Photograph of Albert Murray, taken in his home in Harlem in the mid 90’s. Courtesy of John Abbott, www.johnabbottphoto.com
African American, Cultural Theory, Literature
Albert Murray was a writer whose nonfiction addresses African Americans as essential Americans and whose novels synthesize original representations of African American folklore and oral history. He both theorized and dramatized folklore, vernacular expression, and orally transmitted narratives as crucial foundations for the essentially humanizing process of stylization, through which individuals and communities define their values and educate others.
Albert Murray was born in Mobile, Alabama, and raised in Magazine Point, a working-class area of that coastal city. He was educated at the rigorous Mobile County Training School and then at Tuskegee Institute, where he earned a BS in education (1939). After graduating, Murray taught writing and literature at Tuskegee Institute. He served in the military from 1943 to 1962. During this time, he earned a MA in English from New York University (1948), and completed further studies at The Ohio State University and the Sorbonne in Paris.
After retiring from the Air Force, Murray returned to New York. He embarked on an uncommonly productive literary career over the second half of his life, beginning with four nonfiction books and a novel based on his Mobile childhood published in the 1970s. As a well-rounded man of letters, Murray sought to infuse and adapt the enduring wisdom of African American folk expression into the highest forms of artistic excellence – while also correcting the cultural images produced by what he usefully called “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology.”
In this vein, Murray’s work was geared towards increasing the public’s appreciation of what he called “the blues idiom” in American culture. He conceptualized the music of this affirmative, resilient, and improvisatory idiom as the United States’ greatest repository of heroic action and a testament to the indisputable centrality of African Americans to American culture. He argued that its lessons were available to anyone who would appreciate its roots and genuinely study its example. In both his fiction and literary criticism, he sought to extend the reach of the blues idiom into the heart of American public narrative.
In his lifetime, Murray published a total of thirteen books, collected into two Library of America volumes (2018). As a founding member of Jazz at Lincoln Center and close collaborator of the painter Romare Bearden, he made indelible contributions to the history of twentieth-century music and visual art. He taught courses at many universities, including Columbia, Colgate, and Emory, and was a pivotal presence in the careers of many younger writers. He received the National Book Critic Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award (1996), was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997), and the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal (2007) from Harvard University.
Among his works of interest for folklorists:
Collected Essays and Memoirs (2016)
Collected Novels and Poems (2018)