Twenty-five summers ago, my friend Jodie and I drove my overstuffed Cutlass Ciera from New Jersey to California. I was relocating to Los Angeles for grad school. She was along for the ride. I’m not sure I could have done it without her, but our friendship almost didn’t survive that trip. America can have that effect on people, I guess.
By car, it’s possible to get from coast to coast in four days—but we took two weeks, lingering in my favorite music cities throughout the South. On a hot night in Memphis, we sat on the Ciera’s hood outside Sun Records, trying to soak in the magic of Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Brenston, and others
Of course, history in general seems to loop, whether we put it in a museum or not. The rain got heavier as Jodie and I left Tennessee and entered Mississippi. But scenes of Memphis kept playing in my mind. I cued up a Public Enemy mixtape. “Elvis was a hero to most,” Chuck D. rapped, backed by the rhythm of the windshield wipers, “but he never meant shit to me.” I nodded. I loved Elvis’s early records, but never got why other white people called him “king.” We’d toured Graceland a few days earlier. We’d seen the TV with the bullet hole. We’d seen the stone wall, covered in pointless graffiti. A mad king, maybe, driven there by the privilege of skin.
Down I-55, and then toward the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, I thought about other kings. Martin Luther, yes, but also Rodney, beaten nearly to death on camera a few years earlier, in the city I would soon call home. That almost accidental recording is sometimes heralded as the start of a new citizen journalism. But hatred adapts. How many Rodney King-type videos (and worse) have there been so far this year? This month?
The night before MLK’s murder at the Lorraine, he gave a transcendent speech. He spoke of a mountaintop, and a promised land, and how “I might not get there with you.” I suspect he knew the Buddhist story of the three men, dying of thirst in the desert—the one where they find a wall, and the first two climb, and see an oasis on the other side, and jump over, saving themselves. The third man, the bodhisattva, remains behind. He’s still thirsty, of course. But he’s more concerned that strangers, as lost and parched as he, might come along someday, and need help getting to the oasis hidden behind the wall.
In 2020, such selfless compassion feels increasingly elusive. What kind of promised land is premised on centuries of suffering? Maybe history doesn’t have to loop. If you’re lucky enough to be at the foot of the wall, who are you going to help over it?