James Alan McPherson: Junior and John Doe

McPhersonJames Alan McPherson wrote “Junior and John Doe” for Gerald Early’s 1993 essay collection Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation.  It’s a great essay in a great and important collection.  Twenty writers—on a spectrum from conservative (Glen Loury, for example) to liberal (Kristin Hunter Lattany)—all reflect on W.E.B. Dubois’ famous statement that the American Negro has been “gifted with a second sight,” “a double-consciousness,” “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”  “An American, a Negro,” Dubois wrote, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.”

CertaintyMcPherson’s essay contends that in the battle for assimilation American blacks have begun to lose that crucial two-ness of sight, a two-ness that allowed them to maintain an ironic stance towards American culture, a stance protecting their own sense of humanity and moral certainty won in their struggles to survive racism.  This waning irony has led them, says McPherson, to give up their ability to level a strong critique at American culture, a critique the culture desperately needs to curb its aberrant desires to maintain racist structures and chase material wealth instead of spiritual depth.  “As a substitute,” he writes, “we now compete with white Americans for more creature comforts,” choosing “product, which goes against the fundamental ends of life” over “process, which is on the side of life.”  Blacks have chosen to participate in “an increasingly sophisticated bureaucratic culture” full of shallow lies and “poor quality…manipulations.”  They have become not even your average, white “John Doe” but a smaller version of that, a “Junior” following around a retrograde “father”—hence the essay’s title: “Junior and John Doe.”

Next to the writings of James Baldwin, I believe this McPherson essay is one of the deepest looks at black culture in America and how White and Black could relate to each other in profound, transformative ways. If only they would.

“Traditionally, it has always been black Americans who call attention to the distance between asserted ideals and daily practices, because it is the black American population which best symbolizes the consequences of the nation’s contradictions,” he writes near the beginning of the piece.  “This unenviable position, or fate, has always provided black Americans with a minefield of ironies, a ‘knowingness,’ based on a painful intimacy with the cruel joke at the center of the problematic American identity.  At the core of this irony there used to reside the basic, if unspoken, understanding that identity in America is almost always a matter of improvisation, a matter of process; that most Americans are, because of this, confidence people; and that, given the provisional nature of American reality at almost any time, ‘black’ could be in reality ‘white,’ and ‘white’ could be in reality ‘black.’”

LureLoatheThat’s how close the relationship could be.  A two-ness that’s close to being a one-ness.  But black culture’s ability to influence American culture towards greater humanity requires that it keep its own culture—its own inner “feeling tones”—nourished and intact.  For at the core of this culture is a moral certainty America as a whole needs, especially now in this time of an ethics based on fashion, self-interest, and greed.  “This [certainty] was our true wealth, our capital,” he writes.  “The portion of this legacy that fueled the civil rights movement was a belief that any dehumanization of another human being was wrong…Beneath it was the assumption that the experience of oppression had made us more human, and that this higher human awareness was about to project a vision of what a fully human life, one not restricted by color, should be.”

This didn’t happen, obviously—though perhaps it still could?—because blacks lost touch with that protective irony that kept white American culture at bay.  “It seems to me,” says McPherson, “that by the end of the 80’s black Americans had become a thoroughly ‘integrated’ group…at last no better than and no worse than anyone else.”  “Something humanly vital in them had been defeated, and they were involved in a constant process of self-improvisation,” BUT “an improvisation relying on the ‘tape’ provided by some external script” [my emphasis].  It was a white script, one that’s come to fruition today, enabled by the Trump Presidency, as a script desperately wanting to define a static, white identity for America, not one moving towards a fuller, more inclusive humanity, propelled by a creative, improvisational exchange between black and white.  That’s become less possible because the core vitality of that blackness has been given away by blacks themselves.  If McPherson were alive today, I can just see him saying, “See what you get when you, black people, give up aspiring for the deep humanity you fought for all through the Civil Rights Era, and now just aspire to be a plain John Doe?”

♦  My favorite short story collection is McPherson’s Elbow Room, winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Here he illustrates—in wonderful, moving fiction—some of the ideas in “Junior and John Doe.”  I am fortunate to have counted James Alan McPherson as one of my acquaintances—even a friend, perhaps.  That relationship is briefly sketched in Part One of my 2004 piece “Miscegenation and Me.”

  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.

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Toni Morrison: Playing in the Dark

Morrison-PlayingThis title does say it all.  Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination focuses on the construction of whiteness in American literature, one of the central places America tries to establish itself as new, white, and male. What’s the basis of this construction?  White writers playing in the dark—that is, using, or reacting to, or trying to erase a black presence. “Black slavery,” she contends, “enriched the country’s creative possibilities,” creating “a playground for the imagination,” a place “to ally internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation” through an American Africanism, “a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire….”

In 1983, at a friend’s suggestion, Toni Morrison began reading Marie Cardinal’s memoir The Words to Say It, a description of her descent into “madness,” her therapy, and the process of her healing.  Morrison had been fascinated for a while in, as she says, “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.”  Sure enough, Marie Cardinal first realizes she’s losing her grip when she’s at a Louis Armstrong concert, and pinpoints the moment her sickness—which she calls the Thing—took full root in her when she, a white Frenchwoman raised in Algeria, “understood that we were to assassinate Algeria,” which she considered her black mother. Morrison’s reaction to Cardinal impelled her to put together her thoughts, which first took their form as the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization she delivered at Harvard.

