Feb 212017

“Art . . . is . . . fundamental equipment for existence on human terms.” — Albert Murray

Selected and edited by Steve Elman, from Albert Murray’s Collected Essays and Memoirs, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Paul Devlin. Library of America, 2016.

Steve Elman’s Arts Fuse review of Albert Murray’s Collected Essays & Memoirs.

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“The fundamental condition of human life [is] a ceaseless struggle for form against chaos, of sense against nonsense.” (1972, p. 353)

“You can either accept the harsh facts of life and do what you can to counteract or ameliorate them . . . or you can cry and shiver and feel sorry for yourself.” (2001, p.724)

“Nothing is more important to man’s survival as a human being than is his flexibility, his adaptability, his talent for accommodating himself to adverse circumstances.” (1970, p. 158)

“Improvisation . . . is the ultimate skill.” (1972, p. 359)

“The essential condition of man cannot be ameliorated, but it can be transcended . . . it is in the struggle that one finds oneself.” (1972, p. 402)

“The blues-oriented hero . . . qualifies as a frontiersman . . . because he is a man who expects the best but is always prepared, at least emotionally when not otherwise, for the worst.” (1972, p. 409)

“The legacy left by the enslaved ancestors of blues-oriented contemporary U. S. Negroes includes a disposition to confront the most unpromising circumstances and make the most of what little there is to go on, regardless of the odds – and not without finding delight in the process or forgetting mortality at the height of ecstasy.” (1976, p. 444)

“The whole idea of life . . . is affirmation.” (1978, p. 732)

“Immigrants . . . by the very act of arrival . . . enter the same stream of American tradition as those who landed at Plymouth. In the very act of making their way through customs, they begin the process of becoming . . . part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian – and part Negro!” [Murray’s italics] (1969, p. 23)

American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical proclamations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.” [Murray’s italics] (1969, p. 24)

“At its best an Ellington performance sounds as if it knows the truth about all the other music in the world and is looking for something better. Not even the Constitution represents a more intrinsically American statement and achievement than that.” (1991, p. 308)

“What always seems to get overlooked in all the color-prestidigitation is the fact that the United States goes right on being an open society. Not yet open in enough ways, to be sure, but open enough to make future improvements always likely . . . Negroes are already integrated in many long standing but unacknowledged ways, but they are not yet desegregated nearly enough in some other ways, especially in some bread-and-butter ways that they feel are their natural due – as flesh and blood members of the great American family.” (1967, pp. 76-77)

“Two nations [black and white]? Only two? What about the Asians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other not very white U. S. citizens from Latin America and elsewhere?” (1994, p. 893)

“No image is more appropriate to the motto E pluribus unum than that of a mainstream fed by an infinite diversity of tributaries.” (1971, p. 242)

“A leader . . . can only pretend to be a common man . . . Such is nature of charismatic authority that the so-called common people will not tolerate very much common behavior in their leaders . . . the minute a leader really climbs down off that pedestal the people are likely to replace their awe of his halo – with contempt for his feet of clay.” (1971, p. 254)

“If you’re interested in the human predicament and human possibilities on the earth, you’re concerned with something more fundamental than a structure that might change in two, four, or six years, depending on who gets into office.” (1997, p. 832)

“Wherever it involves Negroes, compassion is forever degenerating into condescension.” (1971, p. 246)

“Someone must at least begin to try to do justice to what U. S. Negroes like about being black and to what they like about being Americans. . . perhaps only works of fiction on the scale of Tolstoy, Joyce, and Thomas Mann can truly do justice to the enduring humanity of U. S. Negroes, people who, for instance, can say of their oppressors, ‘Yeah, we got our troubles all right. But still and all, if white folks could be black for just one Saturday night they wouldn’t never want to be white folks no more!’” (1970, p. 11)

“Race is not a scientific term. Race . . . is a matter of a few easily observed physiological characteristics . . . But there is no scientific correlation between those physical features and behavior. The only correlation comes from the conditioning of the consciousness – and that is not the same thing as race.” [Murray’s italics] (1997, p. 841)

“All the fundamental assumptions of white supremacy and segregation [are] represented . . . in one key hyphenated and hyphenating word [“non-white”]. . . . As for U. S. Negroes being non-white, nothing could be further from scientific accuracy . . . By any definition . . . most native-born U. S. Negroes, far from being non-white, are in fact part-white . . . and . . . an infinite and ever-increasing but forever hidden number of assumed white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are among other parts part-Negro.” (1967, p. 71 – 72)

When the peckerwoods said “nigger” they were doing so because they almost always felt mean and evil about being nothing but old po’ white trash. So they were forever trying to low-rate you because they wanted you to think they were somebody to look up to, and naturally you low-rated them right back, with names like peckernosed peckerwoods, crackers, rednecks and old hoojers – not hoosiers, but goddam shaggy-headed, razor-backed, narrow-shouldered tobacco-stained thin nose-talking hobo-smelling hoojers.” [Murray’s italics] (1971, p. 283)

“Protest is something that you must always be extremely careful about, because it can degenerate so easily into the self-righteousness of those who regard themselves as victims rather than [as] people of potential . . . Militant rhetoric is not enough.” (1978, p. 732)

“All causes need allies. Genuine allies. But U. S. Negroes most emphatically do not need a bunch of misinformed, misdirected, self-indulgent white creeps and silly billies fouling up the atmosphere with a lot of nitwit definitions and generalizations from Marx and Freud without the slightest awareness of the basic issues, the political realities, or the actual historical context of the struggle itself. U. S. Negroes certainly do need more white “allies” who will take the time to study and try to understand what American Negroes are all about, who can identify with their glories and therefore truly empathize with their defeats.” (1965, p. 790)

