Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Albert Murray, a longtime resident of Harlem, first became known as a music scholar and essayist before he began writing novels. His interest in blues, jazz, and African American popular culture combines with his erudite sense of literary and intellectual history in his two novels Train Whistle Guitar and The Spyglass Tree. In one review of The Spyglass Tree, musician Duke Ellington referred to Murray as “the unsquarest person I know.”

Murray’s views on African American culture first became widely known when a collection of his essays from the 1960’s, The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (1970), was published. He argued that writers, African Americans among them, who pictured African American culture primarily from a sociological point of view were ignoring the strength and vibrancy of the culture, particularly its musical and oral forms. It is these oral and musical traditions that Murray depicts through his character Scooter, a semi-autobiographical figure. Scooter speaks of the heroes of his adolescence as members of an oppositional culture: Luzana Cholly, a hard-living, twelve-string guitarist; Gator Gus, the original free agent baseball pitcher who would change teams between games; and the slaves who helped to organize and maintain the underground railroad.

Even Murray’s description of his alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, differs from that given by his close friend and classmate Ralph Ellison. Ellison, in Invisible Man (1952), presented a now-famous scathing description of Tuskegee as a repressive institution run by a Machiavellian Uncle Tom administrator, funded by guilt-ridden white liberals who were so emotionally disturbed that they could not face the realities of life in the South. Murray, on the other hand, presents Tuskegee as a place where young African Americans could receive the academic and social training they needed to succeed beyond the Jim Crow world of the South. The Tuskegee section of the novel is called “The Briarpatch,” and Murray’s sentiments match those of Uncle Remus’s famous rabbit: It may look bad from the outside, but it is home for those who are accustomed to its geography.