Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, Assay is working to fill its spring issue with work that focuses on social justice in nonfiction teaching, reading, writing, across all disciplines that claim nonfiction. All approaches to texts are welcome. Deadline: January 1st, but we are reading now. Please see our call here at Assay’s new Submittable Submission page.
We’re looking for work like this, which first ran in our “In the Classroom” series in 2015. We are proudly reposting it today.
Baltimore, 2015. Los Angeles, 1992. Detroit, 1967. Los Angeles (Watts neighborhood), 1965, etc. Race riots, urban revolts, rebellions, uprisings. Whatever the media calls the cycle of public eruptions of outrage over racial injustice in this country’s history, we live in a society where the history of racism continues to shape reactions and decisions, even seemingly small ones like whether to accept help when a car breaks down on the side of a road.
James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” was one of my favorite essays to teach in 1998, when it was reprinted in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology. Thoughtful, complex, vivid—it taught me. Seventeen years later the essay remains a model of nonfiction writing for how effectively it combines narrative and reflective meditation and demonstrates how personal experience is often weighted by larger cultural forces.
McPherson’s narrative begins in the late fall of his first year as a professor in Iowa when a friend urges him to get out and explore the countryside, to take a chance and expand beyond his careful circle of home and work. He does so, and his spirits are reawakened: “I began to reconsider the essential importance of risk to the enterprise of life.”
The story really begins when the casual touring ends. His car’s engine smoking on the side of the road, McPherson begins to walk for help. A pair of white men in a pickup truck offer a ride.
When I first read this essay, I thought immediately of James Byrd, Jr., who encountered white men in a pickup in Texas and didn’t survive the meeting. He was tied to the truck by a rope and dragged three and a half miles, his head severed somewhere on that road. What makes McPherson’s essay especially powerful is that Byrd was murdered the year after it was first published. McPherson couldn’t have drawn on that story while writing, as I did when reading. But he drew on everything his life had taught him to the point those men stopped their truck, and we see his mind wavering between the risk of trust and the history of distrust.
“The two of them seemed to be laborers, or at least farmers. The gun rack stretched across the rear window took my memories back to the terror of that long road I had traveled to this place. There was the truck, the gun rack, the white faces, the road. But they did not have the oily Southern accent. I accepted their offer, and the passenger moved over and allowed me to take his seat.”
Soon, however, the men volunteer proof of their trustworthiness. They insist that they “like the colored.” When they discover that there are no tow trucks at the service station, they devise a plan to tow the car themselves:
“There’s a rope on the back of this truck. We can drive on back and tie that rope to the front bumper of your car. Then we’ll just tow her on in to Cedar. You can pay us what you were gonna pay the tow truck, plus we’ll do it for less money.”
Though we have no concrete reason to suspect the men of ill intentions, they are not kind either. They expect to be paid. They expect gratitude for the bargain. Through dialogue and careful characterization, readers are led to identify with McPherson’s growing wariness. No proof of malice, but no proof of benign intentions either.
The best essays reflect the world, not as we want it to be, but as we experience it. We rarely get incontrovertible evidence to support our hopes or fears. We make the best decisions we can in the moment, while all of our human bias, fears, hopes, risks, denials and confusion compete for consideration. “Umbilicus” embodies the drama of individual risk and retreat in the context of history. As darkness falls and McPherson grows desperate, he agrees to the white men’s plan. They tie his car to their truck, and they start driving. Roads that seemed fairly smooth before now feel foreboding as McPherson tries to steer a dead car, unable to see much, relying on the white men’s skills and care, his only remaining sense of control his brake pedal. He reflects on how “…the old life lessons came back. There has never been a life-affirming umbilicus between black and white.” The rope is no longer in his mind a lifeline, but a danger; the men are no longer rescuers but “two drunk white men” putting his life at risk.
McPherson admits that he acts from this “reduced frame of reference.” I had no trust left in me. He hits the brakes, sending both vehicles into the ditch, even as the rope, the umbilicus, holds. Though at the end of the essay he walks away, we realize that no one ever really walks away from a dead car or a broke-down Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, etc. “Umbilicus” lingers in the reader’s mind, not only because the writing is sharp and vivid, but because it awakens our own (often secret) doubts about the rhetoric of race in this country.
Chauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Lime Hawk Review, Terrain.org and Superstition Review. Her work has been honored as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat. She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.