Feb 2, 2013

The Memphis Obama didn't see: Student who introduced the President at graduation reveals gritty reality of the projects where he grew up plagued by drug addicts, prostitutes and poverty

By on Saturday, February 02, 2013

When President Obama delivered a commencement address at a high school graduation in Memphis in 2011, he was introduced by a senior, Chris Dean.

What the commander-in-chief did not know when shaking hands with the eloquent 18-year-old is that the boy standing in front of him was born and came of age in a violent, crime-ridden part of South Memphis that has nearly consumed him.

 After experiencing clinical death at age two and losing his father in a bloody gang shootout, Chris managed to survive the streets and eventually go to college on a scholarship he had won in large part thanks to this brief but memorable interaction with Obama.

 This year, Dean returned to his old neighborhood in the company of Alan Spearman, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and photographer for the Memphis-based Commercial Appeal, to document the landscape of his turbulent childhood as part of a short film called As I Am.

 The photographs taken by Spearman during their journey into the teeming underbelly of South Memphis offer an unflinching look at a bleak world of staggering poverty and crime, offset by the nearly super-human resilience of the locals.

 Dean and Spearman spent eight weeks scouring the dark back alleys surrounding the Foote Homes housing project and meeting local characters: from prostitutes to young players in the burgeoning drug business; from small businessmen fighting to scratch out a meager living to the destitute relying on their faith in the face of adversity.

 The movie that came out of the expedition to South Memphis features Dean’s keen and sensitive observations, thoughts and feelings regarding the places and people that he has known all his life.

Survivor: On one of the hottest days of the year, Francine Hudson, 53, struts down Latham singing to pass the time. Months earlier, Hudson's face was crushed during an attack on the street when she refused to sell herself for $10

Hustler: Marcus Wellington, 20, has lived in Foote Homes housing project all his life. The initials ATM on his neck stand for addicted to money and the tie he sports on his chest is a sign of entrepreneurship

Local character: Reggie Allen calls himself the man of a thousand faces who dreams of being an actor, a cowboy and a blues man. He is seen showing one of his many comic looks, a bandito

Wild ride: A Chevy with 24-inch wheels sports an alligator skin interior is the envy of some in Foote Homes housing project

Refuge: Faith Jackson, age nine, created a haven in a hollow magnolia tree she calls April in her Soulsville yard, where she can escape the gunshots that frighten her

Life story: Many in South Memphis believe William Boyce, left, was a basketball star who was poisoned. He pins notes to himself advertising his services as a stenographer, secretary, reporter or a nurse's aid

On the fringes: Lonzo Johnson, 60, picks up cans for extra money, filling a ragged garbage bag that spills cans back onto the street. Johnson spends his hours covering bicycles in beer cans and shiny found objects

Church life: Chris Dean's mother, Paula Dean, sings I Give Myself Away at Repairers of the Breach Church in Southaven as a member of the congregation cools her with a fan

Bleak world: Discarded furniture litters the street at 380 E. McLemore as Dontarrius Lee, 9, looks for his friends around the Willoughby apartment complex

Used goods: Shadows cast on the Neighborhood Market Place on Mississippi. Owners Arvis and Sonja Latting describe their store as an inner city WalMart with the best prices in town for secondhand clothes, shoes, linens and electronics

Audacity of hope: President Obama greets Chris Dean before delivering the commencement address at the Booker T. Washington High School graduation ceremony in May 2011


  1. "Audacity of Hope?"

    The Audacity of obummer.

  2. This photographer makes Memphis look better than it is. Notice he is showing blacks alone. But they are usually not alone. And they don't stay in the projects, either. Many a white suburb in Memphis has gone urban and the old retired folks left behind the white flight out are blessed by the diversity - not!