Albert Murray at 97 — the Geography of a Mind

“Identity is best defined in terms of culture… American culture, even in the most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.”

— Albert Murray (The Omni Americans, 22)

Of all the lessons I leaned from Murray, this nugget of truth – first imparted to the masses in his 1970 seminal text The Omni Americans – continues to resonate with immediacy. Simply stated, we are what we do; and if we are doing it in the same country, certainly in the same region, state, city or municipality, we are more similar than dissimilar despite efforts to accentuate the contrary.

But wait, aren’t Americans known for individuality? Don’t efforts to describe our culture as homogenous not only defy our national identity as historically articulated but also undermine today’s push to articulate our onlyness and to differentiate our unique qualities amidst global competition?  Well, yes, and no…

An Air Force officer trained along with the famous Tuskegee Airmen, Murray was well-traveled and lived overseas during various stints of military service. His hunger for exploration, however, was cultivated as a child living in a port city just outside of Mobile, Alabama. Ships from various parts of the world arrived in Mobile, sailors would disembark, and cultural integration and discovery began anew with each docking. This curiosity, inherent in childhood, was cultivated daily. Murray describes the wanderlust inspired by geography and topography through the voice of his protagonist, Scooter:

“You couldn’t see the L&N Bridge from the skiff boat landing where we were standing then, but we knew where it was because it was also the gateway through which the Chickasabogue, which was really a tributary, flowed out into the Mobile River which led down into Mobile Bay which spread out into the Gulf of Mexico which was a part of the old Spanish Main which was the beginning of the Seven Seas” which of course, could take you anywhere in the world.

– Albert Murray, Train Whistle Guitar, 40 (1974)

President Benjamin Payton (Tuskegee U) & Jackie Modeste

President Benjamin Payton (Tuskegee U) & Jackie Modeste

Murray also credits his English teachers for making him cognizant of the personal and social responsibility to travel. Morteza Drexel Sprague at Tuskegee and Mr. Baker at the Mobile County Training School considered racial progress (remember, this is the 1920s – 30s Jim Crow US Deep South) synonymous with “epical exploits” such as “penetrating frontiers and thereby expanding [a] people’s horizons of aspirations.” In other words, Murray owed it to his people to penetrate borders and to integrate himself into as wide an array of possibilities as possible because in so doing, he led others to push past borders of every type, both real and imagined. (Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place, 132: 1970) Certainly this has particular resonance in domestic communities of color and the historically marginalized the world over. Yet when considered broadly, this notion moves us into enlightened discussions of immigration, global population shifts, and the associated political and legal requirements of facilitating such mobility. Cultivating citizen diplomats who know their place in the world — literally and figuratively — is a matter of education and is necessary for both the kindergartener who learns “A” is for Afghanistan and the executive in a multinational corporation.

One of my favorite quotes is Murray’s definition of the break. He writes, “Nor is the break just another mechanical structural device. It is of its very nature, as dancers never forget, what the basic message comes down to: grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.”

   — Albert Murray, The Blue Devils of Nada, 95: 1996

As we wonder how to “come back” after the devastating financial crisis and how to position ourselves given the pending crisis in education, we’d do well to learn resilience from the creative arts where asserting individuality and making a comeback are routine. “For what is ultimately at stake is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, 10: 1976)

Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, George Wein

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, George Wein

In 2001, as if reminding us to stay focused on collective progress, Murray offered a few words on protest. He wrote, “Protest is something that you must always be extremely careful about, because it can degenerate so easily into the self-righteousness of those who regard themselves as victims rather than people of potential and thus become more emotional than insightful and corrective.” Murray wanted “smart” conversation about our shared direction and he was clear, “Military rhetoric is not enough. And besides, it doesn’t require the high grade point average that the truly qualified leader must earn.”

 — Albert Murray, From the Briarpatch File, 20: 2001

I think about our political discourse and Frank Bruni’s recent article lamenting our uninformed citizenry and know the continued relevance of Murray’s wisdom.

Jackie Modeste, Albert Murray

Jackie Modeste, Albert Murray

Albert Murray outlived his two closest friends, Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden or “Romy” as Murray called him. Murray turned 97 on May 12th and he doesn’t always recognize me these days. We’ve passed the point where he can carry on the intellectually rigorous conversations of the past but Murray is as feisty as ever and though his speech is compromised, he still enunciates some very “choice” phrases that mark the privilege of the aged and wise. He comes to life when he hears music; his momentary lucidity makes for some truly wondrous moments. Albert Murray is a man of ideas and his landmark contributions to cultural history and to the blues and jazz in particular, form the foundation for much of the debate on these subjects today. Yet because the blues and jazz are inextricable parts of US identity, the study of these fields offers insight beyond the stage. Indeed, Murray’s writing provides us with gems of wisdom that can help us build institutions and systems that more closely align with our national identity and steady us as we push ever onward towards being a more perfect union.