Pit Stop: Talkin’ Civil Rights in Memphis

by Angela on September 20, 2012 · 6 comments

A guest blog post by Amy Cordileone

Angela’s note: To say that Amy Cordileone is an amazing multi-tasker would be a bit of an understatement! This wife to Nick (who plays Timon on tour with The Lion King) and mom to 10-year-old Hero lives in New York City while teaching at New York University, and then hops on tour with The Lion King when she can.

Homeschooling Hero on the road comes with its many challenges, as there is no traditional routine or classroom environment; but one of the biggest benefits is the real education she gets from visiting various places around the country. And in August, when Amy drove with her family from Houston to St. Louis with the show, they made an overnight stop in Memphis to get a dose of this country’s civil rights history.

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The Civil Rights Museum, Memphis: On the right we see the preserved facade of the Lorraine Motel at which Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Room 306.

It was a sweet and somber moment. In the midst of the revelry of Elvis Week, this was a quiet reminder of the history and complexity of the city of Memphis. And, taking stock of our current civil and political struggles, Dr. King’s words were particularly poignant:

“I may not get there with you but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

Hero was intrigued by the fact that the “scene” of his murder had been restored and she started to ask about the assassination itself. Where had James Earl Ray been standing? Where was he staying?

Nick and I addressed some specifics, adding that there are still many unknown elements to the story. That some people even doubt Ray’s guilt and years after his admission he tried to retract his plea, saying he had been coerced into taking responsibility for King’s death. The conversation then moved into the realm of… well if he didn’t do it, who did? We plainly acknowledged the fact that a white capitalist patriarchy exists in the US (and did then), and that King posed a radical threat to this paradigm. It was indeed likely that people within the United States’ government saw King as a real and present danger.

Obviously, we did not talk about it in these exact terms, but it came down to this: hatred and fear run deep, and a very small percentage of a population thrives when the majority of a population is oppressed. We talked about having to ask critical questions to figure out why things are the way they are and who decides that things will be so. It’s interesting because in many ways, Hero’s experiences of race and cultural hegemony remain incredibly implicit. It’s very hard for her to picture a world in which everyone doesn’t have equal access to opportunity because of skin color. Having traveled to Uganda and seen the poverty in a least-developed nation, having lived in New York with a largely visible transient population, Hero is actually exposed to regional and socio-economic disparities in a much more concrete way than she is able to experience issues of race and ethnicity.

Additionally, Hero is a fascinating case of “unique” phenotype. While she is very much “white” in the sense that she is part of a western European legacy, she does physically present traits of the Sicilian, Afro-European diaspora. Hero is a Cordileone after all. We saw it so clearly as she swam and played outdoors this summer… she was darker than some of our friends and Lion King cast mates by the end of August. What’s funny is that she looks a lot more like the “new America” that is coming of age, young children who are of mixed heritage, than Nick or I would ever have been expected to create.

No doubt she identifies as white, but the reality is that her phenotype is actually confusing (to her and to others). That’s one reason, probably among many, that she hasn’t quite been able to make sense of race and ethnicity. Throughout her life people have approached us wondering if she was Asian, Latina, and/or of African heritage. I came home once to her googling auditions for The Lion King, just hoping she’d get a chance to be in the show with her dad. I explained that, while there are roles for non-African American/African/Afro-Caribbean grown ups, there really aren’t roles for non-African American/African/Afro-Caribbean children. She said something like: but my skin is dark… I get really tan… I’m not white, I’m Italian. I think that’s the first time she realized that she is both in and out of something.

As her skin gets seasonally darker, we see a fluctuation in the conversations around race and ethnicity. It’s really personal right now… trying to figure out where one fits is definitely age-appropriate for Hero. I know it’s funny to think of it (mostly because we self-identify as “white”) but even she sits on an identity border, and this particular environment is a really healthy and provocative space in which to explore that.

All this to say, race is really complicated with young people of this generation, Hero notwithstanding. We see and know so many children who will be checking the small box on the census assigned to the word “other” and many of those young people are fortunate enough to claim a certain amount of distance from tangible examples of race-related aggression. But, Nick and I believe we have to find a way to broach these subjects with our daughter and make them tangible. We have to critically explore the inherent and dangerous nature of racism within the infrastructure of almost everything we do/accept as a society… it’s so culturally entrenched.

