Reading Albert Murray in the Age of Trump

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The political and the aesthetic
intersect in Murray’s worldview, though he scrupulously avoided partisan
political propaganda and the “politics of unexamined slogans.” Murray staunchly
supported the Civil Rights Movement as the culmination of a century-long post-emancipation
battle for black rights beyond the chains of ethnicity or race. He valued
activism and protest as tactical measures, but doubted the long-term political
value of what he called “the politics of moral outcry” to induce guilt and fear
in whites.

The current backlash

against identity politics presents an opportunity for progressives and post-modernists
to reboot their strategy and rhetoric. “Producing guilt may or may not be
fine,” Murray suggests in the introduction of his first collection of essays, The Omni-Americans (1970), “but
stimulating intelligent action is better. And intelligent action always needs
to have its way paved by a practical estimate of the situation.”

ALBERT MURRAY: COLLECTED ESSAYS & MEMIORS, Edited by Paul Devlin and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Library of America, 1049 pp, $45

Murray was also a theorist of “elastic”
human individuality: He renounced biological race and the racial worldview and
instead emphasized culture as a more viable basis for understanding and
interaction. American identity combines roots from Europe, Africa, and, of
course, Native Americans, all mixed together with modifications according to
region, economics, social power, cultural influence. The last people on earth
who should adhere to ideas of biological, ethnic, or racial purity are Americans.
(The increasing use of DNA tests—popularized in part by Gates’ PBS series Finding Your Roots and powerful short videos available on
YouTube—demonstrates just how mixed, and mixed up, we really are.) “We can no
longer afford to traffic in simple-minded and culturally inaccurate terms like
‘black’ and ‘white’ if they are meant to tell us anything more than loose
descriptions of skin tone,” wrote Stanley Crouch in 1994 in the closing essay
of The All-American Skin Game, or, The
Decoy of Race
. “We are the results
of every human possibility that has touched us, no matter its point of origin.”

Murray’s blues idiom worldview, which he described as a
secular form of existential improvisation, is summed up by his phrase “elegant resilience,” a synonym for “swinging” in jazz and “flow” in hip hop. “A definitive characteristic of the
descendants of American slaves is an orientation to elegance,” he writes in
From the Briarpatch File,

…the
disposition (in the face of all of the misery and uncertainty in the universe)
to refine all of human action in a direction of dance-beat elegance. I submit
that there is nothing that anybody in the world has ever done that is more
civilized or sophisticated than to dance elegantly, which is to state with your
total physical being an affirmative attitude toward the sheer fact of
existence.

Philosophers Kwame Anthony
Appiah and Danielle Allen have described a worldview they call “rooted
cosmopolitanism,” which I think describes Murray and the blues idiom to a tee.
Rooted cosmopolitanism counters the insular nationalism exemplified by the
conservative Prime Minister Theresa May,
who
recently said
: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a
citizen of nowhere.” Murray, unequivocal about his local Southern roots and
nationality as a black American, believed that Americans are heir to the best of
culture from all times and places—a global, cosmopolitan conception. Likewise,
the blues is a vernacular music rooted in the black South of the United States that’s
connected to Western church music harmonically as well as to music globally. The
blues idiom is America at her best because it synthesizes “everything in the
world as a matter of course, and feed[s] it back to the world at large as a
matter of course.”


In Murray’s first published work
of non-fiction, “‘The Problem’ is Not Just Black and White,” which appeared in Life magazine in 1964, was a
swashbuckling dissection of seven books on the Civil Rights Movement. Murray
had retired as an Air Force major two years before and he was game to wade in
heated waters of public discourse, so his friend Ellison, by this time an icon
of American letters, hooked him up for his debut.

Murray came out the gate slicing
and dicing white liberals and black radicals alike, as well as giving affirmative
nods where they were due. Injustice has many levels and Murray focused on the ideas
and images that undergird it: Redneck racists, grounded in regional and racial tribalism,
were all-too-obvious for Murray; it was the liberal condescension underpinning an
attitude of white superiority that was more stealthy and treacherous.

