One Writer, Indivisible

Posted: Oct 01, 2013 7:55 PM

We come, we go. So quickly it's not easy to keep up. "You never know who's here anymore," my big sister once complained when we were trying to remember whether a character actor in the movies we used to watch years ago was still living.

Sometimes you read an obituary and you're surprised to learn that its subject was still alive after all these years. Other times you miss the obituary page one day and feel a curious pang a month later when you hear of a death, which was the case with Albert Murray -- a rare voice of both reason and art. Which is never a common combination, and may have been even rarer during the tumultuous Sixties and vulgar Seventies, when he was doing his best work.

No wonder I missed his obituary ("Albert Murray dead at 97"), for he wasn't noticed all that much at the height of his powers. There just wasn't much demand for his kind of sensibility when Black Power was in vogue and the rabble-rousers had a lock on center stage. Some are still around -- Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton -- but their act has gotten old by now and their shtick may excite more pity than passion these days.

Albert Murray was always different, not just because he had real talent as a writer, but because he also had enough sense to see what was right in front of his nose, and all around him and the rest of us. He also had enough courage to point it out, and more than enough flair to make a plain truth sizzle and soar.

At a time when black nationalism was all the rage, and I mean rage, Albert Murray -- Al to his old friends -- found the whole idea risible in this country. Which was not a best-selling stance when the popular taste in radicals had switched from Gandhian to (Che) Guevaran, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X. In that way, Albert Murray resembled Bayard Rustin, who was Dr. King's right-hand man, organizer-in-chief and strategic thinker -- the man behind the scenes, never a headline-maker. Neither was Albert Murray, who was more artist than activist, a critic rather than actor. And it is the rare critic who is remembered longer than the performance he's criticizing.

In 1970, when names like Stokely Carmichael and Amiri Baraka, né LeRoi Jones, were still recognized and Frantz Fanon was still being read, Albert Murray would publish "The Omni-Americans," his signature work. And make it clear if it wasn't before that black separatism was not only an impractical but impossible idea in America -- just as white separatism is. It would be like trying to separate George Gershwin from "Porgy and Bess," or American music itself from jazz, or Southern history from slavery. Can't be done.

Culturally, we're all mulatto. Which was what Albert Murray understood even if he couldn't make that many others understand. Maybe he understood it because he had a sense of place, coming as he did from the South and finding his own place at last in Harlem, that outpost of the black diaspora and therefore of the South in Manhattan of all places.

I remember one cold New Year's Eve when, unable to find a can of black-eyed peas for the morrow, it finally occurred to me: Of course. All I had to do was take the subway to 125th and Broadway, the heart of Harlem. And there they were, grocery aisles full of them. Of course Albert Murray would finally find his place in Harlem -- and, like all good writers, he had, he needed, he embodied, a sense of place. As much as Faulkner did his not very fictive Yoknapatawpha County. As with produce, the best literature is local.

No matter how far Albert Murray roamed -- and as a major in the Air Force, he'd been stationed at various bases all over Western Europe and North Africa -- he knew his own country best, and his own roots. A year after "The Omni-Americans," he would write "South to a Very Old Place," a record of his pilgrimage in search of the Southern spirit as he and maybe only he defined it and explored it and reinvented it and never ceased riffing on it. The knowing recognized him immediately as another Southern writer headed "North Toward Home," to quote the title of Willie Morris's still hilarious and still somehow heart-breaking memoir.

How sum up Albert Murray? Probably can't be done. But you could start by recognizing him as the pure polyglot multi-racial red-white-and-blue polychromatic, stream-of-consciousness American he was. (Whew.) It's no easier to cover all the shades of Americanness that Albert Murray represented than to get through one of his essays -- or free-flowing poems! -- without taking a breather. Which figures. As a writer, he was a drummer. No one less than Duke Ellington called him "the unsquarest man I know."

Albert Murray disdained the new-fangled, hyphenated and by now almost mandatory label, African-American, a classification as demeaning as it is inaccurate. ("I'm not an African. I am an American.") There are no African-Americans any more than there were Anglo-Saxons; it's a purely nominal, not a biological or geographical, category.

Walker Percy gave "The Omni-Americans" a rave review when it came out, referring to it as "the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture." Less memorable critics, and they fully deserved to be, were less enthusiastic. An all too typical Black Studies professor, one J. Saunders Redding, writing in the New York Times of course, called it "nonsense" and its rhetoric "a dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play." In short, he couldn't hear the music.

Albert Murray's prose-poetry-jazz-jive was almost all music. Which was what made it great and made it less than. The man just had too much music for his words to contain; the beat was always driving out the meaning.

That's why, as a writer, Albert Murray never made the majors, though he was surely somewhere at the top of the minor leagues. He didn't make the greats because he didn't have a great editor, a Maxwell Perkins to his Thomas Wolfe. Which is a crippling lack. Good writers aren't really uncommon, believe it or not, but a good editor is worth his weight in red pens.

My own acid test for a great polemicist is not whether he gives his readers opinion they agree with, but opinion they can disagree with. And can argue with, chew on and digest at length. Opinions that may not change their mind, but may change the way they think and feel, that is, their life. Albert Murray could do that -- musically, rhythmically, regularly. Which is no small talent.

Wasn't there a time when the papers and maybe American commentary in general was full of Albert Murrays -- they had names like Murray Kempton, William F. Buckley Jr., Christopher Hitchens, Nat Hentoff -- or is that just an old man's nostalgic remembrance of his wasted youth as an avid newspaper reader? No, surely not. For when the news of Albert Murray's death arrived, it occurred that not only will Albert Murray be missed but the Albert Murrays.

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