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Reimagining American Identity
A July 4th Celebration of Albert Murray's "Omni-American" Ideal
REIMAGINING AMERICAN IDENTITY
A July 4th Celebration of Albert Murray’s “Omni-American” Ideal
Greg Thomas and Amiel Handelsman
Amiel Handelsman: So, Greg . . . I wondered if you could introduce Albert Murray, who he is, where his influence has been felt and how you personally knew him.
Greg Thomas: I’ll be glad to. Albert Murray would have been 100 in 2016. He passed away in 2013. He was one of the great American writers and thinkers on American identity and American culture of the 20th century. He’s the author of over 10 books. Four books of fiction, a tetralogy which he calls a Scooter cycle. Scooter, the main character of his novel, was a representation of his consciousness. A book of poetry, as well as numerous nonfiction books, including The Omni-Americans, which came out in 1970, and South to a Very Old Place, 1971. The Hero and the Blues, Stomping the Blues, Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray, The Blue Devils of Nada. And there’s a few more.
These works deal with race, particularly in The Omni-Americans, but he was more interested in what can we, as human beings, do to create form in order to confront the impending entropy of the universe. That may sound kind of grandiose, but I want to put that out here first and foremost, because that was the level of his thought. And that was the direction of his thought. Now we can get granular with certain things, and will, but I wanted to state that. For him, art, story, were ways that human beings put feeling into form—he liked to riff on the American philosopher Susanne Langer, who wrote Feeling and Form and other works dealing with that concept—in order to put into motion human culture, again, to create form, to create structure in the midst of all of this chaos that we undergo in our lives, but also in the universe itself. So, the blues is an example of that feeling within form.
He’s very influential among thinkers and writers who focus on American culture, particularly through blues and jazz. Stanley Crouch was profoundly influenced by Albert Murray. Wynton Marsalis, who is one of our most celebrated American artists, considers Murray as like an intellectual grandfather. He was called the Dean of Afro-American letters back in the ‘70s.
So, he’s not well known, as you’ve mentioned, in American pop culture, because his writing is on a level of fine art. And that’s something that takes a cultivated taste as well as a lot of education. Because as Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, Albert Murray was a polymath. Now as far as my own relationship with him—I consider him a mentor. Back in the early to mid-‘90s, I reached out to him. I had a book idea in mind. I’ll tell that story very quickly: I had in mind a book that would take a look at his view on American culture and identity through the lens of blues and jazz. The other two writers included in my proposed book were John Henrik Clark, who one might say was a black nationalist historian, and Lerone Bennett, best known as a long-time editor of Ebony magazine. He was also a historian. When I reached out to Murray, I told him what the project was. Actually, first, I wrote him a letter. Then I gave him a call. He said, “Hey, man, why are you putting me with those guys?”
Greg: [Laughs] So for me, I was trying to come to terms with these, what I call streams of black American thought, these different ideological traditions. I was really trying to come to terms with all of that after having done a lot of reading and study. And that was one of my ways of dealing with it. So, in any event, I would visit him. And I would get a grandmaster class in erudition each and every time but not from the place you might think of: someone who is very smart, just being like a professor. Mind you, he actually was a professor. He taught in many institutions: Colgate, Emory, and others. But he was so down home and down to earth at the same time. He had an earthy sense of humor, a really earthy laugh. He could riff on the great writers and thinkers of the American and Western literary tradition, philosophical tradition, and all of that. But he could get bawdy at the same time. He was very influential on me and, as I mentioned, several others. And another time we can talk about why he’s not better known.
But the bottom line is that I thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about him and his ideas. Because in this series on race, his perspective can provide a lot of light and a lot of insight as to ways that we can look at race and transcend the limitations and decoy of race, because it’s really a delusion that we get tripped up in so much.
Amiel: Well, I credit you for introducing me to his work. And just since we’ve been in contact the last several weeks, I think I’ve read two or three of his books and the language just pops off the page. And it is a very distinctive, punchy, funny, serious, very highbrow intellectual style. And it’s just like, whoa, what universe is this guy from? He’s been around the Milky Way and back and explaining it to us. Let’s get into this book, The Omni-Americans, his first book, which came out in 1970. And it’s a great title, kind of an unusual title, especially for a book about race. And Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard, who you mentioned earlier, said the book was, quote, so pissed off jaw jutting and unapologetic, that it demanded to be taken seriously. So let’s get into this. What did Murray mean by “Omni-Americans”?