Nowhere
do the smug assumptions which underlie the ideas of white supremacy work more
insidiously than among the so-called American liberals, the self-styled
“friends of the Negro.” Their methods are rooted in the jargon of social
science, their judgments based on tricky statistics, their proposed solutions
basically materialistic—and seldom if ever do they stop to consider Negroes as
people. Instead, these authors’ good intentions become so enmeshed in
misinformation and guesswork that their books wind up preaching the same false
generalities as white supremacists. The only difference is that their attitude
is condescending rather than malevolent.  

In the review, Murray isn’t afraid to name names: jazz
critic Nat Hentoff, Charles Silberman,
author of 1964’s Crisis in Black and White, and
immigration historian Oscar
Handlin
, among others, get the boot. Murray shakes his head at the
Washington bureau chief of JET, Simeon Booker, for his report on the so-called new
black militancy: “Booker,
like most other reporters, Baldwinizes too much about the Negro’s new
liberation from fear of the white man,” he writes. “But he has his facts
backward: What the Negro has always been concerned about is the white man’s
sometime hysterical fear of him, a fear that expresses itself all too
often in terms of lynch mobs, police brutality, racist juries, unconstitutional
state laws, and fanatical defiance of federal authority.”

In The Omni-Americans,
Murray demonstrated how and why black American culture is central to the
American mainstream, despite social, economic, and political obstacles. Twenty
four years later, Murray would thrash Andrew Hacker’s thesis in the New York Times bestseller Two
Nations: Black
and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal
(1992) by listing major U.S. cities
with black mayoral leadership, and referencing the multi-million dollar
salaries of black athletes accepted by fans of all backgrounds in various
sports, as counter-examples. “Two
nations? Only two?” Murrays asks with incredulity. “What about the Asians,
Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other not very white U.S. citizens from
Latin America and elsewhere? One
thing that does not seem to have changed very much during the last twenty five
years is the pessimism of white academic experts on black prospects.”

The Library of America volumes
also include Murray’s unpublished work, such as his fascinating 1966 essay on
Black-Jewish relations titled “U.S. Negroes and U.S. Jews: No Cause for
Alarm”—which, as Gates and Devlin explain, was commissioned and then rejected
by the New York Times Magazine. The
editors instead published James Baldwin’s “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because
They’re Anti-White” a year later, presumably because of Baldwin’s greater fame
and visibility, and the likelihood his incendiary title would draw more
attention.

The Times editors could
condescend to Baldwin’s repetitions of “hatred” throughout his essay to feel
sorry for the poor, poor Negroes. Murray, who didn’t tolerate condescension, took
a more measured approach than Baldwin, stating without reservation that blacks
on the whole are not anti-Semitic, that Jewish philanthropy and support of
civil rights for all is greatly appreciated, but that some blacks resent some
Jews for certain social and economic atrocities. I suspect that what may have ultimately
closed the door to publication was Murray’s audacious, stinging stand regarding
particular Jewish intellectuals who were, he claimed, “persisting in misrepresenting and misinterpreting the rituals and
motives of U.S. Negro life in terms of clichés and values peculiar to the
Jewish tradition, [and] have been propagating and ‘documenting’ a new theory of
Negro inferiority.”

By the publication of The
Omni-Americans
, a collection of pieces he had published in The New Leader and several other
periodicals, Murray was primed to influence the national discourse on race,
culture, and American identity in the post-Civil Rights era. After all,” argued Murray in the
introduction, “someone must at least begin to try to do justice to what U.S.
Negroes like about being black and to
what they like about being Americans.

Henry Louis Gates’s
1996 New Yorker profile, “King
of Cats,”
recalled Murray in the ‘70s as a “lithe and dapper man with an
astonishing gift of verbal fluency, by turns grandiloquent and earthy.” Walker
Percy, one of the notables Murray spoke with for his 1971 memoir, South
to a Very Old Place
, thought The
Omni-Americans
“well may be the most important book on black-white
relations in the United States, indeed on American culture, published in this
generation.”

