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Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs
by albert murray
edited by henry louis gates, jr. and paul devlin
library of america, 1049 pages, $45

In December 1988, at a Hyatt near O’Hare, black American leaders met in conference, ostensibly to set a new black agenda, actually to discuss the future of Jesse Jackson.

The previous April, Jackson was in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The New York Times said he already had “a solid place in history . . . whether or not he is elected President, whether or not he is even nominated for Vice President . . . the world is likely to remember 1988 as the Year of Jackson—the year when, for the first time . . . a black made a serious bid for the White House.”

Jackson had not been nominated for president or vice president, but he finished second in the balloting. In November, the nominees were buried by a Republican landslide. Now Democratic leaders were pushing Jackson’s top campaign aide for chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Jackson was displaying his foreign relations chops with a piece about Middle East peace, forthcoming in the Times. It seemed Jesse Jackson was, as political pundits say, poised.

But at a post-conference press conference, Jackson announced, not a run for governor, senator, or mayor of Chicago, but that henceforth the Americans formerly known as black should be called African American. “To be called African-Americans has cultural integrity,” Jackson said. “It puts us in our proper historical context.”

It was not the first time a cadre of black Americans sought to change the game by changing the name. In 1835, when the American Colonization Society was working to “repatriate” free black Americans to an Africa none of them had ever known, a Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Color urged “our people . . . to abandon the word ‘colored’ when either speaking or writing concerning themselves, and especially to remove the title of African from their institutions, the marbles of churches, &c.”

In the 1930s, when Southern trees bore strange fruit in every season, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People campaigned to get what was then “the media” to print “Negro” with a capital letter. Said W. E. B. Dubois, social scientist and NAACP board member, “I regard the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans . . . as a personal insult.”

In 1967, Ebony Magazine informed its readership of “a bitter national controversy over the proper designation for identifiable Americans of African descent,” in which some black intellectuals, insisting “Negro” was “an inaccurate epithet which perpetuates the master-slave mentality . . . in both black and white Americans,” were urging “educators, persons, and organizations to abandon the ‘slavery-imposed name’ ‘Negro’ for ‘African American’ or ‘Afro-American.’” The nation’s most prominent black American newspaper, Harlem’s Amsterdam News, had announced it would do exactly that, because “young people . . . link the word ‘Negro’ with Uncle Tom.” Young militants were using “Negro” in lieu of “Uncle Tom,” to signify black Americans “still in Whitey’s bag”; for them “black” signified “‘brothers and sisters who are emancipating themselves.’” All were acting on a socio-linguistic theory, Ebony explained, that “names are of the essence of the game of power and control . . . [and so] a change in name will short-circuit the stereotyped thinking patterns that undergird the system of racism in America.”

In 1967, one was a senior in high school, less troubled by one’s identity than one’s virginity; one dismissed this racial rebranding as a Bo-na-na fanna, fe-fi mo Name Game. But now, in January 2017, seated in one’s study, half-listening to the television someone is watching in the living room, one is forced to review socio-lingui-cultural history by two events: the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the publication, by the Library of America, of the Collected Essays & Memoirs of Albert Murray.

One wishes that name needed no introduction. Such is not the case. In May, an article in The Nation, celebrating what would have been Murray’s one-hundredth birthday, admitted his name “was never household familiar.” In August 2013, an obituary in the New York Times called him “African America’s undiscovered national treasure.”

Some of Murray’s quasi-anonymity was due to unfortunate timing. In 1970, when his first book was published, Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was on the charts; Murray was fifty-four. Some of it was due to his refusal to flow with socio-political fashion; rejecting both “black” and “African American,” he preferred “U. S. Negro.” A lot of it was due to his intention to present “counter-statements” and “counter-formulations” to “expose the incompetence” and “stupidity.” Some of it was due to comparisons to his contemporary, friend, and professional advocate, Ralph Ellison.

