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ALBERT MURRAY SEES AMERICAN CULTURE AS AN incandescent fusion of European, Yankee, frontier, and black. And he sees what he calls the “blues idiom” as the highest expression of that culture.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
• But there was—is—a huge contradiction between the ideology of equality and the reality.
That’s not as important as you might think. We got all those Negroes segregated? That’s unimportant, compared with the fact that they shouldn’t be. It’s not the fact that they’re segregated but the fact that if they were segregated in another society, it wouldn’t even matter. Can’t you see that?
What was guaranteed to the average dirt farmer in England by the Magna Carta? Who cared about peasants in Russia, including after communism made them more peasant than ever? What did the French small farmer get from the Revolution? He didn’t grow up with the heritage every American has.
• In other words, the Constitution was, and is, an explosive ideology. It promises freedom.
Right. The point is: The promises, the guarantees of the Constitution became the birthright of all Americans. That’s what is important. If you had a million slaves, it didn’t mean the same thing as if you didn’t have these guarantees. Were they free in Africa? They were owned by their chief. The first they ever heard of freedom as a right was over here. Blacks weren’t complaining for all those years about being taken away from Africa; they were complaining about being excluded from full participation in American society. Also, what the “back-to-Africa” spokesmen visualized was an American social system, not a traditional African one. The important thing is that the official promise existed: “All men are created equal.” Now you had something to appeal to.
• How do you see yourself first, as American or as black?
I can’t separate those things. I’m an American, that’s all. I was already an American before I was ever conscious that I was black. I was already breathing, I was already hearing railroad trains, I was already hearing sawmill whistles, I was already hearing automobiles, I was hearing the English language. I looked around and saw all these different people, and they looked like people that belonged around me. Some of them were white, some of them were Indian, some of them were Creole, and so on. That some talked one way and some another seemed natural. That there were conflicts also seemed natural. Conflicts exist just about everywhere.
When I hear the term black writer , certain alarms go off. Remember, the last thing I want to be mistaken for is a spokesman. If I’m not one of the best living American writers, no thanks for being one of the best living black writers. I’m trying to make sense of all American culture, using the Hemingway principle of writing about what you know about. You achieve universality through particulars, so if a critic says, “Murray has mastered the black idiom,” I’m proud of that. I would also be proud if somebody said I’d mastered French, Italian, Latin, or the stream-of-consciousness technique. I’m striving to be a representative twentieth-century American writer.
Black , by the way, isn’t even a term I use. I’m not black, I’m a shade of brown. And African-American is a term I don’t understand. I prefer Negro myself. Better still, colored people . That’s a fine term. It’s ambiguous enough to denote us, because we’re an ambiguous people.
• What writer exemplifies the blues idiom?
The attitude toward experience that Hemingway expresses strikes me as a literary equivalent to what I find in the blues. Let me put it this way: If you want to find the blues idiom in literature, don’t read any so-called black writers; read Hemingway. These other guys, all they’re talking about is justice and injustice. They ain’t ever going to equal Hemingway, who’s talking about life and death.
• What other artists?
Bearden’s approach to composition has the same spirit of improvisation you find in jazz. So do Calder’s mobiles and stabiles.
• One might well ask, What on earth does Alexander Calder have in common with Count Basic?
Basic could make one note swing. Calder could make one piece of metal swing. Look, what I’m trying to do is account for the sources of an adequate aesthetic for dealing with contemporary experience. I’m just trying to find an adequate form, and I haven’t found one anywhere that does it better than what I call the blues idiom. Hemingway used bullfighting to work out an aesthetic for literature; I use jazz.
• And you have worked to make your writing style the verbal equivalent of jazz.