Albert Murray in Washington, DC, 1974. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

Albert Murray in Washington, DC, 1974. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

“All native-born many-generation U. S. Negroes . . . bitterly resent any white immigrant who comes into the United States on a preferential quota allocation, cashes in on the color system, gets himself straight financially, moves out of the slums into an exclusive residential area, and then not only opposes integration but expresses contempt for Negroes because they are not doing enough for themselves and proudly cites his own progress to imply that Negroes are inherently inferior to other Americans.” (1966, p. 882)

“Can a white man really play Negro music? Of course he can. If he is a good enough musician and respects the medium as he would any other art form. If he develops the same familiarity with its idiomatic nuances, the same love of it, and humility before it as the good Negro musician does. Why not? But certainly not if he is really ambivalent about it . . . Not if he allows his publicity to convince him that he is superior to the masters he knows damn well he is plagiarizing.” (1964, p. 114)

“A definitive characteristic of the descendants of American slaves is an orientation to elegance . . . there is nothing that anybody in the world has ever done that is more civilized or sophisticated than to dance elegantly, which is to state with your total physical being an affirmative attitude toward the sheer act of existence.” (1978, p. 733)

“While Negroes obviously enjoy making white people nervous, they much prefer to keep them guessing.” (1970, p. 31)

“Nowhere in U. S. life has there ever been a richer mixture of vitality and elegance than in the Negro idiom, whether in sports, speech, dance, or everyday style and manner, and nowhere in any of the contemporary arts is there a more life-affirming spirit and culturally sophisticated style than in U. S. Negro music. . . . although the mainstream of American political and economic control has always been predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the mainstream of American culture and character has always been something else again.” (1964, p. 874)

“There never was a time when the United States was not deeply ensnarled in a moral and political crisis . . . there was no “normalcy” before the Revolutionary War, and what with the War of 1812, the question of slavery, and westward expansion, there was none before the Civil War. Unsettled Reconstruction problems have only increased in complexity, and the normal state of the nation since the Spanish-American War has been that of one critical situation overlapping another. Thousands have escaped oppression and extermination elsewhere and found relative security here, but many basic constitutional issues have never been settled.” (1966, p. 185)

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, Written by Himself, is as much a classic of nineteenth-century American prose as are the works of Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Lowell, Holmes, and the rest. Moreover, the story it outlines is nothing less than an . . . epic . . . of the American ideal of self-realization through the resistance to tyranny.” (1976, p. 535)

“Frederick Douglass . . . deserves a place near Lincoln as the finest example of a nineteenth-century American, not Robert E. Lee. Schoolchildren should be told the truth. Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general. He fought against the Union. He was a traitor. His armies did their very best to defend human slavery. . . . He was un-American. Frederick Douglass was all-American. He championed the rights of all men. This is what the United States stands for, not the lost cause of special privilege.” [Murray’s italics] (1965, p. 787-8)

From an Honors Convocation address at Howard University: “We are assembled here today to celebrate pupils . . . whose academic performance qualifies them . . . to take on the indispensable responsibilities of being the elite of the generation of the coming age. Elite. Yes, elite. And again elite. Don’t let yourselves be faked out by epithets. If elitism bothers you, substitute the word specialist and get on with the mission.” (1978, p. 729)

“I don’t like being called “black American,” because it so often implies less American. And I absolutely despise being called “African-American.” I am not an African. I am an American . . . All of my values and aspirations are geared to the assumption that freedom as defined by the American social contract is my birthright. Man, ain’t nothing African about that kind of birthright.” [The quotation marks and italics were derived by interviewer Charles H. Rowell from Murray’s vocal emphasis when they spoke in 1997]. (p. 865)

“I was better than that [the common impression of slave descendants in the Jim Crow South]. I wasn’t their conception of me. I was my conception of me. And my conception of me came from the great books of the world. That’s what I thought of human possibility, not what some dumb-assed white guy thought a colored guy should be doing and feeling.” [The italics were derived by interviewer Charles H. Rowell from Murray’s vocal emphasis when they spoke in 1997]. (pp. 835-6)

“A story is invented, created . . . the writer makes it up, but he must make it up the way things actually happen in life.” [Murray’s italics] (1973, p. 670)

“Most . . . Americans have been conditioned by school systems and communications media that have overpromoted the methodology and the categories of social science at the expense of the more comprehensive wisdom of the humanities and the arts.” (1969, p. 42)

“Blues music is an aesthetic device of confrontation and improvisation, an existential device or vehicle for coping with the ever-changing fortunes of human existence, in a word, entropy, the tendency of everything to become formless. Which is also to say that such music is a device for confronting and acknowledging the harsh fact that the human situation . . . is always awesome and all too often awful . . . But on the other hand, there is the frame of acceptance of the obvious fact that life is always a struggle against destructive forces. ” [Murray’s italics] (1998, p. 720)

From an address given at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: “The great masterworks are about the human proposition as such, the struggle of human consciousness against chaos, the void, entropy. Yes, stylization is yet another way, the more elegant the better, of contending with entropy, of stomping the blues, which is to say, keeping the blue devils of nada at bay.” (1997, p. 748)

“Art . . . is . . . fundamental equipment for existence on human terms.” (1994, p. 739)

Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.


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