Remarkable essays from an American master
James Alan McPherson, an African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, has come a long way from his early life as a poor boy in racially segregated Savannah, Georgia. Yet, as his title indicates, he is troubled by questions of identity and belonging. The barriers that still exist in America between races, classes, and ethnic groups make him uneasy, cautious, and fearful for the fate of the country.
Longing for genuine community across his diverse and still-divided native land, McPherson is a spiritual heir of the novelist Ralph Ellison. In "Gravitas," an essay that is the finest piece of writing in this collection of reflections, McPherson pays tribute to Ellison, the renowned author of Invisible Man and Juneteenth, for his affirmation of his identity as a black man and for his recognition of the humanity of all men and women. Although Ellison regarded himself as a product of the complex history of blacks in this country, he also saw himself as an American and as a sibling of all people. The hurts of racism never made him back off from that image of himself. Still struggling, McPherson hopes he will be able to match his mentor's equanimity.
Throughout his career, McPherson has drawn hostility from African-American intellectuals for putting American solidarity above black solidarity. "Junior and John Doe" will make him a target again. In this essay, McPherson is contemptuous of the black middle class and its success. He has no respect for this burgeoning success because, as he sees it, successful blacks have simply adopted the corrupt values of the white middle class, so devoted to the pursuit of wealth and possessions, so morally obtuse.
McPherson is convinced that the black middle class has lost the moral certainty that earlier generations of blacks in this country had, an ethical imperative that had been passed along as a kind of a legacy. Included in that legacy was the notion that any dehumanization of another human being was wrong. In pursuit of creature comforts, blacks have learned to lie and manipulate with the worst of whites.
The dozen pieces in this book have an autobiographical thread that allows us to see an American writer raising himself from humble beginnings to intellectual force, a writer who measures his own success by what he has contributed towards the building of an all-inclusive human community.
Paul Marx is a freelance writer in New Haven, Connecticut.