One found these comparisons irksome. Both men attended Tuskegee Institute and eventually lived in Harlem, and they did exchange encouragements and critiques as they both labored on first novels. But they were writers of different eras. When Ellison’s first book was published, Jackie Robinson was in the World Series, Brown v. Board of Education was mired in the Supreme Court, and Martin Luther King was pledging a fraternity. When Murray’s first book was published, Jackie Robinson was in the Hall of Fame, White Flight was re-segregating Little Rock Central High School, and Martin Luther King was dead.

In his eighties, Murray acquired stature, if not fame, as “the maverick patriarch of a growing number of spirited, independent intellectuals”—Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Elizabeth Alexander, and Henry Louis Gates. He was profiled in the New Yorker, given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Critics Circle, inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Still, when he died in 2013, most of his books were out of print.

So one rejoiced that Murray’s non-fiction—six books and some fugitive essays—had been published on acid-free paper, with an informative Chronology and fulsome Notes, curated and preserved for history, as treasures should be. One even agreed to review it. Now one sits in one’s study, contemplating the historical context of the first of Murray’s books, The Omni-Americans, while hearing, from the living room, the cheer as Barack Obama, a literal as well as figurative African American, is taking the stage to deliver his Farewell Address.

“When The Omni-Americans came out, in 1970,” wrote Henry Louis Gates, co-editor of this collection, “I was in college, majoring in history but pursuing extracurricular studies in how to be black. Those were days when the Black Power movement smoldered, when militancy was the mode and rage de rigueur. Just two years before, the poets Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka had edited Black Fire, the book that launched the so-called Black Arts Movement—in effect the cultural wing of the Black Power movement. . . . Such was the milieu in which Murray published The Omni-Americans, and you couldn’t imagine a more foolhardy act.”

In 1970, the nonviolent civil rights movement was reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King. The New York Times anointed Jesse Jackson heir apparent, but he was being non-violently PUSHed out. The Black Panther party was, by turns, victim and perpetrator in ambushes and assassinations; when Gates was in college, at Yale, Panther co-founder Bobby Seale was also in New Haven, on trial for torture and murder. The Marxist-disoriented Black Liberation Army, which found the Panthers insufficiently extreme, was warning “black bootlickers and black class enemies” that the same “treatment would be meted out” to them as to whites, especially to “so-called black scholars,” who wasted time “laying back theorizing and writing essays . . . [in] bourgeois publications.”

Murray, in The Omni-Americans, called Marxian dialectic restrictive, assessed “the bitterness of outraged black militants” as “sometimes excessive,” critiqued militant insights as “often only one dimensional,” and said militants themselves tended to “concede too much to the self-inflating estimates of others” and “capitulate too easily to a con game which their ancestors never fell for.” In 1971, when the BLA claimed credit for shooting down two cops in Harlem’s Colonial Park houses, Murray was living in Harlem’s upper-middle-class Lennox Terrace Apartments and writing articles for Life and Harper’s. Foolhardy? More like suicidal. Or courageous.

One also was in college in 1970, majoring in creative writing, pursuing extracurricular studies in how to get laid, and struggling to reconcile one’s heritage with au courant nomenclature. One’s great-grandfather was a slave who purchased his own freedom to become a free person of color. One’s grandfather and father were ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church’s chief bishop was chairman of the board of the NAACP. When speaking or writing concerning one’s self, one had abandoned “Negro” for “black” but wondered if this was metamorphosis, conversion, or a dialogue between pot and kettle.

One wanted to identify one’s self as a writer but felt some creative urges blocked by prescriptions in that Black Fire anthology, things like “The dilemma of the ‘negro’ artist is that he makes assumptions based on the wrong models. . . . These assumptions are not only wrong, they are even antithetical to his existence” and “The black artist must construct models which correspond to his own reality. The models must be non-white.”

