Preorder the Memphis Music Issue TODAY and lock in an exclusive limited-edition vinyl record!

Become A Member Shop Login

Photographs courtesy the author. Map of Memphis, 1887, courtesy Library of Congress

Issue 125, Summer 2024

Dear Queen

The land that saved you, Mama

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
—Toni Morrison

My memories are on the back of the stove, simmering. Big Mama’s house looked like a museum to me. She had a beautiful white mid-century sofa. It looked like three thrones smushed together, wrapped in plastic. I never saw anyone sit on it, I never sat on it—but no one seemed to mind, we gathered in the kitchen. The assorted stuffed animals and dolls she kept on it were creepy, especially after I saw Chucky for the first time. All those golden and glass side tables, so many, enough space for all eight of y’all plus your kids, her grandkids, to have photographic domain. I had grown up hearing about other grandmas with the plastic-covered sofas and thought of it as a scarcity mindset, a flip side of hoarding, as in let me protect the one nice thing that I own. I felt waves of confusion about plastic-covered sofas when I began to realize that Big Mama had relegated herself to one nice thing after possessing eighty acres. That made me want to grind my feet in Eddie’s couch like Rick James.

I used to be shocked at how well you remembered things. I thought the tradeoff for improved mental health would be your memory. My memory is spotty like Cricket Wireless service. When you are surprised by something I remember, I smile, and I want to dig for more. Oh wow, you remember that, Lil Tauheed? your voice rises an octave with an inquiring hum that feels like a runway for me to test-fly my memory wings.

Like when I told you how I remembered 1995: being squished between Heerah and Dede in the backseat of the white car, the 1982 Chevy Citation. Esha was in the front seat, loud, singing “This Is How We Do It.” I was curious about you even then and was always looking for your almond-brown eyes in the little mirror above you from the backseat. When I caught them, I saw myself smile just under your eyes; I wanted to freeze time and look at you forever. I thought you were about to say something to me, but you turned the radio dial off. Your eyes darted away from the mirror. Esha kept singing loud until it seemed like the sound of her own lone voice scared her quiet. As you stared out your driver-side window, I waited for your eyes to come back in the mirror. It was daytime, but the sun was playing peekaboo amongst the swirly sky pillows and all I was thinking about was your face. When the sun popped out, it shined on you, and the warmth made your soft cheeks a new brown. You suddenly seemed to remember that you were driving. I saw the big ugly-ass truck coming toward us. I was thinking of your warm face before everything went black. This is my first memory of you.

I have been thinking, the way children do when they reach an age their parents were at a particular time in their lives, about the way all the things were crashing around you and all of us then. About how we were uprooted from our home, and how we were uprooted from each other, over the next five years, and how I was so glad to make my way back to your eyes. About how you were trying so desperately to contain the flood in your mind. When I’m away from Jordan for a few weeks I miss him terribly, so I know how you must have missed us. My memories were formed and forged through this darkness, without your eyes. When you told me that we had a lot of land down in Marshall County, the pain in your gaze and the shakiness in your voice sounded like the five years of lost childhood that I can’t remember.

Maybe you wonder about what I remember from our time apart. I’m tryna get like you, Mama, how you can remember every address, how you remember the names of all the teachers, influences, family members, what you were doing the day I was born. Every memory seems to come to you easy like water. Writing to you is my way of remembering good, so I can live with my memories. And the memories of our ancestors. So I can understand where I fit in our lineage.

Really, I been curious about you forever, but especially since Big Mama died. You seemed free after her transition, and I wanted to bottle that freedom, put it by my pillow at night, and ask it questions. And reading her obituary, the first one that was mine and not borrowed from an elder, seeing the names “Mattie and Emmitt” sprouted a longing for the stories and memories of my maternal lineage that were dormant in my mitochondrial DNA. It was the first time I thought of you, my mama, having a grandmama and a granddaddy.

