Requiem for an Omni American: Albert Murray, Black Identities, and the Politics of Cultural Choice

The novelist, critic, cultural theoretician, teacher and raconteur Albert Murray joined the Ancestors on Sunday, August 18 at the beautiful earth age of 97. HIs obituary appeared two days later, on the front page of The New York Times, an iconic photograph of him and long-time comrade Ralph Ellison appearing just south of the page's equator, two Southern-born Americans who almost made it over to the most well known half-page in print news. One Alabamian, the other a son of the Territory: Talented, relentless champions of the complexity, impurity and celebratory interstices of American culture. One a well-known Ancestor, the other, his friend, emerging from the shadows for many who became acquainted with him for the first time by reading his obituary. They now trade twelves for eternity.

Murray's obituary, titled "Scholar Saw a Multicultural American Culture," emphasized his opposition to "African," "Black" or even "African American" as terms by which to describe the American Negro, emphasizing that Murray "fought Black separatism."  The genius of Negro America, for Murray, Ellison and the many who have followed in their ideological constant, was in leveraging our signature cultural responses to enslavement as a resolute and resonant chord--a Blue Note--to bond the inextricable alloy of American culture.  For Murray, Negro American masters of irony and folksy, self-depreciating, defiant and at once exceptional style, had captured the cultural imagination of this young country, swinging their way into indelible relevance.

Albert Murray came of age in a segregated America that started a flirtation with what my friend Lawrence Jackson has called "the Indignant Generation," a cascade of post World War II Black artists and thinkers bred in rich petrie dishes of segregated communities, colleges and cultural institutions. They frequently offered their gifts as deposits of New Negro culture on an anvil used by insatiable cultural searchers seeking to ball so hard that the rest of the country's thirsty and restive population would try to find them.  Unlike Wright, Ellison, and later Hansberry, Baldwin and others across the ideological spectrum who would litter the white imaginary from the late 1960s to the present, Murray would remain unseen and, until later in life, uncelebrated as tour guide and critical American cultural nationalist. His turn on stage never truly came: His was often a moon's light, rightly or wrongly, a brightness of refractive derivation from suns named Basie, Bearden or, in later years, Marsalis. As a phenomenon in America's cultural firmament, Murray's presence, clustered with that of Marsalis, Buck O'Neal, Margo Jefferson, Stanley Crouch, Nell Irvin Painter, Gerald Early and several other cultural translators, eventually served as a contextualizing gravitational disturbance in the establishment's official cinematic documentarian of Omni-Americanism, the white dwarf star Ken Burns.

Squeezing into the terms that the Times obituary predictably used to group Black thinkers with which Murray often sparred as "separatists," Murray was, in my mind, a (Negro) American cultural nationalist. His uses of our cultural bouillabaisse to empty into the stock of America's cultural stew of his Omni America arouses a rejoinder in the words of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" when Toledo tells his bandmates that Blacks are just uneaten leftovers from the stew of obsolete eras of white history. Murray's choice was to characterize the Black contributions to the American stew, not as stock of a spent fuel source for a settler colonial experiment but as a constantly renewing set of ingredients for a bottomless bowl of nourishment.  

The optimism Murray displayed to the end has been met in recent times by the fear-addled politics of the Tea Party and similarly disconcerted elements across the ideological spectrum. The fear--and justifiably so--is that the corpulence of a country that never stopped engorging itself on the land, cultures and bodies of others has reached a tipping point for permanent damage to its imagined digestive tract. Too much non-white stew has been consumed. In fact, the leftovers have never stopped cooking their own rich dishes, ones that may ultimately reposition the kitchens of power outside the once-powerful big houses and into the fields.

Murray's characterization of the African contribution to American culture was an ideological and political choice that often prevents some of us who are often dismissed as "nationalists" by external (and, sadly, some internal) observers from claiming Murray's insights on the practices--rather than the purposes and meanings--of African cultural extensions and reblendings in the United States as a valuable compendium rather than a narrative codex.  Murray, as with Ellison or even Crouch in his beautifully-written first volume of a two-volume biography of Charles Christopher Parker Jr., Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker  (Harper, 2013), rarely fell short in his ability to describe what Yoruba nations might refer to as the itutu (coolness)  of African cultural texts and practices. Such powers of description, however, should not be conflated with the political, theoretical and/or ideological uses to which they are put.  What Cedric Robinson might call "the terms of order," or the contours of social and political mythmaking, are often easier to seek solace in and/or protection from rather than to, in opposing, end.  Such has often been the choice made by brilliant Black thinkers who cede the current socio-economic order and set of cultural coordinates as a permanent set of circumstances.  

