South to a Very Old Place, Stomping the Blues, The Blue Devils of Nada, From the Briarpatch File from Collected Essays & Memoirs by Albert Murray. The Library of America. 1049 pp. $45.00.
Moonlight, a film by Barry Jenkins, with Mahershala Ali, Duan Sanderson, Naomie Harris. *****
I haven’t finished the last few pieces from Collected Essays &Memoirs—I’m reading slowly, as much for the style as anything else—but feel I’ve got the gist. It’s interesting how the life’s work of this man—who published his first book at age 54 and continued to be productive into his late eighties, even published a book in his nineties—all seems of a piece, and keeps coming back to the same themes.
South to a Very Old Place, for instance, documents a tour Murray took back home through the South, connecting with cultural icons like Robert Penn Warren and C. Vann Woodward, but by far the most interesting section is when he talks about his time at Tuskegee Institute, the period when he was reading through the Western canon and forming himself as an intellectual. That is also the most interesting part of his conversation with Sanford Pinsker in From the Briarpatch File, when Murray was 81. As much as he loved black culture, and as authoritative as he was about many aspects of it, he talks again and again about his foundation in Hemingway, Mann, Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Malraux, Faulkner, Yeats, Pound, Auden; he has a whole piece, in fact, about being at Tuskegee and reading Faulkner’s work as it came out, and one of the longest single essays in the book is one called “The Storyteller as Blues Singer,” about—believe it or not—Ernest Hemingway, in which he compares Hemingway’s sentences, forged at the Kansas City Star, to the piano riffs that Count Basie played from his foundation in Kansas City jazz.
Despite the high-quality literature that African Americans have produced, including that of his good friend Ralph Ellison, who was slightly ahead of him at Tuskegee, he still feels that the primary contribution of African Americans to world culture was the blues, and his greatest cultural heroes are all musicians, people like Ma Rainey Bessie Smith, and Basie (with whom Murray co-wrote his memoirs, Good Morning, Blues), but especially Louis Armstrong and, above all, Duke Ellington, whom Murray writes about again and again and who took the blues to the level of fine art. The blues for Murray were not just an art form but reflected a way of living your life, including “the most fundamental of all existential imperatives: affirmation, which is to say, reaffirmation and continuity in the face of adversity.” He elaborates on this idea many times. “The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not. . . . Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say in high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.” The blues were not just to be sung or listened to, they were to be danced to, or, as Murray would say, stomped.
And it was not just in The Omni-Americans—which I wrote about previously—that Murray expressed his impatience with social scientists and their idea of white supremacy and black pathology. He spoke repeatedly throughout his work of the fact that blacks weren’t interested in living as white people did—they were happy with the way their culture had evolved—they just wanted their share of power and money. Murray wasn’t strategic and careful in his writing on that or any other subject. He was most enjoyable when he really let himself rip. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in his long riff—I will quote only a small part—on the n-word and its various uses.
“Nor was it any less obvious that when somebody called himself or somebody like himself a nigger he was not talking about not being as good as white people or somebody rejected by himself because he is rejected by white people—not at all. He was talking about being different from white people all right, but ordinarily he was mainly talking about being full of the devil and stubborn to boot; as stubborn as a mule, mule-headed, contrary, willfully different, cantankerous, ornery, and even downright wrongheaded. When somebody said, ‘Don’t make me show my nigger’—or ‘don’t bring out the nigger in me,’ he was bragging about having the devil in his soul.”
He understood white attitudes as well, and spelled them out. “Nevertheless when you heard them saying ‘boy’ to somebody you always said mister to, you knew exactly what kind of old stuff they were trying to pull. They were trying to pretend that they were not afraid, making believe that they were not a split second away from screaming for help. When they said Uncle or Auntie they were saying: You are not a nigger because I am not afraid. If you were really a nigger I would be scared to death.”
He doesn’t avoid even the most controversial of subjects, and manages to be funny (this whole long passage from South to a Very Old Place is hilarious) even while making a serious point.
