I used to take the New Haven line down to the City to spend Saturday afternoons with Albert Murray and Romare Bearden at Books & Company on Madison Avenue. All three have since crossed over to the mythical side of New York City life. It was a dream: I, a junior faculty member at Yale, perusing the greats with one of the greats, “The King of Cats” I would call him much later in a New Yorker profile—easily one of the century’s most important aesthetic theorists of American culture.
Yet, just a few years before, with the Black Power movement ascendant, Murray’s publication of The Omni-Americans in 1970 seemed foolhardy—a book in which the very language of the black nationalists was subjected to a strip search. We didn’t need more sociological inquiry—he famously called its reductive approach to Negro-American society and culture “social science fiction”—nor did we need to foster myths of our own cultural separateness, he declared; what was needed was cultural creativity, nourished by the folkways and traditions of black America but transcending them. Secretly, many of us found The Omni-Americans thrilling—a transgressive act—something you read greedily but furtively in public only after switching its dust jacket with The Wretched of the Earth.
Commanding on the page, Murray was equally impressive in the flesh: a lithe and dapper man with an astonishing verbal fluency, by turns grandiloquent and earthy. I loved to listen to his voice—grave but insinuating, with more than a hint of a jazz singer’s rasp. Murray liked to elaborate on his points and elaborate on his elaborations, until you found that you had circumnavigated the globe and raced through the whole of post-Homeric literary history—what he called “vamping the ready.”
Murray was a teacher by temperament, and as he explained a point he’d often say that he wanted to be sure to “work it into your consciousness.” The twentieth century had worked a great deal into Murray’s consciousness. He was fifteen when the Scottsboro trial began, twenty-two when Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial. He joined the Air Force when it was segregated and rejoined shortly after it had been desegregated. He was in his late thirties when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. He was in his forties when President Kennedy was assassinated and the Civil Rights Act was passed. He was in his fifties when Dr. King was shot and Black Power was proclaimed. And he was 92 when Barack Obama was elected President and 96 when he shocked the world by doing it again.
Heroism, for Murray, was a matter both of circumstance and of will. He was born Albert Lee Murray in 1916 and grew up in Magazine Point, a hamlet not far from Mobile, Alabama. His mother was a housewife and his father helped lay railroad tracks as a cross-tie cutter. Everyone in the village knew that there was something special about Albert. And he knew it, too. After all, he’d overheard his mother say she’d raised him when his birth parents, middle-class and educated, couldn’t. “It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” Murray said cheerfully.
He earned his B.A. at Tuskegee Institute in 1939, and stayed on to teach. In 1941, he married Mozelle Menefee, his wife of more than 70 years, who, at the time, was a student. Murray spent the last two years of the Second World War on active duty in the Air Force. Two years after his discharge, he moved to New York, where, on the G.I. Bill, he got a master’s degree in literature from New York University. It was also in New York that the friendship between him and Ralph Waldo Ellison, a former classmate at Tuskegee, took off. Ellison read passages to Murray from a manuscript that would turn into Invisible Man, and the two men explored the streets and the sounds of Harlem together hashing out ideas about improvisation, the blues, and literary modernism.
Murray rejoined the Air Force in 1951, better to support his wife and their beloved daughter Michelle, and for much of the fifties he taught R.O.T.C. at Tuskegee. When Murray retired in 1962, he returned to New York, and soon his articles began to appear.
It may seem ironic that the person who first urged The Omni-Americans on me was Larry Neal, one of the founders (along with Amiri Baraka) of the Black Arts Movement, which Murray devastatingly critiqued. But Neal was a man of far greater subtlety than the movement he spawned, and he understood Albert Murray’s larger enterprise better than most. Where the Black Aesthetic Movement had posited “the black experience” as an entity separate from and superior to white American culture, Murray argued that “American” and “Negro-American” culture were mutually constitutive. There was no so-called American culture without the Negro-American formal element and content inescapably intertwined within its marvelous blend, and no Afro-American culture without its foundational white American influences and forms, upon which black people had improvised and riffed, and which they had bent and redefined. He was, in the truest sense, the ultimate black nationalist. While the clench-fist crowd was scrambling for cultural crumbs, he was declaring the entire harvest board of American civilization to be his birthright.
Murray’s The Omni-Americans spelled the beginning of the end of the Black Aesthetic Movement’s mono-vocal dominance, and helped give rise to the modernist and postmodernist artistic practices of writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Leon Forrest, Ishmael Reed, Ernest Gaines, James Alan McPherson, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Alexander, and Colson Whitehead, among several others, each of whom understands the task of the artist to be finding the universal in the particularity of African American history and culture.
In later works, most notably Stomping the Blues (1976), Murray processed the blues into a self-conscious aesthetic, translating the deep structure of the black vernacular into prose. Murray, as a critic and novelist, pointed us to the three great exemplars of this aesthetic practice—Duke Ellington in music, Ralph Ellison in literature, and Romare Bearden in collage. They found their common voice through Murray’s critical interpretations of their commonality. Elegance, for these three geniuses—plus a fourth, Murray—was both a value and a way of life.
His literary inclinations ran strongly toward the paternal. He took deep satisfaction in that role, and there are many who can attest to his capacity for nurturance besides me, including James Alan McPherson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Robert O’Meally, Paul Devlon, Erroll McDonald, and Lewis Jones. “The last of the giants,” McPherson called him.
We live in an age of irony, but Murray was produced by another age, in which intelligence expressed itself in ardor. He spent a career believing in things, like the gospel according to Ma Rainey and Jimmy Rushing and Duke Ellington. More broadly, he believed in the sublimity of art, and he never was afraid of risking bathos to get to it. I learned a great many things when I sat with him and his running buddy, Romie Bearden, at Books and Company and at his apartment up in Harlem over the decades, and summed up, they amounted to a larger vision. That vision is even truer now. This was Albert Murray’s century; we just lived in it. And as we keep on living, we will never forget what he meant to our American story or the music animating it with a soul force he taught us to hear.