The only photograph I have with James Alan McPherson is from the beginning of the Obama era; it turned out to be far more symbolic than I could have imagined.
In the picture, Jim’s students flank him, a fairly mixed group of mostly smiling faces: three white women, two black men, a black woman, a Korean-American man, a white man. The lone white man in the workshop was named Roman, and his arm is crisscrossed with mine behind Jim’s back: my left hand perched on Jim’s left shoulder, Roman’s right hand on Jim’s right shoulder. It seemed, at the time, a picture of true American unification—black and white overlapping in an intimate embrace of the first black American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
There was, at the time we posed for that picture, a current of energy and hope that infused my perception of the world around me. The election of a black man with an African father and a nontraditional name engendered in many of us what Bomani Jones recently deemed a qualified optimism: “Just maybe if you’re so good at what you do, in spite of that contempt, people might be willing to vote for you—or, on the more local scale, to support you regardless of your background or skin color when you demonstrate talent and ability.”
Barack Obama’s ascendance struck me as a validation of Jim McPherson’s life, and the lives of those like him. Jim was born into a world that held black life in even more contempt than it does today, in Georgia, in 1943. He charted an improbable progression, resisting the urge to become either a “moral dandy” or an “irreverent Negro,” two phrases author and McPherson protégé Marcus Burke recalled Jim employing in moments of levity. He became the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; he earned MacArthur and Guggenheim awards. His genius was incontrovertible; he transcended the system of his personal oppression.
Barack Obama was Jim’s kind of candidate, a prototypical omni-American cut from the insight and envisaging of Albert Murray. Murray recognized America for the composite culture it always has been, as he famously wrote, “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.”
As historically, culturally and scientifically true as that sentiment is, James Baldwin identified why none of that mattered in his essay “On Being White … and Other Lies” (pdf), which appeared in Essence in 1984:
America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.
Whiteness, much like deindividuation, worked to create a collective anonymity among seemingly unrelated groups of people, all of whom banded together under the flimsy umbrella of nonblackness to justify the cessation of self-assessment, and the acceptability of antisocial behavior. Much like mob mentality, whiteness imbued accepted members of the herd with a sense of invincibility due to invisibility; it made one blameless regardless of misdeeds.
Whiteness produced policies—from unequal and inconsistent drug sentencing to redlining and housing discrimination, to gerrymandering and counterintuitive law-enforcement strategies—that could always be viewed within the context of an artificial norm. Fairness was measured by what maintained white innocence. The psychic and social health of society was always secondary.
Not too far into Obama’s first term, my former classmate Roman, on a brief leave from Afghanistan, sat in a booth with me at a bar and explained a plot to assassinate Hillary Clinton. The treasonous plan was convoluted, vague and cloaked in a mishmash of alternative political catchphrases. By the time he punctuated it with “I swore an oath to protect my country from enemies foreign and domestic,” I got the gist. When he observed me absorb the full weight of his words, he simply declared, “I’ve said too much,” put his whiskey glass on the table and walked out the door. Four years earlier, we were metaphorically intertwined; now he was physically and metaphorically walking away from the table. He was not alone among whites.
The next year, he summoned me to the same bar to request a favor. He had spent $700 to $1,000 on a handful of “rare gems” from Afghani market vendors; they looked to me like board-game marbles. He estimated them as being worth 10 times the amount he paid, and asked me to pick them up from the appraiser, who wouldn’t render an ultimate verdict until after he went back overseas. I recall the exact angle of the appraiser’s raised left eyebrow as she stood across the glass countertop from me and asked—her voice an impatient sigh—“Do you consider Roman a friend?” The gems were worthless.
In 2016, Roman is in the Ukraine, posting to his Facebook screeds about black criminality, rants about “the [p–sification] of America,” and memes advocating the repealing of the 19th Amendment. I look back on that photo with James Alan McPherson, and it’s clear now that the lone white man in it was actually the scared, lonely white man. Where I imagined unification and progress, Roman saw dispossession, a curtailing of his birthright.
And he was not the aberration I thought—so many whites, particularly males, have spent the past eight years panicking as “normal” was redefined, nearly eradicated as a definable notion. They grasped for fools’ gold, whether in the form of Afghani market marbles, fact-free news or demagogues. They came to imagine bogeymen around every political corner. They eventually preferred conspiracy theory to careful analysis or any honest reckoning with societal reality.
Whiteness in America is a virus whose sole purpose is preserving itself, regardless of the overall cost and collateral damage. Facts no longer matter; nor does the Constitution. The economy doesn’t matter; nor does our international policy. Logic doesn’t matter; nor does decency. Ann Coulter pined for a voting policy that would have disenfranchised her chosen candidate. A Des Moines, Iowa, cop killer identified himself as a protester of cop haters. A significant portion of our citizens now view our once archnemesis and its leader, Putin, as simpatico. The people who predict voter fraud commit it, and add in a deadly side of voter suppression for good measure.
As the Department of Justice released reports detailing the evil and futility of racial profiling, and intellectuals clarified the insidiousness of imprisonment for profit, and no one gave a damn, it became clear that this election was about one primary issue: the re-establishment and protection of the concept of whiteness. There was no desire to build bridges, only a drive to keep intact an artificial stepladder. As Toni Morrison said, “If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” White people voted Tuesday evening to embrace their serious problem, to deify it and to wave it proudly in our faces.
Their problem, this whiteness, is—judging by history—an incurable disease. Sharing a classroom, drinks and meals with blacks, no matter how intelligent and generous and kind they were, could not persuade Roman to abandon artifice. Learning alongside a literary luminary and all-around beautiful soul couldn’t do it, either. We have seen in the NFL and NCAA that spending hours upon hours with blacks, working alongside them or benefiting from their labor, cannot do it. Roman and his lot cannot reject the disease of whiteness and its attendant fact-free, genocidal history and future because they are too cowardly not to choose, as Baldwin put it, safety instead of life.
James Alan McPherson left us this past July, to relatively little fanfare, at age 72. Perhaps it is good he did not live to witness this complete inversion of the omni-American ideal.