The phrase “Memphis: Cradle of Civilization” is likely to evoke, if anything, images of pharaohs and dog-headed gods. But a recent visit to our own Memphis, the one in Tennessee, has convinced me that this city on the Mississippi is a cradle of our civilization — and crucial to understanding how America became what it is today.
Begin with Elvis. He was born in poverty in Tupelo, Miss., a couple of hours away, but Memphis is his city — the place where he rose into the financial and cultural stratosphere, and where he is now the focus of a memorial palace as impressive as that of any pharaoh who ruled the original Memphis. Graceland is a temple of American culture, documenting with exhibits and films the life of the figure who was most central to America’s cultural transformation in the last century. He was important in a strictly creative sense, in that he wrote and performed some music that thrilled people in his time and endures today. But his centrality was more broadly cultural: He was the intersection point where the old, white-dominated America of flinty Scots-Irish settlers gave way to the multiracial and multicultural society we now inhabit.
The usual way of telling this story is to point out that Elvis succeeded by being a white man who was conscripted to play black music. But the achievement was not so much a theft as an integration. Music in itself knows no color, and the black accomplishment in music was being arbitrarily kept away from white people by lines that were drawn by racism. It took a white man to begin the task of erasing those lines, and blacks and whites alike remain in his debt.
Memphis is not just the home of Elvis, but also a living shrine to the music he incorporated into white culture, transforming in the process both the music and the culture. In Memphis, the thought — prompted by music but going immeasurably deeper — is inescapable: The blacks saved civilization. We’ve had books about how the Irish saved civilization, how the Scots invented modernity, and so on. But — despite (or perhaps because of?) the excessive productivity of black-studies departments — it had never occurred to me that the African Americans have a strong case in the cultural-centrality sweepstakes. It was, after all, the most unequal cultural exchange in history: The whites gave the blacks slavery, and in return, the blacks invented Gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and rock ’n’ roll. (This was a less equal exchange even than Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan for $24.) And they did so at exactly the moment when their creativity was most needed. In the 20th century, the Western art-music tradition — “classical” music — withered: There’s a reason most of the classical repertoire one hears comes from more than a century ago. We needed someone to emerge and create new works of melody and beauty, and that’s what American popular music — music by blacks and music inspired by black sources — has done.
#page#One of my passions is listening on the Internet to radio stations around the world. It has been a source of frustration to me that often, when I want to listen to, e.g., Japanese music or Bolivian music, I will tune in to a Japanese station or a Bolivian station, only to discover that they are playing “our” music instead. In Memphis — at Graceland, and also at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum — I learned to look at the other side of the coin. “Our” music — music with black roots — is loved around the world because it is beautiful, melodic, and fun. We should be proud of it.
Possibly even more important is the black achievement in politics, to which there is a somber memorial in Memphis. Listen to some of the shouty race-mongering on cable news shows, and it’s easy to forget that it is thanks to blacks that America had one of the most inspiring and successful political movements in world history: the 20th-century civil-rights struggle. The story, like that of 20th-century popular music, is well known, but it still packs an immense punch, as it is told in minute detail at the National Civil Rights Museum — Memphis’s old Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
On a recent steamy afternoon, I walked through the deliciously air-conditioned, text-heavy exhibits there, depicting the movement’s progress from Jim Crow to the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act and other victories. After all the memorabilia and narrative, the exhibit appears to end, and there’s nothing left but to find the exit; and yet, there’s something tucked quietly over there on the left — what is it? I walked over and found myself looking through panes of glass into the two rooms occupied by King and his associates, restored to the way they were at the time of the assassination; through the windows could be seen the balcony where he fell. Yes, I knew the whole idea of the museum was to preserve the site of that tragic event, but the quiet form of presentation made it a real shock nonetheless. It felt like a nakedly intimate view of the great man’s last minutes, a place of painful vulnerability. I burst into tears — for a man who risked his life to win people’s basic rights, and for the realization that while good can prevail in this world it sometimes does so at a horrible price. I initially tried to restrain my tears, but realized that no one would fault me for them, and released them. (I have since read that my response to this exhibit was not at all uncommon. The museum’s arrangement is a triumph of storytelling that is all the more compelling for being so understated.)
Martin Luther King was turning hard left toward the end of his life, but his movement and its achievement cannot be gainsaid, and all Americans ought to take pride in it. In a century when freedom was under brutal global attack from Fascism and Communism, America managed simultaneously to wage a strong global resistance to these foreign forces and to reform itself from within, in order to become truer to its most lasting principles. Back when I was a kid, Communist propagandists used to taunt us anti-Communists with the sneer, “What about the Negroes in the South?” Their concern for blacks was of course totally phony, but their point hit home nonetheless: The treatment of black people was a disgrace to an America that claimed to be founded on inalienable human rights. Well, here we are a half century later, and it turns out we’ve managed to get rid of both the Soviet Union and Bull Connor. Not bad: something to remember the next time you feel like mocking the Baby Boomers.
#page#In politics as in music and other art forms, preserving the great accomplishments of the past is a crucial part of change. In the cultural realm, especially, change should be a process more of addition than of subtraction. After Elvis, the cultural landscape saw many new phenomena, most notably a more generous approach to sexuality — the “sexual revolution” that cultural shorthand has often referred to as emerging from Elvis’s swinging pelvis, much as all Russian literature was once said to have emerged from Gogol’s “Overcoat.” But look at Elvis’s desk at Graceland, and at King’s bedside table in that fatal motel room. There’s a book they have in common, a book that anchors them in the culture they inherited and passed on even as they transformed it. (In the case of Elvis’s copy, you can get up quite close to it and see that it’s a King James Version; in the case of Dr. King, it looks like a period KJV, but its spine isn’t visible from the viewer’s angle, so you can’t be sure.) Both of these key figures were profoundly sincere Protestant Christian believers who nonetheless believed that Protestant Christianity needed a good shaking up. The shaking has lasted, and had effects both good and bad; there was more freedom all around, and many people made less than optimal uses of the freedom they had. But America in general flourished, and the massive positive achievements that came in the wake of Elvis and MLK are now part of our cultural patrimony that needs to be transmitted.
This cultural transmission — in other words, conservatism in the broadest sense — is a crucial task. The National Civil Rights Museum does a great job of passing on an important part of the story; so do Graceland and the city’s other impressive music museums. (I did not know, until I saw an exhibit on him, that soul singer Al Green — whose great hit “Let’s Stay Together” was quite memorably covered earlier this year by none other than President Obama — is actually the Reverend Al Green; the exhibit includes his preaching suit and old KJV.) But more often, culture is passed on directly, from person to person. One of the most inspiring moments of my visit came in a Beale Street jazz club where a blues guitarist was performing. I had just bought from the performer a CD of his work. He had been polite and cheerful during our transaction, but when a young woman from New Zealand came up to him and said she was learning blues guitar and wanted to ask his advice, his face lit up like neon. They proceeded to have a conversation that was beyond my understanding, but that thrilled me to the core: This is how culture endures, passionate people working together at the task of making it live for a new generation.