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In the Land of the Delta Blues 11 min read

In the Land of the Delta Blues

From Memphis and Tyre Nichols to tales of exceptional talent: on the golf course, on Mount Everest, on the Appalachian Trail, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
In the Land of the Delta Blues Post image

I should have written this and sent it out last week. It would have been more timely then. But maybe this helps keep the conversation going a little bit longer; it’s all too easy for us to fill our brains with even more recent news and pop culture and events and happenings.

I’ve called a lot of places home in my life. Not like Army brat-numbers of addresses, but when I think about some of my friends from my actual hometown, I’ve lived in quite a number of different places.

I remain invested in them after I leave; they get in your blood and stay with you. I was following the weather back in Gillette, Wyoming recently,  not at all missing -16 temperatures with a windchill of more than -30. But I also felt a warm nostalgia for the place when watching HBO’s new hit, The Last of Us, the characters need to go to Wyoming. Or, when browsing through the latest offerings from the one-stop shop that is Huckberry,  how my eyes lit up when I saw a trucker hat from King Ropes in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The same is true for entire states, like Mississippi, where I check out the news from beyond the tiny pocket where I existed. Or back in Knoxville, Tennessee. Or Arlington, Virginia and D.C.

But the first of those adopted homes will always be Memphis. It was an adopted home for the sake of convenience, when identifying and orienting a person to the tiny 5,500-person town in rural west Tennessee was too difficult and no fact-checking would scrutinize me, I’d say “Memphis,” when asked where I was from.

Then I went to college and earned the right to say it with a straight face.

So my heart broke when national news outlets, from the biggest daily papers to the most prestigious magazines I spend my days perusing, were talking about Memphis, its people and institutions, its streets and ways of life.

Tyre Nichols was beaten to death, senselessly and needlessly, by the very men charged with protecting and serving him and his neighbors, in a place I called home. Still think of as home.

It was a disgusting scene, and Friday’s release of the video was in those desperate hours where Memphis officials were clearly hoping the city would have already started its weekend and not watching the news all that closely, as if it wasn’t already under the entire country’s microscope.

I don’t criticize the decision because I was eager to watch the video. I didn’t want to watch, and I remain uninterested in seeing it. I don’t begrudge those who want to watch it, those who NEED to watch it, those who have to watch it to share the news of it with others.

I can see the rationale of those who might disagree deeply with me, that we, all of us, need to watch it, all of it. I see the need for watching it and getting angry at the version of events that were first told to the public in early January, to see how much was left unsaid, to push for better behavior and more information when better behavior wasn’t to be found.

But for me, I haven’t watched in a while now. Not out of cowardice. Not out of deep-seated principle to never look upon such things. Certainly not out of a lack of concern for the victims.

I mostly abstain out of a profound weariness. The evil we as humans can inflict on each other would be unfathomable, if so many of the instances weren’t so dutifully captured by dashboard cameras, body cameras, and onlooking cell phones. The descriptions of the violence were bad enough, but was it possible that the officers’ nonchalance in the aftermath, the taking their time to light a cigarette or talk casually, the complete and total lack of urgency at the hell they’d wrought on a fellow human, was actually worse?

The detail that gutted me most was that Nichols called out for his mother in that moment. I wondered what I would say, what words would flow forth without conscious thought, if I ever found myself on the receiving end of some vile beating. I could absolutely see myself calling out for my mom. It feels like such a human thing, to utter the name of your first protector, even at 29 and on the mean streets of Memphis. But the officers mocked it, and it feels so inhuman. It feels not at all like the South, not Memphis, where moms are a class above.

