McPherson, James Alan 1943- (James Alan McPherson, Jr.)
McPherson, James Alan 1943- (James Alan McPherson, Jr.)
Born September 16, 1943, in Savannah, GA; son of James Allen and Mable McPherson; married; children: Rachel. Education: Attended Morgan State University, 1963-64; Morris Brown College, B.A., 1965; Harvard University, LL.B., 1968; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1969.
Office—Program in Creative Writing, 102 Dey House, University of Iowa, 507 Clinton St., Iowa City, IA 52242-1000.
University of Iowa, Iowa City, instructor in writing at Law School, 1968-69, instructor in Afro-American literature, 1969, professor of fiction in Writers Workshop, 1981—; University of California, Santa Cruz, faculty member, 1969-70; Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD, faculty member, 1975-76; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, faculty member, 1976-81; visiting professor at Harvard University, Meiji University, and Chiba University (Japan). Double Take magazine, editor, 1995—; Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, behavioral studies fellow, beginning 1997.
Authors League of America, PEN, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Civil Liberties Union.
First prize, Atlantic Monthly short-story contest, 1965, for "Gold Coast"; grant from Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, 1969; National Institute of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1970; Guggenheim fellow, 1972-73; Pulitzer Prize, 1978, for Elbow Room; MacArthur fellowship, 1981; Excellence in Technology award, University of Iowa, 1991; Best American Essays, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995; Pushcart Prize, 1995; Lannan Foundation fellowship, 2003.
Hue and Cry: Short Stories, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1969, reprinted, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor, with Miller Williams) Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
Elbow Room: Stories, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
(Author of foreword) Breece D'J Pancake, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983, new edition, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.
Crabcakes: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with DeWitt Henry, and contributor) Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Work anthologized in books, including Cutting Edges, edited by J. Hicks, Holt (New York, NY), 1973; Black Insights: Significant Literature by Afro-Americans, 1760 to the Present, edited by Nick A. Ford, Wiley (New York, NY), 1976; Book for Boston, edited by Llewellyn Howland and Isabelle Storey, David Godine (Boston, MA), 1980; Speaking for You, edited by Kimberly W. Benson, Howard University Press, 1987; A World Unsuspected, edited by Alex Harris, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1987; New Black Voices, New American Library; and Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000. Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper's, New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Reader's Digest, World Literature Today, and Callaloo. Contributing editor, Atlantic Monthly, beginning 1969; editor of special issue, Iowa Review, winter, 1984; advisory editor, Ploughshares.
Known predominately for his short fiction, James Alan McPherson tells tales of ordinary, working-class men and women. An African American himself, McPherson minimizes race as a theme in his fiction; although his plots often center on African American characters, they nonetheless confront universal human problems. In addition to their publication in prominent periodicals, McPherson's short stories have been collected in the volumes Hue and Cry: Short Stories and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Elbow Room: Stories, while his more recent work includes Crabcakes: A Memoir and A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile. Other projects include the coeditorship of Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men, an anthology of writings focusing on a pivotal family relationship that was dubbed "literate and absorbing" by a Publishers Weekly contributor. The recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and several other prestigious honors, McPherson found his venerated literary status further cemented in 2000 when editor John Updike selected McPherson's short story "Gold Coast" for inclusion in his anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century.
As Robie Macauley explained of the author's work in the New York Times Book Review, McPherson "refuse[s] … to let his fiction fall into any color-code or ethnic code." According to Paul Bailey, writing in the Observer Review (as quoted in Contemporary Literary Criticism), "the Negroes and whites [McPherson] describes always remain individual people—he never allows himself the luxury of turning them into Problems." Explaining his approach, McPherson was quoted as noting in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Certain of [my characters] … happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; but I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept."
McPherson was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, a city in which diverse cultures—including the French, Spanish, and Native American—have intermingled in a unique fashion, and exposure to this rich cultural heritage influenced his tendency to avoid stereotypes and transcend racial barriers. While McPherson was growing up, his father, at one time the only licensed black master electrician in Georgia, and his mother, a domestic servant in a white household, provided their children with social contact in both the white and black communities. Through his parents' efforts, McPherson obtained work as a grocery boy in a local supermarket and as a waiter on a passenger train, among other jobs, and these experiences would form the basis for several of his stories. McPherson's train employment also allowed him to leave the South and travel across America, experiencing regional differences.
McPherson's writing career began in the 1960s while he was attending law school, when "Gold Coast" won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly magazine. In addition to encouraging him to pursue a life in literature, the Atlantic Monthly continued to play a pivotal role in McPherson's career for several years to come: After earning a bachelor's degree, a law degree, and an M.A. in creative writing, McPherson became a contributing editor of the magazine in 1969.
Featuring stories such as "Gold Coast," "All the Lonely People," and "A Matter of Vocabulary," McPherson's first story collection, Hue and Cry, deals with characters whose lives are so desperate that they can only rage impotently against their situations. Despite the grim nature of their plight, whether trapped by poverty, education, or race, the author's characters are nuanced individuals, their situations portrayed with compassion and grace. Bailey noted of the collection that McPherson's "powers of observation and character-drawing are remarkable, displaying a mature novelist's understanding of the vagaries and inconsistencies of human affairs." Writing in Harper's, Irving Howe also spoke to McPherson's maturity, writing that the author "possesses an ability some writers take decades to acquire, the ability to keep the right distance from the creatures of his imagination, not to get murkily involved and blot out his figures with vanity and fuss." Granville Hicks, reviewing Hue and Cry for the Saturday Review, maintained that McPherson "is acutely aware of the misery and injustice in the world, and he sympathizes deeply with the victims whether they are black or white."
Elbow Room, McPherson's second collection, won even more critical praise than its predecessor. Again concerned with characters in desperate situations, stories such as "The Story of a Dead Man," "Widows and Orphans," and "A Sense of Story" are more optimistic than McPherson's earlier works, the characters more willing to strive for some measure of success. Robert Phillips, reviewing Elbow Room for Commonweal, characterized the stories in McPherson's second collection as "difficult struggles for survival, yet [the author's] sense of humor allows him to dwell on moments which otherwise might prove unbearable." Writing in Newsweek, Margo Jefferson hailed McPherson as "an astute realist who knows how to turn the conflicts between individual personalities and the surrounding culture into artful and highly serious comedies of manners."
McPherson's ability to create believable men and women, and his focus on the underlying humanity of each of his characters, has been praised by several critics. Noting the author's focus on "not so much … the black condition as the human condition" in Elbow Room, Phillips deemed the work "a book of singular achievement." Citing McPherson's ability "to look beneath skin color and clichés of attitude into the hearts of his characters," Macauley praised it as "a fairly rare ability in American fiction," and a New Yorker reviewer called the author "one of those rare writers who can tell a story, describe shadings of character, and make sociological observations with equal subtlety."
After devoting several decades to teaching, both at the University of Iowa and abroad, McPherson released his memoir, Crabcakes. Called "a profoundly personal tale of displacement and discovery that is poetic and universal" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor, the work recalls the many people, places, and events that contributed to the fabric of McPherson's life, fiction, and philosophy. Roy Hoffman, writing in the New York Times Book Review, described Crabcakes as "part lilting memoir, part anxious meditation," as it deals with McPherson's experiences growing up in Baltimore, his long struggle with writer's block, his travels and experiences while teaching in Japan, and his slow recovery of a sense of connection with his past and present. Although Hoffman faulted the author for being "far more elusive than the protagonists in his short fiction," a Black Studies contributor deemed the memoir "richly rewarding." In Publishers Weekly a reviewer dubbed Crabcakes an "intense mosaic" that "combines James Baldwin's moral compulsion to testify and Ishmael Reed's iconoclastic experimentalism," and Richard K. Burns concluded in Library Journal that McPherson's "dramatic memoir reaches for the essence of life in search of an epiphany."
