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Homage to Albert Murray

Reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of The Omni-Americans

The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy by Albert Murray. Library of America, 260 pages.

When I first met Albert Murray, in the spring of 1994, I was a relatively young man, thirty-one years old, and he was in his upper seventies. At the time, I worked at a reference publication called Current Biography, and my excuse for visiting Murray’s book-filled Harlem apartment, which I would do many more times over the years, was to profile him. Murray had by then published some half-dozen books—essay collections, novels, a memoir, an as-told-to autobiography of Count Basie, and Stomping The Blues, his classic meditation on jazz and blues—connecting music, literature, race, and the American identity in his singular manner. His work had meant a lot for me, one book standing above the rest.

I had grown up in the 1960s and ‘70s in an all-black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., before leaving for the Midwest as a college student, where I slowly found my way to integrated circles. I was now in New York, in an interracial marriage and a new father to a biracial child. As happy as I was about those developments, they raised some tricky questions. In my youth, I had bought into the idea of America as a—remember this term?—melting pot, and while I still played down the importance of skin color in my own life, a touch of this country’s race obsession had over time penetrated my consciousness. The result was confusion. What did it mean for me to be in non-black circles? Was the difference between me and those around me truly meaningless? I was, contrary to what some must have thought, proud to be black, but did being black in an integrated world mean losing part of yourself? Which part? And what would be left? No one I knew seemed to have the answers.

And then I read The Omni-Americans, Murray’s first book, originally published in 1970 and now reissued in a fiftieth-anniversary edition by the Library of America. It would be difficult to overstate the impact that this essay collection, especially the title essay, had on my life. The Omni-Americans made it clear that American blacks and whites (and Americans of Asian, Native, and Latinx descent, too) are unlike people anywhere else in that they have, however little any number of them may want to admit it, comingled, both physically and culturally, to the extent that the nation is, in Murray’s words, “incontestably mulatto.” Black culture is of course a central part of this mix, and what I took from the book was that there was no place in America a black person could go—even if there were places that person wouldn’t particularly want to go—and not still be among his or her or their own.

Did being black in an integrated world mean losing part of yourself? Which part? And what would be left? No one I knew seemed to have the answers.

To be sure, that view put Murray at odds with black separatists, who felt that it was folly to identify with a country that had for so long oppressed them. Murray countered that it was equally a folly to voluntarily give up one’s place in a nation one has helped to create. One could be—one was—both black and American, the two contained in a single person, who not only was integrated but had integrity. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been missing, the insight that allowed me to get on with my life and my writing, as I factored Murray’s insights into my own developing ideas about race and family, about jazz and books and film.

And so my trip to Murray’s home was as much pilgrimage as work. That first visit set the tone and pattern for those to follow: in a chair pulled up to Murray’s desk, where he would sit among papers and books, I would do much more listening than talking while he held forth, his words coming as rapidly as notes from the bell of a jazz saxophone as his thoughts roamed over the subjects of literature, music, and history. Once in a while he would send me to his extensive bookshelves in search of a passage from a novel he wanted to read to me; if I was really lucky, he would break out a bottle of Armagnac and a couple of glasses. At his memorial service, one speaker noted that Murray might have written more books if he spent less time with younger people. But if books are a way of ensuring that one’s ideas live on, then so, in Murray’s view, were the afternoons he invested in aspiring writers of the kind I was then.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” Heraclitus tells us, “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It might also be said that no one ever reads the same book twice. The reader, obviously, changes between one reading and another—growing older, learning more—but the book changes, too, taking on new shades of meaning with the changing historical context. I am no longer thirty-one; 1970 was a long time ago, and so was 1994. With regard to The Omni-Americans, perhaps the most striking change wrought by all of this, at least for me, is how Murray himself comes across on the page. A writer who insists on the Americanness of blacks might be thought by some to be complacent, to equate accepting one’s Americanness with accepting the status quo. Even in 1994, I thought that was not true of Murray—but I had forgotten how very much it is not true.

