“There Is No White Culture in This Country”: An Interview with James Alan McPherson

Cammy Brothers
James Alan McPherson
Photo courtesy of Rachel McPherson.

I was a freshman in college in 1987, when I did the interview that follows as an assignment. The class was “The Literature of Social Reflection,” taught by Robert Coles. We read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and other similar books. Less intent on the analysis of literature than on the nurturing of moral sensibilities, Coles left his final assignment open-ended. It was not meant to be a conventional research paper or literary analysis; some students slept on the streets to experience what it was like to be homeless. I interviewed Jim. It was a long, digressive conversation. I had done some research, reread his essays, and came prepared with a list of questions. But Jim lead the conversation. He’d known me since I was twelve, and both my youth and my naive questions may have allowed him to lower his guard. The tone is different from the banter of his published interview with Bob Shacochis in the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies, from 1983. Here, Jim was educating me, telling me how it was. 

I’d grown up around the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (my mother has worked there since 1974), going to readings and dinners, and I knew plenty of interesting people and good talkers. Jim was like an inverse mirror of the gregarious writers I knew. He was never capable of small talk, and everything he said cut to the heart of the matter. He could be cryptic, wise, subversively funny, or say nothing at all. At Workshop parties, he often sat in a corner, and I would come talk to him. 

A few things strike me about the interview, rereading it decades later. Iowa seems to have been almost the first place where Jim felt he could trust his neighbors and friends. His political and moral perceptions pervaded everything he said, from his vision of his own history to his view of the present world. His constant preoccupations, which run through both his fiction and essays, were the intersections of race, class, history, politics, and what it is to be an American. Our conversation took place during Reagan’s second term, and Jim’s preoccupations were rooted in that political moment; a number of these have new resonances today. Some of his concerns, which at the time seemed eccentric—following the activities of white supremacists, for example, subscribing to their newsletters—now seem prescient. 

Jim’s friends will remember that his answering machine and one of his business cards said, “Mr. Jefferson is not at home, he’s down at the cabins making contradictions.” Jim’s humor was often like this, quietly outrageous. The editor of TIR and I discussed whether, in publishing the interview years after it was conducted, we should update his language (words like “mulatto”) to reflect the current terms in use. We decided not to, because Jim’s language, like his humor, deliberately skirted the niceties of polite society. 

Our conversation preceded Jim’s publication of his two volumes of personal essays, Crabcakes (1998) and A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile (2000), and anticipates some of the themes he would take up there. It builds on aspects of his biography. James Alan McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. His father was the only qualified black master electrician in the state and was continually being denied a license. The family often had to move from apartment to apartment. When he was eighteen, he got a scholarship to Morris Brown College in Atlanta. He then went to Harvard Law School and got his degree in 1968. He put himself through law school by working as a janitor for an apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue. He began writing while in law school, publishing articles and stories in The Atlantic Monthly. After graduating, he attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. He started teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz, then at the University of Virginia, before joining the faculty of the Workshop in 1981. He worked as a grocery store boy, a janitor, a railroad waiter, a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly, and a professor. Along the way, he wrote important essays for The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine, including an interview with Ralph Ellison (who would become his mentor), a profile of Richard Pryor, essays on housing descrimination and gangs in Chicago, two books of short stories, Hue and Cry (1969) and Elbow Room (1977), and three nonfiction books, earning him a Guggenheim Award (1972), the Pulitzer Prize (1978), and the MacArthur Award (1981).

Cammy Brothers: I’d like to start out talking about your childhood and what it was like growing up in Savannah. Could you describe the racial climate? Was it acceptable to be overtly racist?

James Alan McPherson: It was acceptable to be overtly racist, but it’s more complex than that. I think that if you study the first generation of slaves out of slavery, you find that they were artisans, they were brick masons, they built all the plantation houses in the South. They weren’t just field hands, they were architects. That threatened the power structure, and so from 1896 until the early ’50s, there was an attempt to suppress any evidence of black intelligence. It was aimed at making sure black laborers never competed with white laborers. That accounted for the mass wave of migration out of the South. In Ellison’s Invisible Man, there’s a segment called “Golden Day.” Those guys are old professionals. The whites feel threatened by them and the black people feel threatened by the whites.

CB: In “Going Up to Atlanta” (published in 1987 in A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood) you wrote that your father gambled and drank with other older blacks who were all disillusioned with society and were frustrated. Was that an accurate picture of the scene your father was a part of?

JM: Yeah. My neighbor next door tells me that you see the same groups of men gathered around the open fire in South Africa. Castrated black men who commiserate together around an open fire. I was surprised to hear that it’s the same system. It’s just that it’s a bit more naked in South Africa than it is now in this country.

CB: But when you were growing up?