McPherson shares more insights into his life and experiences in A Region Not Home, a collection of thought-provoking personal and cultural essays on topics ranging from football and racism to writer Ralph Ellison and Disneyland. "It is the breadth of perspective and quality of thought and writing that set his work apart," commented Mary Paumier Jones in her Library Journal appraisal of McPherson's work, the critic adding that the author rejects easy resolutions in favor of focusing on "complexity." In Booklist Mary Carroll wrote that the essayist "offers flashes of unexpected insight; his path often twists and turns, but his side trips are well worth the time and effort." "Throughout, there's an easy kitchentable quality to McPherson's style that invites the reader," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, the critic adding that in A Region Not Home readers will discover "essays on how to live." A Region Not Home "contains the thoughts of a man secure enough in his identity as an American to go other places, physical and intellectual," maintained Cliff Thompson in the Black Issues Book Review. McPherson's reasoned, democratic approach "puts him out of step with the shouting match that is much of today's culture," Thompson added, "which is why A Region Not Home won't approach anything like bestsellerdom—and precisely why it should."
McPherson's reasoned, philosophical approach to social issues such as racism has remained a hallmark of his writing, both in fiction and nonfiction. Discuss- ing the obstacles and opportunities facing contemporary black writers, he once wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: "It seems to me much [African American] … writing has been, and continues to be, sociological because black writers have been concerned with protesting black humanity and racial injustice to the larger society in those terms most easily understood by nonblack people. It also seems to me that we can correct this limitation either by defining and affirming the values and cultural institutions of our people for their education or by employing our own sense of reality and our own conception of what human life should be to explore, and perhaps help define, the cultural realities of contemporary American life."
McPherson contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
News came recently that my father's half sister, Eva McPherson Clayton, is about to be elected to Congress from the First Congressional District of North Carolina. Along with this information, there came additional news that Vanzetta McPherson, the wife of Thomas McPherson, my father's half brother, has already been confirmed as a Federal District Court Judge in Montgomery, Alabama. While I am naturally very proud of them, the news caused me to think back on the differences in our childhoods. And I find myself wondering just what my father, their half brother, James A. McPherson, might have accomplished if he had been born at a later time or under a different set of historical circumstances. I think about what he might have achieved with his own native intelligence if he had had better luck. I wonder how far he might have risen if he, like Thomas and Eva, had been wise enough to move to a place where his talents would have been allowed to develop naturally and where he might have prospered.
And I think about my mother, Mable McPherson, who, almost four years ago, was finally released from all her pain. I imagine that she would now be feeling her usual despair, or fear, over the recent accomplishments of Eva McPherson Clayton and Vanzetta McPherson. I can still read in her face the tentative pride fading into her bedrock pessimism over the likely consequences for black people of any display of talent or intelligence or ambition. I can imagine my father arguing with her, and perhaps losing his temper, over what would be his insistence that she should take pride in the triumph of native intelligence over racism. I can also imagine my mother's response, which would be her conventional response to any open display of ambition or intelligence which guaranteed to attract the attention of jealous white people: "You've got to crawl before you can walk." I am sure that this expression of her homespun philosophy must still have had the power to enrage my father.
Mary, my older sister, and I agree that something must have happened to our mother, early in her life, to cause her to become so sad or unconfident that she would want to retreat back toward slavery. Her life was a constant battle with those around her who wanted to walk. She was not a malicious person. She was universally admired. She was unusually kind and gentle, and she lived the Christian virtues. She possessed great intelligence and humor and had a memory like an elephant. She carried herself with a natural grace. In her youth, according to a picture I once saw, she was also quite attractive. Her African, Creek, and Cherokee ancestries had struck in her a very refined balance. But she also seemed very sad in that picture, as if something deep in her had already been defeated, how many times I do not know. She seemed to have spent the rest of her life thinking back on these defeats. I have seldom seen her as anything other than sad.
I once participated in an experiment in recollecting previous lives. The volunteers were put under to sleep, and prodded with a series of ritual questions. One of the time periods focused on was the times of our births. We were asked to recall the events surrounding our arrivals on this earth. I was asked to remember where I was just before I was actually born. I was in the company of something that gave me great peace and a profound feeling of security. I was asked to describe my feelings at the moment of birth. I was extremely frightened, much more frightened than I have ever felt since, except for once, in my life. I was asked to describe how my father looked. He was a very happy-looking young man. He seemed very pleased to have a son and a namesake. I was asked to describe how my mother looked. She was sitting up in bed, holding me, but her face was turned away from me and she looked very sad. She had long, black Indian hair. At that particular moment, she should have looked beautiful. But she did not. Her sadness dominated the moment.
I think that one of the best-kept secrets in the world is what event wounded my mother, at such a deep level, early on in her life. My earliest memory of my mother is of her during my first years of school. The children had been taught to make valentines out of carbon paper and to stuff the pockets in them with little candies. I made one for my mother and took it home and gave it to her. She accepted it, but with great sadness. Perhaps I can remember this moment so clearly because it marked the beginning of my resolve to make my mother smile, to make her happy. But she spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to prove that her emotions were beyond cultivation. Her only other resolve was a steadfast dedication to the life after this one. She wanted to be a perfect Christian in this world so as to be assured of a place in the next world. Nothing else seemed to matter to her. Because of this intense focus, she was like the ancient Cathars of eleventh-century France, who identified all aspects of this world with Rex Mundi, the Prince of Darkness, and focused their full energies on avoiding the pitfalls and snares of this transitory earthly life. Our mother always told us, in response to our insistence that we wanted to do what others were doing, "No. I'm raising you all the old-fashioned way." I have learned that, when she was herself a child, she studied the Bible with Pentecostal people. To this day, I do not know whether her "old-fashioned way" had more to do with the Biblical codes than with the consequences of some personal defeat in her spirit. Whatever she kept so closely guarded must, at one time, have given her very great pain. Mary remembers, when she was a child, waking up at night to hear our mother crying and saying to herself, possibly in her sleep, "There just has to be a Judgment Day. There just has to be!" My father's favorite song was "Over my head, I hear trouble in the air…. There must be a God somewhere." Their marriage, it seems, was in its spiritual aspects a union between a belief in hell and a belief in heaven.
Such a fixation in adults on spiritual absolutes, if allowed to influence sensitive children trapped in a material world, often leads the children into a deadly form of romanticism. Not as secure in the same celestial certainties as our parents, my sisters and brother and I learned to impose otherworldly standards on people in this world. That is, because we could not muster the same degree of faith in heaven as our father, or the same fear of Judgment Day as our mother, we tended to put too much faith in other people, to view them from an unrealistic perspective beyond all their faults. This "blindness" helped us to make friends easily, but it also put us at risk because we tended to idealize too much. Each of us has suffered deep betrayals by people to whom we gave all our trust. Our mother never made this mistake because she never trusted the world or its people, and had no ambition in life beyond mere survival. Our father was betrayed many times. Our mother's constant watchword to us was, "You children are just like your daddy. You'll learn one day that you only get a few friends in this life."
