Queen’s Chronicle: Black Legacy Journey Part 3-River Soul
“I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
excerpt from Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers“
I use to know the entire “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by heart but over the years its stanzas have flowed away from my mind. Suddenly as I stood along the river in Chattanooga, I could feel my late brother Ron standing there beside me. I could hear our voices blend together as I realized I was saying out loud, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
I stood there at the river appreciating it for all it offered to the many people of African descent that used it to escape from one place where they felt downtrodden to get to another to be uplifted and to uplift others. When I mapped out where I would travel in the car, I thought of the mountains and not the rivers. However, it truly felt like the rivers were thinking of me and embracing me all along the journey. “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
I gave thanks for the peace that I felt along the shoreline as I suddenly heard a sound approaching from the left and then saw what I looked for along the river in New Orleans coming my way-a riverboat. I looked at the replication of the mechanism that was once used to have the waters power the boats and I smiled. I smiled even more when the boat made its way pass me with music playing from it.
Chattanooga is part of the Tennessee music pathway and I was happy to finally be on it. The pathway was cleared by folks like Bessie Smith and the Impressions. They and many others graced the stages of “The Big 9” as 9th Street was once called. It is said that in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the Big 9 was bigger than Beale Street or Bourbon Street. The historic markers that are lined up on the street which is now called “Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd” seemed to attest to this fact. Even more details about the myriad of successful Black people that resided in Chattanooga can be found inside the institution that is central to this boulevard-the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.
We had the entire Bessie Smith Cultural Center to ourselves and we spent hours in there learning about the richness of the Black history in this city before entering the musical section. Every step through the space was enlightening. It held the strength of its namesake and told many stories of folks that came from various locations throughout the south to make this city their home. They ended up starting businesses as well as fighting for the rights of Black people. They fought long and hard to do what they could to run racism’s train off its tracks. Unfortunately, there were always engineers laying new sets of tracks or hitting switches to send the train on another pathway. As a result, today, the markers remain and the stories of the marks that many Black folks made are there, but there were no Black businesses in the area to be found.
I wanted to go find some Black businesses to support before continuing the journey to the next city after being blessed to sing on the stage inside the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Once we put all the items from the gift shop into the car and finished laughing with the wonderful brothers that worked there, we took a walk down the block to check out what I saw in the distance. We found a peach cobbler location with a young sister working there. Although this wasn’t a down south homemade peach cobbler spot, I had to check it out. I got a blackberry peach cobbler and felt good about at least seeing this young sister and getting to smile with her. Her spirit was welcoming like that of the young sister that had checked us in the night before at the hotel and told us how to navigate across the river to get food. These sisters will never know that they didn’t simply feed our bodies, my encounters with them fed my soul.
As we proceeded onward in the state, I enjoyed every moment when we crossed a river or when I saw water in the distance. Truly, my soul has grown deep like the river.