(The Root) — Albert Murray, an intellectual giant and influential critic and novelist who saw black culture and American culture as inextricably intertwined, died Sunday evening in New York City. He was 97.
Murray will be remembered as one of the great aesthetic theorists of American culture, specifically for his concept of “the blues aesthetic,” which he identified as the subtext and deep structure of what, to the last, he thought of as Negro-American culture. Murray’s work, as a critic and novelist, is that point at which the three great exemplars of this aesthetic practice — Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden — met and found their common ground, their collective “voice” through his critical interpretations of their commonality. (Murray also collaborated with Bearden, an intimate friend, in his writings about painting and his own work, just as he was in constant touch with Ellison, their mutual friend.)
Murray had an uncanny ability to find in the discrete languages of music, collage and literature — as practiced by Ellington, Ellison and Bearden — a common aesthetic discourse that they each shared and exemplified, and which Murray defined as both a theory and a set of aesthetic practices. His work showed how these three artists, working in separate media, riffed upon and reflected a shared intimacy with Western art forms and the African-American artistic tradition, which each thought of in terms of “elegance.” Elegance for these four geniuses of African-American culture was both a value and a way of life, an elegance in their person as commanding as the elegance of their art.
Murray’s other signal achievement was his seminal book The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture, published in 1970. Published at the apex of the black aesthetic movement, which had taken great pains to posit “the black experience” as a culturally separate entity and set of artifacts and practices, as an aesthetic universe within an aesthetic universe, a thing distinct from white American culture, The Omni-Americans argued instead that “American” and “black American” culture were mutually constitutive. There was no so-called American culture without the Negro-American formal element and content in its marvelous blend, and no “black American” culture without its white American influences and forms. The book amounted to a searching critique of the separatist politics of the black aesthetic movement, as well as a manifesto of the blues aesthetic, including Murray’s definition of didactic or propagandistic black literary expression as being in the grip of “the Social Science Fiction Monster.”
The Omni-Americans spelled the beginning of the end of the black aesthetic movement’s mono-vocal dominance in the debates over black culture, and helped give rise to the modernist and postmodernist artistic practices of writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Leon Forrest, Ishmael Reed, Ernest Gaines, James Alan McPherson, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Alexander and Colson Whitehead, among others, who understood the task of the artist as finding the universal in the particularity of African-American history and culture. The Omni-Americans is a classic work of American cultural theory, and it revealed the depth and scope of Murray’s critical abilities at their most acute.
Murray is survived by his wife, Mozelle, and his daughter, Michelle.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.