Tag Archives: Black Literature

Zora Neale Hurston @ 123/ Remembering the Blues Writer, Amiri Baraka

image

image

Last week provided two notable literary occasions in the world of Black Literature. One was the 123rd birthday of the late great writer, Zora Neale Hurston, on Tuesday, January 7. The other, was the sad event of the passing of Black Arts Movement legend Amiri Baraka, one of the great links to both the practical and artistic sides of the movements of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. These occasions give me a chance to reflect a little bit on these two great individuals and their legacies.

Zora Neale Hurston’s life, as well as her work, may have even more import and meaning for our current times as when she was actually living and writing. Hurston’s background, not only as an anthropologist, but as the daughter of a schoolteacher and a preacher, raised in the all black town of Eatonville, Florida, produced a writer who was unique among black writers of her time. The quality of her work and her importance were championed by Alice Walker in the ’70s, who discovered her grave site and purchased her a head stone. She has been taken as an icon of black feminism, in particular her classic 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, which recieved a popular movie treatment. She was definitley that, but her life, anthropological studies, approach to black culture, political beliefs, and much more in her life speak to a Black American individual who lived thier life outside of the box and who’s life is worthy of study and relection due to it’s qualities of uniqueness.

Ms. Hurston was born on January 7th, 1891, which makes her a member of the “Lost Generation.” William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book, “Generations, The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, describes the Lost Generation as one that came of age in a very greed oriented time in America’s history. “The Gilded Age” was one of major expansion and few protections for workers, an age when child labor of all sorts was common. The Lost Generation went on to serve in World War I, and then saw many vetrans gunned down on the lawn of the White House when they came to demand the money they were owed. They’re known for their hedonism, wildness,and adventerousness during the 1920s, the “Jazz Age”, but the years that were supposed to be their peak years of earnings and influence, the 1930s and ’40s, were taken up by the Depression and World War II. As a result, the Lost were thought of as a generation that matured into conservatism, as they had too much first hand experience with the hardness of the world. Statistically, they skewed more conservative and Republican than any other generation, but it was not the sunny, big government conservatism of Ronald Reagen, it was the non interventionist, fiscally responsible, “beware the military industrial complex” conservatism of President Dwight D Eisenhower.

Black people of this generation had a particulary interesting arch. It was a very difficult time for the black struggle, as a post Reconstruction America was not concerned with black issues at all. The Plessy V Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 (four years after Hurston was born.) was the spiritual opposite of 1954’s Brown v Board, a decision that upheld segregation. Booker T Washington promoted a program in response to this that called for economic self sufficiency, ignoring elective politics, and accepting segregation in order to build a strong self sufficient ethnic community in America, in line of Jewish or Chinese people, a view that Hurston herself would adopt. Things were so bad that black men had to fight just to serve in “The Great War”, an had many of their vetrans shot in their uniforms when they returned home, in order to “show them their place.”

However, the black Lost Generation still found many means of pride and hope. They also were the generation of the first ‘Great Migration” in which some 1.5 million blacks left the South for urban areas. This is the generation of “The Harlem Rennassaince”, and “The New Negro”, and of Marcus Garvey proclaiming “Up you mighty race!!!” Out of these tough times and this generation, many of the greatest writers and actors of American culture were produced, such as Mae West, James Cagney, the Marx Brothers, Edward G Robinson, Rudolph Valentino and Humphery Bogart. It’s also known as the most gited generation of American writers, producing some nine Nobel Prize winners in literature.

Zora Neale Hurston was a true blue member of the Lost Generation, and the issues she raise still resonate in American culture today. She was a lady so resourceful she put her age back so that she could complete high school. She graduated from college with a BA at 37 years old in anthropology and conducted deep anthropological resarch among black people in the rural South.

She was also active in Harlem in the 1920s, forming a group along with writers such as Wallace Thurmon, Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent, a group called “The Niggerati”, producing the literary journal “Fire.” This group was very talented, but also, much criticized among the black intelligentsia of the day. They produced works that dealt with prostitution, the ghetto, homosexuality, and all kinds of other issues that were considered the underbelly of society at large and black culture in particular. Black leaders felt that as black people were striving for respectability, these well educated artists were pandering to white audiences who wanted to go “slumming” and think of all depraivity in black terms.

