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.

University of Iowa Free Webinar Tonight: The Stories That Define Us”

We just found out that the University of Iowa is presenting a free webinar this evening from 4:30—5:30 PM. It’s a zoom meeting and the title is “Breaking Barriers: Arts, Athletics, and Medicine (1898-1947)”. It’s part of a 4-part series that started February 1, 2022, “Uncovering Hawkeye History: The Stories That Define Us.”

Presenters include:

  • Lan Samantha Chang (93MFA), Iowa Writers’ Workshop director and acclaimed author
  • Quinn Early (87BA), Hawkeye football star and film producer
  • Patricia Winokur (88R, 91F), professor of internal medicine–infectious diseases

We discovered this presentation after a long, spirited conversation about race relations generally this morning over breakfast. Authors mentioned included Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” and James Alan McPherson, long time faculty and director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, author of first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction with his collection “Elbow Room.”

There were several cross threads in our conversation. One of them was my memory of a visiting professor (whose name, however, I can’t remember) who gave a presentation about being Black in America at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University; one of the HBCUs in America) in Austin, Texas. He said something I’ll never forget. I mentioned this in a book review published over 20 years ago in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

A guest lecturer (who, as I recall, had also written a book about being black in America) told us that the white man would never allow a black man to be a man in America. He had only three choices: he could be a clown, an athlete, or a noble savage. These corresponded to the prominent and often stereotyped roles that blacks typically held in entertainment, sports, and black churches. It begged the question of what on earth could we hope to accomplish— JAMES J. AMOS, M.D., Iowa City, Iowa (2000). “Being Black in America Today: A Multiperspective Review of the Problem.” American Journal of Psychiatry 157(5): 845-846.

This is related to another memory, that of the quasi-character Rinehart in Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The name refers to the multiple perspectives from which a black person (or any person, really) can look himself. You can look at the word itself as compound, containing two words, “rind” and “heart.” Understood as metaphors, you can readily see how it could apply to anyone. We can have a surface personality socially, and we can have an inner core, a heart that is hidden and which can truly define who we are. We’re always changing, inside and out, backwards and forwards.

On the subject of hidden stories, I am also reminded of 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. The book describes the mixed reactions of African Americans to the interracial climate in Iowa City and at the University of Iowa during that era. Not all felt welcome, although James Alan McPherson did. Indeed, the Hills often highlight the fluidity of the interactions, which makes me think of Rinehart.

David McCartney, the university archivist, is joining the presentation. He led the drive to rename Johnson County in Iowa for Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, an accomplished University of Iowa alumna, by putting up an on-line petition which gathered 1,000 signatures. We’re looking forward to this evening’s presentation.

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.

Reflection on James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song: For Doc”

I’ve been reading the short story collection Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson with the idea that the entire book was new to me. So, I was stunned when I remembered the story, “A Solo Song: For Doc.” It has more than one layer of meaning, but on one level it’s about a Black railroad train waiter named Doc Craft who is forced into retirement. The narrator tries to teach a young waiter he calls youngblood learning the ropes about how the old school waiters made their work not just a job but a way of life.  I was surprised to learn there was a television adaptation of the story made in 1982.

I must have read it in an anthology when I was a youngblood myself. It’s about racism but it’s also about aging, retirement, and change itself. It makes sense that I would feel differently about the story now that I’m older and retired.

I’m about a year into my retirement now and it has not been easy to adjust. Boredom and the search for a new meaning and purpose in my life still challenge me. While racism did not play a part in my decision to leave my profession, there is no doubt that things changed over my three-year phased retirement starting in 2017, dramatically so since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

I thought I was still maintaining my skills as a psychiatric consultant in the general hospital. I was physically fit, in many cases better able to run up and down the stairs for 8 flights than the youngbloods. When they asked me why I became a consulting psychiatrist, I often told them that I “did it for the juice.” I guess that’s why Doc Craft did it.

Maybe I retired because I didn’t want to be pushed out. Doc Craft didn’t retire because he just wasn’t made for it. Sometimes this doc wonders….

Imagination Lives in Oakland Cemetery

We don’t usually make trips to Oakland Cemetery (or any cemetery for that matter), but today we made an exception to find the grave of James Alan McPherson, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and longtime Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty who died in 2016 and for whom an Iowa City park was renamed a month ago.

We never met McPherson, although we are reading a couple of his books (Elbow Room, the Pulitzer Park winning work, and Hue and Cry) and just visited the James Alan McPherson Park on Monday this week.

This trip brought back happy memories right away. It’s not the first time we’ve been to Oakland Cemetery. In 2015 and 2016 we took the same route, parking at Happy Hollow Park on Brown Street and walking east to find the Black Angel. The main reason for going to Happy Hollow Park back then was not so much to see the Black Angel, but for two Psychiatry Department Faculty vs Resident Matball games at Happy Hollow Park. Matball is an imaginative combination of kickball and baseball using large mats for bases and a kickball for pitching, which the hitter actually kicks and runs the bases.

I was on faculty but didn’t play, which I thought would help them win. It was very hot both years. Faculty lost both years. There was another match in 2017 which I didn’t attend, and which I think faculty also lost.

But it was great fun. I don’t remember who put the 2015 trophy won by the residents in a bowl of red (possibly strawberry, I didn’t eat any) Jell-O. That took imagination. It was a stroke of genius, but was not repeated after the following two losses. There have been no Matball games since then.

Anyway, we visited the Black Angel. I think I left some loose change at the foot of the sculpture, which is traditional I think, for good luck. The Black Angel has a very complicated story, which is in many cases, fueled by superhuman imagination. The stories get more complicated every year and the legends have been developing since the 9-foot statue with 4-foot pedestal was created in 1912.

