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Albert Murray: the Black Intellectuals’ Maverick Patriarch

[clock] 12-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

If the public intellectual is best defined as a specialist in being a non-specialist, maverick intellectuals add a certain amount of unpredictability to the formula, for they tend to regard group-think of any sort with suspicion. And nowhere is the inclination stronger than when public intellectuals operate in ways that remind maverick types of Harold Rosenberg’s famous description of the New York intellectuals as a “herd of independent minds.” Saul Bellow, for example, makes it his habit to distrust nearly anything that too many “deep thinkers” agree about—partly because he thinks of himself as a writer rather than as a socio-political type, and partly because genuinely independent types are not likely to feel comfortable hammering out a consensus.

Albert Murray, the black critic-writer, is a kindred spirit, not only because, at 77, he brings nearly as much accumulated experience to cultural matters as does the octogenarian Bellow but also because he has made it his business to swim against the tides of fashion. The difference, of course, is that Bellow, for all the battles fought and lumps taken, never suffered from the cruelest sting of all: anonymity. From The Dangling Man (1944) onward, his novels were widely reviewed and often lavishly praised. New, ever more prestigious awards seemed to follow effortlessly on the heels of earlier ones; and for at least two generations of reader-critics, Bellow’s cultural pronouncements have had the heft of holy writ. By contrast, the arc of Murray’s career has a very different trajectory. His first collection, The Omni-Americans (1970), argued that the language of social science inadequately—and insufficiently—captures the richness of the black American experience. Indeed, by concentrating on versions of black pathology and the fits of shame, self-hatred, and rage that these engender, opinion-makers such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Kenneth Clark sell black culture short. For the truth is that this vibrant, multi-faceted culture is no less complex than that of any other group (to write it off as disorganized and emasculated by centuries of white oppression is dangerously reductive), but also that it has produced, in Murray’s words, “the most complicated culture and therefore the most complicated sensibility in the modern world.”

The Omni-Americans threw off such maverick insights easily, and by the fistful. The rub, of course, is that they were very much against the grain of that time, that place. Murray, for example, still clung to the word “Negro” at a cultural moment when Black was the operative word—not only as a adjective defining a new sense of “power,” but also of aesthetics. Worse, in an age of the afro, he could even manage to call up a few kind words on behalf of hair straighteners. What he meant to celebrate was a vision of America as “incontestably mulatto” and to argue for a halt to the facile ways in which white norms were contrasted with black deviations: “. . .the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

Granted, black communities have their own styles, and these are best represented in the jazz and blues traditions. Where others rode through black ghettos and saw only the despair of poverty and the thumbprints of pathology, Murray argues for the effortless aristocracy of a Duke Ellington or Count Basie, and for the sheer resilience of black life per se: “its elastic individuality . . .its esthetic receptivity, and its unique blend of warmth, sensitivity, nonsense, vitality and elegance.” None of these things, he rightly points out, suggests emasculation, much less adds up to the smoldering rage that found its most articulate spokesman in James Baldwin.

In fact, Murray was as complicated a social critic as American blacks were as a people. He could luxuriate in the best examples of black culture without for a moment embracing the angry case being made for separatism, just as he could look evidences of racism squarely in the eye without losing faith in the promises made to all Americans in the documents of our Founding Fathers:

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the social, economic, and political heritage of all Americans. . . . So far as white people are concerned, the most revolutionary, radical and devastating action any U.S. Negro can engage in is to compete with other Americans for status, employment, total social equality, and basic political power.

Not surprisingly, many reviewers, black as well as white, were in no mood to take Murray’s vision seriously. Did he really believe, Saunders Redding asked, that the WASP ethic works as well for blacks as it is generally believed to work for whites? What seemed like a rhetorical question 26 years ago now has more than a measure of legitimacy because blacks in significant numbers have, in fact, joined the middle class. One could argue, of course, that this is the result of the Civil Rights Movement and that would be true in part; but the greater part, I would submit, has to do with the positive, upbeat qualities of black life that Murray isolated in The Omni-Americans.

