U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Albert Murray and a Forgotten Intellectual Tradition (Guest Post)

(Editor’s Note: this is the third fourth in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)

The noted writer Albert Murray passed away about two weeks ago. Since then, the media has devoted some (but not nearly enough, in my opinion) coverage of the man, his writings, and his particular ideological focus. Murray, you see, was the product of a unique intellectual and cultural moment in American history, one which I shall focus on today. The output of Murray’s career is unique and deserves to be examined, but for the purposes of today’s discussion, I want to focus on his landmark work, The Omni-Americans.

Albert Murray’s 1971 classic is a unique document of its time. Written during the cultural upheaval of the 1970s, Murray sought to create a new dialogue about race, culture, and education in the United States. In many ways, his book transcends a simple left-right dichotomy, and instead asks for a simple, yet quite difficult proposition, to solve the crises of the American state in the 1970s: why don’t we think of ourselves as one people? As Murray states early in his book, “There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.”[1] In other words, Murray positioned himself squarely against separatism in any form. He wished for Americans to see each other simply as Americans.

Murray also agreed with the sentiments of historian Constance Rourke, who saw several groups making up an essential American tradition. Murray wrote, “Her image of The American is a composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.”[2] This desire for what he called a “homo Americanus” needs to be considered in light of the eventual fracturing of the American academy on ideological and methodological lines.

This book is an interesting document for intellectual history reasons because Murray’s audience was both the public and intellectuals. In his introduction, Murray argued, when writing against the “protest novel” form of authors such as James Baldwin, “Producing guilt may or may not be fine, but stimulating intelligent action is better. And intelligent action always needs to have its way paved by a practical estimate of the situation.”[3] This collection of essays (written during a time period of 1964-1969) then proceeds to tackle a variety of cultural issues. Murray’s central theme, however, is clear: what unites Americans must be emphasized over what divides them.

What is especially interesting is Murray’s view on the burgeoning Black Studies Movement of his era. He believed that the desire for Black Studies made sense, for it was to him an attempt by students to modernize the curricula they were having to learn from. Nonetheless, he also felt that Black Studies should be part of a larger dialogue between professors and students: “Competent historians will not permit students to be misled by bombastic platitudes about the masses and “the real people” or the “Average” black man, but will point out that the student’s own responsibility lies precisely in the fact that he is trying to be better than average, and that revolutions are not really made by angry mobs thrashing about in all directions but by enlightened charismatic leaders, and that rebellions succeed when such leaders are technically proficient enough to select the most vulnerable targets and apply the most practical tactics and weapons.”[4]

In The Omni-Americans, Murray worries about the youthful Black American population being dissuaded by radicals (white and black) from critical thinking and inquiry, and towards a pseudo-revolutionary intellectual stance. It is worth thinking about his relationship with Ralph Ellison in light of his concerns about American culture.[5] Ellison, like Murray, argued for the centrality of the African American experience within American history and culture. For them, separatism was not just a rejection of the ideal of integration, it was a misguided breach of the American social fabric. Ellison’s transition from Communist fellow-traveler in the 1930s to a staunch integrationist in the 1960s and 1970s is well known. Yet both he and Murray found themselves trapped by the 1970s between two groups: the New Left-influenced intellectuals who emphasized radicalism and identity, opposed against cultural conservatives (some of whom, like Saul Bellow, started out on the Left in their earlier days) who argued for a strident defense of the values of “The West”. Of course, my audience is all too familiar with these debates. But the stance of Murray and Ellison is a cultural “Third Way” that never seemed to find traction during the Culture Wars.

The legacy of Albert Murray (and Ralph Ellison, for that matter) can be seen in the writings of such public intellectuals as Stanley Crouch. All three of these men evade simple definitions as conservatives or liberals. But what they represent is, as far as I’d define it, an African American-inflected humanism. It is an attempt to move beyond an emphasis on Black pride, Black self-love, or even Black history and literature, and to seek a broadening of American culture as requiring a Black element.

Finally, it is high time for a biography of Murray to match the quality of that done for Ellison. Murray’s background (being from the American South, serving in the U.S. Air Force) and his life before pursuing writing full time would make an excellent contribution to American cultural and intellectual history if done right. The fullness of American intellectual thought in the 1970s practically requires it.