All that to say this: It’s not the Memphis I know. The thing that makes me sad to think about is how it’s probably being talked about in various corners of my actual hometown, less than two hours to the east of Memphis. It was always viewed skeptically by rural whites, convinced that all manner of danger awaited anyone who crossed into Shelby County. Eyebrows were raised when I was in college and would say I loved the city and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

The particulars of this now all-too-common occurrence of Black men dying at the hands of the police is complicated by the fact that the five officers were all Black, and it’s easy to imagine the competing comments in a race to the bottom, those that assumed Nichols was guilty of something because that’s just what they think of Black Memphians. Or would they look suspiciously at the officers because they were Black, where they might have mustered unconvincing defenses of white officers in so many of these other stories over the past decade? Would they try to celebrate Memphis officials for their swift dismissal of the officers and ignore the reality that those dismissals might not have been quite so swift if they were white officers?  Would they raise their hands in mock exasperation and say “How can this be a race thing? The officers were Black!” and never once sit firmly in the knowledge that they, as white visitors to that city, wouldn’t ever have to worry about the same fate befalling them?

I wonder. And perhaps I judge too harshly, but I doubt I’m wrong.

In the South, it’s a reminder of a terrible and long history of what was done when the world wasn’t looking. An evil so baked in that not even watchful eyes can deter it from happening.

It finally came home, this evil, to streets that I know, and what’s worse is it reminds me that it never really left. Not really.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop pulled together a great collection of links and resources if you wanted a thorough overview of issues surrounding the coverage of  not only Tyre Nichols’ death but other police killings. Its central consideration is the decision by media outlets on whether, or how, to show the video after it was released on that Friday.

  2. To watch or not watch? That is the question that animates a column by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in what initially could seem like a strange departure from his normal area of expertise, but upon closer inspection, actually is an interesting take on a narrow component of the Nichols’ horror: the body-cam footage that was released after word had already leaked that it was a terrible thing to behold.

  3. As a counterpoint to Scott’s position that perhaps watching is a duty of us all, I prefer to see Nichols as he lived, not how he died. This story from NPR gave that option, pulling together videos of happier times for Nichols, of him skateboarding and simply being a young man. It’s a nice reminder of all that was taken during that traffic stop.

  4. Copy editors: What are they good for? That’s the central question in this essay from LitHub, wondering whether the whole endeavor of copy editing is not just unnecessary but actually harmful. As I read it, I struggled not to bristle; I am now and have been previously in different iterations a copy editor. It’s not an exact job description I’ve filled; my roles have always encompassed more than merely ensuring that commas were in the right place in a sentence.  “It’s fun—it’s dangerously pleasing—to linger in the minutiae of my bygone copyediting days, even if, by the time I left that job to teach college writing full-time, I was convinced that “correcting” “errors” of convention most readers would never notice was the least meaningful work a person could possibly do. I’m writing this, however, to ask whether copyediting as it’s been practiced is worse than meaningless: if, in fact, it does harm.”  It’s hard not to find this conception of the work to be overstated, perhaps especially reading  the  essay in the aftermath of the events in Memphis, where “harm” means something very tangible, terrible, and specific. But when I put aside my own interest in the matter and the reflexive desire to separate what I do for a living from charges of white supremacy, I have to concede many of the author’s points.

  5. Anthony Kim was a name that I rarely thought about until it showed up in a recent New York Times profile. But that’s not to say I didn’t remember him. The pro golfer was an electric presence on tour, right around the time my childhood hero, Tiger Woods, seemed human for the first time in his career.  And then he just disappeared. Poof. Into thin air, it seemed. And those of us who remember watching him play would wonder every now and again, “Whatever happened to that guy?” Which, when translated, actually read: “Why doesn’t he play golf anymore?” And if we happened to have that thought on the golf course with a fellow traveler who also remembered him, it felt all the more powerful a question, because we, in that moment, more than anything would trade unfathomable riches for the privilege of bottling up Kim’s talent and imbibing it as our own. We wanted what he so casually seemed to have. If we ever got it, we couldn’t imagine ever letting it go. More than anything, he’s an interesting case study for the concept of talent, and what those who possess it owe to themselves and the wider world.

    Thank you for reading Critical Linking. This post is public so feel free to share it.

