Since mine is hardly a household name, I can count on a few fingers the occasions when I’ve been interviewed. But one encounter remains as clear as the day it happened.
To begin at the true beginning: It happens that, by a set of curious chances, I was taken one spring day in the 1960s to a party at Ralph Ellison’s New York apartment. I knew him as the author of the much-lauded 1952 novel Invisible Man and through Allen Tate’s slightly patronizing assurance that he was a “Southern gentleman.” Ellison was expecting eminent company, including his guest of honor, Walker Percy. But he was gracious to an uninvited stranger and bade me to make myself at home.
As I wandered, probably spying on his bookshelves, I was suddenly accosted by Ellison’s friend and fellow alumnus of the Tuskegee Institute Albert Murray—archivist, wit, novelist, polemicist, and retired Air Force major. He discarded the usual ceremonies of introduction and showered me with an impromptu mix of punning jazz-talk, spiced with allusions to Faulkner, Joyce, Uncle Remus tales, and Harlem street patois.
In my amused astonishment I could only stand mute, but that was no problem: He professed to find in my silent gestures of response a Southern “seed-store/feed-store” sensibility of which he greatly approved. And thus began a fascinating friendship that endured until recently, when Albert Murray died in his beloved Harlem at the age of 97. I say “beloved” because he loathed the lazy clichés of fashionable writers who, with no experience of everyday black life, labeled Harlem a “ghetto.” For him, it was “the very stuff of romance . . . [like] Chaucer’s England, Cervantes’ Spain, Rabelais’ France,” where “musicians and athletes are far more numerous, more symbolic and influential . . . than criminals and addicts.”
Soon after our initial meeting, Albert visited Greensboro, where I was then a newspaper editor. He knew my native city as the scene of significant strides in the civil rights struggle, and North Carolina as a center of good newspapers. He was at work on a book that soon would be published as South to a Very Old Place (1971), and he was on a pilgrimage up and down the East Coast in search of the classic Southern sensibility, as he defined and ratified it. He had called on Robert Penn Warren and C. Vann Woodward in New Haven, and I was flattered to be included in the quest. But he was pretty vague about my qualifications, apart from my having “fair-haired North Carolina boy good looks [and] the twinkle which always lights up his expression whenever some topic engages him . . . that Uncle Remus-derived twinkle of humor and the absurd.”
My mute responses to his unique interrogative monologues functioned, he said, as a “range finder, [so] that all you have to do is allude to some character and situation . . . and listen for the Remus overtones in the feedback.”
I was embarrassed to confess that my last exposure to Uncle Remus had been in the third grade; and hadn’t Joel Chandler Harris’s version of slave idiom grown, over the years, grossly politically incorrect? No matter. Albert had gathered that I was a fellow devotee of fictitious characters like Uncle Remus that were, for him, classic reference points.
He identified me, too, as a sort of journalistic godson of Jonathan Daniels, the Raleigh editor who had written A Southerner Discovers the South (1938). In fact, Albert spoke more volubly about Daniels than about my own dubious qualifications as a repository of Southern sensibility. I offered to put him in touch with Daniels, but—“You remind Yoder,” Albert wrote in his account, “that it is not really Jonathan Daniels himself in the flesh that you have come to make personal contact with . . . but rather (as metaphysical as it might sound), the idea . . . of Jonathan Daniels. ‘The Jonathan Daniels fallout, man. Among the younger fellows. . . . Like yourself.’ ”
I was able to offer partial repayment for the honor of being Albert’s sort-of subject in a review of his trademark treatise, The Omni-Americans (1970). He had guessed, probably during our first encounter in New York, that, having grown up in a world richly saturated by black idiom, habit, and culture—albeit paternalistically—I would affirm his impassioned conviction that the sensibility we shared was “incontestably mulatto,” a complex blend of racial influences.
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.