While the nation celebrates and reflects on 1963’s March on Washington, the death last week of the writer and critic Albert Murray impels us also to recall what followed that high-water mark of the civil rights movement. When a July 1964 riot in Harlem set off years of urban uprisings, much of the country’s focus shifted from the Jim Crow South to the conditions of black life in northern cities. Murray, described by Henry Louis Gates in 1996 as a “militant integrationist,” became a prominent voice in the forum for black intellectuals created by a newly urgent national concern with the place of African American people and culture in the country. In On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis, historian Daniel Matlin offers a new account of that moment’s fierce debates on race, identity, poverty, and humanity; below, Matlin details Albert Murray’s significance in those still-resonant contestations.
Albert Murray, who died at the age of 97 on August 18, 2013, was one half of a black intellectual duo that brought a new dimension to the conversation about race in America. Too often overlooked or glossed as the junior partner to his friend Ralph Ellison, Murray, through his essays, books of social and cultural criticism, and novels, did much to advance what was in many respects a joint enterprise of the two authors: a relentless insistence that what they continued to call “Negro” culture was inextricably woven all through the fabric of American culture.
During the 1960s, when it crystallized, this project entailed fighting on two fronts. Not only had the white-dominated media, academy, and arts establishment long consigned black culture to the margins—as, at most, a matter of exotic spectacle or sociological curiosity—but a rising generation of black nationalist artists and intellectuals such as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Larry Neal, and Sonia Sanchez were loudly proclaiming black people’s alienation from America and, in many cases, their cultural identity as “Africans.” If it was Ellison who voiced the counterargument most elegantly, Murray did so most pithily and succinctly: black citizens were in fact “omni-Americans,” whose heroic philosophy of improvisation and adaptation epitomized the national character at its most refined. American culture, moreover, was “incontestably mulatto”: American song, speech, humor, dance, and folklore were all thoroughly infused with black idioms. It is a view that has gained enormous traction in recent decades, not least through Murray’s influence on the likes of Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis, who have popularized his notion of jazz as the quintessential “omni-American” art form.
But just as significant is Murray’s role in a fierce debate about how the lives of black people in the United States should be represented and discussed—a debate that resonates loudly to this day. As I explore in my forthcoming book, On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis, the riots that broke out in hundreds of black urban neighborhoods in the mid- and late 1960s, beginning in Harlem in 1964, triggered a sudden shift in public attention away from the South—the scene of the high-profile civil rights campaigns of the preceding decade—and toward what had become known as the “ghettos” of America’s northern cities. Hoping to engender public sympathy for black urban communities, and to provoke government action against the more intangible forces that maintained black segregation and poverty in the North, a wide array of black intellectuals, civil rights leaders, and liberal politicians and pundits now painted a harrowing picture of life in these neighborhoods. In doing so, they drew on concepts that had been evolving in the works of social scientists and novelists alike for several decades, which emphasized the “damage” inflicted on the black psyche, and on black social structures, by racism and oppression.
It was these notions that had underpinned Richard Wright’s portrayal of the brutalized character Bigger Thomas in his novel of 1940, Native Son. And it was the testimony of social scientists about the harm done to black self-esteem as a result of segregated schooling that helped secure the Brown ruling of 1954, which demolished the legal prop of “separate but equal.” As the riots of the 1960s brought black urban life into the spotlight as never before, a view of the nation’s “ghettos” as quagmires of social and psychological dysfunction became a staple of liberal attempts to extend the fight against racial inequality into America’s northern cities. In Dark Ghetto (1965), the psychologist and anti-poverty activist Kenneth B. Clark distilled this discourse into a powerfully bleak anatomy of Harlem as a “prison” that fragmented its inhabitants’ relationships and inner lives. Feelings of inadequacy, despondency, self-hatred, and rage were ubiquitous in Harlem, Clark asserted, feeding the harmful cycle of family breakdown, juvenile delinquency, addiction, and illness.
Murray would not stand for any of this, and he and Ellison launched a strident assault on what they considered to be a slander against black America. They charged that liberal do-gooders, in their attempt to promote reforms, had reduced black urban life to a catalogue of “pathologies” that obscured black people’s resilience, ingenuity, and cultural vitality—the very qualities that had long enabled them to survive in the face of adversity. “The emphasis on black wretchedness in Dark Ghetto,” Murray wrote, “easily exceeds that in most of the books written by white racists to justify segregation.” The alarmist “social science fiction” put out by the likes of Clark and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—whose government report of 1965 claimed that black family structures were at the point of collapse—had, according to Murray, seduced even black novelists and artists, who ought to have known better than to succumb to crude statistical aggregates that trampled on the texture and complexity of black experience as it was really lived.
This critique has proven hugely influential. Many historians, social scientists, and literary and visual artists since the late 1960s have followed the thrust of Murray and Ellison’s “anti-pathologist” critique, emphasizing the creativity and agency of the black poor rather than depicting them as helpless victims of oppression. When the film Precious (2009) brought to cinema screens the fictional story of a Harlem teenager raped and impregnated by her father and relentlessly bullied by her manipulative mother, the critic Armond White positioned himself firmly in the Murray-Ellison camp when he lambasted the film as a “sociological horror show” and its director, Lee Daniels, as a “pathology pimp.”
But if Murray’s passing prompts a revisiting of his many published works—from The Omni-Americans (1970), which lays out his case against the pathologists, to the sequence of novels that begins with Train Whistle Guitar (1974)—such a revisiting should take stock of the pitfalls of both sides of the sharply polarized debate about the portrayal of black American life. Historians in recent years have borne out many of Murray’s criticisms of the pathologists by detailing how the imagery of black damage and dysfunction backfired on its liberal authors, deepening the stigma attached to blackness rather than fostering empathy as they had hoped (Daryl Michael Scott’s book Contempt and Pity makes this case extremely well). However, Murray’s writings often countered pathologism by adopting a diametrically opposed position that was no less partial and exaggerated, and that tended toward a troubling romanticization of the lives of the black urban poor.
Far from being a site of misery, he wrote in The Omni-Americans, Harlem was home to “people-to-people good times which are second to none anywhere in the world.” By conjuring a Harlem of seemingly relentless joyfulness—the time had come, he stated, for “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative” in the portrayal of black life—Murray sometimes risked trivializing poverty, oppression, and their human consequences. Moreover, as sensitive as he was to the ways in which pathologist imagery could appear to reinforce racial stereotypes that had branded black people as deviant and mentally inferior, he was less attentive to the problematic history of images of black joyfulness and pleasure. Antebellum minstrel shows had relied on notions of an innate black capacity for cheerfulness and humor in order to reassure their audiences that black people were happy enough under slavery. During the twentieth century, white primitivist authors and artists had continued to portray the lives of the black poor as enviable for their spirit of revelry, excitement, and emotional abandon.
If the pathologists had unwittingly contributed to the stigmatization of black urban communities, romantic depictions of black urban life undermined the case for social change. Murray’s critique of blunt generalizations that reduce black urban life to misery and social breakdown is a legacy that will remain vitally important. But it’s equally important to recognize how images of the poor and oppressed as joyful and carefree have served to perpetuate inequality and injustice.