I am not much attracted to the word “denial,” largely because it is psychobabble and usually because when it is trotted out stiff counter-arguments are called for; but denial is probably the best (probably the only) way to account for Murray’s virtual anonymity as a mainstream black intellectual. That the black community knew him and in varying degrees, took him seriously is true enough, but it is even truer that the abiding influence of Murray’s vision had to wait until 1980, when Stanley Crouch, his feisty, free-wheeling protege, wrote a piece entitled “Chittlins at the Waldorf: The Work of Albert Murray.” As Crouch’s star shot into the stratosphere (Notes of a Hanging Judge [1990], a collection of cultural essays that includes the piece on Murray and that won the National Book Award, was followed by a second collection (The Ail-American Skin Game[1995]) and what can only be called media celebrity), Murray suddenly became a figure to reckon with. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. profiled him in the pages of The New Yorker (“King of Cats” [April 8, 1996]), and in short order the intellectual community was divided between those busily “rediscovering” his work and those, like myself, who found themselves scrambling to read whole swathes of Murray for the first time.

No doubt Murray must find much of this ironic, for if he labored many years under Ralph Ellison’s very long shadow (they were classmates at Tuskegee, close friends as the arc of their respective careers took very different turns, and finally, prideful antagonists when the line between master and disciple, influencer and influenced, gradually blurred), he now finds himself mentioned in the same breath with Stanley Crouch, a man both more famous and many years his junior.

When the voluminous Ellison-Murray correspondence is eventually published, we will move beyond gossip to something closer to the truth about their complicated relationship; and no doubt their respective biographies, surely warranted, will shed their shares of light. Meanwhile, what we have is the portrait of a man of letters, for Murray is equally comfortable as a novelist, music critic, and cultural analyst. Indeed, the apparently disparate interests converge into a single vision of black life as richer, more complicated, and finally of such singular importance to the very rhythms of the republic. Each is an extension, rather than a diminishment, of the possibilities of the other, with the result that Murray’s work often seems to pluck at a single string.

But what a string, and what notes it nonetheless manages to make! For Murray simply never bought into the narrow view of racism-and-rage that has been the dominant mode of most black literature since Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). If there are a few good voices rattling around in his head, they belong to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce—and of course a whole retinue of jazz men like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk. Taken together, what they articulate is jazz, an idiom at once authentically black and deeply American. What Murray knew to his very bones some 30 years ago—and that he has been embroidering ever since—is that black writers and critics “have mostly been preoccupied with the literal document as agitprop journalism, so much so that for all the realistic details to make the reader feel that all this really happens, their stories seldom rise above the level of one-dimensional patently partisan social case histories.” Murray made these remarks during a 1977 interview, but the words ring as true now as they did then.

Indeed, the very fact that he chooses to preface his latest collection, The Blue Devils of Nada, with talk about the limitations of realism and the more expansive possibilities of the lyrical mode suggest something about what it means for a black maverick intellectual to stay the course. Then, as now, the race for attention has often gone to the loudest voice insisting on this-or-that stance as a litmus test for authentic blackness. Generally, the stances of choice have been political (a clenched fist, an Afro, a dashiki), but at bottom what they come to are futile exercises in romanticism—at best, distractions from the main business of consensus-building; at worst, dangerous efforts to destabilize the republic. The black aesthetic movement was, of course, Black Power’s cultural wing, and while its early practitioners fairly dripped with sound-and-fury, they have produced no Faulkners. Indeed, what must have galled those who turned their collective backs on the white devil’s bookshelf is that Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) remains one of our century’s most accomplished novels, made possible precisely because its author cobbled what he learned from Eliot and Joyce, Conrad and Mann, to what he knew from the streets and the jazz rhythms doing riffs inside his soul.