Of course, these are really difficult conversations to have in any substantive fashion, which is, I think, why we try to expose her to everything we do, why we try to push for these dialogues, and why we want her to fully engage in all of the opportunities she has to experience the rich and varied fabric of so many regions of the United States.

This whole discussion put Memphis on the map for us in an incredibly meaningful way… we know we will be back.

 

And of course, there was the more lighthearted stuff –

Gus’s… the best fried chicken that almost wasn’t! Turns out that Memphis isn’t much of a Monday night town. After a great start to the caravan to St. Louis, we got caught in a battle of the GPS-es and were separated 90 minutes out from home base (a pet-friendly La Quinta as it were). But UrbanSpoon told us we had to meet Gus, or at least eat his chicken, so we pulled up at 10 minutes to close and enjoyed a table overflowing with an amazing assortment that included: fried pickles, french fries, baked beans, fried chicken, potato salad, Stella Artois, and soda pop…. followed by brownies, and pecan or chess pie a la mode. The service was outstanding and the food was even better. A great night’s sleep followed for everyone!

In the words of The King himself… it was “now or never”. With put-ins, flights, and opening nights imminent, we had about 5 minutes to take in Elvis week. And being in Memphis only 2 days away from the 35th anniversary of his death, we knew the obstacles would abound. That being said, no one could have predicted the biggest hurdle we would face… shopping. Lines wouldn’t stop us. Traffic was a piece of cake. Shopping was the beast… we were overwhelmed by the plethora of memorabilia to say the least. It was an embarrassment of riches, and all in a Ladies size small (truth). Only two people walked away outfitted by the King that day. But thank goodness for svelte figures and trim waistlines — without those, Rob and Nick would have had to walk away empty-handed.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Jensen September 20, 2012 at 10:01 am

This perspective of traveling with a diverse group such as the Lion King Cast to begin with must be such a unique education in and of itself for your daughter. Thank you for sharing so much of this perspective! My niece is biracial and has gotten to the age where she is exploring her “identity”. What a neat yet loaded challenge that must pose. Please post more about this! My family will enjoy reading!

Stephanie J

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Amy Cordileone September 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Stephanie- It’s so exciting that you are negotiating new territory with your niece and supporting her as she constructs her own beliefs about race, culture, and identity in the United States.

I feel like the best advice I can give Hero at this point is: what you imagine now will undoubtedly change, what you think is possible can only expand, and a person leaves a legacy wherever s/he goes… so tread with purpose and an open mind. I know that appears to be vague, and it is… intentionally so. In early adolescence we are able to start grasping ambiguity in a very different way than was possible in the years prior, so my hope for Hero is that she crafts a world that can shift and change; that she can become increasingly comfortable in life’s grey areas. I feel really strongly that I want Hero to trust the way she intuits the world (which so far is from a pretty inquisitive, hysterical, and compassionate perspective), and that she doesn’t (or won’t) have to rely on any one set of norms to determine how she moves through space.

Ugh… growing up didn’t seem so complicated when I was the one doing it. Okay, let’s be real, I’m still doing it… but I’m sure you know what I mean! Amy

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steve mccarthy September 20, 2012 at 11:14 am

this was a very interesting read! i am loving how varied this blog is.

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Eileen September 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Enjoyed reading your thought-provoking post. My bi-racial kids also realized their identity around Hero’s age. While their identity is clear to them, they don’t dwell on it. We are lucky to live in a community in N. California where many of their friends and classmates are bi-racial as well. That is great that Hero is exposed to a diversity of people while traveling on the road, and that you keep having those conversations with her.

Thank you, Nick and Hero, for being Angela, Mike and Max’s family on the road! As I’ve seen on Skype, it’s been wonderful for Max to have Hero as his older role model.

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ANGELIQUE September 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I’VE BEEN TO THIS MUSEUM AND IT’S AWESOME. YOU PACKED IN A LOT FOR JUST OVERNIGHT!!!!!

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Ron September 20, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I second what has been posted by S. Jensen. I am multiracial and it always–still does–confuses me to place myself as one specific race. For example my maternal grandfather Italian and maternal grandmother was Croatian and paternal grandfather was German and paternal grandmother was Irish/English.

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