Now that my mother is dead, I find myself, sometimes, conjuring up a romantic vision of heaven and of what it is like. I assume that if there is indeed a heaven, my mother is sure to be there. I want her to be with my father again, and I want to see her laugh without pain and circumspection. I want her to take happiness as her God-given right. I want there to be a heaven where people, black people especially, will be free of pain and can laugh and speak honestly and freely and can use their intelligence, even in bold ways, without fear of negative consequences. I want there to be a heaven where my mother will be free of her fear of white people and of her anticipation of their hatred. I want my mother and father to be equally proud of Thomas and Eva. But some deep part of me can still imagine my mother looking down from the heaven I have imagined for her, shaking her head at Thomas and Eva, and saying with her usual sadness, "You've got to crawl before you can walk!"*
I live in a small town in Iowa now, and I have survived the worst of my mother's fears. I attended college. I graduated from the Harvard Law School. I have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur fellowship. Mostly because of these accomplishments, I was subjected to some very vicious attacks when I taught at the University of Virginia. The life of my daughter, Rachel, was put at risk. In order to keep my bond with her, I would have been obliged to remain in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a kind of slave. It was, those many years ago, the appropriate time for me to follow my mother's advice and crawl. But instead, I walked away, leaving behind my own flesh and blood. I survived what I was not supposed to survive. During the last years of my mother's life, I wanted to tell her, "Do you see? It is still possible to live, and to keep standing, after they have done to you the worse thing they can do to you. Don't you see, they have taken their best shot and I am still alive. Here in Iowa, even in exile from the South, I have been able to start over. I have made new friends. I have touched a great number of students. I have earned the respect and the friendship of many new people, including a great number of Japanese. The world is much larger than the South. We are no longer obliged to crawl." But I never told my mother this. I don't think she would have believed me.
When my mother was dying in a hospital in Atlanta, I used to call her every night to encourage her to eat. She had apparently lost the will to live and refused to follow the advice of her doctor that she should eat her food. My brother, Richard, became her primary caretaker and did everything humanly possible for her. Since I could not travel to Atlanta to join my brother and sister Josephine at her bedside, I did the next best thing. During the evening hours, I tried my best to become her lifeline. She knew my reasons for choos-
ing a condition of exile, so she never asked me to come to Atlanta to see her during her last days. But she liked me to call her in the hospital and talk with her about inconsequential things. During those evening hours, I pretended to much greater emotional strength than I actually possessed at the time. I tried to make her know that I was standing tall. Now, in retrospect, I want to believe that I actually taught her something during her last days. Mary disclosed to me after our mother's death that several times, during the last year of her life, our mother said that she had always wished, secretly, that she could have used her intelligence in some better way. She talked about her academic record at a normal school in Jacksonville, Florida, when she was a girl, and about how she had always been an outstanding student. She talked about what she might have done with her life if circumstances had not obliged her to enter domestic service for white employers. Soon after this, she lost her will to live, retreated into herself, refused to eat her food, and died.
I hope now that my mother is using all her intelligence. I hope now that she is free from fear, in the Christian heaven I try to imagine for her. My final words to her were certain parts of a Psalm that I thought appropriate. I thought that it, the 139th Psalm, spoke in some very meaningful ways about what had sustained my mother's life:
O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me,
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine upris-
Thou understandest my thoughts afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down,
And art acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word in my tongue but, lo,
O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou hast beset me behind and before,
And laid thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high. I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or
Whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there.
If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And, dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
Even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
But the night shineth as the day:
The darkness and the light are both alike to thee
My family background is very complicated, although no more complicated than that of most black Americans. Genetically, my family represents a mixture of African, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Scottish, Irish, and Anglo-Saxon influences. Geographically they are rooted in three Southern states: Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. In terms of names, each generation represents the extension of the past into the present. There are very few new names in my family. We maintain the practice of keeping the names of ancestors alive. Thus my older sister, Mary Alice McPherson, is named for both my mother's mother, Mary Smalls, and my father's mother, Alice Scarborough McPherson. My younger brother, Richard Benjamin McPherson, is named for Richard Allen, who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the late eighteenth century, and also for Benjamin McPherson, one of my grandfather's brothers. My youngest sister, Josephine McPherson, is named for my mother's cousin, Josephine Martin, who was also my grandfather's second wife. My father, James Allen McPherson, was also named for Richard Allen. I was my father's first-born son, and was elected to bear his name and, ultimately, his character and his fate.
The older I become, the more I believe that our lives are not random occurrences. I am tempted sometimes to believe, rather, that they have an authenticity far beyond our everyday understanding. I am led to believe that there exists a standard of values external to everyday human consciousness, and that our lives are played out in response to these metaphysical values much more than they are responses to the "realities" around us. I am tempted to believe that we choose our parents precisely for their limitations, and that one of the primary "reasons" for the specific circumstances of our births is the challenge to transcend in our lives the limitations of the parents to whom we are born. This seems to me the fundamental purpose of life, the thing that gives authenticity and meaning to what we call living. Our human duty seems to be accepting the challenge imposed by the limitations of our parents and the making of a major effort toward transcending them. This assumes, of course, an ideal of spiritual progress which contradicts the Western ideal of material progress. It is a much more private matter, one having to do with the progression of, and the growth of, one's own soul. In this broader view, all things having to do with facts are illusions. What really matters, in deepest actuality, is how we complete the challenges assigned to us by the life we choose, at birth, to live. In this speculative and metaphysical sense, the fundamental plan of my own life had already been settled at my birth. If I think carefully and coldly about my parents and their flaws, I can see more clearly some that are my own. My only real purpose in this life is to transcend them.
James Allen McPherson, my father, despite his minor flaws, was simply much too large and complex a human being for the time and place in which he tried to live. Born in 1913 in a small village named Green Pond, South Carolina, he moved with his parents, Thomas and Alice McPherson, to Savannah, Georgia, when he was a small boy. Thomas McPherson was an insurance salesman who spent a great deal of time on the road. He and his wife, Alice Scarborough McPherson, were divorced soon after my father was born. In those days, men had an easier time maintaining custody of their children, so my grandfather kept his son while his former wife remarried. He put my father in a boarding school while he was on the road. I can imagine my father as a very intelligent and curious young man left to himself a great part of the time. I know that he was able to survive—although I don't know just how adequately—by depending on an extended family of his father's relatives and his own
friends who lived at all levels of the Savannah community. All his life, my father was most comfortable with an eclectic grouping of friends. At some point in his youth, he developed an interest in electricity. While he was still in his twenties, he became the first, and only, licensed black master electrician in the state of Georgia. He did this without a high school education. He was heading toward a successful and prosperous future even before he met my mother and, when he was nearing thirty, married.
My mother had come to Savannah from Green Cove Springs. Florida. She had come to live with her cousin, Josephine Martin McPherson (called "Mother Dear" by the family), who had just married Thomas McPherson, my father's father. Up until this time, my father had been making periodic trips to Atlanta to see his mother and her new husband. His mother was an alcoholic by this time, and I can only speculate whether the natural sympathy he had for her was transferred to Mable Smalls, the new young woman in his father's house. I know that, when I knew him, my father was always doing things to make my mother happy, to make her smile. It was his deepest nature to "take care" of people in need. He was known to give the shirt off his back to anyone who asked him for it. He was regarded by sensitive people as extremely kind, but was regarded by other people, my mother included, as a fool. One of his stock replies to criticism of his habits was, "My church is in my heart!" In recent years, the field of psychology has coined a new phrase to describe my father's kind of behavior, defined now as a category of neurosis. This new phrase is "co-dependency." Its causes are easy to understand: because my father was the product of a broken home, and because he had an alcoholic mother for whom he cared a great deal, he projected his own desire to be supportive of his wounded parents onto the other significant people in his life. He took great soul-healing pleasure in taking care of them. In this way, so the psychologists tell it, he attempted to assume an equal partnership with God. My father was, in fact, called arrogant. He was also very proud. And he was, up until the time of his death at forty-eight, generous to a fault.