When I asked you about Mattie the first time, your eyes lit up like fireflies. The way you said Mattie’s maiden name, “BRIGGS,” drawing out every single letter and smiling as you rounded out the “s,” made my heart flutter with wonder. You said that she was nice and kind, was a wonderful cook, but she died when you were in first grade, so your memories are scant. The memories you shared of Emmitt, holding court, giving you peppermints and quarters, reminded me of the times when you would refresh a funky day, giving me a giant jug of loose change to take to the Coinstar at Krogers for gas money.

Even on the other side, Emmitt means business, Mama. One time, I was heading to a meeting about a new “arts project” in Memphis, and he came through and said, “Just let them talk, don’t say nothing, you’ll learn more.” That was so hard for me, because you know how I love to talk, tryna prove myself all the time. Emmitt said, “What you fighting for? Ain’t a lick of quarters on the line.”

I was glued to my chair when you first started to recount the stories of your grandfather, Emmitt Anderson, born in 1895 in Slayden, Mississippi. “He was a wealthy man. A veteran,” you said proudly, during one of our multi-hour phone conversations sometime in 2022. “He came to live with us when I was in sixth grade. It was dangerous for him; he lived alone, people was robbing him.” At Big Mama’s house he would sit on the porch and sing it ain’t no fun being in love all by yourself with Shirley Brown, missing Mattie. You told me about the times that you and your sisters rode down to Slayden, in Marshall County, in the summer: swimming, running, and occasionally working the land. You recounted with joy, Emmitt had cows, horses, a lake. One time you made twenty-five cents picking cotton and selling what you picked. You loved the land; he loved you and the land equally. Emmitt died in 1975. My heart evaporated when you told me that Big Mama and her two siblings sold his eighty acres for $15,000 to a white man named Bobby Bolton. You said, If he was alive, he would have never sold to Bobby!

When you first told me about our family previously owning land down in Mississippi, that information went in one ear and came out the other. Not because I was more focused on chasing girls and buying a pair of 501 Levi’s from the Macy’s at Oak Court Mall. But because I had never heard of a world in which we had more than the one roof over our heads, more than a front yard and a backyard to walk around in. I sensed that there was a deep pain, something that you were uniquely positioned to remember, but no one else around us felt. You said all we had left to show from the eighty acres was the furniture at Big Mama’s house.

The idea of owning land bigger than our front yard was foreign to me.

I don’t own the memories my sisters shared of you and Daddy, happily married. The grandiose Eid celebrations, the African dance competitions, the trip to the Bahamas, the trip to Cancun, you in a sun dress, him in a giant, goofy straw hat like a Black Speedy Gonzales are only accessible through photos. I used to think my birth caused y’all’s breakup and that’s why I was always left out. When you told me y’all had been separated twice already before I was even conceived (which by my calculations was around Valentine’s Day 1992), I felt relieved that it was Esha, Dede, and Heerah’s fault instead. So many of my memories are warped or blank. Daddy drowned us with stories—mostly lies, exaggerations, or omissions—that changed how and what we remembered.

The conditions changed what I could remember, too. I remembered you, but not like my sisters did. Daddy shaped so many things after the cascade of physical and emotional crashes. Yes, he taught me how to read, tie my shoes, wipe my ass as he loves to chant, and how to work my way around tools. But he made the world smaller and meaner, too. This was no portal; this was his house. I remember I had my own room with you when we were at the house you bought after the divorce. At Daddy’s, I had no room and no bed; I just floated each night making pallets. You know he was getting Social Security checks for all of us plus working full time, and he still made me his accomplice in nigga-rigging random things around the house that he couldn’t afford to have fixed by a professional, or wouldn’t have a professional fix. You know how he is. Was he always like that? Even the cars he had were held together with duct tape, glue, and a few Duas. You were the first person I knew who bought a car off the lot when you got that red 2007 Chevy Aveo, a sign that we could have nice things.

