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