These thinkers are the ones who construct beautiful and insightful examinations of African cultural improvisations and appropriations of non-African texts and practices, only to empty these examinations into vague metaphors about how they are evidence of "the meaning of democracy" or "real American values."  These forced marriages of culture and politics bespeak a set of political choices and commitments that say much more about the desires or resignations of the interpreter than those of the interpreted. In the end, The New York Times may take note of the passing of select among these thinkers; but the people who produced and nurtured the cultures they investigated and used to elevate their profiles continue to negotiate the treacherous circumstances of our long travail in this country.  It is they, as Michael Gomez has noted, who continue to represent Africa to America. And, as Kwame Ture once observed, it is they who will survive America.

In some ways, Albert Murray recognized this.  His writings could be said to flirt with Black nationalisms as they relate to descriptions of Negro American cultural meaning-making and with White nationalisms when making meaning of those cultural texts and practices for the U.S. nation-state.  How else to explain the perpetual flirtation with the idea of jazz as a metaphor for American democracy?  The 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington and a right-wing response in the murders of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Roberston and Denise McNair will be marked by narratives that have integrated the events of the so-called "Civil Rights" and "Black Power" eras (long or short) into an intellectual genealogy that begins with Democritus and flows through a Frankenstein's monster of stitched political theory that includes the Federalists, de Tocqueville, Lincoln, John Dewey, Reinhold Niebur and a cast of many others.  

In fact, the political movements of African people in this country, as elsewhere in the African world, speak not to the embrace of the idea of American democracy but the Africanization of American politics by people who used their cultures as points of departure for exchanges and resistance. The frequently brilliant interpreters of African cultural texts and practices in America who attempt to explain them as expressions of aspiration to the American experiment are speaking more of their own desires or acquiescences and less of those of the people whose lives they interpret.  It is those communities, who provide the subject of study for these aspirants to inclusion who, as Michael Gomez has noted, continue to represent Africa to America.  And it is they who continue to regard the shrines, icons, totems or rituals of the American state with irony and, often, outright contempt. Such are the terms of communal identity in contested political circumstances. 

The contours of nationalisms are rarely interrogated on the terms created by the communities which receive the label. The celebrated scholar of nationalism Liah Greenfield's argues, in her new book MInd, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (Harvard UP, 2013), that there is a relationship between cultures that extol individual happiness, secularism and personal freedom and the proliferation of psychic strains and mental illness.  This, of course, would be no revelation to Murray and Ellison's cultural hero Louis Armstrong, whose 1929 recording of Waller, Brooks and Razaf's "(What Did I Do to Be so) Black and Blue?" erects a discursive wall between a society that would diagnose our Blues as malady and our own internal critique of--and preservation of our sanity from the possibility of being consumed by--that society.  

It is Armstrong's brilliant musical ability, born of Congo Square, ignited in Storyville and connected to the seeming inexhaustible improvisation of Africana wherever he found it, that shines through the lyrics. This was the culture that Murray explored and described in books such as Stomping the Blues, Train, Whistle, Guitar, South to a Very Old Place and The Hero and the Blues, explicating a culture than cannot be either consumed or discarded by misshapen historical narratives of any origin. His emptying of his observations into a theoretical paradigm for interpreting American culture in his often-evoked collection The Omni-Americans was a political act, a choice of how to make meaning of Africana meaning-making in a society which has never accepted African as equal, on any terms.  Murray found this failure to recognize and embrace the impact of Negro America problematic, to be sure, but not fatally so for him. 

According to the Times obituary, the great Negro American cultural critic and academic J. Saunders Redding characterized Murray's Omni-American collection as a "dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play." Ironically, it was the same Professor Redding (and not John Henrik Clarke, as many might think), who once said that history is a clock by which a people tells its historical time of day. Where a community of people connected by culture, experience or ever-shifting socioeconomic circumstances start the clock of their collective memory depends on what they have established as the significant moments in that history. And, for Africans, what they do with those time coordinates depends on what they aspire to, not as individuals, but as groups. This, in fact, is a theme celebrated by Murray in his work: The improvisational swing of African people, the communal, collective acknowledgement of excellence and disassociation with mediocrity; the space for individualism as part of an ever-contested but communally-convened witness.  These are practices that start long before the clock of the United States of America; practices that predate Magna Carta or the Holy Roman Empire; practices that don't set their watches to the convening of the Roman senate or the Athenian Boule.