The original edition of The Omni-Americans appeared at a time when the wound in black Americans’ collective psyche from Martin Luther King’s assassination was still fresh. Many blacks had abandoned integration as a goal in favor of separatism and nationalism, ditching King’s nonviolent protest to embrace the mantra of self-defense. “Black Power” was the slogan, Afros grew out to there, and Africa, not America, was the land many blacks sought to identify with—you never saw so many dashikis in your life, at least not in black neighborhoods like the one in which I was then seven years old. Meanwhile, there were modest signs of the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the realm of culture, with blacks popping up here and there in non-stereotypical roles in TV shows or on their own shows. At any rate, it was difficult, whether one watched TV, flipped through magazines, or read books, to escape the subject of what ailed black America, the clueless and condescending nature of much of the discourse captured perfectly by the ubiquitous phrase “the black problem.” (“I always thought white people were the ones with the problem,” I remember an African American character quipping on the sitcom All in the Family, speaking for millions.)

Murray uses the approach of one of the jazz musicians he holds in such high esteem, stretching a simple idea in so many directions that its mother wouldn’t recognize it.

Into this mix came The Omni-Americans, which celebrated the advances made by the Civil Rights Movement while rejecting seemingly every other trend of the time. One the one hand, Murray critiqued black nationalists of all hues, who he felt were relinquishing their birthright: Why should we, by refusing to identify with our country, voluntarily cede to others what we helped build? At the same time, Murray attacked those who wrote about the wretchedness of black life, not only the avowed racists but also—and especially—the ostensibly well-intentioned social scientists, usually but not always white, who, in their supposed efforts to help blacks, portrayed the very people they sought to assist as being less than human, who painted black culture as a large-scale pathology. Murray was not denying that things were tough for his community, nor was he asking blacks simply to accept their lot; he just maintained that black life should not be defined solely as suffering. The Omni-Americans was to “provide a basis for action,” he writes in the introduction, action that would resist the misrepresentation of American blacks.

The book has three parts. In the opening essay, “The Omni-Americans,” Murray offers a kind of overture of his themes. He begins by asserting and celebrating the central place that blacks have historically played in the country—in terms of everything from culture to physical labor, before moving on to an indictment of the above-mentioned misrepresenters. The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, popularly known as the Moynihan Report, comes in for some savage treatment here. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study offered a “sociological” explanation for the phenomenon of single-mother black households, attributing it to a debilitating strain in black culture that stemmed from slavery. Murray attacked the study for its essentialist assumptions about the inferiority of blacks, noting that “the Moynihan Report is the stuff of which the folklore of white supremacy is made.” The essay concludes with a celebration of the resilience of black culture as represented by the blues, which Murray defines as its signature artistic achievement. “[W]hen the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues,” Murray writes, “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.” This is vintage Murray, linking the achievements of black Americans with those of people everywhere whose ultimate aim is to define, and thus advance, the human story.

The essays in the second section, “The Illusive Black Image,” are combative, intended as Murray puts it, “as sketch page erasures of images that were unlikenesses.” In a number of these pieces, Murray uses the approach of one of the jazz musicians he holds in such high esteem, stretching a simple idea in so many directions that its mother wouldn’t recognize it. “Oneupmanship in Colorful America” takes issue with the term “nonwhite,” a symbol, for Murray, of the way white Americans set themselves as the standard and everyone else as a deviation. “Who That Say, What Dat, Every Time Us Do That?” is an extended response to a supposedly sympathetic white southerner’s statement that he “had never met a Negro who didn’t trust white people too much and that he had met very few who really understood what white people were really doing to them.” Much like a horn player who sets out to see what a single musical phrase will yield, Murray works up a prose lather whose theme is essentially, We understand more than you think we do, buster.

The third section, “Getting It Together,” is made up of essays on black consciousness. Those include the wonderful “Identity, Diversity, and the Mainstream,” a meditation on black art, tradition, and culture through the ages—much of it “oral rather than written.” Murray argues that blacks should not overlook the shining examples of achievement here at home—he cites the music of Duke Ellington as a pinnacle of such achievement—while pining for lost connections to Africa. At the same time, he points out that an American educational orientation allows blacks to research that largely oral African culture in a way that they might not be able to otherwise. The essay concludes:

[I]t is all too true that the “Americanization” process that captive Africans were forced to undergo stripped them of many of the native accoutrements that they held most dear and wished to retain. But it was also a process of Americanization that has now equipped and disposed them not only to reclaim and update the heritage of black Africa but also to utilize the multicolored heritage of all mankind of all the ages.

