On July 27th, 2016, James Alan McPherson passed away from pneumonia. McPherson was a highly educated academic who graduated from Harvard Law School and went on to be the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. About 10 years after he graduated Harvard, he wrote his most famous work Elbow Room which won him his Pulitzer.
Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
McPherson was born in Savannah, Georgia on September 16, 1943. His father struggled with alcoholism and gambling, eventually leading to a short time in jail. Despite these issues, which may have been significantly influenced by racial discrimination, he succeeded in becoming the first black master electrician in the state.
He graduated from a segregated school while working as a waiter on a railroad dining car over the summer. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Morris Brown College, he enrolled and was accepted into Harvard Law School in 1965.
After he decided to not pursue a law career, he was enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. While there he wrote one of his most influential works Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture. The text is about his experience with racial segregation on trains and how that mentality bleeds into our culture.
McPherson had an incredibly nuanced view of race for the time he was writing. McPherson wrote, “As an American, by trying to wear these cloths he would be a synthesis of high and low, black and white, city and country, provincial and universal.” He often advocated to “experience diversity” and to “laugh at its craziness…and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy.” Only then, “will you have earned the right to call oneself a ‘citizen of the United States.’”
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