Morrison-Race2As she thought about iconic American writers, “What became transparent,” she writes, “were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.”  This choking, this attempt to evade race within the literature itself and in the literary criticism purporting to illuminate it is itself an act of racism. The African presence informs American literature, often as a shadow even when the piece in question is not even about race issues.  Hemingway, for example, is often thought to be a fairly race-free writer, but as she pointedly proves in her reading of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not he most certainly is not free of race, but depends on it to construct his famous versions of manhood, the rules of male/female relationships, virtually his entire aesthetics. Before him, she considers the likes of Cather, Poe, Twain, and Hawthorne.  She proposes, as a list of topics needing critical investigation, first how the Africanist character is a surrogate and enabler allowing white writers to think about themselves.  “Note, for instance,” she writes, “the way Africanism is used to conduct a dialogue concerning American space in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, where Poe “meditates on place as a means of containing the fear of borderlessness and trespass, but also as a means of releasing and exploring the desire for a limitless frontier.”  In general, for white American writers their version of an Africanism, a black presence, “serves as a vehicle for regulating love and the imagination as defenses against the psychic costs of guilt and despair.  Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

Morrison-TimeI have often said that Americans would rather talk about anything—literally anything—but race, but that’s not exactly true.  For in shunning an open discussion in all the deep, clever ways they do, Americans really condemn themselves to thinking, or feeling, even speaking race all the time, inside. It’s some nagging thing you wish would go away, but you realize is also something absolutely central to your identity.  As James Baldwin once wrote—and, once again, I find many of his thoughts central to Morrison’s argument, as they are to most black writing after the 1950′s—“As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphs.” Playing in the Dark is a brilliant decoding of those symbols, signs, hieroglyphs in the work of white writers.  It’s a major statement from one of our greatest writers, laying out a major challenge to re-think American literature.  Morrison’s language is creative and lyrically gorgeous, fully like you’d imagine a Nobel Prize winner would write—she won the Prize in 1993—but also so critically precise and penetrating you think you’ll never go back to reading normal literary criticism again, a criticism that—as it ignores or slights blackness—too closely reflects the actions of American culture in general.

Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.  Most of them, though not Morrison, are from my book Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?

  Go to a list of Reviews on this site.

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The Neighbor Project Challenge: BE the Neighbor

TNP-Logo1May 11, 2019.  Just a year after Emmanuel House and The Joseph Corporation merged to become The Neighbor Project, the new organization held its very first Gala fund raiser in one of Aurora’s newest premium venues: Bureau Gravity, just across the street from Emmanuel House’s first headquarters.  The VIDEO below shows a few minutes from this wonderful evening, complete with—in addition to a great dinner—live art, live music, a live auction…and a unique challenge.

On the Emmanuel House page on this site, I spoke of helping 20-30 families a year, but of being poised to triple that number.  The merger made that tripling a reality, creating an organization that went far beyond what the two could do separately.  In its first year The Neighbor Project saw nearly 100 families start on the path to home ownership, plus dozens more saved from being foreclosed on in the house they already lived in.  It was truly something to celebrate.

TNPgala1Catherine Tilley Design did live art.  Coming into the venue’s main third-floor space, you saw her and an assistant busy painting a mural containing some answers gala attendees gave to the question, Who is my neighbor?  Then near the end of the evening, the two painters began peeling away what they had just created!  What was going on?  As Rick Guzman, The Neighbor Project’s executive director, spoke of The Neighbor Project’s birth, its goal of giving hope to families, and how unleashing their potential made not just them but all of us better people, the two painters peeled away what we thought was a finished work to reveal a mural reflecting the evening’s major challenge.  “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi famously said.  So we must go beyond even “Love thy neighbor” to actually “Be the neighbor,” a much more complex, transformative challenge.

You can see them painting, then revealing “Be the Neighbor” in the VIDEO below and catch a glimpse of Rick’s message, too, a message where he echoed some words he spoke when he first introduced The Neighbor Project a year ago—especially: “We ignore our neighbor’s promise and potential at our own peril.”

OurPerilThe live music from Violetta and Lucas featured a range of songs, and I was heartened that the young duo did many songs from the Great American Songbook: “How High the Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” etc.  The music’s safe in these young hands, I thought.  It was a thought doubly reinforced when we heard from Joseph and Angeline, two young people whose growth and future took off when their parents were able to buy a home with Emmanuel House and The Joseph Corporation, who were long-time partners before they merged.  Joseph is now a college grad with a finance degree and property of his own, while Angeline got her CNA even before graduating from high school and is now off to college for her full nursing degree.

Then the live auction, always entertaining, especially because of our auctioneer, the fabulous Peter Burchard!  There’s a few seconds of him extracting the highest bid of the evening, but what’s not shown in the VIDEO below is perhaps the most moving moment of fund raising that evening.  Just as he did in early April last year when Emmanuel House held its own gala, the final event it held as Emmanuel House, Peter simply asked people to give more. “Rick, how much does it cost to put a family through The Neighbor Project program?” “$5000,” Rick answers.  “How many people would pledge $5000 to put a family through the program?” Peter says.  Three people raise their hands.  More raise their hands at $2500, more at $1500, even more at $1000.  They’re not bidding on anything, not going to get anything but the joy of giving.  Peter Burchard is touched, on the verge of tears.  Perhaps it’s a sign that these, and many others there that night are actually on their way to Being The Neighbor.

Go to The Neighbor Project website, and to the Emmanuel House website for more information, and (on TNP’s site) to watch an intro video.

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