Whether the United States will ever fulfill its foundational promises, the “arc of history” besides, remains an open question. Our stumbling toward progress is part of who and what America is; it’s a function not only of politics and economics, but also of philosophy and imagination. We, in the first quarter of the 21st century, face abiding questions: What will be the meaning of our lives? Will we help to bring about a meaningfully better future?
Nearly five decades after it was first published, Albert Murray’s 1970 book The Omni-Americans ranks among the most adequate prophecies we may now look to for guidance. The book remains a lonely and powerful reality check. “To race-oriented propagandists, whether white or black, the title of course makes no sense: they would have things be otherwise,” Murray wrote in the introduction. “But the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multi-colored people.”
Echoing the historian Constance O’Rourke, Murray argued that American culture is a “composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro,” the key aspect of which is resilience (exhibited in everyday life and ritualized in art). This hybrid nature wasn’t for Murray just a matter of theory or argument; it was a basic human fact:
By any definition of race, even the most makeshift legal one, most native-born U.S. Negroes, far from being non-white are in fact part-white. … None of this is really news. … And yet it is perhaps the second most persistently overlooked flesh-and-blood fact of everyday life in the United States. The first of course is the all but unmentionable but equally undeniable fact that an infinite and ever-increasing but forever hidden number of assumed white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are among other parts part-Negro.
The Omni-Americans was intended as a counterstatement to “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology,” the stories of our nation and of race that “insist that political powerlessness and economic exclusion can lead only to cultural deprivation.” In the first section, Murray targets a major source of such lore—the behavioral sciences, or what he termed, “social science fiction.” He contended that the insights that can be derived from sociology and other behavioral studies are far too superficial to yield meaning that properly defines a group of people. By its very nature, Murray argued, social science tends to turn rich and uniquely textured lives into generalized abstractions and to overemphasize the hardships of life, often by ignoring the positive qualities of a group’s way of life. The statistics, polls, and findings of social science might be factual in the sense that they can be verified, but they are insufficient for reaching a comprehensive understanding of a people, their motivations, their ambitions, or their potentials.
Moreover, Murray found that the mindset that justifies or takes poverty, social alienation, and political inequities for granted is also very often the starting point for social scientists. “The one place U.S. Negroes have always found themselves most rigidly segregated is not the inner sanctum of the is-white family but in the insistent categories of behavioral science surveys, studies, and statistics.” In other words, Americans are most rigidly segregated in our collective imagination.
Among the villains of The Omni-Americans are Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Kenneth Clarke, and the journalists and writers who amplified their findings and manner of thought; among its heroes are Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.
For Murray, there was perhaps no greater, no more heroic, no more representative American than Ellington. In his music and in his life, the pianist and composer provided a metaphor for continuity with change—for improvisation, which yields survival. Murray put it this way:
The definitive statement of the epistemological assumptions that underlie the blues idiom may well be the colloquial title and opening declaration of one of Duke Ellington’s best-known dance tunes from the mid-thirties: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing.” In any case, when the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest, and the medicine man. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which Andre Malraux describes as la condition humaine.
The second section of The Omni-Americans extends the ideas and values articulated in the first section, and discusses their implications as Murray saw them in news media, academia, and contemporary art. Murray’s lament, and warning, in this section is that intellectuals and artists of all genres (and of so-called races) had begun to accept the social-science paradigm as the one which conveys the most adequate and relevant truth about America and its citizens.
In particular, Murray focuses on the literary output of the mid-20th century and finds it wanting for a writer to accomplish what Ellington did in music. To Murray, his friend Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man shone most brightly as a single artistic statement, and Hemingway provided a model of career-spanning excellence in blues-oriented literature. Murray called Hemingway’s writing “the literary equivalent to blues music.”
Murray’s 1973 book The Hero and the Blues, which he’d begun writing before The Omni-Americans was published, might be his most concise and comprehensive articulation of the blues idiom and how it is expressed in human and artistic forms besides music. In the second section of that book, he discusses a metaphor that Hemingway used to explain a part of his own approach to writing fiction: “Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged,” Hemingway wrote in Green Hills of Africa. To Murray, this metaphor suggested fundamental implications for heroic action, whether found in a book or not. It begins to articulate the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation. “The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time,” Murray wrote. “It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge, even as the all but withering firedrake prepares the questing hero for subsequent trials and adventures.” Sensitivity to the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation is what erodes when a person embraces social-science patterns of thought.
