On an album with 11 ballads about sex and love and one about race and class, the latter was released as the lone single. It became a hit for Elvis and helped him pivot away from the singing-soundtracks-for-his-movies era. Thankfully. Soundtrack Elvis is my least favorite Elvis (Ballads Elvis > Hymns Elvis > King of Rock n Roll Elvis > Good Vegas Years Elvis > Bad Vegas Years Elvis > Soundtrack Elvis). Other than the single, “In the Ghetto,” I can’t point you to a specific standout song, and that’s what works for From Elvis in Memphis.
Sometimes we talk about great albums as collections of hit singles and/or thematically connected songs, but this album doesn’t work that way. A collection of mostly love songs doesn’t make for a “project album” in the same way as something like the Who’s Tommy, for instance. The songs are connected by their soundscape more so than their content—what some critics call “country soul” or “white soul.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s a style that works for Elvis’s voice. The performer grows up into the singer. Then it’s the mature singer who transitions, albeit abruptly, from love songs to “In the Ghetto.” That’s what we need to talk about.
When Elvis sings “As the snow flies / On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ / A poor little baby child is born / In the ghetto / (In the ghetto)” we don’t need to ask any questions. We already know. We know the child is black. We know what the narrative of his life will be by the fourth line, and that line, “in the ghetto,” is repeated throughout the song in lieu of a traditional chorus. We know what to expect from the ghetto: a violent end. The trope of the inevitable black criminal isn’t new.
I’m not saying Elvis, or songwriter Mac Davis, had nefarious intent, just that the song falls short as an attempt to humanize black people for a white audience. Its reliance on stereotype becomes a kind of voyeurism of black suffering, which creates an emotional response but doesn’t require discomfort with the existence of the ghetto. It asks for pity. Almost 50 years later, pity remains the official response of “high-minded” white people to redlining, education disparity, chronic underemployment, lack of government representation, police mistreatment, etc. The song encourages the listener to feel sorry for black folks without acknowledging that the ghetto didn’t spring up spontaneously. Black ghettos in the United States aren’t any more of an accident than Jewish ghettos were in Europe.
Also, the (slight and fragile) progress we’ve made that allows some people to escape the physical ghetto doesn’t mean it no longer exists. It is both more mobile and adaptable (racism adapts faster than most organisms) and still a real place. What are we calling it now? Bad neighborhood? Wrong side of the tracks? [cardinal direction]-side? Here in T-Town, it’s a variation of the cardinal direction moniker. When the local news reports a crime in North Tulsa, you get the subtext.
Here’s the origin story for North Tulsa. (Aside: Please become familiar with your city’s (or town’s) settlement patterns and how racial disparities work there. How the ideology of ghetto works varies somewhat and must be fought locally as much as nationally.) We had segregation from the beginning in Tulsa, ya know, after forcing Native Americans off the land we forced them to, but by 1921 black Tulsans were doing too well for the taste of city leaders like Tate Brady. A false accusation against a black man led to the Tulsa Race Riot, during which a white mob murdered hundreds of Black Tulsans, destroyed Black Wall Street (the wealthiest black district in the country), and drove thousands further north to keep Black Tulsa and White Tulsa separate.
Despite its blind spots, “In the Ghetto” does ask a few pointed questions: “Take a look at you and me / Are we too blind to see? / Do we simply turn our heads / And look the other way?” These are the best lines on the entire album and, for me, a challenge. Too many times I’ve turned away into my own secure life. The song’s proposed solution is charity, “The child needs a helping hand,” but charity wasn’t enough when this album came out and isn’t enough now (not that charitable actions toward anyone less fortunate than yourself shouldn’t be pursued). What we need is to bear witness with honesty that may be uncomfortable for those of us who don’t face the machine of government policy and apathy working against us. What we need is to strive toward justice, liberation from the political and economic factors that white supremacy uses to enforce its goal of imprisoning people in the ghetto.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll end with one such attempt to speak truth. The following is a poem I wrote a few years ago about the pogrom that created a ghetto where I live:
for the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot
Tate said he saw a n-----
noosed and dragged behind
a car. Crude thick blood
cries out from the ground
in the Oil Capital, congealing
along Greenwood Avenue
and flowing north. Black
Wall Street has crashed,
its wealth looted, redistributed.
The race riot suite sweeps
to Mount Zion Baptist Church
after rumors of guns there, where
they don’t belong. Klansmen run
a beat like deputies. They light homes
on that side of Admiral with
the white violence of Molotov cocktails.
The governor deploys the Guard
to protect white-owned property.