The idea of owning land bigger than our front yard was foreign to me. Daddy and Aunt Nett’s stories about land were about them going back down to Greenwood in the summers to pick cotton. To me they always seemed like exaggerated anecdotes to make us appreciate the roof over our heads. And then the main story, the cautionary tale and the de facto reason we didn’t have much, was about gambling and Granny, our paternal grandmother. Daddy would fuss and spill out that she gambled the deed to her house away. He would speak with disgust and embarrassment talking about it, and I understand now how losing your childhood home balloons preexisting pain. But then I would imagine Granny, round cheeks populated with dense moles, fashionable shades on top of those cheeks. Mama, I would imagine her taking the deed to her house and slamming it down at the craps table, saying her favorite phrase when anyone gave her lip, “now that’s what you can do,” and I laughed and laughed and laughed at her audacity. But then the sadness would creep into the crevices of my heart, a dried river bed.

But how come cousin Elvis told me that my daddy was going down to Tunica with Granny all the time and that he started working at Fed Ex at night for some kind of distracting punishment, to stop himself from going to the casino so much. On top of that I found out from the Shelby County Assessor that Granny didn’t slap her deed down on the craps table after all. After her husband Sammie died, she was duped into a subprime deed of trust mortgage.

You know what the Qur’an says better than Daddy does, better than most of us do. And I know you don’t think of it like that, but I’ve been thinking about it. About how Daddy robbed you of your Islamic right to remain in the home after the divorce, a home that you helped purchase. You know how the Qur’an commands to husbands, Do not make life so miserable for them that they leave on their own? But you didn’t argue over his transgression. You focused on your healing. I know you made Duas for relief, even as you gathered your mind back. I felt your prayers at Daddy’s house.

Allah is merciful. You named us this when you chose you and Daddy’s name. It’s like you knew we would need mercy. Remembered from another life. By 2001, you made it to Exchange Ave. in Downtown Memphis, the first place I saw dope boys and elderly people coexisting in harmony. Post-divorce, beginning to start patching the leaks of your mind, you moved in with Auntie Jean. I remember the two-story sandy brown brick apartment building with a flimsy white metal staircase that we had to climb to reach the front door. Y’all seemed the most alike out of the eight siblings, and now I know why y’all were both treated as black sheep. Y’all both were divorced mothers separated from your children, survivors, with mental health disorders, left to fend for yourselves. You eventually clung to each other on a wooden raft up a creek. The one thing y’all were different on was how to cope after crashes. Your nursing background and deep understanding of medications helped you to accept your mental health condition and stay on your remedies. After Auntie Jean’s funeral, her voice came through yours: I’m not taking that shit! It takes my powers away.

The folks still left up and down Exchange still remember you as a queen, so I know Mr. Willie, in that little white duplex on the adjacent lot, had to be smitten with you soon as you moved with Auntie Jean. No matter how far his mind goes, he always says you are the sweetest woman in the world. I had never known a sanitation worker personally. He would tell me all the stories of his adventures from Coahoma County Junior College to Detroit to Buffalo. Even though you know he still can’t hardly talk about Mississippi, he would tell me why he came back South—GM don’t pay enough to be that cold—and that would crack me up. I hope I have told him enough, and that he can always remember, that when he invited you to the one-bedroom, one-bath vacancy left after his beloved Mama Emma passed on, he made us a one-thousand-square-foot container for hope, a vessel for sharing, together, on land again. You filled the place with your sweetness. When I visited, I docked myself in the front room playing my Gameboy Color, with the front door wide open, you blasting Anita Baker’s “Angel” and announcing to the whole block who you were in my life.

Allah is merciful. You named us this when you chose you and Daddy’s name. It’s like you knew we would need mercy.

“Lil Tauheed, you look so hot,” you told me when I came in the door, soaked in sweat. I had just left from Big Mama’s house, cutting her yard.

