I’m that middle-class white guy, the one who grew up surrounded by kids of the exact same race and money. Race and identity are never at the forefront of the Australian political mindset, we always seem to escape the conversation. In the States, it’s still the most polarising issue to the nations construct. Leaving Memphis to travel to Nashville I made one last stop to the National Civil Rights Museum, the Lorraine Hotel. The museum is built into and around the site where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The room in which King stayed has been preserved exactly to how it was the morning he was killed by James Earl Ray. To take it further, the building across the road is an extension of the museum, the site where Ray took aim to kill King. Also, preserved exactly how it was left that day. It’s how a museum should be is incredibly educational, and emotional, exactly how a museum should be, but in many ways, I found to be quite macabre. As I walked away from the museum it was hard not to see a woman protesting the existence of the place itself. What this was, was complex and divisive. Over the next couple of days observing Tennessee Race Relations I would see just how divisive it was.
The Grand Ole Opry
This is the show that made country music famous, more than that, it’s one of the longest running live radio broadcasts in world history. Since 1925 the Grand Ole Opry has run a stage show of acts ranging from the legends of country music to up and coming acts. Nightly, an audience of ten thousand people watch some of the biggest acts from country music’s past and present. Ten thousand white people, being, extraordinarily cliched white. Band after band led prayers to their southern Christian God, the same one that seems to allow invasions of foreign nations. The entire electoral power of the Republican Party would have been in the theatre that evening. Suddenly, The show was halted for a moment so that we could get up and greet the people around us; ‘just like we do in church.’ I looked at the wall. I know for a travel writer it’s not a great thing to not take the opportunity to meet new people. There was nothing diverse about a white Christian country music, and I certainly wasn’t going to explain myself for the fifth time that I was just a tourist travelling through.
Black College Football
Later that evening, feeling confused and Holy, I was back out the apartment I was staying in with my travelling companion. We were making plans for our last day in Tennesee and soon to be our last day in the South. We’d travelled wide and far across this nation, but were still left with something to do, something that we had planned from the beginning, a football game. The nations past time! It was time to take that first step into that culture of Tailgates, Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning. Well, the NFL was nowhere to be found, the big college games were sold out and we were down to about the third league, Tennessee State University! Go Tigers. The conversation then went as such;
– Alright, I bought us tickets for a game at a Black College.
– What’s a Black College?
– I don’t know, some kind of special entry college?
Cut to the next morning, there we were, in the stands the only two white guys in a stadium of fifteen thousand people.
– ‘Ohhhh, so this is a black college.’
In less then twelve hours we had experienced the full dichotomy and division of race in the United States. Of course it is certainly different in the cities on the coasts and some other places, but it would seem to me that there is zero racial mix in most of the United States. How then do they form the national identity? How do you identify of what is American if they can’t get it all together? I was only half way through my journey here and it would take until I get to New York to find that answer.