“Some folks also used to declare that the reason the white folks wanted to lynch you for being a nigger was because when all was said and done they really believed that the actual source of niggerness was between your legs. They said you were primitive because to them what was between your legs was a long black snake from the jungles of Africa, because when they said rape they said it exactly as if they were screaming snake! snake! snake! even when they were whispering it, saying it exactly as if somebody had been struck by a black snake in the thickets. Bloodhounds were for tracking niggers who knew the thickets like a black snake. When white folks called somebody a black buck nigger they were talking Peeping Tom talk because the word they were thinking about was fuck, because when they said buck-fucking they were talking about doing it like the stud-horse male slaves they used to watch doing it back during the time of the old plantations.”
I know of no one quite like Albert Murray, especially when he cuts loose, when he gives you the private knowledge that blacks have concealed from whites for so long, when he lets his sentences go like a blues musician riffing on a solo (but never seems to lose control). Collected Essays & Memoirs is full of such pleasures. At 1049 pages, the book seems never to end, and really you don’t want it to.
It’s greedy to wish that someone who lived 97 years had lived a little longer, but I can’t help wishing we had Murray’s voice to help us get through the current political situation. He gave us the lowdown on lots of things, but what would he have said about you-know-who? I also wish he were here to give his take on Moonlight, the most astonishing work of African American art I’ve encountered in years. Talk about taking the culture in a new direction. What would Murray have made of this?
I was talking recently with an inmate that some friends and I sit zazen with on Death Row. It was odd to be talking with someone who knew more of Moonlight’s back story than I did—he’d read everything about it he could find—but might very well never see the film. One of the things I said to him—we’d also been talking about the election—was that it was mind-boggling to me to walk out of the theater after Moonlight and realize that this exquisite work of art had been produced in the same country that just elected Donald Trump. The two things don’t compute.
The story is simplicity itself. A boy with a drug-addicted mother grows up in Miami in the eighties, and comes to terms with who he is and with his sexuality. That’s what the plot summaries say and that’s more or less what happens. But nothing in that brief description begins to suggest how marvelous the direction is, how every actor is absolutely perfect in their role, how heartbreaking many scenes are, how touching others are. The whole film is entrancing—you could watch it in silence, just seeing the faces—and much of the credit belongs to director Barry Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. One can only say about Jenkins, who had directed only one previous film, what someone said about Louis Armstrong. “You just wonder where a guy like that came from.”
In one way the movie seems to be about the black pathology Murray seems so anxious to deny. Chiron’s mother is addicted to crack, there is no father in sight, and the man who helps Chiron out, and becomes a father to him, is a major person in his community because he is a drug dealer. He’s the one, in fact, who sells to Chiron’s mother. But as Murray would hasten to say, white people are also addicted to drugs, and white people make major money from the drug business. Addiction as a problem in our culture doesn’t belong to one people or to one race. The real problem for Chiron is that he’s poor. He’d have enough problems even if he had money, but the economic situation of these characters magnifies everything.
Chiron—who actually has three names through the movie, Little, Chiron, and Black—is played by three different actors, as is his friend Kevin. I don’t know how you handle that come Academy Award time—could three actors share in one award? They’re three different people, but they form character, even though Jenkins famously didn’t let them meet during the filming—but I’m not sure any of them would outdo the performance for me of Mahershala Ali, who plays the drug dealer and Chiron’s surrogate father with marvelous dignity and presence. Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s mother, also gives an overwhelming performance, and I was pleased to see that she was finally given her full humanity, not portrayed only as an addict.
“Moonlight” is one of those rare works of art where no description can possibly do justice to it. The review should say Go See It and stop right there. I know that the Academy has been accused of racial prejudice in the past; I’ve agreed that more black actors and directors should have been nominated, though I haven’t always thought they should win. But if Moonlight doesn’t win something major, something is definitely wrong. Along with The Underground Railroad in fiction, it is one of the most startling and original works of art I’ve encountered in years. What’s startling is how simple it is, and how perfectly told. Moonlight is a marvel.
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