Here, the things that Hurston and her peers went through in the Harlem Rennasaince remind me so much of things I’ve seen in my lifetime with regards to the criticisms of hip hop. While many criticism of hip hop one might find today are warranted, many of these same criticisms were leveld at the most vital, in your face works of twenty or so years ago. Basically, there is always a group of blacks who want to judge all art in political terms of respectability and “uplifting the race”, while there is another faction that wants to “tell it like it is” and represent blacks with what they feel is “authenticity.” It just amazes me that I grew up with a great rap group called “Niggaz Wit Attitude” in the 1980s and ’90s, and these great black literary figures called their group “The Niggerati” in the 1920s. Maybe older blacks felt enoughhad changed so that NWA would not have to use such terminology in the ’80s.

But the book “Generations” links “Generation X” to the “Lost Generation”, in their hard nosed, unpretentious, hedonistic, dont-sugarcoat-it attitude. Zora Neale Hurston was criticized in particular for her use of black dialogue (which she studied scientifically as an anthropologist), and also for the lack of political point in her novels, in particular by the Communist leaning author Richard Wright. She was also criticized for the sexual freedom she allowed her female characters.

Her politics however, were also different from the Richard Wrights of the World. She grew up in an all black town to educated parents and did not view segregation as a hinderance to the black community. She leaned Republican all her life, but she was far from a sexual prude or one who believed in traditional roles for women. She was probably closer to a Libertarian, socially liberal and fiscally conservative. She was against US intervention, and it would be interesting to find out if she put a black twist on this, maybe opposing intervention because it would leade to colonial relationships. She also for the most part opposed the New Deal and Welfare because she felt it would lead blacks into dependency.

I find this aspect of Ms. Hurston fascinating and I can not dismiss her due to them. The other thing is, I don’t find them particularly different from some people who were seen as black radicals such as Elijah Muhammed, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan, Jim Brown, and James Brown. Zora Neale Hurston was a person who believed in black self sufficiency, point blank.

Ms. Hurston left us a wealth of literature and books to be explored, and its amazing that as long ago as she wrote, they still have great value today. Ms. Hurston told the story of black individuals as normal individuals with hopes, fears, problems, strengths, weaknesses, and wisdom, just like anybody else, not always strictly defined by racist oppression. And for that, she may have been the most futuristic black writer of her times.

Amiri Baraka. Of course, I can’t remember a time when I did not know Baraka’s name. But maybe the first time I can remember him hitting the mainstream news in my time of recollection was when he protested Spike Lee’s directing of “X”. Of course, I disliked him then as an old man who didn’t want to see anybody do anything, but that was my foolish young viewpoint.

Baraka as most of us know, was born LeRoi Jones. In the ’50s he was a Beat movement poet. The Beats were mostly white poets who were highly influenced by Jazz and Black culture to find a new way of expressing and living in the conformity of mid century America. Baraka though, was a black man, and close to the source of what the Beats were trying to find. He ended up becoming one of the greatest jazz writers of all time, writing the classic “Blues People”, which spoke of black musics journey from African rhythms and melodies to the field, and dealt with how black music can be watered down by chasing middle class acceptance. From there he went to champion Free Jazz and the Funk of James Brown as pure, strong black expressions in “Black Music.” He was known for the liberating, free power of his jazz inflected verse in books like “Home”, a book of essays, and “The System of Dante’s Hell” an excellent novel.

Baraka did more than just write, truly living a revolutionary life. He also got involved in politics, helping to elect the first black mayor in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. He went from a black nationalist to a Marxist, believing that only through ending Capitalist oppression could black people all over the world be free. He’s reviled by some for the strong notes of violence in some of his work, but then again, he exorcised it both for himself, and his people.