When I was undergoing my own crisis in Charlottesville, I was advised by an expert that this same trait was in me. I was told, "The power structure is not trying to destroy you because of anything wrong that you did. They are after you because, without even knowing it, you were operating as a leader and you threatened established power centers." That I had been perceived as a leader was news to me. So far as I knew, I had only been operating out of the values that had been taught to me by my mother and father. I was simply trying to do for others what I would want them to do for me. But the expert attempted to show me how this approach in life would always put me at risk. He determined that he would attempt to help me "nip the neurosis in the bud" so that I could proceed through life in a much more "normal," much more self-interested and self-protective way. He tried to teach me how to say "No" to people, how to put myself first. I tried this for a while, but kept running into the same old problems: a woman crying for help, a student with some special need, a request from an acquaintance that I just could not deny. I soon found that changing myself was very difficult work. The degree of circumspection required, and the consequent rigidity of behavior, tended to undermine the spontaneity of my daily responses. I soon found myself backsliding into my old habits. And while I got satisfaction out of doing things for people, each time I was thanked, or even noticed, I felt the deep fear that I felt back in Charlottesville in the immediate aftermath of receiving a MacArthur fellowship. I felt I was about to be attacked again for calling attention to myself, or worse, for presuming to stand in the place of God. At such times, I thought of my father, and about what he might have done that I should avoid doing, about how very limited his options were compared to my own.
Operating openly with this same trait of character just on the outskirts of the structure of white supremacy in the Georgia of the 1940s and 1950s, my father must have posed a threat to a great many people. He wanted to get out, but had a wife and four children who were dependent on him. He must have wanted intimate friends, as always, on all levels of Savannah society. But increasingly, as the obligations and pressures on him took their toll, he could only find comfort and escape among social outcasts, those men and women who had already given up, and in the steady consumption of alcohol. I remember one of the lowest points in his life: the time, when I was not yet in my teens, of his father's death and funeral. My father had been put into Reidsville Prison, for the first of many times, as punishment for not honoring the contracts he had made. The guards from Reidsville Prison, or what was then called "the chain-gang," brought him to his father's funeral in handcuffs. I watched the metal handcuffs sparkling in the winter sunlight while all around me people, in grief and embarrassment, cried. Not too many years after this, my father's spirit was finally broken. He kept walking, worked as an electrician, whenever he could, but he was already dead before he died.
These many years later, I still find it impossible to change in myself the things that were derived from him, and these many years later I still live with the fear that they will cause me to end up the way he did.
My mother observed my father's slow decline, and the instruction must have confirmed a deeper lesson, secreted in the safest part of her long memory of similar destructions stretching back into the days of slavery. Whatever it was that my mother knew, whatever had happened to her, she took in secret with her to the grave. She left it to her four children to speculate about what it was that had wounded her so deeply that it led her to give up on life. She left us only a handful of clues. When I was grieving for my mother and feeling guilty over the fact that I could not see her during her last days, I went to see her last remaining sister, Suzie Johnson, in Detroit. I wanted to try again to understand my mother by adding to the few facts that I knew about her background those I could get from her sister. My aunt Suzie repeated her family facts with the same mixture of precision about some things and ambiguity about others that my mother practiced. Their father, John Smalls, had been born in Blackshear, Georgia. He had worked as a sharecropper and as a laborer on a number of plantations in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. My mother, Mable, the oldest girl, had been born in Blackshear, Georgia, but the other members of the family—Bill, Joe, Mary, Martha, Beulah, and Suzie—were born in various other places. The full family wound up eventually in Green Cove Springs, Florida, where John Smalls apparently prospered very quickly. All five girls attended what was then called "normal school," while the two oldest children, Joe and Bill, became laborers themselves. This was apparently the strategy, or custom, that had been worked out by black people in the South during the very hard years which followed the betrayal of the Reconstruction. Since the structure of white supremacy was most threatened by, and most set against, the rise of black males, the males were encouraged to forego their own ambitions and to support the ambitions of the females, who constituted less of a threat. One result of this practical arrangement was the creation of a matriarchy, a private social structure in which females seemed to enjoy greater social prestige because of greater education and somewhat higher job status. But in terms of practical realities, despite the sociological differences, there was a functional equality between males and females because most maintained as a paramount goal the survival of the family in the face of entrenched and vicious white racism.
All of my mother's sisters, except for her and Suzie, married laboring men. Suzie's husband, Johnny, had been a career cook in the navy and a heavyweight contender who was set to challenge Joe Louis for a title shot when the outbreak of World War II ended his career. The three other sisters, Mary and Martha and Beulah, had many children, some of whom also became laborers. There was only one factual inconsistency between the story my mother had told her children and the story that Suzie Johnson told hers. Suzie claimed for her family descent from a runaway slave named Robert Smalls.
Born to a slave master named Henry McKee and his slave Lydia Smalls in 1839, Robert Smalls was raised in the port city of Beaufort, South Carolina, during the years preceding the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. He was trained by his master to pilot ships in and around Beaufort and Charleston harbors. When war broke out, Smalls sailed a ship full of slaves and their families, a ship named "The Planter," out of Beaufort Harbor, under the guns of the Confederate blockade, toward freedom. He delivered "The Planter" to the Union forces and was made its captain during the remainder of the war. He had tremendous fame, and often spoke on the same platform with Frederick Douglass. He was elected to the Reconstruction Congress and served five terms. He wrote or sponsored much of the legislation that created a public school system in South Carolina. Toward the end of the Reconstruction period, he was betrayed by white politicians in his home state, accused of accepting bribes, and spent time in jail. He reclaimed his seat in Congress after his name was cleared and led the fight against reclamation of the old Southern order under "Pitchfork" Ben Til and his Red Shirts. Through the exclusion of black voters from the voting rolls, he was denied once again his seat in Congress. This time he challenged his exclusion by calling for a hearing and then a vote in the House of Representatives. Among those voting in his favor in the Committee on Elections were Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette of Wisconsin. On Robert Small's behalf, La Follette said, "Confused, baffled, discouraged, cheated, the colored vote of the South has quietly and speedily disappeared from the returns. The new election methods of the South have done their perfect work. You say in justification that the Negro is ignorant, inferior, incapable of growth. Secretly, do you not fear the opposite? Is it against the dull and submissive that you direct your hardest blows? Or are they aimed at those who, like Robert Smalls, have shown intellect, courage, and determination to lift their people to a higher level and maintain their rights as free men?"
There were 127 votes for Robert Smalls, but there were also 142 against him. He was the last black participant in the Reconstruction Congress to be forced out.
