Last week’s ‘This Is Us’ tearjerker was an emotional trip down black history lane

Last week, fans of NBC’s This Is Us watched Randall and William return to their familial roots in Memphis, TN. Beneath reunion and reminiscing is the sinking feeling that William’s hometown might soon become the site of his final memories.

The present-day scene begins with a shot of William, eyes closed, face creased by thick tubes carrying oxygen to his nostrils. He sits in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office while Beth and Randall argue about the risks and merits of the pair driving down south. In the end, it’s decided: this road trip will provide therapy for dying father and floundering son.

‘Memphis’ is a black history lesson, a shout out to Southern culture, the tale of one man breaking the chains of intergenerational hardship. Instead of harkening back to Jack and Rebecca’s household, viewers are treated to memories from William’s past — not the addiction that brought him to the fire station, but the love and sadness and misfortune that led to his final days with Randall.

 

The Great Migration

Tender moments between Mama Hill and infant William quickly jump to a train station scene that shows very little but tells a lot: mother has to leave son in their southern hometown to take care of family up north.

 

In the narrated letters that follow, we learn that William’s grandmother has died, but his mother has to take care of her affairs. Then she gets a job. Soon, she shifts the conversation away from her new life and toward his blues band’s success. When she opts for a phone call instead of a letter, we know she won’t make it back home to Memphis.

 

Descendants of slaves and sharecroppers packed their lives into a single suitcase and journeyed north.

 

In revealing this part of William’s past, This Is Us writers don’t just tell his story: they unveil millions of black family histories, of relatives displaced by matters both personal and systemic. Between 1910 and 1970, six million African-Americans moved from the rural south, fanning out to the North, Northeast and West in a period known as the Great Migration.

 

Descendants of slaves and sharecroppers packed their lives into a single suitcase and journeyed north, searching for jobs, better race relations or reunion with family who’d sent for them.

 

Much like slaves who escaped north generations before, these 20th century migrants did not reach the promised land they hoped for. Instead, they were met with white-skinned immigrants accusing them of stealing jobs, working-class white Americans who fled to surrounding suburbs, and black city dwellers who openly disapproved of the newcomers’ rural Southern customs.
These social conditions gave way to housing discrimination and the neglect of black populations in urban centers. White flight had been justified by fears that an influx of black residents would make these changing cities ripe for drug use and crime. Instead, the departure of the citizens this nation protects the most is what resulted in urban decline, not the people of color who sought refuge there.

This is the backdrop of the Hill family’s movement from Memphis to Pittsburgh. Based on Randall’s age and the timing of his parents’ love story, William and his mother relocated during the final moments of this mass exodus. He arrives just in time to fall through the cracks in one of many cities left with too many people and not enough resources.

 

Compassion for William The Addict

Today, as the nation changes its tune from a war on drugs to a public health crisis, This Is Us sheds light on the realities of that proverbial war: drug addiction is a merciless sickness without regard to color or socioeconomic status. William became addicted at a time when drug use was punished with criminal charges, not treated with state-sanctioned rehab.

 

In the early episodes of This Is Us — as in the early years of widespread opiate use in US cities — drug addiction was seen as an irresponsible, shameful choice. In ‘Memphis’ and in the present-day U.S., drugs are shown to be a crippling crutch for a wayward, hurting, otherwise good person. With its hindsight, ‘Memphis’ gives young William the compassion he likely would not have received as a black, urban addict.

In this way, the trope of an unfit or unwilling parent disposing of a newborn child gets a long-needed update. By giving Randall up, William didn’t just do what was best for him and his son — he made a painful choice for a greater good. Without a drug-addicted William, there is no Tess or Annie; The Big Three are instead a lonely two; the cold air that eventually seeps into Rebecca and Jack’s marriage is there before their babies make it home from the hospital.

 

These are the personal bits of drug addiction and other social problems. They go beyond theories and statistics. They cannot be expressed in charts or official reports. With a rise of drug-related deaths outside of these stereotyped urban centers, the nation is starting to view drug addition as an illness instead of a crime. ‘Memphis’ turns back time to do the same for William.

 

When closure comes

The empathy ‘Memphis’ conjures for William The Addict is part of the fastening of loose ends that often accompanies death, both in fiction and in life. As Pearson flashbacks have shown, Randall would not be the man he is without Rebecca and William’s secret. The parenting he received from Jack, a tenuous relationship with Kevin, his very existence in a white, suburban family created his many nuances.

 

As William passes on, taking his final breaths in lockstep with the son who got away, his life flashes before his eyes and ours, a melancholy montage of bad breaks and pleasant memories. Viewers can’t help but consider how William would have fared — how Randall’s story would have been told — if this father-son connection had never come to pass.

 

Through labored breaths, Randall’s father tells him, “Man, that was a hell of a thing you did, knocking on my door that day.”

Indeed, William. Indeed.

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