“I’m leaving it up to you to decide. Maybe I really broke the bed down and then again maybe I ain’t done nothing but hit it a lick and promise. Maybe I ain’t no certified cocksman yet, but that goddamn chick is pregnant doc, you examine her. Maybe it’ll be a nine pounder and maybe we’ll have to put it in an oxygen tent, and maybe it’ll be a fucking miscarriage, you examine it”- Albert Murray in a letter to Ralph Ellison, taken from “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.”
Albert Murray was one of the more interesting literary men I got into and one that broadened me out from some of my preconcieved notions. Like many young black readers of my age and generation, the writings I was exposed to the earliest were by men like Malcom X, Richard Wright, and Eldgridge Cleaver, not to mention your Iceberg Slim’s and Donald Goines’ of the world. Murray represented another viewpoint of the south, the blues, black music and culture and black people’s place in America. That view articulated very accurately the experiences of an older generation, namely the Black portion of the “G.I generation”, the so called “greatest generation” that won World War II and led America to her position as a superpower. Murray was not affected by the move toward Afrocentrism and Black Power in the ’60s because he felt Black Americans had already contributed something that was inextractible from the strands of American life. He appreciated the efforts to do something of many in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, but he felt some were misguided in their enthusiasms as well. His main view of life was a literary view, that “evil” as such was not a factor that human beings could eliminate from the world, but that true human heroism was displayed in our efforts to keep evil at bay, and the only way to do it was with slick, swinging, smooth style. The Blues was the sound of this struggle, of heroism, and therefore he’d clown you in a New York minute if you expressed the tired cliche that blues music was sad music for sad people.
Albert Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama in 1913. His southern upbringing and his viewpoints about the south form one of the core components of his philosophy and ideas about African Americans, America, and American history and culture. He was highly opposed to the terrifiying view of the south presented by Richard Wright. He understood why Wright presented the south as he did, and felt it was for the best of causes, the freedom and equality of black people in America, however, he did not feel it was a full picture. Murray felt his experiences in black neighborhoods, black schools, and black institutions were very positive and resisted the idea that a predominantly black environment was limiting as racist itself, and while he was against segregation, he felt supporters of equality needed to be careful about what their assertions about raciscm were saying about blacks and other minorities. His experiences growing up are fictionalized in his novels, “Train Whistle Guitar”, “The Spyglass Tree”, and the “Seven League Boots”, as well as in his travel book, “South to a Very old Place.”
Murray’s south, was a place of wise black elders of all types, who were interested in all types of things that the average racist, or even snobbish northern black person would not imagine southern blacks to be capable of interest in. His book, “The Omni Americans, a fresh, refreshing book of essays’ dealing with the perceptions of race in the 1960s, call for a broader view of American culture. His assertion is that American culture could never be called “white” culture, that American culture, as American bloodlines, are a mixture of Black, White, and Native American. His arguement was that the movement back to African culture that blacks made in the ’60s was redundant because Africans in America had already contributed so much of what made America, America. The primary conduit for that was the dance beat emphasis from Africa that is the lifeblood of blues, jazz, and rock and roll.
Murray was harshly critical of books that sought to paint the inner city and all black neighborhoods in the worst light, in order to display the insurmountable odds their protagonists overcame. He felt these books in their protest were really inspired by communist propagandists who didn’t understand black life. His problem was not with communism or any philosophy per se, but with any philosophy that reduced black life in America to one of problems and pathology. For instance, the communists once banned jazz becuase they felt it was an expression of capitalist decadance. Whereas Murray would say jazz was an expression of African plasticity and rhythm orientation using European instruments and song structures that represents a heroic, thinking on your feet method of surviving and thriving in modern complexity. Murray would tell both Afrocentrists that we’re no longer in the village bush or the age of great African trading Kingdoms, and Eurocentrists that we were no longer in a world of fuedalism, the divine right of Kings, a dominant church, and colonialism. Meaning we’d have to take the best from those old times and make them work today.
Murray’s answer to presenting the black struggle in literature and art was that of heroism. One of my favorite books of his was his lecture in book form, “The Hero and the Blues.” In it, he makes a compelling arguement that blues music, with it’s jumping, good time beats and its ironic, humorous lyrics of how life always has a twist for us, is a Black American heroic reaction to the troubles of modern life, including racism and the vissictitudes of late capitalism. He puts forth a life philosophy that one can either rail against the injustices of life, or see oneself as a hero who has the power to conquer them. To Murray, the whole black struggle is a story of heroism and dragon slayers, from the first slaves in the New World, to Toussaint L’Overture, to Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, to Nat Turner and John Brown and Phyliss Wheatley, to those unamed ancestors who had to live so we could be here to pontificate.
