in his 60’s and an unabashedly proud native son of Memphis.)

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