Albert Murray coined the phase Omniamerican as a way to explain the cultural conundrum that the American melting pot is and always has been. He did not like the expression Black American or German American. Murray began with the “basic assumption that the United States is a mulatto culture.”
There was no better way to explain the bastardization of American culture than through the gutteral sounds of jazz music, which he loved and appreciated along with the blues and the classics.
Murray was comfortably at home with Mozart or Count Basie, with Beethoven or Lou Rawls and for the last 43 years of his life he shared his thoughts on what it means to be an American through the idiom of the written word in the rhythm of music.
He was conceived in Tuskegee, Alabama in the year that Booker T. Washington died. But he would not come forth until the following year, two days before Mother’s Day. It was just as well he did not wait for Mother’s Day to make his appearance because between the Friday he was born and the second Sunday in May, his mother and father gave him up for adoption.
Tiny Albert Lee Murray was quickly taken away to a small town outside of Mobile, Alabama where he grew to love books and debating.
During his high school years his biological mother moved to Mobile to be near him. That year Murray earned a scholarship to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School. When he arrived on campus, his biological father, John Young, had become the foreman of the Tuskegee Power Company, he would visit with his son for the first time.
While at Tuskegee Murray became friends with an upperclassman, two years his senior, Ralph Waldo Ellison,who 15 years later would win the National Book Award for his novel Invisible Man.
Ellison had grown up on the frontier, in Oklahoma City. He had a deep affinity for jazz music. The two men bonded over their love for music and profound philosophical discussions on the nature of every belief system imaginable. They would remain lifelong friends.
Murray was the yin to Ellison’s yang. While Ellison believed the mainstream viewed the invisibility of Black people as a reason not to treat them with common human decency and respect.
Murray’s philosophy would say, au contraire, there are no black or white America, we are all one America. Murray enunciated this view long before a mulatto American President named Barack Obama argued America is not divided by red states or blue states, rather she is unified as the United States of America. And before Ancestry proved that Americans with the whitest of skin could have African and European DNA or the blackest person could be equally Nigerian and Scandinavian.
His message that everybody is related to everybody was not well taken as it came in the height of the movement for Black identity in the early 1970s.
Blacks were removing processed solutions from their hair and wearing their hair naturally, in an afro. Black was suddenly beautiful and Murray came along and said that in fact the slave master and the enslaved had commingled blood and each was as much black as white, thus one American.
The militant Negro intelligentsia felt their message of black empowerment was blunted by Murray’s omniamerican rhetoric. Murray’s posit proved Washington’s contention that Black and white America could co-exist as the hand, while maintaining separate phalanges because the fingers were mere extensions of the one hand.
In 2013, at age 97, Murray died.
At the time of his death, he was negotiating with Tuskegee University to house his books. After a series of missteps, a process that began in 1999 under Benjamin Payton, the then university president, became reality today. Payton directed one of his vice presidents, Dr. Charlotte Morris to work out the details. When Payton retired, Morris served as Interim President until the university hired Dr. Gilbert Rochon. She then left the university to attend to her aging mother.
Rochan liked the project, but walked away from his contract after a year on the job. After the university hired Dr. Brian Johnson to replace Rochon, the Murray papers project hit snag after snag. Then the university decided not to renew Johnson’s contract. They brought Morris back as Interim President and the discussions with Murray’s estate were back on track.
The one constant in all that time was the steadying hand of Tuskegee Interim President Charlotte Morris. One wonders if the university can find a more qualified and capable president to steer the university into the roaring 2020s than Dr. Morris.
For the past four and a half years the remains of the quintessential cultural iconic thinker of the 20th century rested in a pink urn in New York’s Harlem. His estate wrestled with how to ensure the books, which educated Murray’s world view of life on the planet since Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech, would be preserved for as long as human history endures. Also, there was now the necessity to find a permanent resting place for Murray’s ashes.
Today, Murray came home to Tuskegee where he was conceived and where his world view was developed. With open arms his Tuskegee family, in a sense, received his mind (books) to be housed in a permanent collection in the Ford Motor Company Library and Learning Resource Center in the Hollis Burke Frissell Building where Murray spent a great portion of his time as a Tuskegee student.
And his soul (ashes) now rests in the Tuskegee University Cemetery along with other Omni Americans like Washington,George Washington Carver, Robert Russo Moton, Frederick Patterson, Luther Foster, Warren Logan, and Benjamin Payton.
Being a student of Murray’s, I’m writing this piece listening to I’ll wait and Pray by John Coltrane and Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby. During the internment of Murray’s ashes a soloist under the direction of John Q. Lennard played Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday. At the recessional the Tuskegee University Brass Band marched New Orleans funeral dirge style from the cemetery playing Do Whatcha Wanna, an apropos piece to sum up Murray’s attitude about life.
Tuskegee’s native son, unwelcomed at birth, finally comes “South to a Very Old Place” in the long and winding road of omni history.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org