  6. One could imagine someone at Kim’s level of accomplishment and skill (we’re talking those in rarefied air, best-of-the-best, once-in-a-generation talents) simply not wanting all the attention that came with it. I couldn’t help but think that reading through this GQ profile of Nims Purja, the Napali-born alpine climber who’s not only brought to the forefront the talents and climbing skills of Sherpas but has done so as a truly modern face in the climbing community, growing his following and business through the power of social media. His success is a double-edged sword: It brings more business but also stokes ongoing controversies. When one thinks about the toll of those controversies, it feels understandable to take the route that Kim did, forsaking the fame afforded by abnormal levels of talent, and simply remaining down here among us mortals. 

  7. While obscene talent on the golf course is purely aspirational because I’m forever doomed to be merely a weekend duffer, Purja’s talents are those of a degree that is so foreign to my current existence that it invites me to imagine entire unseen worlds. It’s somehow easier to think about that brand of what-ifs because I have no idea what it really takes to operate in that world. On the golf course, though, I can delude myself by proximity to the things that amaze me out there. I can compare myself to it, and though I’m lightyears away from that level, I can wrap my mind around what it takes to be that good. In that vein, I think it’s more and more those talents that aren’t physical that entice me. The talents of genius-level writers enthrall me. Same for genius-level musicians, which, yes, I know, has a degree of physicality to it, but it’s the mind that fascinates me. I convince myself that if I could just understand the concepts, think in that way, that I could get my fingers to move across the guitar just so. For all these reasons, I was totally absorbed by this profile from Chicago Magazine detailing the painstaking work of one of the most-gifted violin restorers in the world

  8. There’s something about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail that strikes me as middle ground between the awe-inspiring talent that I can picture and almost taste from my familiarity with the subject and the jaw-dropping talent that I’ll never come close to experiencing because hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail is jaw-dropping in its way but also understandable in the sense that hiking, at the end of the day, is just a fancy, setting-specific word we’ve created for what we, blessed with the use of our legs, do every single day: walk. Hiking the AT is no more a simple walk than a round of golf is simply a good walk spoiled, but the base-level skills are present in me and that makes it alluring in a way that Everest never will be. This article in Catapult is mostly about the reasoning for walking (in the author’s case, it’s grief), but it’s full of factoids (like the fact that, to hike the entire AT, would equal summiting Everest 16 times due to the up-and-down of the trail’s elevation) that remind of a simple truth: Perseverance can be one of those awe-inspiring talents.

  9. You all know the meme. Even those of you not sure you know the actual meaning of “meme” know this one. The dog, cute little hat on his head, sits in a chair and drinks his coffee while all around him flames rage. Though his house is on fire, the dog, ever placid, says, “This is fine.” That image has been with us now for a decade, and it’s become ever-more relevant as it’s come to represent bigger and bigger calamities. The Atlantic recently looked into its remarkable staying power, and how he’s grown up right alongside us for the past 10 years.

  10. The power of “This is Fine” to carry so many meanings in such a compact image reminded me of Kevin Wilson’s new novel, This is Not the Time to Panic. I just finished the book, and it’s driving force isn’t all that different from a cartoon of a little dog whose burning house can be a stand-in for just about anything: It’s a poster, hung up in a rural Tennessee town in the mid-1990s that said “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” When these begin popping up all over this town, it sparks a panic, and so much gets read into those words and the images that accompany them that some terrible things happen to truly innocent people.It’s a blazing-fast read, and this review by The Washington Post sums it up well.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past two weeks.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

1/23: SHALLOW GRAVE (Criterion Collection)
1/24: FAIR PLAY (Sundance Film Festival 2023)
1/25: MURDER IN BIG HORN (Sundance Film Festival 2023)
1/26: MAGAZINE DREAMS (Sundance Film Festival 2023)
1/27: Poker Face (3) (Peacock)
1/28: WOMEN TALKING (Theater); Poker Face (Peacock); NEIGHBORS (HBO Max)
1/29: The Last of Us (HBO Max); BAD BEHAVIOUR (Sundance Film Festival 2023)
2/3: Poker Face (Peacock)
2/4:Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson ; GONE GIRL* (personal digital copy)
2/5: BETWEEN THE LINES (Tubi); The Last of Us (HBO Max)