[1] Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture. (Avon Books: New York, 1971), pg. 14.

[2] Murray, 31.

[3] Murray, 16.

[4] Murray, 305.

[5] Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison, released in 2007, is an excellent read about Ellison, Murray, and the intellectual worlds they both occupied from the Great Depression until the 1990s. Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Alfred A Knopf: New York, 2007).

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Robert, what a fantastic post. But you know if you go around insisting on a “third way” through the Culture Wars, you’re going to start a revolution right here on this blog — to which I say, bring it!

    In terms of someone writing a well-done biography of Murray as a way of making an “excellent contribution to American cultural and intellectual history” — sounds like you have your work cut out for you.

  2. Heh, when I wrote this piece I realized what I was saying might, in some sense, raise a few (interested) eyebrows. With Murray and Ellison, I find that they aren’t easy to pin down anywhere within what we’d call the Culture Wars.

    And at some point I’d like to examine Murray even more–I may do so in my dissertation, depending on how deeply I want to look at public intellectuals like Murray in the 1970s and 1980s.

  3. Great piece. Always love your writing, Robert.

    Interesting that Murray invoked Constance Rourke, whose politics are so complicated.

    “American Humor” is a book about humor, after all–so the “Negro” Rourke indexes is, unambiguously, the comical buffoon of the minstrel show and dialect literature.

    Interestingly enough, Michael Denning includes Rourke among the innovators of Popular Front/Cultural Front literature, which says quite a lot about the problem of the racial unconscious of the 1930s Left. As George Lipsitz argues, even the best articulations of 1930s-era “Lincoln Republicanism” were beholden to a certain naturalization of racism and racial typology.

    This was not nearly as true as the Left artistic coalitions of the 1920s and early years of the 1930s… it remains hard not to see a Rourkean vision of American cultural pluralism as a loss when measured against the inquiries into constitutive cultural antagonisms–or, perhaps better put, the sophisticated meditations on the antagonistic character of American race, class, and gender relations– authored pre-New Deal by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and other “cabaret school” authors.

    (For a poignant example, see Michael McKean’s commentary on the Criterion collection DVD of Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels”–and the pain at the absolutely retrograde racial business at the heart of the Popular Front’s best comedy.

    Those contradictions may turn out to be very important in understanding why so many African American intellectuals turned away from the CP and Stalinism–more important, probably, than all the “God that failed” business.

    The other point worth making is that there were many critics of cultural nationalism from the Left. Fanon’s very influential writings were full of blistering critiques of bourgeois particularism and nationalism. By the time of Murray’s ascent, then, there was already a substantial Left critique of cultural nationalism developing in the US, and figures like Murray and Crouch were often taken to task for reifying a unitary vision of an imaginary “America,” in relation to which African American oppression and the gradual achievement of equality were figured as character-building growing pains.

  4. First, thanks for the kind words!

    Second, you bring up some very interesting points about the Popular Front and the way race played a role in their development of culture in the 1930s. It was in the back of my mind when writing this, especially in the sections dealing with Ellison.

    As for Fanon and others, that doesn’t surprise me, but when I get the chance (And right now, I’m not sure when the time will be right) I want to dive more into that particular literature. Certainly, Murray and Ellison had to face off against writers such as Ishmael Reed (who is still around today, and also offers an interesting contrast to the typical left-right dichotomy of the Culture Wars) who certainly didn’t buy the idea of a unitary American culture.

    I think it’s also interesting to think where people like Crouch, Reed, and Murray will all fall in the American (And African American) canon in 20 to 30 years. Already, Murray is in the canon, but often mentioned in conjunction with Ellison. Since I did that too, I’m certainly not complaining about that, but these three writers, to varying degrees, offer different critiques of American life and society that need to be looked at within the larger cultural debate going on at college campuses and within humanities departments.

    One final point: people like Murray, Ellison, Reed, Crouch, and others (John McWorther comes to mind) show a diversity of African American letters that has always been around. I find myself wondering how all this fits into not just the Culture Wars, but the so-called “Age of Fracture” from the 1970s until the present. Since, at this point, I’m just thinking out loud, I think I’ll stop now.

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