Feeling one’s threeness—an American, a black, a would-be co-worker in the kingdom of culture—one went to graduate school, at the University of London’s Institute of United States Studies, which name turned threeness into fourness. One sought clarity in the company of black West Indians, who shared the “long memory” of transportation, discrimination, and insult that is the social heritage of slavery—but not American slavery. One heard two women from Trinidad and Tobago (do not omit the latter) and Jamaica, respectively, in near-violent debate concerning the relative cultural merits of calypso and reggae. One thought of Motown, and fled to Bach. Just in time, one discovered The Omni-Americans and heard Albert Murray talking about the blues.

About which one knew nothing. One had learned to curse as a child, of course, and after leaving home, to drink, but one was born and raised a multiply-modified Methodist; one did not dance (well) or play cards, and thought the blues would lead to this, and even harder stuff.

But one did know the spirituals, which, Murray pointed out, “did reflect life on the plantation and the effects of political bondage; but they were also a profound and universally moving expression of Protestant Christianity, interwoven with . . . many other things, including an active physical existence and a rich, robust and highly imaginative conception of life itself.” Likewise, the blues, which, he said, “affirm not only U. S. Negro life in all its arbitrary complexities and not only life in America in all its infinite confusions, they affirm life and humanity itself in the very process of confronting failures and existentialistic absurdities.”

One heard that.

Of course the words were print-on-page, but there was something intensely unwritten about them. Something oral, almost musical. A combination of sound and sense, like a well-preached sermon.

One said amen to Murray’s attack on “social science fiction” and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. One’s sociology tutor treated the Moynihan Report as gospel, his favorite chapter being “The Tangle of Pathology,” whose many verses supported the theory that what was wrong with black Americans resulted from a matriarchal structure in the Negro family—households headed by females, often young, unwed mothers—and inadequacies of black males, especially black fathers. When one begged to differ—and one did have to beg—one was buried under a pile of peer-reviewed articles, many written by black American sociologists. One loved hearing Murray growl that the Moynihan Report was “the stuff of which the folklore of white supremacy is made,” with “superficial trappings of an objective monograph of scientific research,” and that “contemporary . . . racism in the United States is derived from social science surveys in which white norms and black deviations are tantamount to white well being and black pathology.” One scourged one’s sociology tutor with a Murrayan rhetorical question: “Was Elizabethan or Victorian England a matriarchy?”

Murray’s “For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other” made one rethink the possibility of an expatriate life. His assurance that “in the second and third quarters of nineteenth century America, Negroes can find adequate historical as well as mythological documentation for ‘all that really matters’ in the establishment of their national identity,” and his “not that there is anything inherently wrong about being influenced by white writers. What black writer isn’t?” swept away insecurities engendered by the Black Arts Movement. Of course he also cautioned, “Who the hell needs a brown-skinned Norman Mailer?”

Then, one could not stop listening to Albert Murray. Now, rereading The Omni-Americans after forty years, one finds Murray’s prose a bit prolix; he sometimes sounds the Chicago comedian who often appeared as Felonious Munk, on the late, lamented Nightly Show.

Yet does one marvel at pungent notions likely to be as incendiary in the new millenium as they were in the old century. His assertions that “American welfare programs for Negroes (and often for others too) increase the debasement they are supposed to ameliorate . . . [and] the assistance afforded Negroes by philanthropic and governmental rehabilitation programs alike is not much more than a choice between contemptuous oppression and condescending benevolence” will only please congressmen eager to make budget cuts. In this age of “African-American,” his term “U. S. Negro” will not please anybody. Neither will his satiric observation that “the most important thing to remember about the HNIC—Head Negro (mispronounced Southern style) in Charge . . . is that he is selected by white people.”

Hearing Obama’s mellifluous voice, one remembers August 2004, and sitting with someone in the living room, watching as Obama gave the Keynote Address at the Democratic Convention—“17 Minutes That Launched a Political Star,” according to the Washington Post. When Obama said, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” one heard echoes of Murray’s definition of an “Omni-American”: “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multi-colored people. . . . They are all interrelated in one way or another.”