A key Murray insight is
that the different perceptions of white and black Americans results not only from
the social effect of race, but also from distinctive ethnic and cultural idioms.
Nevertheless, he writes in one of the most quoted passages from The Omni-Americans: 

American
culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and
irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of
those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.
Indeed,
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 as they resemble each other. [Emphasis in original]

 Americans of any stripe share
in the promises found in the nation’s founding documents, as well as our motto,
E pluribus unumout of many, one. The
promises of our social contract clearly remain unfulfilled, but to Murray they remained
ancestral imperatives, lodestars for fugitive slaves fleeing for freedom via
the Underground Railroad. His image of
E pluribus
unum
was “that of a mainstream fed by an infinite diversity of tributaries.”
The hue of that mainstream is “the color of infinity.”

Murray’s method in The
Omni-Americans
was akin to a research detective’s, which in The Hero and the Blues he described as:
“finding clues bearing on the nature and cause of specific troubles.” His
concern was less “political injustice as such” as the “inaccuracies and
misconceptions that contribute to and even rationalize injustice.” Positivist
social science, which employed the tools of clinical psychology to pathologize
the image of black citizens, reinforcing stereotypes and racial bias, was his
main culprit. Under the guise of objectivity, he argued, the social sciences
abstracted and obscured the lived reality of black folk. The insidious result
was the media, policy-makers, and even black spokesmen taking “social science
fiction” as real, spreading confusion and harm.

Stanley Elkins’s Sambo
model
, the Moynihan
Report
, Kenneth Clark’s renderings
of black degradation
, and William Styron’s projection of emasculation, sexual
repression, and servility onto his fictional portrayal of Nat Turner were each subjected to withering
critique in The Omni-Americans—Murray’s
most polemical book. He also deemed the
protest fiction of James Baldwin and Richard Wright inadequate, not only as
representations of the fullness of black American life in Harlem and the South,
but because he found their “frames of rejection” too beholden to moral outcry to
leave enough space for individual agency and the novelist’s ambivalence about
the human condition.   

Murray employed “Some
Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy” as the sub-title of The Omni-Americans. He considered race a
“sterile category,” “hardly useful as an index to human motives as is culture.”
Here are Murray’s aforementioned three steps—deconstruction, re-framing, and
reconstruction—crucial to liberation from the shackles of racial thinking.

Murray first deconstructed white supremacy by unmasking it as “sociopolitical
and psychopolitical folklore.” He did
the same for the corollary of white superiority found in discourses of black
“cultural deprivation,” “self-hatred,” and so-called “culture of poverty” by
coining the phrase “the fakelore of
black pathology” as a tactic of homegrown deconstruction. Second, he re-framed
race as idiom: A characteristic mode of expression of a people. During Murray’s
youth to middle age, “Negro” was the accepted term for native-born U.S. black
folk. The “Negro idiom” was a “style and way of life” lived by African-derived
Americans. Murray extended the “Negro idiom” from an ethnic domain to an expansive
aesthetic with the blues and jazz as primary metaphors.

Third
and finally, Murray confronted race by re-constructing American identity as omni-American, a hybrid mixture, a synthesis
and composite brought together by the values and principles of the nation’s
“sacred” founding documents: the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence,
and the Bill of Rights. Omni-Americans are the many comprising the oneness of
American identity. That oneness is an idea, an ideal, a democratic horizon of
aspiration, yes, but without such a vision, the people and the very nation may
perish.


To Albert Murray—who experienced the full breadth of the
twentieth century, passing away in 2013 at 97—human life was much more than the
political survival of the fittest. If, however, there were an existential
threat to the Republic and to humanity, as was the case during World War II, Murray’s
response would have been to fight those authoritarian dragons of chaos with the
best tools at one’s disposal—perhaps even employing an update of what Murray
called Reverend Dr. King’s “political jiujitsu,” using the opposition’s own strength
against them.

If
politics is the art of the possible, then to Murray, art forms such as the blues
and jazz, enactments of American civic ideals in sound, are resilient frames of
acceptance and pathways of possibility. Murray’s matter of ultimate concern,
divined from the thousand or so pages of this Library of America edition, was art and improvisation for life and humanity’s
sake. In the midst of the pain, chaos, confusion, hysteria, conflicts and
uncertainty of the moment, and apprehension about the future of our nation, the
ability to express joy is paramount: to sing, swing, stomp the blues, dance our
thoughts, feelings, and actions, and to freestyle on the breaks, dissonance,
and asymmetry of our lives for as many measures as we’ve got, because the black
and the blues will most certainly be back tomorrow.



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