Photo: Greg Campbell (AP Photo)
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.  

Beale Street can talk. She’s country, loud and a bit ghetto.

She’s bold like the blackness she exudes throughout the city.

She has a thick tongue and a sour drawl. She uses Lisa Akbari’s shampoo and the black tube of Ampro gel to slick down her edges.

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She refuses to wear a slip when she goes to church and sings “I’ll Take You There” in the mass choir. She’s an alto.

La Chat is her third cousin. Gangsta Boo is her great niece.

She raises her children in South Memphis, on McClemore near Stax Records.

She builds her businesses in Orange Mound, the first black community in Memphis built by black people.

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She attends church in Whitehaven on Shelby Drive.

In the summertime, black youth run up and through her house running up her Memphis Light Gas and Water bill. They play four-square in her driveway, popping the Walmart ball in one hand and sucking the life out of a Red Kool-Aid freeze cup from the candy lady down the street in the other. The best 50 cents ever spent, unless the old battle-ax is running a sale: freeze cup and hot Cheetos for $1.

Beale’s been through some things, though.

She heard the tempo of the sanitation strike and marches in 1968 that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis. She heard the gunshot that pierced his skull, too. She cried for days; she grieved for half-a-century.

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She mourns at the audacity of poverty that attacks almost 50 percent of the city’s black children. She protests the mass incarceration of the juvenile court system. She advocates for schools that provide an equitable education for the city’s youth. Beale Street can talk. She chants for justice.

She created hustle and flow (the movie was trash), and gave her children the game. Like the tamale man on Lamar and Bellevue who sets up his cart outside Roy Good Hardware Store, the same place where one can go and buy rat poison properly called “Shit.” The owner, Mr. Charles, may not remember your face, but you’ll remember him. He hired a white boy to work the front, but he doesn’t bite. Just tell him you need some “shit” and he’ll throw you a $2 pack. If y’all plan on grilling in the backyard when it warms up, get two packs.

She hustles like the lady down at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center, better known as 201 Poplar. The “job lady,” with a sharp wig and a slew-foot, distributes paper packets with a list of job openings throughout the city. She makes her presence known with, “Good morning, my babies! Get you a job!”

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Beale’s hustle extends to even the most junior of Memphians. Schools are flooded with young Robert R. Churchs, using their backpacks as storefronts to slang “chip-juice” to their hungry peers, many who skip breakfast. A chip-juice combo can either sell for $1 or an inflated $2.50. Depends on the pusher.

Places like Payne’s BBQ, Ching’s Hotwings, Crumpy’s, The Four Way, A&R BBQ, and Tops are founded, operated and purveyors of family traditions and relationships because in Memphis one’s success is only as strong as the community behind them.

Beale flows.

She twerks to Project Pat’s “Chickenhead.” When Cardi B sampled it, she threw her thumb up and chanted, “NOOORTH,” because black folks love their hoods. When Drake hooked, “901 Shelby Drive, look alive, look alive,” with Blocboy JB, she shouted “Blackhaven,” a name adopted by younger generations in the ’90s and 2000s.

Beale gets her hair done in Whitehaven, which smells like fresh perm with crunch crown curls. The cascading shopping centers with beauty supply stores, chicken spots and African braiding shops makes one forget they’re indeed riding down Elvis Presley Boulevard and Graceland is hidden behind a wall of tourists (Many black Memphians have never been to Graceland). Yet, there’s a gas station across the street that sells Dodge’s Chicken, which soaks up all the alcohol after leaving Classic Hits/Classic Soul (unless you go on Thursdays when they have the catfish buffet).

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Witnessing Yo Gotti trap “Cocaine Muzik” from his apartment in Frayser to sitting at awards shows with the likes of Jay-Z and Dj Khaled makes Beale proud.

And now the city is undergoing a renaissance. A collective of black creatives— including artists, photographers, painters and designers—are reclaiming the city’s space, time and place as an epicenter for soul culture. Artists like Cameron Bethany, Talibah Safiyah, Kenneth Whalum III and Kirby are not letting the city’s soul drown in the Mississippi. The Stax Museum Academy produces, trains and cultivates the talent of middle and high school students who travel from across the city to perfect their artistry. Rising artists like Evvie McKinney, who won P. Diddy’s The Four singing contest, is making her mark nationally. Producer IMAKEMADBEATS is on fire and not stopping any time soon.

Beale knows how hard it is out here for a pimp, but she’s quick to “whoop that trick.” She’s a fighter. She makes public comment at city council and school board meetings. She protested Confederate statues.

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Resilient and explosive. Beale never sleeps. She talks all night and day. She knows everybody’s business, and her wig is a little crooked.

I’d rather be there than any place I know,

I’d rather be there than any place I know,

It’s gonna take a sergeant for to make me go!