The Harlem literary critic and USAF major (ret.) has died at 97.
Back in 1997 I reviewed The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which was edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., for National Review. In "The Ebony Tower," I wrote:
This compendium raises the more general question of what is the overall contribution of blacks to American culture? One appealing, if possibly grandiose, perspective might be called the Patriotic Black Chauvinism of blues critic and novelist Albert Murray. In contrast to so many other black literary intellectuals, who`ve only been employed as professors and who now reside in such hotbeds of African American culture as Amherst and Santa Cruz, Murray is a retired Air Force major living in Harlem. Along with his friend Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man) and disciples such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Murray has argued that rather than merely being a pitiful victim of racism, the black man`s defiant sense of style makes him the most distinctively representative of Americans. That seems fairly plausible, if unprovable. A cruder version is testable: If America otherwise was as WASPish as Protestant Canada, would blacks by themselves make America a much more interesting place than Canada? Most definitely. (Of course, several other American ethnic groups could claim the same: after all, for better or worse, America is a lot less boring than Canada.)
From the NYT obituary, an interesting adoption experiment story of nature and nurture:
Albert Lee Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who soon gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty. “It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” said Mr. Murray, who learned of his adoption when he was about 11. ... As rendered in Mr. Murray’s inventive prose, the adolescent Scooter and his friend Buddy Marshall could imagine themselves as “explorers and discoverers and Indian scouts as well as sea pirates and cowboys and African spear fighters not to mention the two schemingest gamblers and back alley ramblers this side of Philmayork.”
After graduating from the Mobile County Training School, where he earned letters in three sports and was voted the best all-around student, Mr. Murray enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where he discovered literature and immersed himself in Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Mann. He met Ralph Ellison, an upperclassman, as well as another student, Mozelle Menefee, who became his wife in 1941. She survives him, as does their daughter, Michéle Murray, who became a dancer with the Alvin Ailey company.
... He enlisted in the military in 1943 and spent the last two years of World War II in the Army Air Corps. After the war, the Murrays moved to New York City, where he used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree from N.Y.U. and renew his friendship with Ellison. In 1951, a year before Ellison published his classic work, “Invisible Man,”Mr. Murray rejoined the military, entering the Air Force. He served in the military, peripatetically, for 11 years
My recollection is that when Murray was serving at bases in West Germany, he`d hop the train for Paris every time he got some leave and go hang out with the black jazz greats then in France. I believe Murray tended to see the glass as half full. While it was a shame that America was less welcoming to these artists than France was, he couldn`t forget that the American taxpayers were paying for his glorious part-time Bohemian life in Paris, while also providing him with a good square job Monday to Friday that got him saluted all the time.