In the essay “A Clutch of Social Science Fiction Fiction,” from The Omni-Americans, Murray wrote, “Only a few American writers since the twenties have been able to create fiction with implications beyond the most obvious and tiresome clichés derived from social science. … Indeed what most American fiction seems to represent these days is not so much the writer’s actual sense of life as some theory of life to which he is giving functional allegiance, not so much his complex individual sensitivity as his intellectual reaction to ideas about experience.” Here, Murray discusses two ideas that continue to trouble us: whether so-called white people can have anything meaningful to say about race or racism, and the persistent confusion between social or political propaganda and art.
Taking the blues as representative of the impulse and purpose of all art, Murray wrote in The Hero and the Blues, “Precisely as white musicians who work in the blues idiom have been simulating the tribulations of U.S. Negroes for years in order to emulate such musical heroes as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and Duke Ellington, and such heroines as Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday, so in fiction must readers, through their desire to imitate and emulate black storybook heroes, come to identify themselves with the disjunctures as well as the continuities of the black experience as if to the idiom born.” For such a matrix of ideas to achieve real-world applicability, the images and metaphors in fiction would need to be precise enough, adequate enough, and comprehensive enough.
The third section of “Social Science Fiction Fiction” offers a review of William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. “The very news that a writer of Styron’s talent and determination had undertaken a novel about a Negro whose greatness is a matter of historical record (however smudged) was itself cause enough for high hopes,” Murray wrote, in a sentence that sounds strange today, when the cries of “cultural appropriation” might have discouraged Styron from writing his book. But Murray, when assessing the merits of a novel, was more concerned with artistic achievement than skin color.
And yet, Murray concludes, “What Southern Negroes will find in Styron’s version, alas, is not the black man’s homeric Negro but a white man’s Negro (specifically, Mister Stanley M. Elkins’) Sambo—a Nat Turner, that is to say, who has been emasculated and reduced to fit all too snugly into a personality structure based on highly questionable and essentially irrelevant conjectures about servility (to which Styron has added a neo-Reichean hypothesis about the correlation between sex repression and revolutionary leadership).” Styron’s failures, as Murray saw it, existed in the realm of form, craft, imagination, and execution; they were literary failures, not missteps related to too little ambition or too much reverence.
In the same way, and for the same reasons, that our contemporary culture would likely have rejected Styron’s project, we have reclaimed James Baldwin as a spokesman for the 21st century. Murray ends this middle section of The Omni-Americans with a reflection on Baldwin—in particular, two essays, which Murray treats as a literary statement of purpose, and his 1962 novel Another Country. The first essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from 1949, discusses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) while simultaneously rejecting literature (or any art, one assumes) that operates primarily as social or political protest.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin plainly wrote, “is a very bad novel.” It was, he continued, “not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel; and the only question left to ask is why we are bound still in the same constriction. How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?”
The second Baldwin essay, from 1951, called “Many Thousands Gone,” is an extension of the first in that it, among other arguments, assessed contemporary fiction in the same way that Baldwin critiqued Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Richard Wright, who was mentioned only briefly in the ’49 essay, and his novel Native Son become the central focus of this sequel of sorts. (Foreshadowing, Baldwin had already written that Bigger Thomas was “Uncle Tom’s descendant.”)
In his response, it wasn’t Murray’s primary goal to defend either Stowe or Wright—or, for that matter, the genre of protest fiction. In fact he tended to agree with Baldwin’s broad claims—he at least didn’t dispute them outright: “Baldwin overstated his case, of course, but many serious students of American literature were very much impressed by what they thought all of this implied about his own ambitions as a writer.” Rather, Murray’s aims seem to have been to contribute a more precise statement—about propaganda art—and, by offering a longer view of the relevant history, to define the rich tradition that Baldwin seems to have all but ignored.
Murray finds Baldwin’s fiction, despite the arguments against Stowe and Wright, devoid, too, of those elements that comprise fine literature. Another Country, Murray wrote, “reflects very little of the rich, complex, and ambivalent sensibility of the novelist, very little indeed, no more than does the polemical essay, The Fire Next Time.” None of this is irredeemable, though. Murray went on to say that the polemics by Baldwin and Wright—“though not likely to be epics”—“serve a very worthy cause, the cause of greater political, social, and economic freedom and opportunity for Negroes in the United States.”
