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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Most Negroes have always had enough inside information about the history of this

great hit-and-miss republic to know that other people have been deliberately writing

Negroes out of the history books, even as the same people permitted newly

arrived immigrants to write themselves in.



Books by Albert Murray

South to a Very Old Place  /  Stomping the Blues  /  Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity  / Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie

Train Whistle Guitar: A Novel   / The Hero and the Blues  / Conversations with Albert Murray  / The Magic Keys

Seven League Boots / The Spyglass Tree  /  The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement

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The Omni-Americans

New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture

By Albert Murray

A Summer Reading of Albert Murray's

 The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (1970)

By Rudolph Lewis


I have begun a new reading: Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (1970). As I stated before, I’m usually behind the curve in my readings. As a working class stiff, I just have not had the leisure to read all the books that are important to American life and culture. In any event I was not yet ready for Murray, whom I’ve tried to read before but was unable to do so. I discovered this morning that I’ve laid sufficient ground to benefit from his writings. A few excerpts will provide some flavor of his perspective in this book .

Introduction (excerpt)

“The bias of The Omni-Americans is distinctly proliterary. It represents the dramatic sense of life as against the terminological abstractions and categories derived from laboratory procedures. Its interests, however, are not those of a literary sensibility at odds with scientific method. Not by any means. On the contrary, a major charge of the argument advanced here is that most social science survey findings are not scientific enough. They violate one’s common everyday breeze-tasting sense of life precisely because they do not meet the standards of validity, reliability, and comprehensiveness that the best scientists have always insisted on. As a result they provide neither a truly practical sociology of the so-called black community nor a dependable psychology of black behavior. . . .

“After all, 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 American. . . .”

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Murray desires to expose “what functions as a folklore of white supremacy and a fakelore of black pathology” and to stimulate a “rudimentary orientation for more extensive investigation and development by scholars and creative writers alike, of the actualities and potentialities of black American experience as such elements are reflected in the blues idiom, one of the art styles most characteristic of U.S. Negroes self-expression.” He also wants to show “how writers who are advertised as storytellers and artists produce pseudoscientific social theories.”

In Part Three, Murray reflects on “black studies, black consciousness and black heritage.” He believes “that the function of education in the United States is to develop citizens who are fully oriented to cultural diversity—and are not hung up on race.”

The U.S. Negro, Albert Murray argues in The Omni-Americans, is peculiarly American. His dance style, of course, can be traced to some indefinite moment, to “somewhere in the uncharted reaches of some region of pre-historical Africa.” But his blues style, “a tradition of confrontation and improvisation . . .[his] ‘resilience’ . . . is indigenous to the United States,” that is, has its beginnings here in American soil.

He uses Constance Rourke, author of American Humor: A Study of the National Character and the Roots of American Culture to sustain his polemic.

“Her image of The American is a composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.”

Rourke explains: “Each had been a wanderer over the lands, the Negro a forced and unwilling wanderer. Each in a fashion of his own had broken bonds, the Yankee in the initial revolt against the parent civilization, the backwoodsman in revolt against all civilization, the Negro in a revolt which was cryptic and submerged but which nonetheless made a perceptible outline.”

These figures of homo Americanus embodied a deep-seated “mood of disseverance, carrying the popular fancy further and further from any fixed or traditional heritage. Their comedy, their irreverent wisdom, their sudden changes and adroit adaptations provided emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait.”

In his the Omni-Americans, Albert Murray concludes as Thomas Mann, “the whole of history itself is largely mythological.” Beginnings are “downright arbitrary and quite in accordance with some specific functional combination of desirable skills and attitudes in terms of which one wishes to project himself.”

For the U.S. Negro, Murray suggests the fifty years between 1825 and 1875: “Thus, in the second and third quarters of nineteenth century America, Negroes can find adequate historical as well as mythological documentation for ‘all that really matter’ in the establishment of their national identity. Not that they need do so to meet any official requirements whatsoever. After all, such is the process by which Americans are made that immigrants, for instance, need trace their roots no further than Ellis Island.

“By the very act of their arrival, they emerge from the bottomless depths and enter the same stream of American tradition as those who landed on Plymouth. In the very act of making their way through customs, they begin the process of becoming, as Constance Rourke would put it, part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian—and part Negro.”

Some immigrants, according to Murray, are “only too happy to have the people of the United States regard themselves as a nation of two races. (Only two!) . . . . But even as they struggle and finagle to become all-white (by playing up their color similarities and playing down their cultural differences), they inevitably acquire basic American characteristics—which is to say, Omni-Americans—that are part Negro and part Indian.”

Murray appreciates the “bitterness” of black militants toward immigrants. It is “altogether appropriate even if sometimes excessive.” But they are often only “one dimensional” in “the heritage of black people in America.” They are “more impressed by the white propaganda designed to deny their very existence than by the black actuality that not only motivates but also sustains them.”

