Albert Murray, an influential essayist, critic and novelist who found literary inspiration in his Alabama roots and saw black culture not as distinct from American culture but as essential to it and inextricably bound up in it, died on Sunday at his home in Harlem. He was 97.
Lewis P. Jones, a family spokesman and executor of Mr. Murray’s estate, confirmed the death.
Mr. Murray was one of the last surviving links to a period of flowering creativity and spreading ferment among the black intelligentsia in post-war America, when the growing force of the civil rights movement gave rise to new bodies of thought about black identity, black political power and how African-Americans can live in a society with a history of racism.
As blacks and whites clashed in the streets, black integrationists and black nationalists dueled in the academy and in books and essays. And Mr. Murray was in the middle of the debate, joining or sparring with writers and artists like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Romare Bearden and his good friend Ralph Ellison.
One of his boldest challenges was directed toward a new black nationalist movement that was gathering force in the late 1960s, drawing support from the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam and finding advocates on university faculties and among alienated young blacks, who believed that African-Americans could never achieve true equality in the United States.
Mr. Murray insisted that integration was necessary, inescapable and the only path forward for the United States. And to those — blacks and whites alike — who would have isolated “black culture” from the American mainstream, he answered that it couldn’t be done. To him the currents of the black experience — expressed in language and music and rooted in slavery — run through American culture, blending with European and Native American traditions and helping to give American culture its very shape and sound.
With a freewheeling prose style influenced by jazz and the blues — Duke Ellington called him “the unsquarest man I know” — Mr. Murray challenged conventional assumptions about art, race and American identity in books like the essay collection “Stomping the Blues” and the memoir “South to a Very Old Place.” He gave further expression to those views in a series of autobiographical novels, starting with “Train Whistle Guitar” in 1974.
Mr. Murray established himself as a formidable social and literary figure in 1970 with his first book, a collection of essays titled “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture.” The book constituted an attack on black separatism.
“The United States is not a nation of black and white people,” Mr. Murray wrote. “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” America, he maintained, “even in its most rigidly segregated precincts,” was a “nation of multicolored people,” or Omni-Americans: “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro.”
The book also challenged what Mr. Murray called the “social science fiction” pronouncements of writers like Baldwin, Richard Wright and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who he said had exaggerated racial and ethnic differences in postulating a pathology of black life. As Mr. Murray put it, they had simply countered “the folklore of white supremacy” with “the fakelore of black pathology.”
The novelist Walker Percy called “The Omni-Americans” “the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture,” published in his generation. But it had fierce detractors. Writing in The New York Times, the black-studies scholar and author J. Saunders Redding called the essays contradictory, Mr. Murray’s theories “nonsense” and his “rhetoric” a “dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play.”
For many years Mr. Murray and the novelist Ralph Ellison, who met in college, were close friends and literary kindred spirits. In “King of Cats,” a 1996 profile of Mr. Murray in The New Yorker, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that the friendship between the two men “seemed a focal point of black literary culture.”
“Both men were militant integrationists, and they shared an almost messianic view of the importance of art,” Mr. Gates wrote. “In their ardent belief that Negro culture was a constitutive part of American culture, they had defied an entrenched literary mainstream, which preferred to regard black culture as so much exotica — amusing perhaps, but eminently dispensable. Now they were also defying a new black vanguard, which regarded authentic black culture as separate from the rest of American culture — something that was created, and could be appreciated, in splendid isolation.”
Like Ellison, Mr. Murray proposed an inclusive theory of “the American Negro presence.” (He disdained the use of the term “black” and later spurned “African-American” — “I am not an African,” he said, “I am an American.”)
Mr. Murray contended that American identity “is best defined in terms of culture.” And for him, American culture was a “composite,” or “mulatto,” culture that owed much of its richness and diversity to blacks.
Yet Mr. Murray was not always sure that whites understood this shared legacy when they embraced black artists. He could be suspicious of whites, asking whether they, even in their applause, nonetheless continued to regard black culture “as so much exotica,” as Mr. Gates put it. Thus Mr. Murray asked whether the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Toni Morrison in 1993 was not “tainted with do-goodism,” and whether the poet Maya Angelou’s readings at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural echoed a song-and-dance tradition in which blacks entertained whites.
The essential bond between American culture and what Mr. Murray called Negro culture is the shared embrace of a “blues aesthetic,” which he found permeating the works of black musicians, writers and artists and increasingly adopted by whites. “For him, blues music, with its demands for improvisation, resilience and creativity, is at the heart of American identity,” Laura Ciolkowski, a professor of literature now at Columbia University, wrote of Mr. Murray in The New York Times Book Review in 2002. The blues, she added, were to him “the genuine legacy of slavery.”
Mr. Murray himself wrote: “When the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest and the medicine man. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.”
Albert Lee Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who soon gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty. “It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” said Mr. Murray, who learned of his adoption when he was about 11. The Murrays moved to Mobile, where Albert grew up in a neighborhood known as Magazine Point. In “Train Whistle Guitar,” his largely autobiographical first novel, he called it Gasoline Point.