Actually, the Black Angel is often used as a point of reference for the rest of the cemetery. That’s how we used it today to find McPherson’s grave, which is said to be in a place called the poets’ corner where many other artists, including Writers’ Workshop faculty, are buried.

The easiest way to find the Black Angel is probably to approach the cemetery from the west and head east to the intersection of Brown and Governor Streets, where there’s a big sign for Oakland Cemetery. There’s a map next to the cemetery office. We could not find any place marked “poets’ corner.” But the Black Angel is clearly marked.

You’ll notice you can drive through the cemetery, but the paved road is about the width of a car. It’s actually more like a service road, just right for riding mowers, but a little narrow for cars. There is no parking lot we could find, which is why we parked at Happy Hollow Park.

As you reach the Black Angel, you’ll notice one of her wings is raised at a right angle from her body. It points roughly North. You need to go in the opposite direction to find poets’ corner. As you pass the Black Angel, take the second path to the right and simply follow it around, moving south past the University of Iowa Deeded Body Program monument to a section marked with a narrow post labeled “Oak Green.” That’s where you’ll find McPherson’s headstone.

The headstone is easy to pick out; it’s an imaginative work of art. The black rectangular stone is decorated with clever sculptures including his signature car cap, two roses, and even a cigarette in an ashtray. He was a smoker. I don’t know what the characters on the pedestal mean.

On the back of the stone are many carved envelopes indicating McPherson’s mail correspondence with many loving friends and family—and beyond. There is a sense of humor and imagination here too. One of the envelopes is from “Publisher’s Clearinghouse” and the recipient section says “ATTENTION: You may have already won $1,000,000!” I can just picture Ed McMahon! Another is from “Fabian’s Seafood Truck” to “Our Loyal Customer.” I didn’t realize it while we were there, but when we got home, it occurred to me that as we were driving home from James Alan McPherson Park, we saw a big refrigerated truck where seafood was being sold; it was next to the Dairy Queen on Riverside Street. I searched Fabian Seafood on the web and found a picture that exactly matched what we saw.

Around the edge of the headstone was an inscription that to read in its entirety you have to walk all the way around the monument because the words are carved in the front, sides and back:

“I think love must be the ability to suspend one’s intelligence for the sake of something. At the basis of love therefore must live imagination.” This is a quote from McPherson. He also wrote in his essay “Pursuit of the Pneuma” about “an ancient bit of spiritual wisdom” which denies that God rested on the seventh day after creating all existence. Instead, God created imagination and gave this gift to his human creations, enabling us to wield an integrative kind of power—which is what love can do.

Imagination therefore lives in Oakland Cemetery.

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.

Reflecting on Ironies

Over the Easter weekend, we drove by James Alan McPherson Park. A lot of people were having a great time. Because it was crowded, we went to Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, planning to return another day.

We just got our copy of McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning fiction anthology, Elbow Room. We’ve ordered his other collection of short fiction, Hue and Cry and it’s been shipped.

McPherson was impressed with the neighboring culture of Iowa City. He’s described as being kind and neighborly himself.

He was self-effacing, which probably seemed ironic to some people, given he was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Elbow Room. He was on faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for many years, won the inaugural Paul Engle award from the Iowa UNESCO City of Literature, graduated from Harvard Law School, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I’m struck by a few ironies. Our paths never crossed but that’s probably not surprising given our different professional trajectories. I graduated from medical school at Iowa and just retired last year from the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (UIHC) Dept of Psychiatry where I was a Consultation-Liaison Psychiatrist.

However, McPherson in his essay, [Pursuit of the Pneuma, McPherson, J. (2011). Pursuit of the “Pneuma”. Daedalus, 140(1), 183-188]. described being treated by Iowa City psychiatrist, Dr. Dorothy “Jean” Arnold. And, ironically, Dr. Arnold was white (both she McPherson came from the racially polarized South) and originally graduated from the University of Alabama Medical School. She was also the first female psychiatrist to open a private practice in the state of Iowa in 1957. She taught at the University of Iowa Hospital, but I could not find her mentioned in the history of the UIHC Psychiatry Dept, although Dr. Peg Nopoulos, the first woman chair of the department, has her own chapter [Psychiatry at Iowa: The Shaping of a Discipline: A History of Service, Science, and Education, written by James Bass.]

I’m mentioned in Bass’s history, which is sort of ironic. The book is actually about scientists in the field of psychiatry, and I was anything but. I was a clinician. For comparison, if you ever watch the Weather Channel, I’m not a meteorologist. I’m more like the guys on Highway Thru Hell or Heavy Rescue 401, although I’m not practical in that sense. I am African American though, and it was a good idea for Bass to mention me, since I think I’m the only Black psychiatrist to have ever been hired by the department.

McPherson was impressed with the generous and receptive nature of Iowans, which he ascribed to a quality captured by the word “Pneuma,” a Greek word meaning “the vital spirit of life itself.”

There’s another irony in connection with one of my most influential teachers at Huston-Tillotson College, in Austin, Texas, one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in America. McPherson attended the HBCU at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Jenny Lind Porter-Scott, who recently died, was a white Professor of English at H-TC, writer and translator of poetry, teacher to thousands, and popular with students of all races, yet there is no tangible, permanent remembrance of her by Texans. To be sure, she is listed in the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and in 1964, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Texas by Governor John Connally. Her house was demolished in 2016. In 2016, an architect sent me an email message describing a plan to build a mini-library of her published work in the neighborhood, and a house similar in style to the one demolished on the lot. Whenever I check on Google Maps, the lot remains empty and overgrown with weeds. 

James Alan McPherson taught and formed close bonds with many students who came from different countries, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Enjoy the park named for him in the “the vital spirit of life itself.”

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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