Update on James Alan McPherson Park Memorial Plaque

Sena suggested we send a message to Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague inquiring about the proposed memorial plaque to James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning author and longtime Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty member.

I can remember only one other time in my life that I wrote a letter to an elected official. I wrote President Barack Obama in 2013, basically complaining about the Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program for physicians. I’m not sure what I expected him to do about it. Like many doctors, I was frustrated about the regulatory requirements from certification boards. I thought they were unnecessary and burdensome.

I received a reply which was completely off topic and probably not written by the President. The letter from “President Obama” didn’t answer or even come close to addressing the concerns about what I thought was regulatory harassment. In fact, I never kept the reply and forgot about it.

But the email to Mayor Bruce Teague was different. We just asked about the timeline on the memorial plaque for the James Alan McPherson Park, which was renamed last year. The celebration and ribbon cutting reveal of the new sign was in early August 2021. The memorial plaque was still in the planning stage. We’ve driven by the park several times in the last year looking for it.

Mayor Teague’s reply came the day after we sent our message. It was definitely pertinent and to the point. McPherson’s daughter Rachel is still looking over the wording on the mock-up of the plaque, considering what to include. After her approval, it would take about 10-12 weeks to complete.

Now that’s a quick and specific answer from a political leader. Mayor Teague also sings.

Skimming the Parks

We took a walk on the Hickory Hill Park short Loop and the James Alan McPherson Park. We’ve lived in Iowa City for 34 years and walked only one other Hickory Hill Park trail. That was several years ago.

Just before you start the short Loop, you can read a poem, The Morning by W.S. Merwin.

We also saw a Widow Skimmer Dragonfly for the first time ever. It was spectacular.

We spotted proof positive for Bigfoot—a tree structure. OK, so not proof but interesting all the same.

And we fully noticed the two huge American Sycamore trees flanking the beginning of the walking trail on James Alan McPherson Park.

We also ran into others walking the Loop, often walking their pet animals, including a man with a Bengal cat. We’ve never heard of them. Despite its name, it was spotted more like a leopard than a tiger. It looked like a jungle cat.

It’s a great start to the July 4th holiday. Have a good one.

James Alan McPherson Park Sign Reveal

Yesterday evening the new sign reveal of James Alan McPherson Park made the new name of the park official. The weather was balmy and a big crowd showed up for the event, including Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague. He joined McPherson’s daughter, Rachel McPherson; Director of Parks and Recreation Juli Seydell Johnson, and Iowa City Council member, Pauline Taylor for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

This was immediately followed by a sing-along of a few bars of “You are My Sunshine,” led by Mayor Teague—who was in fine voice.

And even more music was provided by Cedar County Cobras. They were in a blues mood that evening—very popular with the crowd.

Prior to the ribbon-cutting, there were remarks from Mayor Teague, Rachel McPherson, and Juli Seydell Johnson. They shed personal stories highlighting McPherson’s gifts as a writer, intellectual, and humanist. They seemed to echo poet James Galvin’s perception of McPherson as not just the moral center of the Iowa Writers Workshop, but as the moral center of the universe.

You couldn’t miss the speakers’ impression of McPherson’s sense of humor, which tended to be ironic. Rachel shared an incredible anecdote about his tendency to write to far right-wing organizations (including the KKK) for more information about them, evidently giving them the impression that he was interested in becoming a member—to which they replied with enthusiastic offers to do so! This was not a one-time gag, but a running insider joke for years. Rachel is still getting mail from these groups. She also brought enough memorabilia to fill a table, and it included several “business cards” which deftly deflated the pomposity, posturing, racism, and outright villainy in society. I had to run to the web to get some of the jokes:

Guslar: traditional Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian name for an epic singer who performs long narrative tales (some detailing ancient battles and other historical events) while accompanying himself on a one-or-two stringed instrument called a gusle.

Ebonics: According to the Linguistics Society of America, this means literally “black speech” and refers to English spoken by African-Americans.

Enron was a company which perpetrated one of the largest accounting scandals and bankruptcy in recent history.  

We welcomed a member of the Iowa City Police, who set up a table offering many useful free items including a generous helping of good will.

Another part of the presentation was a discussion between consultants and interested community members about future enhancements to the park, which include a plan for a memorial plaque in honor of McPherson.

Many quotes from McPherson were written in colorful chalk on the walkways around the park, including one that is also inscribed on his monument in Oakland Cemetery:

“I think that love must be the ability to suspend one’s intelligence for the sake of something. At the basis love must therefore live in the imagination.”