But now one thinks a longer, harsher formulation is in order. “American culture, even in its most segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.” One is reminded of something Murray said about blues singers; that if they liked the tune, they would proceed as if any words would do . . . and those who hear cannot really understand half the words. One is troubled by that idea now, as troubled as one was long ago by a central tenet of Murrayian thought: the “blues idiom.”

One understood the idiom could be expressed not only in music but in any artistic medium, in every aspect of life. One understood it was both form and not-form, for it required not only theme but variations, not planned but improvised. One understood the blues idiom arose as a survival strategy—black Americans had to improvise just to make it in “this great hit-and-miss republic.” It evolved as a set of skills were transmitted from generation to generation, not genetically but culturally, and became, in time, an aesthetic, independent of necessity. One understood that “when the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest and the medicine man.” One even understood how “swinging the blues” could be translated into poetry or priestly oratory. One had heard two thousand sermons by now.

But one’s aim was not to preach or make poems; one aimed to write prose. One was learning how to draft an essay, revise it, nurse it and rehearse it and give out the news. One understood the revisions involved improvisation. But one did not know how to swing it. One did not believe prose could be swung. Then one came home and read South to a Very Old Place.

Which began as an assignment for a magazine article for a series called “Going Home in America.” The editor wanted Murray to write about Alabama. But Murray . . . improvised. Two years later the article was sixty-four thousand words long. The editor was fired. The assignment was canceled. But the manuscript was published as a book. Reading it, one saw what it meant to swing the blues in prose.

Part of it was using a second-person voice with first-person point of view; another part, using extended phrases rather than sentences; another, a double-voiced narration, text translated as undertext of what the black American speaker was thinking but not saying—a contemporary social science technician might call it code-switching. Those three techniques applied together transformed what could have been “At the Atlanta airport baggage claim, I consulted a Negro porter” into “So preparatory to everything else you check with you-know-precisely-which-good-old-you-know-who, ‘Hey man, I’m stopping off here to see some newspaper people tomorrow and maybe the next day. Can you recommend a good downtown hotel?’ (Which is buster brown for: ‘Hey man, can you vouch for what these goddamn old Alana peckerwoods been doing since I was through here last time?’)”

Another part was conjuring. Writing about white liberal Louisiana novelist Walker Percy, whose bachelor uncle and quasi-stepfather, William Alexander Percy, a white unliberal cotton planter, had written a bestselling memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, in 1943, Murray summons the elder Percy’s voice to frame the New South conversation with Old South attitude, invoking “Such-neo-Marse-John-isms as ‘How is it possible for the white man to communicate with people, whom imagination kills and fantasy makes impotent, who thieve like children and murder ungrudgingly as small boys fight’ And, perhaps inevitably, such traditional Deep South ass-out hang-ups as ‘Every black buck in the south has gone or will go to Chicago, where it is not only possible but inexpensive to sleep with a white whore.’”

But the best part was a bluesy interview technique, framed by lyrical introduction. “This time, (which is chinaberry-blue Maytime) one very special back porch after-supper rocking-chair session in the fig-tree-fresh damp-clay-scented twilight” leads to an “unka-so-and-so monologue” transcribed as if verbatim: “Lyndon Johnson, Old Lyndon Johnson. They can call him everything but a child of God as long as you please and I still say old Lyndon Johnson, faults and all. They talking about what they talking about and I’m talking about what I’m talking about . . .” Somewhere in the two-thousand-word solo, Murray transcribed: “‘So now you see what I’m talking about young fess?’” One thought, perhaps, one did.

When one first read South to a Very Old Place, one little noted that it ended in a fusillade of military images: “vouchers, identification papers, dog tags, signs countersigns,” a reference to being “back in the national zone.” One did note a line from the New York Times review of Collected Essays & Memoirs: “Part of Murray’s genius was for sounding so cheerful in the midst of battle.” Reading that, one recalled the images and was reminded that Murray had been Major Murray—which is to say, a warrior. Learning, from the curated Notes, that the original publisher camouflaged Stomping the Blues—a set of elegant variations on a theme of blue—as an art book, one realized: Murray had been at war.