When these militants “speak of their own native land as being the White Man’s country, they concede too much to the self-inflating estimates of others. They capitulate too easily to a con game which their ancestors never fell for, and they surrender their birthright to the propagandists of white supremacy, as if it were of no value whatsoever, as if one could exercise the right of redress without first claiming one’s constitutional identity as citizen.”

On American culture, Murray concludes, it is “irrevocably composite”; it is “incontestably mulatto.” In some sense, one might say, it is New Orleans.

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(22 August 2006)

I am still reading Albert Murray's The Omni-Americans.

Below is a wonderful passage from that work:

"When such improvisations as typifies Negro music, dance, language, religion, sports, fashions, general bearing and deportment, and even food preparation is considered from the Negro point of view, there is seldom, if ever, any serious doubt about how Negroes feel about themselves or about what they accept or reject of white people. They regard themselves not as the substandard, abnormal non-white people of American social science surveys and the news media, but rather as if they were, so to speak, fundamental extensions of contemporary possibilities."

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(25 August 2006)

The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray has excellent reviews of Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land and Gordon Parks' A Choice of Weapons, two books I have never read.

On Manchild, Murray writes, "perhaps one of the most significant things this book actually is how difficult it is to be a serious writer when you've been interviewed, advised, rehabilitated, and structured by social workers, liberals, and other do-gooders year after year." 

On A Choice of Weapons, Murray writes: "Thus he has not done himself justice in A Choice of Weapons. The result is that sometimes it is as if he himself doesn't quite know what to make of what he has in fact already made of himself. Nevertheless, many people who are otherwise extremely careful about the books they rate noteworthy may not only make a fuss over this one but will be prepared to give all kinds of essentially sentimental excuses for its obvious shortcomings. And one suspects that many will be doing so because Gordon Parks is a successful U.S. Negro and because everybody is for encouraging the negro this year. This is a hell of a reason to excuse anybody for not writing well enough."

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(26 August 2006)

My readings of Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans (1970) continues.

In his essay “Who That Say, What Dat, Every Time Us do That”:

“After all, integrated or not, Negroes have always been in a position to observe almost everything that has been doing and undoing in this country. Other people always seem to forget it, but Negroes are almost always behind the scenes, whether they are on camera or not. And for inside news, no U.S. press club could ever really compare with the good old Negro barber shop (and beauty parlors) where all the old doormen, waiters, Pullman porters, valets, chauffeurs, ex-shoe shine boys (and maids and cooks), go to swap lies and to signify about the state of the nation.

“Most Negroes have always had enough inside information about the history of this great hit-and-miss republic to know that other people have been deliberately writing Negroes out of the history books, even as the same people permitted newly arrived immigrants to write themselves in. Even the social science and welfare elite know this (but unfortunately all they seem to be able to do about it is to suggest that black history be taught to black people who already know it—or to pretend that U.S. Negroes are all descendants of African kings, queens, and Hottentot potentates).

“Other U.S. Negroes, however, realize that as long as white Americans are misinformed about the actualities the history of the United States is going to cause even more confusion among white citizens than among black ones.”

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29 August 2006

On Baldwin & Negro Traditions in The Omni-Americans

In his criticism on Richard Wright, Baldwin, in “Many Thousands Gone,“ made according to Albert Murray (The Omni-Americans, 1970), “the following suggestive statement, “But the fact is not that the Negro has no tradition, but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.’ 

Murray responds in this fashion:

As a matter of fact the very same paragraph in which Baldwin declared the existence of an as yet unrealistically articulated negro tradition, contains a significant clue to his subsequent difficulties and confusions as a serious writer and the clue concerns a matter of erudition. “For a tradition,” he continued, “ expresses, after all nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people; it comes out of the battle waged to maintain their integrity or, to put it more simply, out of their struggle to survive (Italics added.) And then in the next sentence he added the following observation: “ . . . when we speak of the Jewish tradition, we are speaking of centuries of exile and persecution, of the strength which endured and the sensibility which discovered in it the high  possibility of the moral victory.”

All of which is utterly confusing. Baldwin doesn’t mentions a single Jewish novel that would justify such a statement. . . . A traditions involves much more than the long and painful experiences of a people. The modern Jewish tradition, which someone has referred to as an instantly erectible wailing wall, may well represent centuries of exile and persecution, but it also represents much more. As did the ancient Greek and Roman traditions. As do the modern French and English traditions.

Murray continues in his literary defense of Negro integrity and his criticism of Baldwin’s racial attack:

As for the tradition of U.S. Negroes, Baldwin may or may not realize that he is making a fundamental statement about it when he says that it is only in music that the negro in America has been able to tell his story. Actually this story is also told in folktales and lore, sayings, jokes, and various other forms. Nonetheless, music does contain the most comprehensive rendering of the complexities of the American Negro experience. Whatever the reason, very few U.S. Negro writers (or painters, for example) rank in range and achievement beside musicians like Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin, or even Charlie Parker, not to mention the great Kansas City stylists and Duke Ellington.

