Albert Lee Murray wrote, “The mainstream is not white but mulatto,” in The Omni-Americans. Through his novels, essays, and cultural history Murray ponders the implications and complications of this statement, offering improvisational explorations of the richness of African American culture and its suffusion into American cultural life.
After receiving his B.A. from Tuskegee Institute and his M.A. from New York University Murray taught literature at Tuskegee; for a while he also directed the College Little Theatre. Beginning in 1943 Murray served in the U.S. Air Force, from which he retired in 1962 as major. He lectured at several universities, including Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Colgate University, University of Massachusetts, University of Missouri, and Barnard College; he was also writer in residence at Emory University and professor of creative writing at Barnard College and Dupont Visiting Scholar at Washington and Lee Universities.
Like his friend and fellow Tuskegee alumnus Ralph Ellison, Murray derived much of the content and style of his work from music. In his first book-length work, The Omni-Americans, he explores the complicated relationships among cultures in the United States, asserting that “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.” Far from being an Africanist, Murray nevertheless argues for recognition of the particular aesthetic that is “a central element in the dynamics of U.S. Negro life-style.” This aesthetic depends on improvisation and stylization, where improvisation is experimenting with the possibilities, and stylization is developing these possibilities into a unique personal statement. The interaction of these largely African solutions within an American context has created an African American expressive culture encompassing music, dance, language, religion, sports, fashions, physical deportment, and food. Yet Murray insists that the “omni-Americans” of his title are also all American people, perhaps even all humanity, who have created the mulatto culture and identity he describes.
South to a Very Old Place converts his description of African American identity into an intellectual autobiography composed as a set of improvisational essays. Begun at the request of Willie Morris for a Harper’s magazine series called “Going Home in America,” the book explores not only the geographical South of Murray’s youth but the South of cultural and intellectual...
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