One knew that war. It started in the eighteenth century, when America’s then-foremost cultural critic expressed an Opinion about the correlation between black skin and mental and artistic capabilities. Wrote Thomas Jefferson: “But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never seen even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.”

One had long known and hated that passage. It seemed that Murray knew and hated it, too, and so raged at those who thought “swinging the blues achieves only an essentially pathetic therapeutic compensation for the bleak social and economic circumstances of black people in the United States,” and insisted, “Those conditioned by the idiom have always used the blues as good time music. Stomping the Blues was contracted as a “Book On Africa,” but Murray . . . improvised. One could almost hear him saying, There’s poetry enough among us too; we just call it the blues.

But Jefferson was not only an influential cultural critic; he was a politician and president. His Opinion extended to the question of whether people of African descent could ever be unmodified Americans. “The blacks,” he wrote, “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. . . . This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. . . . When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”

And therefore, one understood why the first variation in Stomping, though lyrical, is a depressive lament about the blues: “Sometimes you forget all about them in spite of yourself, but all too often the very first thing you realize when you wake up is that they are there again, settling in like bad weather, hovering like plague-bearing insects swarming precisely as if they were blue demons dispatched on their mission of harassment by none other than the Chief Red Devil of all devils himself; and yet perhaps as often as not it is also as if they squat obscene and vulturelike, waiting and watching you and preening themselves at the same time, their long rubbery necks writhing . . .

Once again, one heard rather than read. But one had to stop listening.

What one has written about the Collected Essays & Memoirs of Albert Murray was supposed to be a review, but one . . . improvised. One is not sure what to call it.

One hears the voice of Obama and recalls another night—November 4, 2008—sitting with someone in the living room, watching and listening as Obama gave his victory speech, in the open air of Grant Park. The camera sought out Jesse Jackson, who was once poised for something, maybe even this, but was now out in the cold. He was shedding tears. The next day some talking head on NPR asked why he was crying. One could call it “Jesse’s Blues.”

One hears Obama winding up—in more ways than one—with the old “Yes We Can” campaign riff. The crowd cheers like they can’t hear the undertext coulda, shoulda, woulda. One could call it “The Too Goddamn Late Now Blues.”

The audio cuts off in mid-hurrah; someone has turned off the television. One listens and hears a sound somewhere between sigh and sob.

One understands. Someone is African American, but is as frightened as a Free Person of Color in 1835. No, nobody’s talking about “repatriating” African Americans (shipping niggers) back to Africa. But somebody is talking about deporting young people, brought to America as children, to someplace they’ve hardly known. No, nobody’s lynching anybody. But somebody is shooting unarmed black Americans and getting away with it because they feared for their lives. Somebody is insulted by “#Black.”

One does not share her fear. One is not African American, one is black American. But one does think about the timeliness and timelessness. Reading Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs, The Omni-Americans, especially, one is driven back to the past. When Murray rails at “Law and Order,” one thinks of the days when George C. Wallace and Richard Nixon were presidential candidates, although the phrase has long since been co-opted by a television drama franchise. When one reads of “heavily armed, outraged, and slaughter-prone policemen . . . smoldering with rage and itching to perpetrate a massacre,” one knows Murray is referring to the riots of the 1960s, but one thinks of scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, a year after Murray’s death. One knows Murray’s excoriation of whites who “wink away the hot-headed murder of a fourteen-year-old Harlem schoolboy by an experienced, six-foot three white New York Policeman” refers to 1964, but there is the urge to check one’s newsfeed. One revises: One does not yet share her fear.

And so, the blues do squat, obscene and vulturelike, in one’s study. It’s time to haul ass out of there. One types in the only title that makes sense—call it “The Omni-American Blues”—and goes to swing it with someone in the living room.

David Bradley is author of South Street and The Chaneysville Incident, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award.