Albert Murray, 1916-2013
Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
It deeply irked Albert that, at this yeasty time (the late sixties), “Negro life” (as it was then called) could be seen only as “a pathetic manifestation of black cowardice, self-hatred, escapism and self-destructiveness corroborating [white] notions of black inferiority.” This, indeed, was an era when many phony voices were being heard and heeded—the era of Leonard Bernstein’s fatuous radical-chic party for the Black Panthers and Tom Wolfe’s memorable essay about white bureaucratic suckups. Albert had the guts to say what others silently thought.
Looking back, Albert Murray’s signal service to the discussion of race was that he was bold and literate enough to distinguish stuff from shinola, to identify and damn patronizing claptrap. He was, I wrote in my review of The Omni-Americans, “so free of the defensive fetishes of contemporary black-think that he may indeed be the greatest chauvinist of Negro culture around.”
Our last of many visits was typical. He came as a visiting professor to Lexington, Virginia, in the mid-1990s, as frisky and iconoclastic as ever. I mainly recall, from our evenings of talk, Albert’s commentary on a Toni Morrison novel (Beloved, 1987) in which a slave woman murders her daughter to avoid the latter’s enslavement. For Albert, the idea, though inspired by an actual event, was beyond silly. Whatever the evils of slavery, death was worse, and infanticide, after all, was a grave crime. I wish I had a transcript, for paraphrase does slight justice to Albert’s superb riffs upon writerly foolishness and much else. He embodied as no other of my acquaintance the “omni-American,” mixed culture he loved, championed, and greatly enriched.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.
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