“Whew, I am, Ma. I been cutting yards.” Heavy emphasis on yards, because I didn’t want you to think I was lazy like Daddy and my sisters did. This was after I got fired from Krogers in 2012, when I made up in my mind that I was starting a lawn service. All I had was Daddy’s lawn mower that I had to steal and stuff into the back of that white 1996 T-Top Camaro that I loved so much despite the fact that it didn’t have A/C in the sweltering summer. Big Mama was my only customer.

Sitting on your burgundy sofa with the beige stripes that looked like a Burberry hat, you were surrounded by the things you’d curated for your new life: cassette tapes, CDs, mental health books, those novels they sell at Walgreens with the horses and shirtless white men on them, an assortment of silk hijabs and wool wintertime scarfs. The sofa was indented because of the hours you spent watching The Golden Girls and the hours you put into your “treatment center.” You were the only person I’ve ever known to openly and confidently talk about your own mental health. The treatment center is where you read your mental wellness books and did your healing day in and day out. Over the years, I watched you go from a manic woman who couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone for longer than three minutes to this day with you being fully clothed and in your right mind, with love in your heart.

“Go get yourself some fruit punch out the fridge and cool off?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

You walked over to the small but mighty window unit, nestled in the northeast corner of the living room, with a bookshelf full of old calendars, coloring books, and more of those shirtless white man books. Underneath the A/C unit was a giant, old-school TV, with the soft foam speakers on the side, that became the TV stand for the new TV. As it cranked up, I stuck my head inside of your equally giant deep freezer. I always thought it was too big to be in such a small place, but it held all my delicacies so who am I to complain and compare room measurements? I breathed in the icy air and yelled, “Can I have an ice cream sandwich?”

“Yes, baby.”

I had my fruit punch and my ice cream sandwich even though I normally hated simultaneously eating and drinking something sweet. Two different sugar tastes will ruin your buds.

I was feeling my right mind start to unravel. I sat there watching you dance to Aaliyah’s “Back and Forth.” I wished for this to be my childhood, just me and you. As I got to my last bite of ice cream sandwich I started to cry. Tears of pain. Tears of confusion. Tears of joy for this reprieve. I remembered to remember. You turned the music down when Aaliyah said, “Let me see you, let me see you.” What’s the matter, Lil Tauheed? A long way away from the Hell you crying for? and You a cry baby, damn—lines that were interchangeable amongst them siblings of mine and your ex-husband.

“My life is awful. I just can’t do nothing right. Can’t keep a job or nothing.” You leaned up in the treatment center, and your eyes got glassy and the whites disappeared as you communicated to me, the only pupil that mattered in this moment, “You losing all them jobs and stuff because you supposed to be doing your music. That’s your mission and things not going to feel right unless you go for that.” My mind flashed to the time you drove me to audition for the city-wide talent show at Hamilton High to the first time I played one of my CDs for you and you put it on repeat for twenty minutes, but my mouth betrayed my memories when I muttered to you in response, My dad said I need to get a trade and not to worry about rap.

For many years, I would visit you, get my cup filled up, and then get knocked all over the floor. I had grown so accustomed to being chastised and yelled at, it was hard for me to absorb the magnitude of your support for me, your prayers over my life. After this day, I would defiantly tell anyone who would listen, My mama support what I’m doing. I thought of you first, everywhere you moved, every portal, when the Grammy nomination came. I wanted to thank you for the foundation, the prayers, the belief, the memory.

When I began to notice that our beautiful portal had struggled so mightily against the test of time, my mind was muddy, a mixture of anger, sadness, and helplessness. For all the nigga-rigging Daddy taught me how to do, I was ashamed that I never attempted to try one trick on your cracked white vinyl kitchen floor that the ice box sank into. This was the first time I resented being the youngest, realizing that time rendered me useless in saving the day. The house is just coming apart, Lil Tauheed, you declared in a matter-of-fact tone. As I looked at the cracks and the gaping hole, my mind flashed to the times that I used to sneak over to Mr. Willie’s side and play on his computer while he slept. This beautiful portal that housed our love and made it possible for us to reconnect after a tempestuous divorce was on its last leg. As I surveyed the place with my heart racing like Usain Bolt, you pointed to the browning ceiling, The roof is starting to cave in too, Lil Tauheed. It’s worse on Mr. Willie side.

