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

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Cammy Broth­ers

JM: Maybe it’s not ad­e­quate. Maybe it can get bet­ter. While I was glad that Shan­non in­vited me to his club for lunch, I could not feel com­fort­able there. Maybe it was be­cause I’d been a waiter, and so when I go out to eat, I al­ways watch the wait­ers. I don’t know if El­li­son’s been a waiter or not. But he’s in the Cen­tury Club in New York, and he’s got a whole list of awards and stuff like that. That’s nice, ex­cept I’d rather go to the Ham­burg Inn and have the wait­ress say, “Well, where’s your lit­tle girl? Is she still here?”

CB: When you go to the Ham­burg Inn they treat you like a per­son.

JM: That’s all you want, that’s all you want. I can trust peo­ple in Iowa City. It is an un­real world. It is. But if you’ve seen enough re­al­ity, you pre­fer it. The longer you are here, you be­come naive and trusting. On the other hand, if you never had the lux­ury of be­ing able to trust, this is the best place in the world for you.

CB: What about Cam­bridge? What was the sit­u­a­tion in the classroom? How were you treated by other stu­dents? Or an­other ques­tion is, how were you treated as a law stu­dent as op­posed to as a jan­i­tor?

JM: There were about nine blacks in my class at Har­vard Law School and about four or five in the class be­fore that, and in the third-year class, there were three mu­lat­toes. So they were just beginning to think, “Well maybe they’re not so dumb. We’ll start bring­ing in the dark­skinned ones.” At the wel­come ad­dress to all the law stu­dents, the black stu­dents got a let­ter say­ing there would be a meet­ing for cer­tain peo­ple after din­ner. At the meet­ing, old Ge­orge Strait, who was a pup­pet, said, “Now to make sure that you stay in law school, we’re go­ing to give you all tu­tors.” So my friend and I walked out. Not that we didn’t know that we didn’t have the background the white guys had, it was that they were not giving us a god­damn chance. So we walked out. That night I swore that I would fin­ish Har­vard Law School and that I would go on and do some­thing else for my­self. The as­sump­tion of your in­fe­ri­or­ity was in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, but it was a great se­cret.

CB: A meet­ing for “cer­tain peo­ple.”

JM: Uh huh. I re­mem­ber a class with a pro­fes­sor known to have con­tempt for blacks, Jews, and women. He used to have what he called “Women’s Day” in his class one day a year. He would call on the fe­males in the class. But he never called on black stu­dents. I can take any­thing,

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