I discovered recently from a news item that a local park (formerly Creekside Park) in Iowa City has been renamed James Alan McPherson Park. I realize it’s incredible, but I didn’t know who he was. How did he escape my notice? We’ve lived in the Iowa City and Coralville area for over 30 years and the African American Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor had been here the whole time. McPherson died of pneumonia complications in 2016.
We moved in different circles. My wife, Sena, and I moved to Iowa City in 1988 so that I could attend the new summer enrichment medical school program for minority and disadvantaged students. The program owed its start to a leading African American University of Iowa professor, Philip Hubbard. I graduated in 1992, finished my psychiatry residency in 1996, and spent nearly my entire career working as a psychiatric consultant in the University of Iowa general hospital until my retirement last summer.
In contrast, McPherson spent his whole career as a fiction writer. He earned his Master of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971. He returned in 1981 to become a faculty member there and lived in Iowa City until his death. He won both the Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. In fact, his fame as a writer was established before he ever got to Iowa. McPherson made a substantial contribution to the workshop’s reputation as one of the top creative writing programs in the world.
Last January when I wrote the post about the Iowa River Landing Sculpture Walk, we visited the Iowa Writers Library at the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. I mentioned Margaret Walker, the first African American woman accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I still think the IRL should have a sculpture honoring her.
But I can’t even recall seeing a book by an African American man in the lowa Writers Library. It’s maintained by the Coralville Public Library, whose website lists several of McPherson’s works, including Elbow Room (which won the Pulitzer in 1978), as being shelved there. I remember thinking that the collection was a bit disorganized and that some books seemed to be missing or shelved in the wrong places. But since I wasn’t even aware of McPherson, I can’t say his books weren’t there.
Even though I have a copy of the book Invisible Hawkeyes: African American at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, edited by Lena M. Hill and Michael D. Hill, I missed any mention of McPherson in the chapter, Obscured Traditions: Blacks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1940-1965. One reason might be the time frame, which preceded McPherson’s matriculation. However, that’s no excuse because the very last page of the chapter mentions him.
The conclusion chapter of Invisible Hawkeyes (An Indivisible Legacy: Iowa and the Conscience of Democracy by Michael D. Hill in Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, in Chapter Four: Obscured Traditions: Blacks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1940-1965, by Michael D. Hill, University of Iowa Press, 2016). does devote a lot of attention to McPherson’s role at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While Hill acknowledges that McPherson described his experience at Iowa as “humanizing,” this was in the context of the struggle against racism endured by most other African American students who preceded him decades before. Interestingly, Hill suggests that it’s ironic for an alumnus of a historically black college or university (HBCU), (which was Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia) to express a fondness for Iowa, a place where racism was keenly felt by his predecessors and which Hill suspects McPherson might not have understood in detail and which he discussed only in the abstract with his mentor, Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man).
Well, I’m in way over my head there—and I think it’s better for Michael Hill himself to comment on how irony seemed a part of McPherson. He’s also in the best position to describe McPherson as a person as well as a writer. In the video, Hill’s initial comments are about McPherson’s reaction to being the recipient of the Pulitzer Price for Elbow Room, his book of short stories.
We just ordered a copy of Elbow Room. I read a few of the stories from it on the web. It’s funny how chapters from some books find their way out there, often through university web sites, it seems. He was a genius at storytelling. Just from a psychiatric clinician’s standpoint, “The Story of a Dead Man” is a perfect description of someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder, something a colleague wrote about: Bad Boys, Bad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopathy) by Donald W. Black, MD, 2013 Oxford University Press. It’s an autographed copy. Incidentally, whenever I google black psychiatrists in Iowa, Dr. Black’s always near the top of the page. His name is Black but black he is not.
Which brings up a sense of humor, something which many people say McPherson had. He used a sense of humor several times during a fascinating 1983 interview with Bob Shacochis for the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies. It seems to me that they got a bit annoyed with each other a few times. One of the more striking comments from McPherson was his quote of an old Negro saying, “You may be my color, but you ain’t my kind.” The context was a question from Shacochis about McPherson’s thoughts about the Third World. I was puzzled by his reply that he thought the Third World was a “fiction.” McPherson said if the Third World has any power, then it might be politically advantageous for African Americans to identify themselves with it. He wasn’t after power, he just wanted to find his kind—and that didn’t have anything to do with color.
McPherson was very evocative in his writing and his speech. That old Negro saying evoked a memory in me of my short time at Huston-Tillotson College (another HBCU, in Austin, Texas) in the mid-1970s. I had grown up in Iowa in what were basically all white schools where I was the only African American kid in the classroom. When I finally went to H-TC, I felt very out of place. Even my Northern accent got me into trouble. One student asked me, “Why do you talk so hard?” There was this one time when I tried to play in a pickup basketball game with a group of other students. I was a very clumsy player. For the briefest of moments while struggling underneath the basket, I got murmurs of encouragement from several of them, even members of the opposite team. I will never forget how good that made me feel, especially when I contrast it with a memory from my hometown when I tried to play with a bunch of white guys. When one of them called out, “Don’t worry about the nigger!” I went and sat down on the bench.
The point is that nobody at H-TC ever said to me “You may be my color, but you ain’t my kind.” I said that to myself. Now, somebody else sent me a similar message to me in Iowa, shortly before I left for H-TC. It was a white woman who thought she meant well; she knew I was going there. She showed me a picture of a young black woman with the clear intention of trying to get me interested in females closer to my own color. The message was more like “You may be in my back yard, but you ain’t my color.”
Speaking of back yards, when I was in elementary school, a couple of white bullies a few grades ahead of me found me at my house and started beating the crap out of me in my own back yard. Somehow, they knew that I wrote little stories and brought them to school to read. I began doing that for my mother at home. I promised them I would put them in my stories if they would quit beating on me. They believed me and stopped. It didn’t occur to me how dumb they were for a long time after.
Those little anecdotes are nothing like the jewels that McPherson fashioned. My stories here are true biography of pain. James Alan McPherson’s stories were true fiction, something magical and evocative enough to foster healing of pain. I hope he found his kind.
James Alan McPherson did more than enough to get his name on a sign and dedication plaque for a small park.