Two giants worthy of listening to. And now, both ancestors.

google doodle in honor of Ms. Hurston

google doodle in honor of Ms. Hurston

<a href="

Zora Neale Hurston photographed by Carl Van Vetchen

Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou get down at the Schomburg Center, Harlem World USA

Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou get down at the Schomburg Center, Harlem World USA

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Appreciation, Black Issues, Social Timing

Quick Thoughts on “Portrait of a Pimp”

image

Ice T has done some very special film work over the past few years, chronicling the influences that made both his rap career possible, and exposing some of the roots of hip hop. It’s the same discharching of ideological debt that Snoop Dogg has constantly repaid and that the RZA accomplished by finally making his own kung fu flick, “The Man with the Iron Fists”, instad of sampling them. The first documentary Ice T did in this vein was his hip hop documentary, “The Art of Rap”, which took us into the technique’s and motivations of rappers. “Portrait of a Pimp” takes us into the life story of Ice-T’s primary influence, the pimp turned author Iceberg Slim.

Iceberg Slim’s books were very familiar to me growing up in Oakland, California in the 1990s. They were all over barber shops, heavily marked up and checked out of school and public libraries, and constantly referenced by people in the neighborhood. Iceberg Slim was famous for being the primary writer to escape the world of pimping and writing stories about it in great detail. In reality, only his first book, “Pimp: The Story of My Life” was about pimping, his other books told stories of con men of all colors, and his ouevere even included a book called “Mama Black Widow”, which was an empathetic portrait of a black homosexual named Otis Tilson.

Of course, before I was even born, Iceberg Slim’s books had caused a stir in the urban community. His books were known for an unflinching, unglamorized portrait of black street life in World War II and post War America. Ice T the MC, actually came at rapping, MCing, and hip hop, through the works of Iceberg Slim, quoting whole sections of his books along with other hustler rhymes. When T was introduced through hip hop through the Sugarhill Gang’s landmark 1979 “Rappers Delight”, it was the pimp verbiage of Iceberg Slim he turned to to write his own raps.

The documentary “Portrait of a Pimp”, directed by Jorge Hinosa and Executive Produced by Ice T, as well as featuring him as a talking head, is not based on Iceberg Slim, real name Robert Beck’s, life as a pimp. Instead, the documentary is a cradle to grave portrait of Robert Beck the man, tracing his life from his youth, the disappointments that led him into being a pimp, his jail sentence, his relatiionship with his mother, wife, and children, as well as his success as an author and his reclusive death in the early 1990s. In short, it’s a portrait of the man that humanizes him even more than his literature already served to.

For anybody familiar with Slim’s work, the documentary does the amazing work of adding flesh to the stories Iceberg told in “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” The film actually shows pictures of several key figures in Beck’s life, from his mother, to his mother’s boyfriend Henry Upshaw, to the woman who turned him out, Pepper Hibbits, to his nanny who sexually molested him as a boy, Maude. It amazed me to see figures I read about in Beck’s work come to life in pictures, especially being that this activity took place so long ago, in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s primarily.

Robert Beck was born in 1918 in a violently racially divided Chicago, and was brought up in the decade of Prohibition and big time Gangsters like Al Capone and the black pimping king of Chicago, Baby Bell. It was also a time of violent race riots such as the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, which were incited by a black kid swimming into the white area.

Beck was raised primarily by a single mother, who was a hairdresser with a clientele that included pimps and prostitutes. One of the prime hurts of Beck’s life was that his mother totally played for a fool a man named Henry Upshaw, who was a benevolent father figure for Beck, totally stripped him spiritually and financially, in cahoots with a slick hustler. Beck was also molested and forced to perform oral sex on his baby sitter, Maude. These incidents are pointed towards as ones that hardened Beck’s attitude from a very young age.

Beck was also a very smart young man, graduating at the age of 15 with a 98.4 average, while by his own admision, paying little attention in class. He was able to go to Tuskeegee Institute, a contemporary of black writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, two men of leters whom he’d join in the black literary pantheon through a more circumstitious route. Beck tells us in interview footage that his mother suggested since he liked to be around the crimminal element so much, he become a crimminal lawyer and get paid to run with street people, which in hindsight, Beck realized was one of the most brilliant ideas he never followed.

Beck ended up pimping and serving jail terms. The impetus for turning his life around was when he recieved news that his mother was gravely ill and living in Los Angeles. He was able to write a letter that got him out of jail. When he went to LA, he would end up courting Betty, who would marry him and with whom he had his beautiful daughters. Betty is featured in interviews in the film, conducted with her being sick, before she passed away, and she comes across as a tough, no nonsense midwestern woman, with a big heart and a talent for motivation and hard work that ultimately took Robert Beck beyond the status many hustlers of his day remained in, burned out old men telling stories on the street about how bad they used to be.

