I am still processing what to keep with Albert Murray, the person who-along with Ralph Ellison-made me want to be a serious writer. The 37 year old me sees a few more flaws in his work than the 22 year old fan boy did. His Scooter novels are better read in tandem-an Alabama “In Search Of Lost Time”-but Murray’s steely aspirational politics manifested itself in the later books as a fear of conflict; and the result is that they just sink on the page. That same personal ethos made him distrust James Baldwin’s Another Country and made him tone deaf in regards to the work of Toni Morrison. He was a “race man” through and through, always commanding himself and his people to the what he thought was the highest standards in absolutely everything, and he didn’t understand how that doesn’t always jibe with the messiness of life and creating literature. (Nor did he understand that Morrison had as high a standards as he did. )
And yet sometimes I read his books and miss him in my bones. Along with Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, Murray made Black conservatism seem glamorous. In their work, achievements, and discipline, they taught me that there was no standard or obstacle I couldn’t overcome, and no aspect of my life unworthy of great art and study. Murray’s gift as an essayist and a thinker was to make the reader see how much of a swirl this country was, how intertwined we were, and how so much of that artistic and cultural mix came from the south. The Omni Americans taught me that to read, study and understand our rich contribution to the culture was a more constructive way to fight white supremacy than to throw tantrums at random white people. South To A Very Old Place was both a brutally honest take on southern race relations and a joyous celebration on the shared cultural heritage blacks and white southerners have.
I almost forgot his greatest work: his poetry! For my money, Conjugations and Reiterations is one of the most underrated book of poems in the 20th century. It shows gorgeous a dazzling nimble style-adept in both form and early modernist blank verse, settled in both call and response and stream of consciousness, quintessentially Murray in that it shows a mind that read most of everything. What makes it work, however, is how Murray goes completely against type and shows how….vulnerable he was as an artist. The book is an interior panorama of what it was like to grow up as a creative young Black man in Alabama, detailing the joys and the cost in the way his novels could not do, and the book should be discovered by future scholars.
His big philosophical theme-that Black people had cultural norms and art forms that should be respected-is one of the reasons that he fell out of favor with the liberals and conservatives of his time. He had no use for dadaism or how the Black Arts movement refried avant guard, and wasn’t going to kill off a white woman in one of his works to protest something or show his “masculinity”. His disdain for reverse Affirmative Action as a curator for Jazz at Lincoln Center got him run out on a rail in many right wing circles; and the furor over that can be seen now as a rung in the de-evolution of conservative thought.
Sometimes I think of him when I see social media, and my stomach hurts. I think of him every moment people interrupt political speeches and wonder why is it impossible to get Washington state stand your ground law off the books. I think of him every moment people give unfailing, uncritical praise to black militant progressive creeps and predators, and wonder if Black people recognize we have a history before 1965. I think of him every time I see Cornel West throw a tantrum or a college kid lose their shit when they are faced with an opinion they don’t like, and wonder why do we give so much power to the white man that we can’t get in the ring and intellectually fight him. ( And no, I’m not talking about being against trigger warnings, respectability politics, or not speaking truth to power. But can their be a fucking median between that and never questioning a single Black Lives Matter activist who interrupts a rally?)
So yes, I like weed and cussing more than Murray would care for, and think that Morrison was an infinitely better novelist. And he never examined his personal pettiness toward Baldwin-who used to be his friend. But there is so much of his work that lives. His best still still crackles with solid, smart Ideas on race and culture, and an affirmative intellectual sensibility that resonates with me deeply.