Suzie Johnson claimed Robert Smalls as an ancestor. My mother had denied any connection. Suzie's children, Otis and Suzetta, had grown up with the belief that one of their ancestors was a great man. My mother had attempted to guide her children into "service." There was, though, one mysterious thread of consistency binding the two branches of my mother's family. This was a song. It was a song my mother used to sing to us at night. I recited what I could recall of its words to my cousin Suzetta. She sang most of the rest of the song back to me:
Mother dear, come bathe my forehead, for I'm growing very weak.
Let one drop of water, Mother, fall upon my burning cheek.
Tell my loving playmates, Mother, that I never more will play.
Will you do this for me, Mother? Put my little shoes away.
Santa Claus he brought them for me, with a lot of other things,
And I think he brought an angel, with a pair of golden wings.
I will be an angel, Mother, but perhaps another day.
You will do this, won't you. Mother? Put my little shoes away.
Soon the baby will be larger, then they'll fit his little feet,
And he'll look so nice and cunning, when he walks upon the street.
I am going to leave you, Mother, so remember what I say.
Do it, won't you, dearest Mother? Put my little shoes away.
I found out many months later that this nineteenth-century sentimental song, bathed in morbid self-pity, was once very popular among middle-class people. Even though I could not imagine sharecroppers singing it, the song must have had great emotional significance for my mother's family, since my mother's cousin, Josephine Martin, who married my father's father, was called affectionately "Mother Dear." I am convinced that, whatever the great secret was, it was somehow connected with memories associated with this song.
For a while, after our mother's death, my sister and I tried our best to research the history of our mother's family and the history of Robert Smalls. I wrote to Ms. Dorothy Sterling, an elderly white female historian who had written a biography of Smalls in the 1950s. I talked with my mother's father's relative, a great-aunt named Mary Terrell, who had been collecting materials on Robert Smalls for most of her adult life. She showed me letters that she had written to Dorothy Sterling during the 1950s, letters to which Ms. Sterling never responded. I tracked down, in a South American country, Mr. Okon Edet Uya who, as a young historian from Ghana, had made a study of Robert Smalls and had published it under the title From Slavery to Public Service when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin during the 1970s. Both Ms. Sterling and Mr. Uya, who was then his country's ambassador, wrote back to me and promised to provide me with access to their notes and records.
But then my interest in Robert Smalls suddenly cooled. It became of greater interest to me why our mother had taken such pains to disassociate herself, and therefore her children, from a connection with any level of society other than that of a sharecropper. It had always been a mystery to me how her father, my grandfather, could have acquired so much property in Green Cove Springs, Florida. According to my mother, he had been a laborer for most of his life. And yet when I met him, toward the end of his life, he owned a number of homes, a general store, several farms, and even a service station. Also, many of his relatives, mulattoes in Savannah and in parts of South Carolina, owned considerable amounts of property. Sharecroppers are rarely this affluent.
Toward the end of her life my mother had made several mistakes in her personal narrative. She had reached the age when the earliest parts of her life were much clearer in her memory than the immediate past. During one of Mary's stays with her, the clarity and the fullness of our mother's memory disrupted the lifelong lock she had placed on her past. She talked about her father, about how they were always moving from town to town, from plantation to plantation. She talked about how much she would cry, as a little girl, each time they moved and she was forced to leave behind the new friends she had made. She talked about the nine of them, her parents and her five brothers and sisters, having dinner at a railroad depot, in a small town in Georgia, while the train was pulling out. They had to leave their dinner and run to catch it. She said her father was very mad and said, "If I didn't have all these children, I wouldn't have to run to catch trains." Mary said, "Mama, how could a sharecropper afford to take nine people on a train?" The relentless clarity of my mother's memory, at that moment, exposed the additional fact that her father had been a manager of J.C. Penney stores on plantations in Florida.
Mary and I have concluded that something very terrible had happened to our mother, some thing that froze her spirit in fear at a certain very impressionable time. It was something that she could never get beyond. I do not see how this terrible thing could have happened within her family, since I remember all of them as being very close. I speculate that the thing that wounded her so deeply must have come from the outside world. I speculate that it derived, in large part, from the racism she experienced when she was growing up. She told us stories about her father being threatened by a white man for having a foreman's job. She talked about watching her father sitting in a chair on their front porch all night, with a shotgun resting on his lap, waiting for the white man to come back and act on his threat. She told my brother and me about how, during World War II, the Japanese would hide in trees at night and wait until "the Americans" came under the trees before jumping on them and killing them. My sisters have no memories of these stories, so I assume they were told to my brother and me for a specific purpose. I believe now that she was really talking about incidents she had witnessed in her own life, about what in her day white Southerners did to black men. Perhaps she had heard some of these stories, but it is possible that she witnessed some atrocity herself. It seems likely that some brave or intelligent black man, perhaps someone very close to her, had gotten "out of place" and was destroyed, in some cruel way, as an example to the others. This would have left a deep impression on her child's memory, and it would have severely tempered her view of intelligence as the source of ambition for black people. Her very practical solution to this problem was to teach my brother Richard and me to take care of our sisters, and to do her best to limit our ambitions, to turn us, gently, back toward slavery. In her own deeply pragmatic way, she must have loved my brother and me very much.
But my mother must have been deeply frightened for, if not of, my father and his family. They were kept on the outskirts of our lives. My father just did not "fit" into the strictly segregated world of Savannah, Georgia, in the 1940s and 1950s. His spirit was much too large. He tended to operate as if there were no caste system, as though the expression of his full range of human traits were possible. He had a number of
white friends. He was a closet intellectual. To him, the structure of white supremacy, with its deadly implications for intelligent and "uppity" black men, must have seemed a joke. For a while, he ran circles around it. Then the structure began to close in around him.
If my mother's major flaw was a fear of any worldly use of her intelligence, my father's major flaw was a belief that his own promiscuous kindness toward people would be reciprocated. I think now that his life was a futile but heroic search, within the context of a system that had already decreed that he should not exist, for enough personal space to sustain the way of life he had chosen for himself. He ended up in prison, again and again. His spirit was slowly murdered. My mother must have watched this murder from within the zone of safety provided by her past experience of, and subsequent numbness to, such tragic things. She must have thought hundreds of times before my father finally died, "I told you so!" I think she might have made an object lesson out of his slow destruction, and this new confirmation of the futility of ambition must have added fuel to her desire to guide her sons into what she called "service." I know that, from the time I was eight years old, I worked as a yard boy, as a house servant, as a paperboy, as a babysitter, as a janitor, as a grocery clerk. I was never encouraged to excel in school, and when I did I was never congratulated.
The major damage caused by a broken-home environment is to the self-esteem of the children, who are deprived of the positive images, or role models, that provide emotion-laden clues to who they are. My sisters and brother and I were moved closer to the center of our mother's family and its carefully elaborated mythology of sharecroppers and laborers and domestic servants. My father's family became abstractions, people whose lives were on the margins of our world. The closest ones were my grandfather and his second wife, Josephine Martin McPherson, perhaps because she was also my mother's cousin. Both Thomas and Eva McPherson were born during this second marriage, and they became like older brother and sister to us. By the time they were born, my father, James McPherson, was old enough to be their father. They called him "Bubba." And there were other people. My grandfather's brother, Uncle Joe McPherson, ran a small restaurant in Savannah with Ora Lee, his wife. He drank a lot, and he always said when he was drunk, "When I die, take me back to Hickory Hill!" We thought that Hickory Hill was his favorite bar in the world. Another of my grandfather's brothers, Uncle Robert McPherson, also lived in Savannah. These people formed a protective, though distant, circle around us. If our family needed food or money or support of any kind, it was always forthcoming from them. But there was very little that we could learn about their lives, about where they had come from. They had no special status in our world. They were simply "there." They moved into and out of our lives, as our basic needs dictated, but we were not allowed to enter too far into theirs. In many respects, we knew the habits of the welfare caseworkers much better than we knew the facts of our father's family. The walls that were constructed between our home and their homes were there, I believe, because of some private necessity of great importance to our mother. We never learned to question any of the restrictions these walls placed on our curiosity.