And it is here that the paths of Murray and Ellison meet, for Murray’s essays are at once a defense of an Ellison increasingly under attack (by refusing to hew the party line, Ellison’s novel earned an unparalleled enmity among black critics who refused to recognize the greatness under their very eyes) and a justification of his own fiction, jazz criticism, and cultural commentary. But where Ellison’s essays cultivated an elegance of expression, or put another way, the cool disinterestedness of an intellectual in his booklined study, Murray’s prose often had the earmarks of a scrapper. He said it as it was, long before Howard Cosell turned the phrase into a grammatically inept trademark, and long before Stanley Crouch learned to trade vivid one-liners on “The Charlie Rose Show.” Here, for example, is how Murray responded to an interviewer asking him if he thought “many critics today are receptive to, or aware of, the changes going on in black fiction”:

Critics? Man, most critics feel that unless brownskin U. S. writers are pissing and moaning about injustice they have nothing to say. In any case, it seems that they find it much easier to praise such writers for being angry (which requires no talent, not to mention genius) than for being innovative or insightful.

One of the critics Murray surely had in mind was living Howe, a man who believed that the conditions of black life could not help but produce social realism of a certain stripe. Ellison’s strongly worded demurral (contained in his essay, “The World and the Jug”) is well known, dozens of Murray’s essays, essentially elaborating on the same point, are less so; but what they share is a belief that narrowed expectations lead inevitably to diminished results, and that the path to genuine liberation is likely to be as complicated as it is fiercely individual. Murray, who was much attracted to sagas of herohood (see The Hero and the Blues, 1973), felt that most biographies of black folk left out everything that makes black life rich, and a transcendent black art possible: “style in general and stylish clothes in particular, all of the manifest love of good cooking and festive music and dancing and communal good times (both secular and sacred), all of the notorious linguistic exuberance, humor, and outrageous nonsense, not to mention all of the preoccupation with love and lovemaking (that blues lyrics are so full of)”—these, captured in the very riffs and glides of Murray’s own style, are the stuff that, taken together, make up the black lifestyle and that its best artists capture in their music, and sometimes in their prose.

By contrast, most writing about blacks seems a pale carbon copy of the genuine article, one driven by special agendas that wring the life out of the very thing it attempts to capture. Hence,

. . . most biographies and autobiographies of so-called U.S. black folks tend to read like case histories or monographs written to illustrate some very special (and often very narrow) political theory, or ideology of blackness, or to promote some special political program. Such writing serves a very useful purpose, to be sure. But the approach does tend to oversimplify character, situation, and motive in the interest of social and political issues as such, and in the process human beings at best become sociopolitical abstractions. At worst they are reduced to cliches.

We have learned to settle for one-dimensional portraits of black life—and, to our collective shame, even learned how to praise them. In this sense, a maverick type like Murray is an important player in the ongoing dialogue about what is worthy of serious regard and what is decidedly slimmer goods. It is, after all, still possible for certain black intellectuals to make a splash with books that talk about hip-hop in the language of semiotics and deconstruction. What Murray provides is an alternative, one confident that Ellington and Basie’s music will last—and matter—long after Snoop Doggy Dogg has long been forgotten, and that the thickly textured passages of memoir contained in Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971) will continue to captivate so long as there are people who care about the suppleness of well-wrought paragraphs.

America has been blessed with maverick intellectuals at least since the days of Emerson and Thoreau. They tend to be larger in impact than they are in raw numbers. For a very long time, the number of black intellectuals could be counted on the ringers of a single hand, with W.E.B Dubois so dwarfing the competition that many were not even aware that there was competition. But even as we note with pride that a critical mass of black public intellectuals now exists, the number of maverick black intellectuals, those with a genuine independence of mind and equal measures of spunk remains quite small. To them, Albert Murray stands as a patriarch, with all the adoration and resistance that the term properly inspires. More important, though, for Americans of all colors, his work speaks to the best we are and the even richer possibilities of what we might become.


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