Sunday, August 29, 2010

Albert Murray's Blues

Earlier today I read an old New Yorker profile of Albert Murray by Henry Louis Gates. In it, Gates talks about Murray's ideas about the blues. Murray and Ralph Ellison, college friends who later reunited in New York City, developed their very similar understandings of the blues' significance over many letters and conversations with each other. Both men wrote about the endurance at the heart of the blues, its power to help its performers and listeners overcome life's brutality with an awareness both tragic and comic.

Ellison and Murray also shared an impatience with black nationalists. And though the separatists accused Ellison and Murray of not being strident enough, Gates makes a compelling case that Ellison and Murray, who argued that blackness is essential to what it means to be American, had an agenda that was even more ambitious.

... as the clenched-fist crowd was scrambling for cultural crumbs, Murray was declaring the entire harvest board of American civilization to be his birthright. In a sense, Murray was the ultimate black nationalist. And the fact that people so easily mistook his vision for its opposite proved how radical it was.

I especially like Murray's comment to Gates about James Baldwin's celebrated essay "The Fire Next Time," the 1962 jeremiad in which Baldwin suggests a coming racial apocalypse if America does not quickly extend justice to Negroes. Murray's remark—in both its humor and tragic awareness of the realities of power in America—seems to come right out of the blues tradition that he celebrated:

He says, in that distinctively Murrayesque tone of zestful exasperation, "Let's talk about 'the fire next time.' You know damn well they can put out the fire by Wednesday."

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