JM: It was brutal. I remember I used to work bagging potatoes for a man named Norton. There was a restaurant across the street where, of course, black people couldn’t go to eat, but you couldn’t even go beyond the counter. Norton used to spend time at the restaurant talking business deals. His mother used to say, “James, go over there, and tell Norton this and that.” So I’d go over there and Norton was highly ironic, he knew what he was doing. He’d sit way back beyond the counter, and I’d stand where I was supposed to stand, and he’d say, “Come on, James, come on James.” So he was eroding the thing in his own way, and he’d look at me. 

CB: Would you come back?

JM: Yeah, but I had to have his permission. The other man that worked for Norton was Mr. Sikes. He was an Anglo-Saxon redneck. He hated Norton.

CB: Because he was able to observe that kind of subversive behavior, and it grated on him?

JM: No, it wasn’t that. It was just that Norton was Jewish, and he hated to have to work for a Jew. He would be cleaning up the frozen food racks, and if he was frustrated with Norton, he’d pass by me and hit me on the head. As a matter, of course, he could do that, because I was trapped. I couldn’t quit the job, because it was all that I could get, and my sister had a baby, and I had to take care of that. But I’m saying that it’s such a naked thing; Sikes knew that I was trapped. 

CB: He just hit you?

JM: Sure, yes.

CB: And you couldn’t respond at all? Would you do anything, or would you just take it?

JM: Well, I took it. The idea is that I was wise enough to see that Sikes was in no better position than I was. In a way, he was worse off, because he was a white man. The only option that he had was to beat up on the black help.

CB: How do you view the difference between the climate when you were growing up and today? Have the attitudes really progressed or have they just gone underground?

JM: The black American’s position has been so well institutionalized that even if the people want to change, the institutions still follow their own logic. They’re not geared toward the exclusion of Asians or Spanish speaking people.

CB: I can see how that’s very much so in the South, and how, if it does change at all, it’ll take generations. But do you think that in the North there is hope for change? 

JM: You’re too young to remember this, but the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, for a brief period, did transform certain attitudes in the South. And that transformation I think derived from a lingering value structure that said if I subscribe to a Judeo-Christian ethic and its teachings say this thing is wrong, then it’s wrong for me to practice this thing. A friend of mine told me about a man in Columbia, South Carolina, named Maurice. In the ’60s he was an immigrant who internalized all the biblical prohibitions against integration that he had learned from the whites. So when they tried to integrate the restaurant he owned he said, “No, never, never.” And he quoted the Bible and the parts that he’d learned from the Anglo-Saxons. So they took him to court, and he quoted the Bible to the Anglo-Saxon judge and he said, “That won’t do, Maurice. I’m gonna shut you down.” So they shut down his restaurant. Then he had a vision that God appeared to him and said it was okay to integrate his restaurant, and he went to a black church to express this vision. When I was in Columbia, my friend took me around and he said, “Hey, there’s Maurice. ‘Hey, Maurice. God, I love you brother!’” It’s a sense that he learned a new act. That act became what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. You learn to reconcile the distance between your behavior and your professed beliefs and you assume that new persona. That kind of thing is what happened in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, but it got stalled. It was supposed to spread to the North, but when King moved North, he couldn’t locate the same core of values. The ethnicity of the North made it difficult for him to practice that kind of moral appeal. So the movement began to falter. 

CB: Do you think that American subcultures, which are kind of on the fringe themselves, are more likely to be prejudiced toward blacks than mainstream Anglo-Saxons? It often strikes me as odd that different oppressed groups don’t see that the problems they face are similar.

JM: Well, I look at in a much different way. I think that if you look at the society in terms of an ongoing social drama, then you see that certain groups have been assigned certain roles. Black Americans have been assigned the roles of being perpetually needy. The ones who have a moral claim on white man’s compassion. The ones that they always trot out to show you how far you’ve got to go. And so, I can imagine all these ethnic groups saying, “Look at this. I had to break my balls to get this little house here. They don’t give a damn about me.” Reagan built a coalition of ethnics because he said, “I feel sorry for you.” They say, “The system treats me like a nigger, but I don’t get any kind of compassion for it.” And so, here’s some guy that’s going to say he understands the pain. Well, Reagan fooled all of them. But that was the appeal I think.

CB: Is the fact that ethnic minorities are treated in the same way as blacks but don’t get the same kind of either government or charity response a source of resentment toward the government or toward blacks?

JM: It’s resentment toward black Americans. The social problem is this: you’ve got a class system, but the fact of race obscures that. It is not a democracy, it’s a class-bound system. We’re talking about taste, we’re talking about money, and if you’ve got money you can buy class. You can buy it. You can always tell an upwardly mobile proletarian, because in his house, he has usually a new Persian rug, English antiques, and in his freshman year he has a decal of the college on the back of his car. But he’ll get to a certain point where he begins to refine his manners, when he begins to speak English impeccably. He’s into a power structure, but it’s not called a class system, because you’ve got race as a sort of buffer. And those who can’t get meat and bread on the table are always frustrated.

CB: How is the position of an upwardly mobile black American different from that of an Arab or Chinese American?

James Alan McPherson's response and the rest of this interview is available in the Winter 2017/18  print edition of The Iowa Review.