Beck was exterminating and killing vermin to support his family, a fact the film uses one of his actual business cards to substantiate. In the evenings, after getting “dapped down” in slacks, starched shirt and brim hat, he’d dictate stories of his life in “the life”, to his incredulous wife Betty, who would use her top notch secretarial skills to get down. Together, they created his books, Beck acting them out and relaying his experiences and his wife creating, structuring, and recording right along with him.

In 1969 Beck’s books hit, taking advantage of the same literary civil rights and black power inspired wave that brought attention to Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land”, Alex Haley and Malcom X’s “The Autobiography of Malcom X”, Cecil Brown’s “The Life and Times of Mr. Jiveass Nigger”, Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”, H. Rap Brown’s “Die Nigger Die”, and many other books that chronicled the black (male) experience in America.

The film covers Beck’s period as a celebrated author, and also takes him into his last years, in the Los Angeles of 1992 and the LA Riots, where Beck died from complications of diabetes.

The film features several interesting talking heads, from Chris Rock, to Bill Duke, to Leon Issac Kennedy, to the anthropologist Richard Milner, who wrote an interesting Bay Area based study of pimps called “Black Players” back in the ’70s with his wife Karen Milner, to Dr. Todd Boyd, Quincy Jones, jazz musician Red Holloway, and punk artist Henry Rollins. These individuals all testify to the accurate, unique, and chilling abilities of Beck as a story teller while also vouching for the brutality and flash and dash of the world he lived in, that they either knew his world was authentic because they lived it as well, or were fascinated by how close Beck’s work brought them into contact with that world.

I’m the most proud of Ice T as a commentator in this film as well as a producer because T gets the oppurtunity to do something to perserve the legacy of the man who inspired his rap. I’ve heard T say many times before that his aim through his rap was not only to depict the glamorous side of the street life, but to also make people listen to the “B side” of that record, the side that includes the penitentiary, drug addiction, death and disappointment. This is an impulse I’ve always admired the most in T’s records, from “High Rollers”, to “You Played Yourself”, to “Drama.” It’s just that impulse that T describes as what he took away from Beck’s work as Iceberg Slim, making this film also a brilliant example of how inspiration works.

All in all, my favorite commentators are the ones closest to him, Iceberg’s ex wife Betty, and his daughters. Nothing humanizes the man more than to show these women to whom he was so devoted after years of abusing women. His wife comes off as exactly the type of tough no nonsense woman he needed to make his eventual mark on history, even at one point relating an anecdote that when he stopped writing and she was supporting the family by working, she left him, because she refused to be pimped.

Beck’s daughters are beautiful, lively, intelligent, and spoke of a loving, caring father, who definitely retained the cold demeanor of his past life but also was the most articulate, broad based person they could have ever asked for as a father. Sadly, Camille Beck passed in 2010, before the release of the film, but she is preserved here for posterity. Betty Beck, Beck’s ex wife passed in 2009.

Beck was also known as a man who was passionately involved in black affairs. Though not covered in the doc, I remember reading in a Black Panther biography that Beck regularly bought the Panther newspaper and was very supportive of the Panther cause. Beck felt much of his turn down the wrong path had to do with the oppurtunities blacks faced during his time. That mix of street smarts and social consciousness also reminds me of his rap music heir, Ice T. Ice T is also good friends with Chuck D of Public Enemy and he has been in several political rap scandals through the course of his career. In “Portrait of a Pimp”, Ice T succeds greatly in humanizing a man who gave voice to the struggle on the streets of black male hustlers in modern America. This film is a must see both as entertainment, as well as history, serving as both a part of the black story in the 20th century as well as a cautionary tale of where a life spent chasing fast money can end. I’m sure that Iceberg Slim would feel that if he could warn people away from that as much as possible, his life served a great purpose.

3 Comments

Filed under "This Might Offend My Political Connects", Moving Pictures

Blues for Albert Murray 1916-2013

3f7dc060ada026917fecf110.L._V192251936_SL290_

“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.

image

3 Comments

Filed under All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, Book Recommendations, Music Matters