Murray was a friend of the great teacher and resarcher of myth, Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell also influenced George Lucas and Star Wars. It’s interesting to me that Murray and Lucas both fall under the astrological sign of Taurus the Bull, and they both share a faith in heroism and heroic action. Lucas has been criticized at times for being too simplistic and happy in his view of good and evil, and he has gone on public record as saying his films were a response to all the darkness in ’70s film, such as Taxi Driver, Superfly, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and many other crime and violence laden, morally ambigious ’70s epics. Interestingly enough he went back to the World War II era of the 1940s for his Star Wars inspiration, and Murray himself was in the Air Force in that time period.
Murray’s literary goal, was very similar to George Lucas. He wanted to create a black heroic story that would inspire Americans of all shades and that would give blacks particular pride and insight on how to use their cultural heritage to create more freedom in their nation which is supposed to be about freedom, the United States of America. He acknowledged the dragons of racism, self doubt, self hatred, and economic privation, but felt that dragons existed to be slayed, existed to prove the metal of the romantic hero.
His book “The Hero and the Blues” used examples from some of the greatest literary men from Murray’s time, Hemingway and Faulkner, and Malreaux, and in particular Thomas Mann. Murray was particularly enamored of “Joseph and His Brothers”, by Thomas Mann. There is a great book by Bruce Feller entitled “America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America”, that puts forth an interesting hypothesis that Moses and the story of Moses may be even more central to the national character of America than the story of Jesus Christ. Certainly the story and metaphor of Moses was very important to African Americans as one that represented freedom from bondage, total freedom from bondage as well as resettlement in a new land of our own. Murray however, embraced the story of Joseph, as expounded upon from the biblical version by Thomas Mann in “Joseph and His Brothers.” Murray felt that Joseph, known as the “Dreamer”, slick and handsome, able to tell a story, survive years in jail to become the highest man next to the Pharoah, and to prepare a way for his people in a time of famine, was a more accurate hero for Blacks for whom America is home. To focus on Moses is to focus on total liberation, but to focus on Joseph is to focus on the slickness and manuverings of getting over when total liberation is impractical. Murray also viewed Joseph’s improvisational ability as marking him as a blues and jazz idiom hero.
Murray strongly believed in the idea of “antagonistic cooperation.” That without a great enemy, one could never become a great hero. He held up blues and jazz as the antidote to those who would say blacks in America had no culture. Those musics retain the dance beat, transformational emphasis of African culture and put them in a modern context of technology and complex social dynamics. Murray felt this black cultural grouding could both direct a way for black individuals to live and thrive, as well as provide a template for black literary heroes, triumphing not in spite of black culture, but because of the insights gained from it.
Murray had an appreciation for the finer things in life. He felt this was a “southern thing”, his south not only encompassing those states below the Mason Dixon, but extending to all southern parts of the globe, the Carribean, South America, Southern Europe, and Africa. He believed in a kind of a “southern enjoyment of life”, that included fine clothes, dancing, drinking, romance, celebration, and enlightenment , ideas and education. He didn’t share the Black Power generations interest in Africa, although he acknowledged Africa as the origin point of black people and black culture, he also like many blacks of his generation, was fiercely proud of being an American and how blacks have helped shape America. He also reminds one of most immigrants to America in the early part of the 20th Century, who didn’t teach their kids Spanish, or Polish, or Yiddish, but insisted they learn English and believed in assimilation. Murray is of that generation that saw American greatness and therefore believed in America fiercely. Still, he also believed in incorporating the best from around the world, and he was never intidimidated, nor did he feel left out or embarresed by European culture. He was able to find the commonalities in all cultures and identified the slaying of dragons and the search for fine living as central to all.
Murray lived a long, fruitful life. He was friends with Duke Ellington and Romare Bearden two men who were examples of his sophisticated, cosmopolitan blackness. He influenced Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis and many who wanted to restore jazz to a high place in American culture and he was largely successful in that goal. His best known friendship was with Ralph Ellison, and their book, “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray”, is one of my favorite books of his and a real treasure. It’s a pleasure to hear what these two black literary men REALLY thought, way back there in the mid 20h century. They curse, laugh, joke, talk about great books and writers, the Civil Rights movement, clothes, photograpy, music, and write each other from far flung locales such as Casablanca, Morroco.
By most accounts Albert Murray was not as successful in his fiction as he was in his theorizing. Although his novels are praised for the language and the way his words flow lyrically, in a jazzy blues style, they are also criticized for their wordiness, and the heavy preaching of his ideas, filling his books with protest against protest! He was criticized for this by one of his own students, Stanley Crouch. But I do feel that in his ideas, a very interesting concept is contained, and it will be interesting to see how people develop those ideas in this new multi cultural, Omni American world that he not only foresaw, but told us was the essence of the nation from it’s very beginning.