James Alan McPherson Park New Sign

We headed over to James Alan McPherson Park today because we saw a news item about the new sign being up and an upcoming ribbon-cutting ceremony this coming Thursday, August 5, 2021. The party starts at 6:30 PM and goes ‘til 8 PM. There will be live music from the group Cedar County Cobras.

The gardeners have been busy since we first visited in April. White Cloud Catmint, Allium, Black-Eyed Susan, Karl Foerster ornamental grasses and more were thriving. Many of these are reputed to improve your health in various ways. Obviously knowledgeable, those cultivating this communal garden also posted a sign, “Garden Guru” and are eager to teach.

Sena cooked a delicious soup, using Gumbo File, in honor of McPherson. While you couldn’t call it gumbo, it was hearty and file is tasty. By the way, despite what you may read on the web, file is not illegal and does not cause cancer. File is produced from sassafras leaves which don’t contain safrole, a carcinogen banned by the FDA since 1960.

There is a story told by the head of the University of Iowa literature professor Ed Folsom that McPherson, apparently an excellent cook, helped sooth the tension between the Iowa Writers Workshop and the English Department. When it got to an intense pitch, McPherson said softly, “I think we need to have some gumbo.” He invited members from both organizations to his house for gumbo. And he explained how the roux held all of the wide diversity of tastes together. It may have been his metaphor for how a house divided could blend together better and be more harmonious. Ed asked him if that was the case—and McPherson said he was just talking about gumbo. Anyway, things got easier between the two departments.

Folsom summarized what McPherson did, which was to find a way to bind the soul and the body together.

It’s a little like the Men in Black movies in which eating pie (“We need pie”) was a way to solve particularly difficult crimes involving aliens and humans. You did it by doing something completely at odds, apparently, with the usual kind of problem-solving skills and strategies. You did it by introducing a diversity of approaches by a diversity of persons, baking in a sense of humor, and patiently allowing the non-logical eureka moment to evolve.

Maybe we need something like McPherson’s gumbo moment here and now in our planet’s present madness.

New Namesake for Johnson County

I never knew until today that Johnson County; Iowa had originally been named for a slaveholder. That has changed since the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted to rename the county for distinguished African American scholar, Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson on June 24, 2021. Read the Iowa Now story for the details. The drive to rename the county for Dr. Johnson, an accomplished University of Iowa alumna, began last year with an on-line petition that gathered 1,000 signatures, led by David McCartney, an archivist in UI Libraries’ Special Collections.

According to the Iowa Now story, the drive to rename the county for Dr. Johnson was also in the context of the deaths of several African Americans by police officers earlier this year. It reminds me of another famous African American, James Alan McPherson, a long-time faculty member at the Iowa Writers Workshop, for whom a local neighborhood park was recently renamed. Part of the drive for that came from members of Black Lives Matter.

McPherson was written about in the book Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, edited by former UI faculty, Lena and Michael Hill. Although Dr. Johnson was not mentioned in their book, she certainly could have been because of her towering status as an educator, historian, and activist.

Support for the change also came from Leslie Schwalm, professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, and members of Dr. Johnson’s family.

Walk the James Alan McPherson Park

Yesterday, Sena and I visited the James Alan McPherson Park. The Iowa City Council renamed it in his honor last month; it was formerly called Creekside Park. There were compelling reasons for the name change. He was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his collection of short stories, Elbow Room in 1978, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1968, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995, and was a permanent faculty member for thirty years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, among other notable career achievements. He was 72 when he died in 2016 of complications of pneumonia.

McPherson was a longtime resident of Iowa City and was revered by his students. Colleagues described him as the “moral center of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” and even the “moral center of the world.” Despite his stunning achievements, he was shy and often barely spoke above a whisper in the classroom. He lived in the general neighborhood where the park is located. We never got a chance to meet him.

We are reading his books, though.

The park is located at 1878 Seventh Ave Ct and sits on a little over 2 acres. It was empty except for the occasional walker on the trail. People were friendly. It seems hardly distinguishable from the neighborhood surrounding it and blends into the homes, hugs the meandering creek and adjoining trail, and seems held in a protective embrace by the homes bordering it. A new park sign and a memorial plaque will be installed later this summer.

We saw a rich variety of birds, in fact more than we’ve seen in a while.

We get a sense that everyone is welcome there. There are 6 parking spaces. You can imagine that limited parking makes the place a treasured possession of the immediate neighborhood. But people we encounter there make us feel that it belongs to all of us. Even a sign leaning against a house alongside the trail made that clear. We’ll be back.

James Alan McPherson Park

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.

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