Murray points out how traditional Negro art & sensibility goes beyond protest:

But it should be clear that what U.S. Negro musicians express represents far more than the fact that American black folks been ‘buked and been scorned and nobody know de trouble dey seen. Distinctive as it is, U.S. Negro music, like U.S. Negro life, is, after all, or rather first of all, also inseparable from life in the United States at large. Thus, as an art form it is a direct product of the U.S. Negro sensibility, but it is a by-product, so to speak of all the cultural elements that brought that sensibility into being in the first place.

The spirituals, for example, always expressed more than a proletarian reaction to poor pay and bad working conditions. They did reflect life on the plantation and the effects of political bondage; but they were also a profound and universally moving expression of Protestant Christianity, interwoven with New England Puritanism, and frontier elements, American aspirations in general and many other things, including an active physical existence and a rich, robust, and highly imaginative conception of life itself.

As for the blues, they affirm not only U.S. Negro life in all of its arbitrary complexities and not only life in America in all of its infinite confusions, they affirm life and humanity itself in the very process of confronting failures and existentialistic absurdities. The spirit of the blues moves in the opposite direction from ashes and sackcloth, self-pity, self-hatred, and suicide. As a matter of fact, the dirtiest, meanest, and most low-down blues are not only not depressing, they function like an instantaneous aphrodisiac! And there are also significant implications of affirmation inherent in the basic facts that U.S. Negro music has always been a part of a great tradition of dance and physical labor.

posted 1 September 2006

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Trading Twelves

The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

Edited by John Callahan

"I had chosen to re-create the world, but, like a self-doubting god, was uncertain whether I could make the pieces fit smoothly together. Well, its done now and I want to get on to the next one." In this passage from a 1951 letter to his literary colleague and all-around good buddy Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison is referring to his masterpiece Invisible Man; it is both this fly-on-the-wall intimacy, as well as the now-ironic mention of Ellison's "next," never to be completed novel that help to make this book such a pleasure to read. Ellison was an accomplished and dapper upperclassman and Murray a respectful but equally ambitious freshman when they first encountered each other in 1935 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They were not to become close friends until 1947, when Murray was studying for his masters degree in New York City.

The letters begin in 1949 and end in 1960, when easy long-distance phone calls brought the need for longhand correspondence (but not their everlasting friendship) to an end. While the 1952 publication of Invisible Man rocketed Ellison to literary stardom, his letters always treat Murray, who taught at Tuskegee and labored on his own unpublished first novel until the 1970s, as his genuine equal, both as a writer and as a cultural thinker.

The letters recapitulate their travels around the world (European fellowships for Ellison and cushy postwar Air Force assignments for Murray, who was a colonel in the reserve); their quirky black hipster idiom; Ellison's ambivalence toward Tuskegee and his responses to literary fame, including a brief description of an encounter with William Faulkner at the old Random House offices. There are also funny, thoughtful exchanges on jazz figures, biting comments on literary foes and ample details of the literary and domestic lives of these two gifted and iconoclastic American writers.—Publishers Weekly

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Bill Moyers and James Cone (Interview)  / A Conversation with James Cone

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John Coltrane, "Alabama"  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"  / A Love Supreme

A Blues for the Birmingham Four  /  Eulogy for the Young Victims   / Six Dead After Church Bombing 

Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Africa Makes Some Noise—Documentary on contemporary music from Africa

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

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#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities.

Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.

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The Great Divergence

America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It

By Timothy Noah

For the past three decades, America has steadily become a nation of haves and have-nots. Our incomes are increasingly drastically unequal: the top 1% of Americans collect almost 20% of the nation’s income—more than double their share in 1973. We have less equality of income than Venezuela, Kenya, or Yemen. What economics Nobelist Paul Krugman terms "the Great Divergence" has until now been treated as little more than a talking point, a club to be wielded in ideological battles. But it may be the most important change in this country during our lifetimes—a sharp, fundamental shift in the character of American society, and not at all for the better. The income gap has been blamed on everything from computers to immigration, but its causes and consequences call for a patient, non-partisan exploration.

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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story

of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government

By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer

American democracy is informed by the 18th century’s most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. We’ve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economics—the cutting-edge ideas of today—generate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. It’s an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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Home Richard Wright   Langston Hughes Table  Yictove Table  Books N Review

Related  files: The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough   The Works of William Sanders Scarborough  Practice and Perception of Black Classicism 

Celebrating Alexander Crummell   Classicism within Black Consciousness   Ten Vital Principles for Black Education   Black Nationalism in America  

Albert Murray on Ralph Ellison Aesthetics   What America Would Be Like Without Negroes