If Baldwin hadn’t trekked to France and Switzerland with Bessie Smith albums tucked under his arm, proclaiming that he knew the blues and setting out to put them into fiction, Murray may have never found reason enough to write his essay. But as it happens, Baldwin’s essays do ask for further clarification; he began the second with the claim, “It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.” Later he wrote, “But the fact is not that the Negro has no tradition but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.”
Murray’s response, then, was to draw attention to the (same!) tradition and set of principles that guided his own intellectual, artistic, and cultural life: the blues idiom in all its expressive forms. The blues, Murray wrote, “affirm not only U.S. Negro life in all of its arbitrary complexities and not only life in America in all of its infinite confusions, they affirm life and humanity itself in the very process of confronting failures and existentialistic absurdities.” To Murray, both Baldwin and Wright “seem to have overlooked the rich possibilities available to them in the blues tradition.”
So why is Baldwin—and to a somewhat lesser extent Wright—among the patron saints of 21st-century political agitations and literary ambitions? Well, Murray offered a clue to that, too:
If you … reduce man’s whole story to a series of sensational but superficial news items and editorial complaints and accusations, blaming all the bad things that happen to your characters on racial bigotry, you imply that people are primarily concerned with only certain political and social absolutes. You imply that these absolutes are the sine qua non of all human fulfillment. And you imply that there are people who possess these political and social absolutes, and that these people are on better terms with the world as such and are consequently better people. In other words, no matter how noble your mission, when you oversimplify the reasons why a poor or an oppressed man lies, cheats, steals, betrays, hates, murders, or becomes an alcoholic or addict, you imply that well-to-do, rich, and powerful people don’t do these things. But they do.
Baldwin, despite himself, gave a rather more succinct answer: “The necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth has been handed down and memorized and persists yet with a terrible power.”
It may be easy to believe—with today’s obsessions with guilt and privilege—that the messages in The Omni-Americans are directed primarily toward so-called white people. Had that been so, Murray might have become a cultural hero in the way that Baldwin and Wright have. Needless to say, The Omni-Americans, serious in its disavowal of anything like racial purity, holds African Americans to the same standards of integrity, excellence, and ambition: “The problem is not the existence of ethnic differences, as is so often assumed,” Murray wrote, “but the intrusion of such differences into areas where they do not belong. Ethnic differences are the very essence of cultural diversity and national creativity.”
In June 1966, after James Meredith was shot in the back as he embarked on his Freedom March through Mississippi, three prominent civil rights organizations—the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality—came together to continue his sojourn. In his 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that as the march continued, he overheard expressions of dissent against two basic principles of the civil rights movement: nonviolence and integration. “If one of these damn white Mississippi crackers touches me, I’m gonna knock the hell out of him,” one marcher said. “This should be an all-black march. … We don’t need any more white phonies and liberals invading our movement. This is our march,” King recalls another saying.
Ten days into the march, at a mass meeting in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks led the crowd with the call “What do you want?” to which they chanted in response, “Black power.” There, despite the efforts of King and other members of SCLC, began the amplification of the slogan and its attendant ideological connotations.
The sense of loss and bitterness that pervaded the late 1960s and the early ’70s, a primary aspect of the social environment in which The Omni-Americans was published, foreshadow the tenor of much of contemporary American life. Many citizens still regard America with disappointment and bitterness; in roughly the past 10 years, the loose ideological strains under the banner that was Black Power have gained renewed energy. And almost 50 years after the publication of The Omni-Americans, the book still possesses the power to surprise, confound, and infuriate readers; to challenge deeply held beliefs; and to open new pathways of thought.
At this stage in American history, it is crucial, and revealing, to ask why anyone stakes their identity primarily on the basis of race. It is said that choosing not to identify as black is selfish, or a betrayal, or an evasion of history—despite the universal promises such a position holds. At its best and most sincere, however, “transcending race” doesn’t mean ignoring its history or the force it has on the lives of people all over the world, but walking and talking in terms of an idiom with universal applicability—what keeps in mind the suffering that all people face. Murray was clear about the difference between race and culture and the limits to the power each holds: What we often think of as intractable and conclusive is subject to the heroic dynamics of antagonistic cooperation. And so, for all its interest in the national experiment, The Omni-Americans is a book with cosmic relevance: The blues idiom demands a confrontation with death, the better to inspire and develop the best options for dealing with life.
Matthew McKnight, a writer and editor, is currently at work on a biography of Albert Murray.