Genius Loci

Memphis: That's the spirit!

People were surprised," Wanda Rushing said in a phone interview. "They'd say, 'You're from North Carolina, and you like it here?'"

The surprised people were Memphians — neighbors in Midtown and those Rushing met randomly when she arrived in town in 1998 — and she thought it was an odd question for them to ask: why a native of North Carolina should not only move here but like it here: Memphis, Tennessee, a city described as a "pestilential mudhole" during the yellow-fever outbreaks of the nineteenth century, as "the most rural-minded city in the South" in the 1920s, and as a "decaying Mississippi river town" in the 1960s. >>>

In 1998, however, a British scholar recognized Memphis' cultural significance worldwide and placed it in the same category as Florence, Paris, London, Vienna, and Tokyo — Memphis, one of the great "cities of civilization."

So, Memphis: What is it? A paradox is how Wanda Rushing, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, describes it. It's an authentic place too — as sociologists define that hard-to-define word "place." Few cities have it. Memphis, Rushing believes, is one of them. And Rushing writes about it in her new book, from the University of North Carolina Press: Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South. In the closing chapter of that book, she summarizes her findings:

"Despite critics who claim that Memphis is a provincial, backwater town . . . quiescence has never been an apt descriptor. Memphis is a dynamic site of entrepreneurship, economic productivity, cultural innovation, and social tensions where global and local products and signifiers are reworked into a particular production of locality."

"Production of locality"? That isn't the only sociologically understood term used by Rushing throughout her study. See too her discussion of "global flows," her identification of Memphis as an "agentic player," her highlighting of the city's "power geometries" and its "memorial landscape." But understand that Rushing has written a book that is deliberately (relatively) free of social-science jargon. She wanted it that way.

"Let me put it this way," she said. "It was important, from the beginning, that the book be accessible. So I had to satisfy two different audiences. A sociologist interested in the topic of 'place' needs to be able to pick up my book and say this is really interesting. At the same time, I wanted a book for a nonacademic audience. That takes a lot of effort. It takes what's called a 'sociological imagination.' It's why I sometimes turned to poetry and musical lyrics."

It's also why Rushing turned to a narrative, case-study approach to describe a city as complex and rich as Memphis — a city where geography, history, population, politics, race, class, gender, economics, and the arts have combined in a sometimes disruptive, sometimes productive set of forces, forces with not only local but global significance. Her subjects, in the great scheme of things and as spelled out in her chapter headings, are no less than identity, power, development, innovation, tradition, and, in a closing chapter called "Place Matters," continuity and discontinuity.

Specifically, that means Rushing's subjects range from the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Forrest Park, the establishment of the National Civil Rights Museum, the design (and saving) of Overton Park, the history of the cotton industry and the rise of Memphis as an international distribution center, the city as a medical capital and its up-to-date investment in biotechnology, Beale Street as it once was and is now, and that locus of "gender, race, ritual, and social power" once known as the Cotton Carnival.

Rushing's realistic but optimistic conclusion, after five years spent researching and writing Memphis and the Paradox of Place?

"As Memphis competes with other cities to create high-paying jobs, improve educational attainment, make local government more accountable, and improve the quality of life for residents, the city also struggles with its legacy of identity crises, social inequality, and conflict. At times residents and city leaders need to be reminded that social struggles, political battles, cultural icons, and the area's human and natural resources comprise authentic place-specific resources that cannot be digitized or duplicated in any other location. . . . [N]ew forms of local identity, cultural expression, and economic development, integrated with old ones and mediated by processes of globalization, will sustain the genius loci, or the spirit of place, that makes Memphis distinctive."

A place, then, like no other.

"I'm not pretending that there aren't difficulties in Memphis," Rushing said in our interview. "Education is an issue. Poverty is an issue. But I'm saying Memphis is a place, an important place."

And to those who still question the author, who grew up outside Charlotte, North Carolina:

"Charlotte? Charlotte doesn't have the characteristics of place that Memphis has. I knew that from the time I interviewed at the University of Memphis in 1998. I knew then that Memphis is where I wanted to be."

Made in Memphis (and the surrounding area): the blues, which continues to be the inspiration for researchers and publishing houses. In November, look to the good folks at the University of North Carolina Press and to author, folklorist, photographer, and filmmaker William R. Ferris' Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. Ferris, who grew up in Vicksburg and founded the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi (where he taught for 18 years), now teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill. But his "spiritual compass" has always been the farm where he grew up and the musicians he grew up listening to. Hear and see them now. Ferris' book comes with a CD of original blues music and a DVD featuring a candid look at the musicians and performers Ferris has, for a lifetime, admired.

Now, go back in time, back to the days when the blues was first put on record, in Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues (BasicCivitas Books) by leading British blues historian Paul Oliver. In its pages, you'll find Victor and Vocalion, recording companies that set up field studios — literally in the field, in motel rooms, in specially adapted trucks — to capture the sound of street performers, medicine-show acts, and players inside juke joints. Memphis? It was a major site for such recordings in the 1920s and '30s.

An unexpected site for today's hip-hop: Again, make it the Mississippi Delta, where the tradition of "musical talk" runs deep. In Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story (University Press of Mississippi), music writer Ali Colleen Neff (of UNC-Chapel Hill) goes from contemporary bluesmen and -women to gospel singers to barroom "toast-tellers" to freestyle rappers. Neff's collaborator and guide for this ethnography of the Delta hip-hop community: Jerome "TopNotch the Villain" Williams of Clarksdale.

And don't overlook the kids. Memphian Dale Franklin hasn't. Owner of Arkansas radio station KWEM, director of the nonprofit project "Highway 61 North: The Electric Blues Trail," and a musician in her own right, Franklin is also author of the children's book Memphus & the Great Gathering of the Blues People (CreateSpace). On hand inside its pages: B.B., Howlin', Sonny Boy, and Sam (as in Phillips). And make no mistake: That's the city spelled just as it sounds: M-E-M-P-H-U-S. M

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