Scholar Saw a Multicolored American Culture
By Mel Watkins
Albert Murray, an essayist, critic and novelist who influenced the national discussion about race by challenging black separatism, insisting that the black experience was essential to American culture and inextricably tied to it, died on Sunday at his home in Harlem. He was 97.
Lewis P. Jones, a family spokesman and executor of Mr. Murray’s estate, confirmed the death.
Mr. Murray was one of the last surviving links to a period of flowering creativity and spreading ferment among the black intelligentsia in postwar America, when the growing force of the civil rights movement gave rise to new bodies of thought about black identity, black political power and the prospects for equality in a society with a history of racism.
As blacks and whites clashed in the streets, black integrationists and black nationalists dueled in the academy and in books and essays. And Mr. Murray was in the middle of the debate, along with writers and artists including James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Romare Bearden and his good friend Ralph Ellison.
One of his boldest challenges was directed toward a new black nationalist movement that was gathering force in the late 1960s, drawing support from the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, and finding advocates on university faculties and among alienated young blacks who believed that they could never achieve true equality in the United States.
Mr. Murray insisted that integration was necessary, inescapable and the only path forward for the country. And to those — blacks and whites alike — who would have isolated “black culture” from the American mainstream, he answered that it couldn’t be done. To him the currents of the black experience — expressed in language and music and rooted in slavery — run through American culture, blending with European and American Indian traditions and helping to give the nation’s culture its very shape and sound.
With a freewheeling prose style influenced by jazz and the blues — Duke Ellington called him “the unsquarest man I know” — Mr. Murray challenged conventional assumptions about art, race and American identity in books like the essay collection “Stomping the Blues” and the memoir “South to a Very Old Place.” He gave further expression to those views in a series of autobiographical novels, starting with “Train Whistle Guitar” in 1974.
Mr. Murray established himself as a formidable social and literary figure in 1970 with his first book, a collection of essays titled “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture.” The book constituted an attack on black separatism.
“The United States is not a nation of black and white people,” Mr. Murray wrote. “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” America, he maintained, “even in its most rigidly segregated precincts,” was a “nation of multicolored people,” or Omni-Americans: “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro.”
Fokelore and ‘Fakelore’
The book also challenged what Mr. Murray called the “social science fiction” pronouncements of writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who he said had exaggerated racial and ethnic differences in postulating a pathology of black life. As Mr. Murray put it, they had simply countered “the folklore of white supremacy” with “the fakelore of black pathology.”
“The Omni-Americans,” the novelist Walker Percy wrote, “may be the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture,” published in his generation. But it had fierce detractors. Writing in The New York Times, the black-studies scholar and author J. Saunders Redding called the essays contradictory, Mr. Murray’s theories “nonsense” and his “rhetoric” a “dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play.”
For many years Mr. Murray and the novelist Ralph Ellison, who met in college, were close friends and literary kindred spirits. In “King of Cats,” a 1996 profile of Mr. Murray in The New Yorker, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that the friendship between the two men “seemed a focal point of black literary culture.”
“Both men were militant integrationists, and they shared an almost messianic view of the importance of art,” Mr. Gates wrote. “In their ardent belief that Negro culture was a constitutive part of American culture, they had defied an entrenched literary mainstream, which preferred to regard black culture as so much exotica — amusing perhaps, but eminently dispensable. Now they were also defying a new black vanguard, which regarded authentic black culture as separate from the rest of American culture — something that was created, and could be appreciated, in splendid isolation.”
Disliked the Term ‘Black’
Like Ralph Ellison, Mr. Murray proposed an inclusive theory of “the American Negro presence.” (He disdained the use of the term “black” and later spurned “African-American” — “I am not an African,” he said, “I am an American.”)
Mr. Murray contended that American identity “is best defined in terms of culture.” And for him, American culture was a “composite,” or “mulatto,” culture that owed much of its richness and diversity to blacks.
Yet Mr. Murray was not always sure that whites understood this shared legacy when they embraced black artists. He could be suspicious of whites, asking whether they, even in their applause, nonetheless continued to regard black culture “as so much exotica,” as Mr. Gates put it. Thus Mr. Murray asked whether the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Toni Morrison in 1993 was not “tainted with do-goodism,” and whether the poet Maya Angelou’s readings at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural echoed a song-and-dance tradition in which blacks entertained whites.
The essential bond between American culture and what Mr. Murray called Negro culture is the shared embrace of a “blues aesthetic,” which he said permeated the works of black musicians, writers and artists and was being increasingly adopted by whites. The blues were to Mr. Murray “the genuine legacy of slavery,” Laura Ciolkowski, a professor of literature now at Columbia University, wrote of Mr. Murray in The New York Times Book Review in 2002.
“For him, blues music, with its demands for improvisation, resilience and creativity, is at the heart of American identity,” she wrote.
Mr. Murray himself wrote: “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. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.”
Albert Lee Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who soon gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty.
“It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” said Mr. Murray, who learned of his adoption when he was about 11. The Murrays moved to Mobile, where Albert grew up in a neighborhood known as Magazine Point. In “Train Whistle Guitar,” his largely autobiographical first novel, he called it Gasoline Point.