Henry Louis Gates Jr. Breaks Down Albert Murray’s Legacy on Race and Culture in America


As a young professor in the 1970s, Henry Louis Gates Jr. would often take the train from New Haven to New York to meet with two elder statesmen, writer Albert Murray and painter Romare Bearden. Brought together by a love of the work of Ralph Ellison, Gates and what he calls “these two raconteurs” would take a long lunch full of stories, drop into Books & Company, and then retreat to Bearden’s apartment on Canal Street and talk endlessly, surrounded by art. Each encounter, Gates recalls now, was a “feast of a day.”

Now Gates, a Harvard professor and one of the preeminent scholars of black American culture, has paid tribute to Murray (who died at 97 in 2013) by editing “Collected Essays & Memoirs,” a new volume by the Library of America that drew a rave review in The New York Times. Murray was a critic of blues and jazz whose most famous book, “Stomping the Blues,” provided the intellectual underpinning of the revival of straight-ahead jazz in the 1980s and the high-culture adoption of the music form through programs like Jazz at Lincoln Center.

But Murray wrote more broadly on black and white culture, the links between them and America itself. “This is Albert Murray’s century,” Gates wrote in a New Yorker profile in the waning years of the 20th, “we just live in it.”

Salon spoke to Gates, who was at his home outside Boston. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Murray wrote over decades; there were a lot of books and essays and so on. But there seems to have been one governing idea to a lot of his thinking, about race in America and the relationship of black people and white people. How would you describe it?

You’re absolutely right. He wasn’t a theorist of race in a universal sense but an Americanist. And he was an early proponent of the idea that race was a social construction. That was important. Now we take it for granted. But we have to remember that he was articulating this at the height of black power, an essentialist biological category. And in the black arts movement — which was the aesthetic wing of black power — the cultural was racialized; it was essentialized.

Murray said, This is rubbish — a) That’s the first thing. And then b) he said there is no such thing as white America and black America. This is long before Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. He said that black Americans and white Americans, Jewish Americans and Christian Americans mutually complemented each other. That their identities are forged in relation to each other. That there is no American culture without black culture. That there is no white American culture without black culture. And equally boldly, there is no black American culture without white culture.

He wouldn’t have known this, but I found an essay Carl Jung wrote, after his first trip to the United States. And he said, the biggest surprised to him about the United States was how black the white Americans are. He said, The Negro’s in your house; she’s in your life. He’s in your head!

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Source: Salon.com | SCOTT TIMBERG