My experiences over the past twelve years have taught me to better appreciate the nuanced nature of what I used to call lies. I have come to understand that some lies are noble, or at least serve some higher purpose, while others become increasingly mundane as they approach the category that I was trained to call sin. As always, the most basic, and perhaps the most base, is the lie that seeks some immediate advantage over another person. This type of lie is an assertion of a fact which conceals self-serving and cleverly contrived loopholes. A child sometimes practices this manipulation in order to get its way. A higher class of lies is based on the falsification of one's outside appearance, a dissembling, which has as its goal one's basic survival in a hostile environment. Certain forms of animal life practice this counterfeit: blending into the nooks and crannies of their environments in order to pass unnoticed, in order to survive. This kind of lie can be excusable in certain extreme situations, but if practiced in a habitual way it can also become destructive of the self. Once the split between words and feelings becomes habitual, once the discrepancy between outside and inside, the view and the clue, becomes of no vital importance, there begins to take place an erosion deep within one's spirit, an erosion so thorough that eventually one no longer knows the difference between right and wrong, truth and fiction.
It is at this point that a self-protective lie begins to have very complex implications. Do the same moral sanctions apply if the lie, although it goes against a fundamental sense of self, is for some higher purpose that is worthy of such self-sacrifice? What if the sacrifice of the spirit is not for some personal gain but for the protection of others in a life-threatening situation? And what if the lie is of such fundamental importance in the general scheme of things—say, the protection of one's own children—that it introduces very intricate weights and balances into the ancient, all-sifting scales said to be held in the hands of God? There might be in this a positive, an example of an enforced nobility of practical purpose, that may cause even God to ponder. But there is also a negative. What if the fear, which begets the lie, has itself become an object of worship? What if the sources of the fear have been allowed to assume Godlike importance and omnipotence? Would this not be an expression of idolatry? And if it is, would it not constitute a sin of the first rank?
I want to believe that my mother's fear was justified. But I also believe that her seeking safety from her fear by moving backwards, toward slavery, for herself and for her children, did some violence to God's intention that we move forward in life in full possession of, and in celebration of, all our gifts. The display of them should be to the glory of God. The handling of outside acts of violence against this display, the defenses arrayed against those who would destroy them, should be God's work and not our own. The self-prohibition placed on this display, in anticipation of the negative reactions of others, is in reality the usurpation to ourselves of the place and the power of God. This is the real sin.
It was the great obstacle placed at the center of my mother's life. It was what she, or the fates, set for me to transcend.
During the late 1980s, Mary, my older sister, shifted her attention from research into the history of Robert Smalls to making a connection with my father's family. She knew that my father's roots were in Green Pond, South Carolina, and she knew that the remnants of my father's mother's family could put her in contact with these people. I don't know how Mary was able to make herself known to the core of my father's family in Green Pond, but in about 1989 she was invited to attend a family reunion. This was a reunion of the McPherson-Campbell families, and there were, she said, many, many hundreds of them. She told me afterwards, "Do you remember Uncle Joe, when he was drunk, saying ‘When I die, take me back to Hickory Hill’? Do you know what Hickory Hill is? It's the McPherson graveyard." The members of the clans, she said, were doctors, lawyers, nurses, officers in the military, teachers, accountants. They came from Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Washington, DC, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to the family compound in Green Pond, South Carolina. Mary sent me a listing of the family tree made by Flora Campbell. In the late nineteenth-century line, there were nine brothers. My grandfather seemed to have been the eldest. Seven of the eight other lines seemed to have developed wonderfully. But under Thomas McPherson's name there were only the names of Alice Scarborough, his first wife, and their son, James Allen McPherson. All the history and pain that resulted from that union were not part of the family consciousness. The seven intact lines had many levels. There is, in one of them, the name of a young man named McPherson who was once in the news as a rising black American quarterback. I found listed in one of the other lines the name of a jazz musician named Charles McPherson.
The core of the family, those who had remained behind in Green Pond, was Geechee, or Gullah. They are of the private, reclusive Sea Island people who keep apart from outsiders. This tight group used to inhabit all the Sea Islands stretching along the Atlantic seaboard from Georgia to South Carolina and North Carolina. Mary told me that one of the elderly women, Cousin Susie Middleton, took her and her family to their family church on Sunday morning. She announced to the old people there, "The Lord's been good to us. Now, ya'll remember Tom and his boy James that went over into Savannah? Well, these are Tom's grandchildren and his great-grandchildren and his great-great-grandchildren." Mary told me that the people gathered around her and her daughter and her daughter's children, sharing with them their memories of our grandfather and our father. One old man, Paul McPherson, told her, "James was a good boy. But dere's one t'ing dat still bother me. When Tom died, I went over into Savannah for Tom funeral. I see dem bring James to de funeral in handcuffs. Why dey bring de boy to his daddy funeral in handcuffs?" Another old man, Tom Edwards, who was drunk, laughed and said, "McPhersons like to drink, gamble, and run dey mouths!"
Mary now occupies herself with tracking down, and visiting, my father's relatives in the Northeast. She calls, from time to time, with news of her discoveries: of visiting a cousin who has an elegant home in the Connecticut suburbs; of a cousin named Thelma, who is an accountant and who has "McPherson eyes," from a branch of the family in Harlem; of a distant relative who has dropped out of sight but who might possibly be tracked down by using the genealogical library maintained by the Mormons. Mary has grown fat, and self-confident, with McPherson lore. She is now busily updating the family tree. I think I know the reason for this obsession. My father's family, unfearful of using their native intelligence, has survived and has prospered, while our small branch of the family has had to struggle against the mythology of an origin among sharecroppers. Mary sometimes expresses the wish that she could have introduced our mother to some of these people, as proof that our mother's point of view was not the only one worth considering. She would have done this to help change our mother's mind.
But I suspect that, even in the face of all this proof, our mother's mind would not have been changed. She would have retreated into her old nostalgia for an unthreatened, and unthreatening, way of life, a life grounded firmly in "service." She would have insisted still that the truly meaningful goals could only be reached when one was assured of entering heaven. This is why I hope now that—for the sake of all the happiness that was denied to her (or that she denied herself) here on earth—peace is within her possession now. I hope that she has been relieved of all her closely guarded burdens. I hope that she is now under the care of angels, busy with self-confident ambitions.
As for myself, I have survived. I know there are still, and will remain, obstacles and traps for black males who demonstrate intelligence and ambition. But I also know that places like Charlottesville, Virginia, are no
longer representative of the evolving South. And I know that the world is a very large place. Because I know these things, I now believe that, in the authentic sense, in terms of the real meaning of my own life, it was necessary for me to enter Charlottesville so I could reclaim a deeper understanding of the lives of my mother and father. I also believe that I would not have been given the traits that were limitations in my parents if it had not been the fate assigned to me to transcend them. I have found that public displays of intelligence, even in black males, do not constitute a "sin," as my mother might have thought. I have also found that the forces that conspire to destroy such intelligence are not always successful. The fact that they do exist should not be used to justify what can ultimately become a self-defeating stasis in the self. People do survive. They do proceed in the face of, and in spite of, the worst that can be done to them. I wanted very badly for my mother to know these things, as I had slowly come to understand them, before she died.
