Reading Albert Murray’s “The Omni-Americans” (1970)

This is the only book on the editor’s reading list that isn’t about the South specifically. However, it is about beliefs, myths, and narratives that surround a subject that is central to the South: race. Published in 1970, The Omni-Americans was written by a black man, originally from Alabama, who offers a powerful perspective on the realities of African-American life, the intricacies of race relations, and the problems inherent in white supremacy.

Though not as well-known as African-American writers like James Baldwin or Richard Wright, Albert Murray was a widely respected critic, novelist, biographer, and essayist. In the 1970s, Murray released a torrent of books that cemented his stature: this one in 1970, the memoir South to a Very Old Place in 1971, the critical work The Hero and the Blues in 1973, the novel Train Whistle Guitar in 1974, and another critical work Stomping the Blues in 1976. Because he was in his fifties and early sixties at this time, much older than most of the Civil Rights activists of the 1950s and ’60s, he contributed a different kind of voice to post-movement America.

Albert Murray’s style so densely interweaves multiple subjects and issues that it is hard to trace his intense discussions with brief summaries, but to set someone straight on what this book is about, here is Murray himself: “But the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. [ . . . ] They are all interrelated one way or another.” Where many Americans see us as stratified by common racial types, Murray says, No, that won’t work, if we want to reach the truth of it.

Again, this book not being about the South specifically, I feel the need to point out that more than half of nation’s black population lives in the South. Though self-identifying black people constitute less than 15% of the US population, those rates are much higher in Mississippi (38%), Louisiana (33%), Georgia (31%), Alabama (27%), South Carolina (26%), and North Carolina (22%). Texas has the highest number of black people, followed by Florida, New York, and Georgia. And though I don’t have the statistics to back it up, I would say that most Northern black people have Southern roots. To me, this is a Southern subject.

Yet, I wouldn’t want anyone to read that tiny excerpt in my previous paragraph and come to the conclusion that The Omni-Americans is a feel-good book about how we can all get along. It isn’t. Beginning with a philosophical discussion of how far back we choose to look in order to surmise  our “own tradition or cultural idiom,” Murray then drops a unique idea on our heads: the “image of the American is a composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman, and part Negro.” This comes from scholar Constance Rourke, and Albert Murray uses it to tell us about “the blues tradition, a tradition of confrontation and improvisation.” It’s all about “resilience,” a distinctly American trait that African Americans exemplify.

What follows is Murray taking apart not only white supremacist misunderstandings of black people but also a dressing-down of social science types who claim to explain black people to wider American audiences. The book’s “Part One” is a rich and complex diatribe about what some people believe, what myths some people embrace, what narratives some people create, and what facts and factors those people choose to ignore. Over and over, Murray says to his readers, and consequently to white America: if you believe that about black people, then wouldn’t this (which you don’t believe) also be true, too? “It is not cultural lag the creates the major obstacle for those who migrate from the farms and small towns of the South,” he writes. “It is racism, much of it official that prevents them from adequate employment, decent housing, and equal protection under the law.” Murray was laying down an argument for a narrative about systemic racism fifty years before the term’s current vogue.

Ultimately, in the latter pages of “Part One,” he reaches the “blues idiom,” which he sees as black culture’s “major cultural achievement.” Where social science has attempted to use observational data to describe a “lag” in comparison to white culture, the “blues idiom” is something different altogether. It is a way of living that arose from circumstances, a manner of facing hardship with creativity and flexibility, and an expression of joy amid pain. Murray sees the common American narrative– describing a race of people who are perpetually behind – as grossly incorrect and proposes this narrative of triumph over severe circumstances as a more accurate one.

“Part Two: The Illusive Black Image” is a broad discussion of how black people are viewed – notice that he uses illusive, not elusive – that includes sections on the black middle class, Gordon Parks, and James Baldwin. But what interested me most as the editor of a project about the South was the section on William Styron, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s novel caused quite a stir in the late 1960s, as it had a white writer creating a fictional narrative for a real slave who led (or participated in) a rebellion in 1831. Murray writes that Styron “who contended, not without some deeply felt passion, that it had become the moral imperative of every white Southerner to break down the old law (which requires the denial of the most obvious of all Southern entanglements) and come to know Negroes.” However, there is also this: “But the Southerner’s first liberal remark is likely to be a bridge burning act in itself.” The problem here, for Styron and his novel, was that black people already had their myths and narratives about Nat Turner, so Styron was effectively stepping on those, an act/effect Murray thinks he hasn’t considered.

In “Part Three: Getting It Together,” Murray carries his arguments into something more summative. He writes about identity and “black self-consciousness,” as well as the emergence of Black Studies programs in education. Among the sections, my eye was on “Black Pride in Mobile, Alabama.” The author is a native of Nokomis and Magazine Point, two small communities north of Alabama’s port city. In this essay/chapter, he delves deep into what he called the “fakelore of black pathology,” and begins by saying that black radical intellectuals who get on TV often seem know nothing about the intellectual precursors and heritage of then-current ideas, then adds that these TV-approved presenters are “talking not with you and to you but at you and into you.” This essay is consummate Murray – creative and smart – in that, for long passages, he assumes the voices of others (presented in italics) and speaks directly as them. In section three, he launches into “Alabama teachers [who] have been incredibly apathetic about the ridiculous materials on black people in the textbook on Alabama history.” Ultimately, he surmises that “all the television talk” pushes everyone further from the truth that black educators in the South already knew: what black life is really like

Finally, the brief “Epilogue: Situation Normal: All Fouled Up,” which was supposed to have been published in Partisan Review in 1966, provides a seven-point listing of what Murray sees going. He starts by announcing, “There was never a time when the United States was not deeply ensnarled in a moral and political crisis,” then comments, before his list begins, that this is a country where many people flee to escape persecution though it is a long way from being perfect. While he doesn’t claim to be able to fix it, Murray does have a few points that he hasn’t already made. Among my favorites are three passages among the seven, all of which sound eerily similar to our political climate in the late 2010s and early 2020s. In point two, which acknowledges that most people don’t understand economics any more than they understand foreign policy, so he suggests to the common man: “His picket slogans, however, should be consistent with the limitation of his information.” Next, in point three, he gives a distinctly different perspective on political divisions:

A split between any US administration and some liberals and most radicals is not only predictable, it is healthy.” Much of the current dissent, however, seems to be degenerating into petulance. This is self-defeating, for as criticism becomes more hostile than reasonable, the administration is only likely to harden itself against it— or ignore it.

Finally, he tells us what any reasonable adult should (but doesn’t seem to) already know: “mass media reports are not geared to accuracy but to sensationalism.” No matter how much things changes . . . they do seem to stay basically the same.

I wish that more people knew about (and read) the works of Albert Murray. I’m sure that my affinity for him came through in my comments on this book. What I like about his writing is that he acknowledges painful truths, some particularly uncomfortable for white readers, but does so in a way that is constructive, corrective, and productive. Life is hard enough, so let’s call foolishness and wrongheadedness what it is, and then let’s do better, he says to all of us in his discussions of our beliefs, myths, and narratives. Murray saw a way forward, but his way would involve hard work, honesty, and humanity. Yet, too many people would rather eschew those things in favor of inflammatory rhetoric, media attention, and finger-pointing— the kinds of things that might lead to a new set of beliefs or myths, but are likely to not to lead to anything better than we have had so far.

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