Obama, America, and the Legacy of James Alan McPherson

Obama, America, and the Legacy of James Alan McPherson

Literary Hub

Whitney Terrell

Whitney Terrell Remembers His Friend and Mentor

The title story of James Alan McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Elbow Room opens with an italicized passage:

Narrator is unmanageable. Demonstrates a disregard for form bordering on the paranoid . . . When pressed for reasons, narrator became shrill in insistence that “borders,” “structures,” “frames,” “order,” and even “form” itself are regarded by him with the highest suspicion. Insists on unevenness as a virtue.

I thought of this last week when I heard that McPherson had died. I was also listening to President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. “My grandparents knew these values weren’t reserved for one race,” Obama said. “They could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter. In fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids, living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago.”

It sounded like an innocuous statement: “These values weren’t reserved for one race.” But Obama was talking about his mother’s family. Scotch Irish whites in Kansas. I live a few blocks from Kansas. It’s not the most hospitable place for, say, half-Kenyans. Or Mexican-Americans. Or Democrats generally.

Then he asserted that the values of these white Kansans were the same as the values of the descendants of slaves.

A turn like that engages what McPherson referred to as the “function at the junction.” It’s an unexpected operation that causes fixed categories and settled identities to change. Borders and frames disappear.

Obama’s move was ok. But McPherson’s were better…

Read the entire article here.

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