Through the novel’s protagonist, Scooter, his fictional alter ego, Mr. Murray evoked an unharrowed childhood enriched by music, legends, jiving and jesting, and the fancy talk of pulpit orators and storefront storytellers. As rendered in Mr. Murray’s inventive prose, the adolescent Scooter and his friend Buddy Marshall could imagine themselves as “explorers and discoverers and Indian scouts as well as sea pirates and cowboys and African spear fighters not to mention the two schemingest gamblers and back alley ramblers this side of Philmayork.”
After graduating from the Mobile County Training School, where he earned letters in three sports and was voted the best all-around student, Mr. Murray enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where he discovered literature and immersed himself in Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Mann. He met Ralph Ellison, an upperclassman, as well as another student, Mozelle Menefee, who became his wife in 1941. She survives him, as does their daughter, Michéle Murray, who became a dancer with the Alvin Ailey company.
Mr. Murray received a bachelor of science degree in education in 1939 and began graduate study at the University of Michigan. But the following year, he returned to Tuskegee to teach literature and composition.
He enlisted in the military in 1943 and spent the last two years of World War II in the Army Air Corps. After the war, the Murrays moved to New York City, where he used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree from N.Y.U. and renew his friendship with Ellison. In 1951, a year before Ellison published his classic work, “Invisible Man,” Mr. Murray rejoined the military, entering the Air Force.
He served in the military, peripatetically, for 11 years — teaching courses in geopolitics in the Air Force R.O.T.C. program at Tuskegee in the 1950s, taking assignments in North Africa and studying at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Paris.
After retiring from the Air Force as a major in 1962, he returned to New York with his family and settled in an apartment in the Lenox Terrace complex in Harlem. He began writing essays for literary journals and articles for Life and The New Leader, some of which were included in “The Omni-Americans.”
He also became a familiar figure on campuses, holding visiting professorships at the University of Massachusetts, Barnard, Columbia, Emory, Colgate and other schools. And he resumed exploring the streets and nightclubs of Harlem with Mr. Ellison.
From 1970 to the mid-1990s, as if compensating for his slow start, Mr. Murray published nine books. His second, “South to a Very Old Place” (1971), recounted his return to his Southern homeland. The book later became part of the Modern Library.
In “The Hero and the Blues” (1973), a collection of essays based on a series of lectures, Mr. Murray criticized naturalism and protest fiction, which he said subjugated individual actions to social circumstances. In “Stomping the Blues” (1976), he argued that the essence of the blues was the tension between the woe expressed in its lyrics and the joy infusing its melodies. He saw the blues, and jazz, as an uplifting response to misery.
“The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people,” Mr. Murray said years later. “It is the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.”
He next began a long collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography, “Good Morning Blues,” which was published in 1985, a year after Basie’s death. Along with the writer Stanley Crouch and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Mr. Murray was actively involved in the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the institution’s first permanent jazz program.
In 1991 he returned to his fictional alter ego, Scooter, depicting his college years at Tuskegee in the novel “The Spyglass Tree.” Four years later, as he neared 80, Mr. Murray published two books: “The Seven League Boots,” the third volume of his Scooter cycle, and “The Blue Devils of Nada,” another essay collection. Still another collection, “From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity,” which explored in part the “existential implications of the blues,” was published in 2001.
Mr. Murray published the fourth and last novel in his Scooter cycle, “The Magic Keys,” in 2005. The book, which received tepid reviews (it “feels plotted rather than lived,” John Leland wrote in The Times), brings its narrator, whose real name is never learned, to graduate school in Manhattan, where he befriends a thinly disguised Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden.
Mainstream recognition was slow to come for Mr. Murray. But by the mid-1990s, the critic Warren J. Carson had called him “African America’s undiscovered national treasure,” and in 1997 the Book Critics Circle gave Mr. Murray its award for lifetime achievement. The next year he received the inaugural Harper Lee Award as Alabama’s most distinguished writer.
In 2000, Mr. Murray published “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray,” which he edited with John F. Callahan. That same year he appeared as a commentator in Ken Burns’s multipart PBS documentary “Jazz.”
The critic Tony Scherman wrote of Mr. Murray in American Heritage, “His views add up to a cohesive, elegant whole, making him a rarity in today’s attenuated intellectual world: a system builder, a visionary in the grand manner.”
He could also write on a personal scale: his first book of poems, “Conjugations and Reiterations,” appeared in 2001. And he was candid in writing about advanced age.
“I’m doing more than ever,” he wrote in an Op-Ed essay in The Times in 1998, two years after undergoing spinal surgery, “but it’s harder now. I’m in constant pain. At home I use a four-pronged aluminum stick to get around. I need a stroller when I’m on the street. At receptions and in airports I need a wheelchair to get down the long aisles.
“But nothing hurts quite like the loss of old friends. There are ways to cope at the time they die. But weeks and months later you realize you can’t phone them and talk: Duke Ellington, Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison, Alfred Kazin, Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Mitchell. It’s hard to believe they’re all gone.”
Originally published by the New York Times