As for my father, I have come to believe that his trust in people, regardless of race, was not so dangerous a thing. His church was in his heart, but he needed a better context for his kindness. When I consider how large and how populated the world is, I am not so sure now that I even want to try to transcend this trait in myself. My experience of other cultures, especially of Japan, has taught me that kindness is often a universally respected trait. One need only find the right culture, or the right people, as a context for its general expression. Knowing this now, I want to try to be much more kind.
There is one final mystery about my mother, one that seems to contradict everything I claim to remember about her. Several years after her death, my youngest sister, Josephine, felt strong enough to sort through our mother's possessions. She had never had anything of material value, so the chore became only a final opportunity for a communion, or conversation, with the enigma that was our mother. In the process of going through our mother's closets, Josephine found a very special treasure, part of which she eventually sent to me as a legacy. Because she was by habit a secretive person, one with a very long memory, our mother had kept everything. The packet of papers that I received from Josephine contained a record of my entire life. There was my graduation certificate from the Ada Bolden Kindergarten, dated May, 1949. There was one of my father's contracts for work about to be undertaken in January, 1950. There was my Certificate of Baptism in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, dated June 19, 1955. I found a Certificate of Membership in the National Junior Honor Society, dated February, 1958. There was also, in 1958, a letter my father had written to her on June 24, soon after her father's death. It had been stamped by a censor in Reidsville Prison: "Sorry I could not have been with you…. I am going to fight to clear my name. It is going to hurt somebody. But it will help you and children soon." She kept a certification that I had passed inspection as a handler of food for beginning work in a supermarket in August, 1960. There was a notice that I had received a scholarship from Morris Brown College in June, 1961, totaling $800 for a period of four years, to be paid at a rate of $100 per semester. There were poems I had written to her, and there were many letters. I found my high school diploma, and I found records of most of the grades I earned in college. There was my membership card from entering the Hotel Workers' Union, when I worked as a dining-car waiter during the summers of 1962 through 1965. I have my diploma from the Harvard Law School, and also the diploma from the University of Iowa. There were newspaper clippings about me: spending one year at Morgan State College, in Baltimore, Maryland, as a visiting scholar; having been accepted into the Harvard Law School from Morris Brown College. I found the stub of a check for $300, representing First Prize in the Reader's Digest—United Negro College Fund jointly sponsored creative writing contest in 1965. She kept a postcard that I sent her from Seattle, when I was working as a waiter on the Great Northern Railway and was able to visit the Seattle World's Fair. There was a letter to my mother from a judge in Savannah, a woman named Phyllis Kravitch, congratulating my mother when I won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. There were pictures of my mother holding my daughter, Rachel, in our apartment in New Haven in the summer of 1979. My mother is smiling, but in a guarded way.
It seems that I had gone out and accomplished things and sent the records of these things back home to my mother. She had been most especially secretive about her pride in me. She had never let on a word. Perhaps the kindest interpretation to be made of this stoic silence, as well as of the silence that guarded her deepest thoughts for most of her life, was the hold of a certain tradition that used to exist within the black community. Older people learned to expect the worst while secretly hoping for the best. If the worst happens over and over, the spirit suffers total defeat, or else the hope is driven down into the deepest levels of the self, where it survives as a closely held secret. Those who maintain this deeply secret hope, those who have not yet completely given up, learn to guard their last vestiges of optimism through the practice of a public pessimism. They become used to saying "I told you so!" or "It won't do any good" or "You've got to crawl before you can walk!" But, secretly, they want very badly to believe otherwise.
I think that the record of my life kept by my mother was evidence of just how secret her hope was, and it was also a record of how I had fed her hope, kept it alive. I did not know until I saw all those old documents just how long I had functioned as my mother's lifeline. I will never know just how many of her private defeats, her disillusionments, these scraps of paper countered. I know that she kept them all. I would like to believe that, by the time she died, I had already done enough to compensate for much of what had been taken from her, and from her family, during the long, hard years that followed the betrayal of the hope held out by the promise of Reconstruction.
And there is still a deeper irony. The records kept by my mother showed me that she had been right all along: you do have to crawl before you can walk. Up until the time I settled into the role of a teacher, I had worked all manner of service jobs, from houseboy to cook to janitor to waiter. Beginning in 1981, when I left Charlottesville for Iowa, I have had to synthesize all these service jobs into one broad pattern, or net, which would enable me to nurture and to see to all the needs of Rachel, my daughter. I have cooked, cleaned, found, and cultivated playmates for her. Each month, since June of 1981, 1 have relied on my old training
as a railroad man to coordinate the two flights and one long car trip to move the thousand miles between Iowa City and Charlottesville. Each summer I take care of a houseful of very young girls, and I call upon my old skills as a houseboy and babysitter. For this past Father's Day, my daughter gave me a card, illustrated with her own symbolic language, thanking me for my display of some of these old skills. Among the symbols I can see celebrated are my old skills as a cook, as a waiter, and as a person who was trained to take care of children. My mother forced me to learn to crawl so I would be able, under absolutely any hard circumstance, to walk. Because I was made to do this, for the past twelve years, each and every month, I have been able to fly. Because I can fly, I have become Rachel's lifeline, much as I was once my mother's. This feels good, comfortable, and somehow right.
These days, I am a teacher, and I seem to have won the respect of most of my colleagues and students. Last year the University of Iowa gave me an award for Excellence in Teaching. I also try my best to be a good father, even though Rachel is not with me most of the time. Despite the great geographic distance between us, I try my best to teach her to be kind and generous, but to her friends. I take pleasure in providing her with access to people who have the capacity to return her kindness. I want very badly for her to be, or to remain, a whole human being, to consider all her considerable gifts a treasure entrusted to her by God. I know full well by now that I am only a medium for the transition of my parents' gifts to a much safer, and much more secure and self-assured, possessor. This is what I am doing with the rest of my life.
More than this, I have learned from my Asian friends an ethic I did not understand before. What is of paramount importance in terms of what survives, in their world view, is not the personal will, which is the basic ethic of the West, but the family. In this view of what is of true authenticity, we are only momentary possessors of the talents and the traits lent to our ancestors by God. We must not allow others to defile them. Nor must we defile them with our own fears. Nor should we squander them. Because of who I am, because of the circumstances that produced me, I am guilty of all three sins.
But I am now very conscious of these flaws in myself.
I have no desire now, and no real need, to return to, or even to visit, any part of the South. There is just too much pain invested in that landscape for me to endure. But I am also wise enough not to say "never." So I am determined to be, one of these days, in my father's family home in Green Pond, South Carolina. I am still his namesake, and I want the people there to know that I managed to stand where my father fell. When I die, following my uncle Joe McPherson, I want them to take me back to Hickory Hill. I want to be with my long line of ancestors there even though I do not drink that much, am now a very careful gambler, and do not like to run my mouth. As for my mother, Mable Smalls McPherson, whoever and whatever she was, I want her now to live the song that encased what was so painful in her memory. After having taught her children to walk, I want her now to be with the angels, put her shoes away, and learn to fly.