You are the most self-efficacious person I have ever known. You got disability on your first go around, without needing the help of JG Wentworth, Morgan & Morgan, or Corey B. Trotz. You have always managed to handle any issue that arose. But the floor and roof were a mountain, and though I know it hurt you for you and Mr. Willie to be living apart for the first time, the way you secured both of y’all senior housing is nothing short of amazing. Fitting, your apartment was 1017. You gangsta like Gucci Mane, Mama. I took a photo of you smiling in your purple muumuu and gold headwrap, adjoined by your beautiful new furniture as the sun shined on your soft round cheeks. You negotiated for the city to demolish the duplex. The next day Big Mama died.

I shepherd the land now, a portal that provided protection, shelter, a shell, for the creation of our pearls of love that kept parasites from damaging our body of connection.

The year 2018 and the high rise on Adams, amongst the scattered remains of Victorian Village, announced a new era. Real maintenance men were on payroll. I realize now that it was the spirit of Emmitt Anderson who tapped me on my shoulder four years later and rehydrated my curiosity about the portal, the land, where we came to know each other. You said y’all hadn’t paid the taxes. Couldn’t. Fixed income. You showed me the tax notices piled up. I told you I would pay the taxes, asked you if Mr. Willie would give it to me, so I could honor the love. You agreed. We sat together doing the title search, and I felt a wave of gratitude wash over my eyes as I glanced at the papers. I heard a reparative laugh from Emmitt as I finally realized that in 2004, after three years of “renting,” Mr. Willie quitclaimed you onto the Mighty Exchange Duplex deed. The seeds that dried up at 806 were drenched in love at 623.

You helped us create an ancestral land, Mama. I took Jordan to the property this summer and told him, This is the location where you first met your grandma when you were a baby. His face lit up with confusion, excitement, and wonder as we surveyed the now mostly empty block. I told him that we are going to build a new world. He thought about his sister and their drawings: Daddy, make a gallery so me and Assata can put our art inside.

I shepherd the land now, a portal that provided protection, shelter, a shell, for the creation of our pearls of love that kept parasites from damaging our body of connection. When I am in town, I saturate the land with my memories, walking the 8,400-square-foot parcel, speaking gratitude, and listening to the spirits that govern the plot and those that kindly pay visits. I had dreams of Emmitt all the time when I was on Exchange. Since I moved, they stopped, you poured out, after I said that Emmitt is my spiritual guide now. He helped to protect you on Exchange and said just call his name and he’ll return.

Everything comes back to Exchange. The portal at Exchange is a powerful location for spirits, Mama. I have met John and Elizabeth, a married couple who have lived on the land since the late 1800s, one night in a very vivid dream; they said, We been watching you since you were a little boy. We chose you. Last year, I found a map of Memphis from 1887, saw that this very strip of Exchange was one of the original streets planned and developed by the founders of the city. My good friend, who is a professor like Z, named KT, is the foremost historian on the blues singer Alberta Hunter. She told me a few months ago that Alberta was born at the corner of High and Exchange, a stone’s throw from where the Exchange portal was in 1895. All the spirits, the memories, the water are trying to return to Exchange. Or they never left.

Tauheed Rahim II

Tauheed Rahim II is a Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist and Memphis-raised Muslim writer whose work explores questions of race, labor, and spirit in the American South. Rahim is the librettist for Grc Lnd 2030 and Requiem for the Enslaved. His music has been featured on MTV News and NPR, and his literary nonfiction has appeared in the Oxford American. He is currently hip-hop artist-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.