Cultural critic Albert Murray (1916-2013)

December 11, 2013

Albert Murray was hardly the most famous intellectual in the U.S. but he was a great cultural critic, and it is possible that no other lived to see his ideas triumph so thoroughly. In his groundbreaking works The Omni-Americans (1970) and Stomping the Blues (1976), Murray set out a vision of the African American as the representative “American,” of Black freedom as the soul of this nation’s culture.

As he put it, “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.” He saw the blues as the classic expression of this.

From the rise of R&B and hip-hop as dominant forms of popular music, to the election of the first Black U.S. President, Murray has proven to be prophetic. But his ideas also embody the fundamental contradictions of U.S. society.

John Alan, writing in News & Letters in 1972, pointed this out: “Murray can only imagine fundamental revolutionary changes, not at the ‘bottom with the so-called masses, but at the very top.’” It isn’t that Murray either dismissed or romanticized the Black masses, but rather that, by keeping to the level of culture, he avoided dealing with the revolutionary essence of our history.

Murray passed away on Aug. 18, just before the Tea Party shut down the government in its openly racist opposition to the first Black president’s Republican Party-inspired healthcare plan. That event was one more battle in the long civil war that has turned around the axis of American identity Murray so clearly identified.

—Tim Finnegan

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