McPherson contributed the following update to CA in 2007:
Looking back on the emotional and intellectual details of my life from over twenty years ago has caused me to wonder about my decision to leave the South and continue my life and my work in Iowa City, Iowa. I left behind me family and old friends, but I have maintained bonds with many of them, especially my family. I realize now that my decision to leave the South was made at an appropriate time. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the political and cultural perspective of the South changed from an impulse toward cultural and personal integration to what is now termed, in popular speech, a "red state" aspect. Southern life has become politicized as various groups in the larger society embrace "identity politics." It is not the case that I am a black American male of Southern origins that I settled in Iowa City. It is that the human potential for personal growth can much more easily be stifled by the restricted categories: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, female identity. In my view these self-policing categories can erode personal growth just as effectively as the old structure of white supremacy.
One of my past mentors, Ralph Ellison, once suggested to me, in the late 1960s, that the communal focus on "black nationalism" tended to obscure the cultural and historical complexities of black American experience. Ellison made the case, during that highly polarized time, that black Americans are firmly rooted in the historic and cultural foundations of this country. He advised that rather than being confined to the limitations of a single category, it would be much more positive endeavor to explore an "omni American" perspective, one which provided human insights into people of another racial or ethnic or sexual categories. Because I was somewhat naive in those days, I tried my best to cultivate this perspective while living and working in Charlottesville. I failed in this when certain individuals with vested interests in the structure of white supremacy felt threatened and attacked me. But I also experienced hostility from people within my own group. I remember one of my old friends laughing cynically as he told me, "That's what you get for following Ralph Ellison's abstractions."
My psychological relocation to Iowa City began as a retreat from the regionally based structures imposed on the personal life. But the relocation, at that time, was only a physical one. While teaching in the Iowa Writers' Workshop I soon realized that what seemed to others an abstraction had a place within me with respect to my personal relationships. As a teacher of literature and creative writing, it became necessary for me to explore, and to come to terms with, the cultural and psychological backgrounds of the individuals whom I professed to teach. Over the years I have worked with individuals from all America's regional, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, as well as individuals from India, China, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. I learned from these young people much, much more than they learned from me. In addition, I have worked as a volunteer teacher in an Assisted Living Home here in Iowa City. And have worked with elderly people with roots in the small towns of Iowa. I have learned from them the indigenous mores of rural life in small-town America. Once again, they have taught me much, much more than I have taught them.
I have been honored by the University of Iowa in a number of ways. Years ago I was awarded a citation for excellence in teaching. Rewarding for me was that the dean read many tributes to me from the student evaluations of some of the young writers whom I had taught. But what was most rewarding—and the most meaningful award for me—was the growth and the development of Rachel, my daughter. When I left
Charlottesville she was not quite three years old and I told her then "I will always come for you." I used most of my MacArthur fellowship to travel each month from Iowa to Charlottesville to see her. I kept an apartment there so we could have a "Home." We made new friends in Iowa City, and we traveled to a great many places, but most often to Disneyland. Each summer here in Iowa City, during her visits and during the summers, Rachel formed bonds with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In my view, she has become an "onmiAmerican," the kind of person that Ralph Ellison had in mind those many years ago. Now, at twenty eight, she lives in Iowa City and teaches English to Spanish students at a community college. Rachel is very, very happy here.
When I think back on what my life has meant since I left the South those many years ago, I do not think about the books I have never written, nor of the emotional and economic prices I was forced to pay. I think, rather, of the many thousands of times I have received affectionate gestures from Rachel, and from my students. These remain in my memory as golden moments, as an emotional treasure.
As for my family in the South, I had lost contact with many of them. My sister, Mary, and my brother, Richard, would visit me here from time to time, but especially when I was seriously ill. However circumstances compelled me to maintain some emotional bonds with the region. When my youngest sister, Josephine, died, I attended her funeral in Savannah. I also attended my mother's funeral, also in Savannah.
The most emotionally powerful visit was this past fall. My brother's daughter, Karla, was married in Atlanta. The entire family was invited to attend the wedding ceremony. I put aside my wariness and flew, with Rachel, to Atlanta. To my delight, there were close to 250 people there, relatives and friends from Georgia, South and North Carolina, Florida, indeed from all parts of the country. Some of them came in wheelchairs, on crutches, with other disabilities. But they came to Karla's wedding, to the family reunion. I had a wonderful time renewing old bonds and meeting new additions to the family. The gathering was one of the most meaningful and affirmative experiences of my life. During this loving gathering, I let go of some of my reservations about re-entering the South.
Now I sit in Iowa City, placing that experience into the context of the painful experiences which encouraged me to give up my linkages to the South. I do not regret my move to Iowa because the experiences I have had here have made my life much, much more meaningful. I have learned, besides, that I should never say "never" again. Now I am aware of the emotional price I paid. But still I believe, I have maintained my human dignity. And more than this, I believe that I have experienced, and affirmed, the human dignity of a great number of other human beings. During all these years in Iowa, I have come to feel "at home" inside myself.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Wallace, Jon, The Politics of Style: Language as Theme in the Fiction of Berger, McGuane, and McPherson, Hollowbrook, 1992.
Atlantic Monthly, December, 1970, article by McPherson; February, 1977, review of Elbow Room: Stories.
Black Issues Book Review, September, 2000, Cliff Thompson, review of A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile, p. 60.
Black Studies, February 1, 1998, review of Crabcakes: A Memoir.
Booklist, June 1, 1998, Mary Carroll, review of Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men, p. 1682; February 15, 2000, Mary Carroll, review of A Region Not Home, p. 1073.
Chicago Tribune Book World, May 25, 1969, review of Hue and Cry: Short Stories.
Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 1969, review of Hue and Cry.
Commonweal, September 19, 1969, review of Hue and Cry; September 15, 1978, Robert Phillips, review of Elbow Room.
Harper's, December, 1969, Irving Howe, review of Hue and Cry.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1997, review of Crabcakes.
Library Journal, December 1, 1982, review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, p. 2269; January, 1998, Richard K. Burns, review of Crabcakes, p. 100; June 15, 1998, Nancy R. Ives, review of Fathering Daughters, p. 96; January, 2000, Marcy Paumier, review of A Region Not Home, p. 106.
Newsweek, June 16, 1969, review of Hue and Cry; October 17, 1977, review of Elbow Room.
New Yorker, November 21, 1977, review of Elbow Room.
New York Review of Books, November 10, 1977, review of Elbow Room; March 31, 1983, review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, p. 11.
New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1969, review of Hue and Cry; September 25, 1977, review of Elbow Room; June 12, 1983, review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, p. 37; February 15, 1998, Roy Hoffman, review of Crabcakes, p. 15; February 11, 2001, Scott Veale, review of A Region Not Home, p. 32.
Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1997, review of Crabcakes, p. 44; December 15, 1997, Calvin Reid, interview with McPherson, p. 36; May 4, 1998, review of Fathering Daughters, p. 196; January 24, 2000, review of A Region Not Home, p. 302.
Saturday Review, May 24, 1969, review of Hue and Cry.
Spectator, November 22, 1969, review of Hue and Cry.
Times Literary Supplement, December 25, 1969, review of Hue and Cry.
Washington Post Book World, October 30, 1977, review of Elbow Room; March 6, 1983, Robert Wilson, review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, p. 3.
Inertia Online,http://www.inertiamagazine.com/ (August 23, 2004), interview with MacPherson.
University of Iowa Writers' Workshop Web site,http://www.uiowa.edu/~iww/ (May 25, 2008), "James Alan McPherson."