Gusto and a Sense of Elegance

The Omni-Americans from Collected Essays & Memoirs by Albert Murray.  The Library of America.  1048 pp.  $45.00

The Omni -Americans was at least partly prompted by the Moynihan Report (The Negro Family: The Case For National Action) from 1965, and author Albert Murray states his central thesis in the introduction, “Someone must at least begin to try to do justice to what U.S. Negroes like about being black and to what they like about being Americans. . . . far from simply struggling in despair, they live with gusto and a sense of elegance that has always been downright enviable.”  I must say that, in a day when everyone seems focused on victim politics, Murray’s celebration of African American life is refreshing.  It’s like the way the African American community rose up when Trump portrayed their lives as unrelentingly bleak.

I know Albert Murray as the as-told-to Author of Count Basie’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues.  That may not seem much of an acquaintance, but back when I was reading about jazz Good Morning Blues was one of the best books I came across, and I suspected at the time that it involved much more than Count Basie talking into a tape recorder.  The easy and relaxed idiom of the book, its lilt, the way it arranged itself into sections, were all exceptional, and it told me a great deal about music that I’d never known.  I’d happily read it again.

So when my favorite reviewer Dwight Garner reviewed this larger volume, and I heard it included Stomping the Blues, a book I’ve wanted to read for years, I thought I’d have a look.  I love the Library of America volumes, especially like the way they’ve wandered away from the acknowledged classics and made daring choices in recent years, like Ursula LeGuin, Elmore Leonard, and Loren Eiseley.

The first thing I read, as I almost always do, was the 26-page Chronology, which forms a mini-biography and in the case of Murray is fascinating.  He was born in 1916, so this year marks his centenary.  He didn’t publish his first book, The Omni Americans, until the age of 54.  In the meantime he had led a rich life as a learner and a teacher, studying literature and culture in general at Tuskegee Institute and returning to teach there, also having a career in the U.S. Army Air Corps, in which he enlisted in 1943.  While at Tuskegee as a student he noticed that many of the books he was checking out of the library had previously been checked out by a slightly older student named Ralph Ellison.

He juggled dual careers in the Air Force and in academia, was placed on reserve duty in 1947 but called back to active duty during the Korean War (as was my father-in-law, E.B. Blount; he told me some years back that that was the biggest shock of his life).  In 1957 Murray suffered a mild heart attack, and five years later was allowed to take early retirement from the military because he was diagnosed with arteriosclerotic heart disease.  That was a fortunate diagnosis.  Murray lived another 51 years, to the age of 97, and never had further heart trouble.  Also in ‘57 he and his wife moved to their Harlem residence in the Lenox Terrace Apartments, an “eighth floor corner apartment” with “spectacular views of Harlem and midtown.”  He would live there the rest of his life.

Murray seemed to know everyone in African American cultural life, from Ellison and Romare Bearden to Basie and Ellington.  It seems odd is that it took him so long to publish his first book, though he apparently—like his friend Ellison—worked slowly and carefully and was not in a hurry to publish; the semi-autobiographical narrative “Jack the Bear” that he began in 1951 wasn’t published until it became two novels, Train Whistle Guitar in 1974 and The Spyglass Tree in 1991.  It also seems odd, for a man so learned and eloquent, that his first published volume, The Omni-Americans, seems halting and unsure of itself, cobbled together from essays he’d written earlier.

Murray was a man of high culture.  His epilogue at the beginning of the book is from Andre Malraux, he seems conversant with the whole Western canon, European writers as well as American ones, and he is deeply suspicious of—I don’t think it would be too strong to say he hates—the social sciences, the kinds of studies that produced the Moynihan Report.  He doesn’t so much argue with the evidence as with the way it is interpreted.  “Nowhere does Moynihan explain what is innately detrimental about matriarchies.”  And he flatly denies the image that it presents of black life in America.

“Harlem Negroes do not act like the culturally deprived people of the statistical surveys but like cosmopolites.  Many may be indigent but few are square.  They walk and even stand like people who are elegance-oriented. . . . They dress like people who like high fashion and like to be surrounded by fine architecture.”

Murray doesn’t give cultural figures a pass just because they’re African American.  He has a wide appreciation of musicians, especially jazz musicians, especially those who played the blues.  But he’s devastating about the famous writers of his day, dispatching with Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, James Baldwin.  The only writer he seems unequivocally to admire is his friend Ralph Ellison, and that’s setting a high standard.

What’s really great is when Murray cuts loose.  One wishes he would do it more often, though I’ve read into the next volume and there’s a lot more there.  Here is a small part of his wonderful riff putting down Eldridge Cleaver.  “And then they discovered that not only was he a member of the Ramparts magazine brotherhood, but had chosen to define himself largely in terms of the pseudo-existential esthetique du nastiness of Norman Mailer, who confuses militant characteristics with bad niggeristics precisely because he wouldn’t know a real bad Negro until one happened to him. . . . who the hell needs a brown-skinned Norman Mailer?”

His real answers to the Moynihan Report come not when he’s being academic and respectful, but when he lets himself go.

And if black people have such low self-regard, why they hell are they forever laughing at everybody else?  How come as soon as they get something desegregated so many of them feel so at home that they subject to try to take it over by sheer bullshit (which they would never try in an all-black situation)?  How come they’re forever talking as if superstars like Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, and even Leontyne Price come a dime a dozen in the black community.  And if they really feel so stupid, how come a third-rate Harlem hipster is always so certain he got him a square as soon as he spots an Ivy League white boy in a non-academic situation.”

This is the kind of celebration of black life that Good Morning Blues was full of.  I don’t know where to look for it now that Murray is gone.  But there’s a lot still to read in this volume.