Pursuit of the (Barefooted) Pneuma: James Alan McPherson’s “A Matter of Vocabulary”

The following mini-essay was originally written for an African American Literature course I took in the spring of 2012. Though I couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, this simple assignment — perform a five-page “close reading” of a text from the first half of the class — has had a profound impact on my current interest in the vocabularies of racial identity.


It was all very clear, and now he understood that the Barefoot Lady came in the night not because she really loved Mr. Jones or because he had once buried someone for her for free, or even because she liked the blue-and-white lighted sign. She came always in the night to scream because she, like himself, was in misery, and did not know what else to do.

—“A Matter of Vocabulary” (HC 32)

I would employ the ancient Greek word pneuma, meaning “the vital spirit of life itself”… [P]neuma is foundational in all systems of religious belief, but it seems to me that, as a civic conviction, it is still vital in communities rooted in rural mores.

—“Pursuit of the Pneuma” (184)

In his 2011 essay from Dædalus’s special issue “Race in the Age of Obama,” James McPherson returns to the past—to the ancient past—in his search for the proper way to name the surprising “institutional receptivity to non-white students” (184) he experienced upon joining the faculty at the University of Iowa in the early 1980s. McPherson selects the Greek word pneuma (“the vital spirit of life itself”) as his keystone term, explaining that he wants the word to represent “an omni-American perspective and sensibility” (187) which privileges community as “an essential dimension of the human experience” (188). Noting ironic parallels between the violent Tea Party rhetoric of the 2000s and the extreme statements of many Black Nationalists in the 1960s and 70s, McPherson cautions against exclusionary or isolationist worldviews and asks that, in their stead, we foster the kinds of “multiracial, extended family unit[s]” that he has worked to create both for himself in Iowa City and for his daughter in her own life and career (187). If we work together to pursue the pneuma with sufficient determination, McPherson suggests that even individuals who grow up “separated by race and caste” (185) will be afforded the space necessary to “reconnect through common strains of cultural background.”

Although “Pursuit of the Pneuma” possesses enough complexity to warrant a focused analysis of its own cultural and historical implications, the present essay seeks to enlarge McPherson’s social critique by allying it with his work as an author of fiction. More to the point, I want to position the word pneuma as an entryway into the early story “A Matter of Vocabulary,” the opening piece in McPherson’s first collection of short fiction, Hue and Cry (HC). In much the same way that the word pneuma functions as a means of expressing the previously unsayable in “Pursuit,” the word “misery” provides Thomas access to a revolutionary understanding of his own emotional state at the end of “Vocabulary.” In both cases, the unspoken can only be voiced through recourse to words previously outside the speakers’ vocabularies; in reaching out for these new words, both McPherson and Thomas perform pneuma-tic acts that connect them with persons and cultures outside their own positions in the world. By focusing on the relationship between Thomas and his spectral interlocutor, “the Barefoot Lady” (HC 13), I want to illustrate the fundamental role that vocabularies—words qua words—play in McPherson’s use of the literary realm to explore the challenges facing American society in the post-World War II era.