Greg: [Laughs] I’ll be glad to answer that question. But I did want to say that The Omni-Americans is less about race than what the subtitle says. The Omni Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. That I think is more accurate than saying it’s about race. The Omni-Americans has to do with American identity and culture as coming through a synthesis. Frederick Douglass called it a “composite.” The identity of America is not one avenue or channel or tributary. American identity, American culture is a combination and synthesis of certain fundamental roots, obviously, in terms of the intellectual tradition, the Enlightenment, coming from the Western Enlightenment tradition when you’re talking about the founders of the country. But from a cultural perspective, that lower left quadrant cultural dimension (Figure 1) that we talked about in our first conversation, it concerns what Constance Rourke in American Humor talked about as three primary figures or types.
You have the American Indian or what we now call the Native American, a backwoodsman. You also have the Yankee. That’s a primary figure in American culture. But you also have the Negro. These are fundamental archetypes in American history and American literature that are riffed on. Now, of course, we are talking about America. All of the world has come to America. But I’m focusing here on the foundational, root aspects of American identity.
So, you have a composite of those types. You find that, say, in jazz. You find that in Black American culture. Black American culture is not just African. Yes, you have African roots. But there’s also European roots. In jazz, you’ve got African roots, European roots, Afro-Cuban roots. But it still maintains its identity as its own actual thing. So, it’s a holon, to use an Integral term.
Amiel: A whole and a part.
Greg: Right. It’s a whole, but it’s got these different parts to it. So, Omni-Americans are about the whole aspect of American identity and culture, with different peoples and archetypes being part and parcel of it. So, whenever you hear someone saying that this is American, let’s make America great again, they’re usually talking about some past in which white folks were dominant socially, politically, economically. They are not talking about American culture as it exists, in actuality.
Amiel: He might say, MAMA, Make America Mulatto Again, which is a term he used.
Greg: Ah ha, yes. There you go. That word “mulatto,” which is kind of out of favor these days. But yeah, it’s a mixture, man. One of the things that President Obama said early on, he said Americans are mutts, you know, this mixture. I thought that was inelegant, and I wish he had been familiar with The Omni-Americans, because he could have said “we’re Omni-Americans,” and it would have done wonders to make Omni-Americanism more familiar to the populace. Yeah. If we look at our individual, whole selves, we have all of the different parts of ourselves, biologically and otherwise, but we are an organic whole. So, the Omni-Americans are the organic whole of American culture and identity.
Amiel: Nice. So this relates to something I’m curious about, which is, there is a notion that so-called Black Americans are outside of, quote, unquote, mainstream American culture. And you actually hear this from all sorts of different folks of different skin colors, right. I hear it every week. And Murray said, number one, that’s wrong. And number two, black culture is actually central to American culture. So what did he see that other people have not?
Greg: Well, again, he’s focusing on culture, not race and racial exclusion. One of the things that his dear friend and intellectual partner, Ralph Ellison, said, in one of his many famous essays, was that though it is true that Negro Americans did not have social, political, and economic freedom, it was in the cultural sphere where we grew and developed and evolved. Where we created a world and worldview that was extremely powerful, which is obvious when you look at the impact of Black American culture around the world, especially through music, through style, through dance, through food, and other aspects. So the idea that we’re not part of the mainstream is bunk, and it has been bunk for quite a long time, because even when we had social, economic, and political exclusion, our influence on the culture was powerful and remains so.
Note: The transcript above is based on an interview recorded in February 2018 and published as part of a free book, Reimagining American Identity, by Greg Thomas, Amiel Handelsman, and Jewel Kinch-Thomas.
Greg Thomas is CEO of the Jazz Leadership Project, a firm that uses the principles and practices of jazz music to enhance leadership success and team excellence in organizations such as JPMorgan Chase, Verizon, Center for Policing Equity, TD Bank, and Google. Greg is a professional writer and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Evolution. In October 2021, he co-produced the two-day broadcast, "Combating Racism and Antisemitism Together: Shaping an Omni-American Future," which may be viewed here and here. He blogs here. He co-authored Reimaging American Identity with his partner, Jewel Kinch-Thomas, and Amiel Handelsman.
Amiel Handelsman is a seasoned executive coach with 20+ years of experience helping organizations navigate complexity. His clients have include Fortune 50 companies, universities, and fast-growing startups. He has coached leaders from multiple cultures around the world. Amiel is the author of five books, including Reimagining American Identity and How To Be An Anti-race Antiracist. He holds a B.A. in Public Policy Studies from Duke University and an M.B.A. from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Amiel lives with his wife and two children in Ann Arbor, Michigan.