This is all well and good. But for my money, what makes The Omni-Americans essential reading half a century after its publication is not that it celebrates and defends blacks (who, Lord knows, can always use defending), or that it finds a novel angle from which to mount that defense (counter-attacking black people’s so-called friends as well as their declared enemies), or even that it showcases Murray’s inimitably lively prose (Richard Wright “was still given to ripping red hot pages of accusations from his outraged and smoldering typewriter and angrily flinging them all the way back across the Atlantic and into the guilt ridden lap of America”). No—the reason to read Murray is the quality of his that we so desperately need today and always, the quality that his work might just encourage in us: namely, his utter refusal to be sentimental, his unwillingness to be swayed by received notions about race or by anything other than a clear-eyed look at what is in front of him, his having “a mind so fine, no idea could violate it,” as T.S. Eliot noted about Henry James.

Murray’s arguments were based not so much on loyalty to black Americans as on a commitment to truth, whose cold light he turned on brown-skinned folks too. As much as he admired leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, he did not think they walked on water. And Murray’s own lack of sentimentality allowed him to see the same quality in those whom black leaders had to deal with, powerful whites whose moral sense could not be too heavily relied on. Check this out:

There is, as no man of good will would ever dispute, everything to be said for the high priority that most Negro leaders and spokesmen have always placed on emergency measures to counteract poverty, exclusion, and injustice. But in giving so much emphasis to the moral aspects of the case, they often seem to neglect the fundamental nature of the hardheaded pragmatism that underlies so much American behavior. Sometimes Americans are disposed to fair play and sometimes they are not.

In other words, black leaders should appeal to whites’ sense of self-interest, which would motivate them in ways that altruism would not. If whites could be made to see their own actions as investment rather than charity, they would be more willing to help. Americans, Murray concludes, “almost always invest their time, money, and enthusiasm in assets with promise, not liabilities. Even those who become involved in salvage operations have been sold on inherent potential.” 

Murray’s arguments were based not so much on loyalty to black Americans as on a commitment to truth, whose cold light he turned on brown-skinned folks too.

Murray considered fiction to be one of the most important means of capturing life in all its complexity; his heroes included Faulkner, Hemingway, and Thomas Mann. For that reason, he took aim at a publishing industry that encouraged blacks to write tales of woe that portrayed dark-skinned people as little more than victims of oppression, and he was equally contemptuous of black writers who fell into this trap. “It is about time,” he writes, “U.S. Negroes realized that whether or not these particular white friends themselves have any literary taste and maturity (and one wonders), they do not assume that Negro writers have any.  . . . To be conned by such self-styled good will as is usual with so many of these cheap-note aristocrats is not only to invite contempt and not only to encourage it, but also to deserve it.” In The Omni-Americans, Murray criticizes writers including Richard Wright and James Baldwin for producing the kind of dehumanizing protest literature that the latter had once deplored in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe (and, famously, of Wright himself). One book he does celebrate is Invisible Man, by his longtime friend and fellow Tuskegee University alum Ralph Ellison, for embodying the blues tradition.

Murray never became a household name in the way that, say, Ellison or Baldwin did. Yet in his lifetime he attracted a set of disciples including Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis (one of his collaborators on Jazz at Lincoln Center), and avid readers like Henry Louis Gates (editor of the LOA volume). Over time he has also won a kind of cult following; Murray devotees, whether they discover each other at cocktail parties or on social media, instantly know they have something in common—a way of thinking about literature and music, about the country and living in it.

Murray died in 2013 at age ninety-seven. I wonder what he would have had to say about so much that has happened since. What, for example, would he have made of the Black Lives Matter activists who came on the scene at just about the time he left it? A passage from The Omni-Americans leads me to think he would have cheered them on:

It is the political behavior of black activists, not that of norm-calibrated Americans, that best represents the spirit of such constitutional norm-ideals as freedom, justice, equality, fair representation, and democratic processes. . . . It is the non-conforming Negro who now acts like the true descendant of the Founding Fathers–who cries, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and who regards taxation without representation as tyranny.

Murray was a thinking patriot, the best kind, the only good kind—one who knew that to serve our country, one must not celebrate or rationalize whatever America does but must seek to make it better, to help the nation strive to live up to its ideals of democracy and many-as-one, even if we never quite get there. I miss that about him, as I miss so much else about my handsome, cantankerous old friend—his high-pitched and rapid speech, his sense of humor, his throaty laugh, his fondness for reading aloud to me passages from books he loved, the Armagnac he occasionally shared with me. Not long ago, thinking of him, I bought a bottle of Armagnac and had some at home. It wasn’t the same.