“A Matter of Vocabulary” tells the story of young Thomas Brown, a shy teenager just beginning to come to terms with his position in the larger world outside his family unit. Though he much prefers “listening and being quiet” (3) to extended conversation, Thomas still manages to acquire a fairly advanced understanding of the world through interactions with members of his rural, southern community. In a surprising twist, his aversion to discourse actually endears him to many of the story’s white characters; his silence, especially in contrast to the loquaciousness of his younger brother, Edward, earns him praise from adults throughout the text. He’s told that he is both “pretty smart” (21) and a “good worker” (24), and he even manages to form “some small friendships” with customers at the Feinberg Super Market, though these relationships always remain “on [the] business level” (17). As “Vocabulary” moves toward its conclusion, then, Thomas’s character can be understood as a fictional embodiment of McPherson’s desire for “multiracial, extended family units,” and his success as a grocery store employee portends good things for the boy’s imminent journey into manhood.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his ability to connect with white adults in the town, Thomas eventually notices just how cut off he has become from the local black community. At two crucial points in the narrative—Thomas’s refusal to return to church and Edward’s walking away from his job at the Feinberg Super Market—Thomas is rendered mute in the presence of abject blackness[1] and stands, at least for a moment, on the precipice of rejecting his own race and class in favor of a whiter, more bourgeois identity. After he catches a group of deacons stealing money from the collection plates, he effectively excommunicates himself from the church by deciding that, even if he has to leave the house with his brother every Sunday, “he [will] not go all the way to church again” (2). Thomas fares little better in the incident with his brother and the $27 worth of missing groceries, as Edward’s open defiance of the store’s co-owner, Sarah Feinberg, elicits no reaction from Thomas other than for him to go back to filling potato bags and staring at the customers outside his window. In both of these cases, Thomas’s action-via-inaction works to self-impose a barrier between himself and other members of the black community; the very same silence that marks him for special recognition from his white neighbors circumscribes his position and delimits his sense of agency within his own racial group. Thomas can no more condone the actions of the deacons or of his brother than they can condone his refusal to identify with their shared position in society. Unable to see himself as fully part of either the white or the black community, Thomas comes unmoored from both groups and feels himself transformed into a complete observer of the world around him. Sitting behind “the big window glass” in the supermarket, Thomas becomes the ultimate outsider in a community, the total voyeur who can watch without himself being watched:

He liked it very much now that none of them ever looked up and saw him watching. That way he did not ever have to feel embarrassed or guilty. That way he would never have to feel compelled to nod his head or move his mouth or eyes, or make any indication of a greeting to them. That way he would never have to feel bad when they did not speak back. (30)

If there exists an antithesis to the pneuma, to the “vital spirit of life itself” that binds members of a community to one another, than surely this is it. For the first thirty pages of McPherson’s “A Matter of Vocabulary,” Thomas is driven to the brink of solipsism—and perhaps even into the realm of self-negation—because of repeated refusals to recognize that which he has in common with those around him. All of this changes, however, in the final three pages of the text, when an unexpected savior, the “Barefoot Lady,” helps Thomas find the word he needs in order to name (and thus to begin mastering) the cause of his separation from society.

In much the same way that, as Donald G. Matthews painstakingly details in “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice: Lynching in the American South,” symbolic punishment “changes things in the community far beyond the mere effect of the act itself upon the ‘criminal’” (54), the scapegoating of individuals in a community is less about the specific victim or method of sacrifice than it is about the redemptive impact such violence can have on the community after the act has been carried out. Yet for Thomas, the reasons behind the Barefoot Lady’s expulsion from society remain entirely hidden; her nocturnal wanderings and impassioned cries (“Mr. Jones! I love you, Mr. Jones!”) elicit various hypotheses from both Thomas and Edward as to their originary impetus, but since the boys lack the proper historical context to understand her plight from the perspective of the community at large, she can serve other, more personally salvific purposes for the Brown brothers. When she first appears in the middle of the story, the Barefoot Lady is little more than a ‘boogey woman’ whose “long yellow and black toenails” (HC 14) and “horrible dirty colors of her rags and face and feet” (15) are more evocative of a Hollywood witch than of a Christlike redeemer. When she reenters the narrative in the final scene, however, Thomas’s burgeoning awareness of his own isolation from both the white and black communities makes possible an identification with the abject which had remained previously inaccessible to him: “And then he knew why the Barefoot Lady came to that place almost every night to cry where there was no one alive in the building to hear or care about her sound” (32, emphasis added). And even though his preparation for this level of identification has required that Thomas be pushed as near the breaking point as possible, such close proximity to the abject has finally opened his eyes (and his heart) to the common thread that connects him to the church deacons, to Edward, and even to the Barefoot Lady: namely, the word misery. “There was a word in his mind now,” McPherson writes, “a big word, that made good sense of her sound and the burning feeling that he felt inside himself. . . . She came always in the night to scream because she, like himself, was in misery, and did not know what else to do” (32).