The poet Ezra Pound, whose work was introduced to Murray and Ellison by Pound's Hamilton College classmate and their Tuskegee teacher/mentor Morteza Drexel Sprague, once said that his clock started in 1922, the year after James Joyce penned the last sentence of Ulysses and, in effect, ushered in what is now known as Modernism. Edward Kennedy Ellington, another of Murray's suns, once remarked that he was "born in Newport (Rhode Island) in 1956," the night that Paul Gonsalves improvised 27 saxophone choruses to bridge the Dimuendo in Blue with the Crescendo in Blue and renew the Duke for another generation in a spectacular weheme mesu (repetition of the birth). Albert Murray chose to begin the appearance of Negroes on his own intellectual clock with a primordial origin of slavery, a point of departure that, for John Henrik Clarke, would allow for everything since then to look like progress.

As Albert Murray ascends into Ancestorhood, his passing affords us a moment to take note of his time on earth, a stretch that occupies over one third of the clock of American history, just under one fifth of the clock of the West's rise and decline as the defining cluster of societies in world history and, in African time, a fleeting two percent of the time since preserved narratives of Black identities appeared in the Nile Valley. He may have said he was not an African, as was his right, but it is for those of us who see Africa when and wherever it exists as part of a long-view continuum to embrace him and his work, as a self-conscious act of self-definition.  In this vein, It is from one of the classical African writings, the so-called Pyramid Texts found in the pyramid of Pepi I (c. 2700 bce), that an appropriate characterization of Albert Murray is found:  "Ah you rising so high among the imperishable stars, you will never, never fade."




The Butler: The Art and Science of Self-Representation

If past is prelude (and, when it comes to America and race, it almost always is), Lee Daniels's "The Butler" will be nominated for several awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  This is a lovely name for an insider organization with a pretentious, academic-sounding name which many of us imbue with a undue credibility, simply because it is easier to do so than to create, support and burnish institutions that promote, debate and reward own independent thoughts and feelings about commercial film and "popular" culture.

At the memorial for the great actor and Howard professor Al Freeman in Howard's Cramton Auditorium last September, Ellen Holly, who played Freeman's wife, Carla (Gray) Hall on ABC's "One Life to Live" for years, brought the large audience to cheers when she noted that Hollywood did not reward complicated or heroic images of Black actors with Oscars.  She noted that Freeman should have won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Elijah Muhammad in "Malcolm X" (1992) and that Denzel Washington should have won the same year for playing the title role.

Washington's Best Actor Oscar, of course, came a decade later, for playing a crooked cop in the tired "Training Day," the same year Halle Berry clutched the statue for Daniels'  coming-out fantasy, "Monster's Ball."  Since that time, Daniels's ascent to an Academy-certified Black experience film narrator has been burnished with two statuettes, including one for Mo'Nique as Best Supporting Actress in "Precious" (2009).

Armond White and Harry Lennix have delivered some sharp words about Daniels' latest project, a narration of the mytho-historical life of Cecil Gaines, a stand-in for the real-life Eugene Allen (1919-2010), a White House butler for 34 years.  I read Mr. Haygood's Washington Post article, as well as his recently-published book/movie ad, "The Butler: A Witness to History." As always, I had to read both the words and the unspoken volumes between them.

I am an African who has both witnessed and experienced the hidden, sensitive and complex feelings held by African people (including members of my family)  who have endured jobs and relationships that required their silence in the face of white privilege and/or power. The internalized stressors of being Black in America, as artists from Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin to Charles Burnett and Julie Dash have so expertly revealed in their work, lead to complicated, bracing narratives that have proven untranslatable to White audiences or institutions looking for forgiveness or, better, forgetting.  Our Ancestors' sacrifices and ours were not so that we could elect one neoliberal Black president or collect statuettes from an industry that rewards reinscriptions of attitudes toward Black people that we neither hold or share. 

I doubt there are many Black people who would disagree with those sentiments. Some Black public media types swallow their innermost thoughts or attempt to weave them into amicable or faux-provocative translations rather than risk losing employment or visibility from the market-art-culture-politics complex they have told themselves they can impact with their presence, however muted.  It is painful to watch their fumbled or undisciplined responses when their colleagues (or one of their own) walk over the bridge such failed translations provide to "take it too far." 

This isn't a condemnation of Black folks on television, in the newspapers or on the web, for their stated opinions on "The Butler" or anything else. It is a simple statement that there are no bridges to be built to images, ideas or narratives that reinforce the idea that Black peoples' lives are an appendage to the narrative of American exceptionalism and its parent the idea of European historical supremacy.  It is also an expression of gratitude for having sound mind and body, the ability to think and to dialogue, and the great fortune to be surrounded by people and institutions where we can think critically and progressively about the African world experience, on our own complex terms and in our own collective interests.

Before--or after--you spend your money for Lee Daniels's latest broadside, consider doing just a little homework.

Armond White's review of "The Butler":

Harry Lennix's comments:

A comparison of Mr. Allen's experiences and "The Butler"'s story arc, from Slate Magazine, Time Magazine, and the Daily Beast:



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