By drawing on Devonya Havis’s (and Michel Foucault’s) work with parrhesia as “a critical means of engagement” in which “active questioning, exploration, and critical examination” constitute the discursive practices which enable the expression of communal solidarity via the Black Vernacular tradition (756), we can begin to appreciate how, both in his life and in his work, James McPherson pursues the pneuma by way of expanding his vocabulary and incorporating words from other linguistic traditions. According to Havis:

Discourse or speaking . . . is a basic ethical relationship with the Other because speaking seeks response. It carries with it a responsibility placed on the interlocutor to become engaged. The ‘saying,’ moreover, forms a community that in its responding can welcome alterity without placing it under erasure. (750)

This ability to form a relationship with the Other without appropriating its uniqueness is made possible through “evershifting, stylized performative utterance(s)” which “continually evok[e] the politicized ethical demand via the dynamism of action and comeback supported in the sociability of the vernacular group.” In other words, the open community does not require that its members all speak one language but that they all speak one another’s language, shifting into and out of various vocabularies as the situation or community requires. The ultimate act of solidarity, then, is to become so fluent in one another’s language(s) that a given member can, in Foucault’s words, “open[] his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse” (qtd. in Havis 756). This opening, of course, leaves group members vulnerable to attack or rejection from other members of the community, but it is precisely from this vulnerability that parrhesiastic discourse draws its most important power, the power of critique. “The duty assumed in parrhesia,” Havis states, “involves offering a critique that helps one recognize what goes unseen where such seeing creates the possibility of correcting what is amiss” (756). Thomas’s response to the Barefoot Lady’s parrhesiastic screaming remains internal, but it nevertheless functions as an acknowledgement of the community that exists between them—and between many other members of the black community in Thomas’s hometown. The Barefoot Lady’s call has finally elicited a sympathetic response from Thomas, and their mutual investment in the word “misery” suggests the possibility that an abject congregation may eventually join together to “correct what is amiss” in their collective experience of modern American society.

The fundamental move of both the pneuma and the parrhesia involves reaching outside the self to attempt, via discourse with the Other, a fuller understanding of the self’s position in the world. In a 1997 interview with Publisher’s Weekly, McPherson uses yet another term—the Japanese word “ninjo”—to indicate a similar concern with “a close, communal association that transcends racial identity” (Reid 37), and it would be impossible to look back over the past forty years and not see this concern animating nearly every work in the author’s oeuvre. No matter which term one prefers, there can be little doubt that what McPherson began in “A Matter of Vocabulary” (and in Hue and Cry as a whole) has become a Foucauldian project of “open[ing] his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse.” His journey, much like Thomas’s, is a living testament to the transformative power that a determined pursuit of the pneuma can possess.

Works Cited

Havis, Devonya N. “Blackness Beyond Witness: Black Vernacular Phenomena and Auditory Identity.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 35.7 (2009): 747-59. SAGE Premier. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

Matthews, Donald G. “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice: Lynching in the American South.” Mississippi Quarterly 61.1/2 (2008): 27-70. EBSCO Host. Web. 25 Mar. 2012.

McPherson, Jame Alan. Hue and Cry. 1968. New York: Ecco, 2001. Print.

—. “Pursuit of the Pneuma.” Dædalus 140.1 (Winter 2011): 183-88. Electronic Collections Online. Web. 25 Mar. 2012.

Reid, Calvin. “James Alan McPherson: A Theatre of Memory.” Publisher’s Weekly 244.51 (1997): 36-37. Professional Development Collection. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

[Cover image: Robert Frank’s “The Funeral” // Image via Jonah Folbe]


 

[1] I use the term “abject blackness” here as a way of exploiting the dual meaning of “abject”—both low and degrading and of the purest kind. In the two cases described here, as well as a third case I discuss in the next paragraph, Thomas fails to identify with members of his own community who engage in “abject” behaviors of which he cannot approve (i.e., stealing and talking back). Yet when confronted with such behavior, Thomas instinctively realizes that these acts emanate from a deeply-rooted aspect of the shared black experience in pre-Civil Rights America: namely, misery. “Abject blackness” simultaneously repulses and resonates with young Thomas, and this tension is the primary reason he falls mute in its presence. (SEE Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection for a more thorough discussion of how the abject functions in literature and society.)

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