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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 384

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This is the grave of Albert Murray.

Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1916, Murray attended Tuskegee Institute and graduated in 1939. He started a graduate program at the University of Michigan but decided quickly to return to Tuskegee and teach writing, although he did some additional graduate work at Northwestern. In 1943, he joined the Air Force and spent several years in the military. In 1946, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve and used the GI Bill to get an M.A. in English from NYU. In New York, he became very close friends with Ralph Ellison and got to know Duke Ellington well. Both would be hugely influential on his productive late-life writing career. Murray transferred around the world as part of his deployments, taught a bit at Tuskegee in between them, and left the military in 1962, setting in Harlem. He was 46 years old and really hadn’t published anything, despite his many friendships with leading writers.

Murray started publishing magazine pieces while in New York and then in 1970, finally published his first book at the age of 54. The Omni-Americans is a brilliant work of social critique. Responding to the racist social science of the period defined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Stanley Elkins, he savages the theories of social science in general, urging people to study African-Americans as they are, and arguing that black people are the “omni-Americans” as the entire experience of America flows through them. His dismissal of social science is a breath of fresh air for a humanities person like me, who believes, like Murray, that the study of real lives and real cultures has far more to tell. He followed this with South to a Very Old Place in 1971, which touched on many of the same things under the guise of a road trip, wrestling with southern figures from Booker T. Washington to Faulkner to Robert Penn Warren. In this book especially as in so many of his later books, he articulated blues and jazz as central to the American experience and what it means to be black in America. In 1974, he published his first novel, the lovely Train Whistle Guitar, which is mostly stories about growing up black in south Alabama. He and the great saxophonist David Murray tried to make this into a theater production, but it never came to fruition. He continued to write at a prolific pace for a long time, including Stomping the Blues in 1976, considered to be one of the greatest books ever written on jazz, and The Blue Devils of Nada in 1996. He also wrote Count Basie’s memoir, which came out in 1986 credited to both of them.

If anything, Murray grew more influential as he aged, especially on Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, who both knew him well and greatly respected his perspectives. His writings from Train Whistle Guitar on Jack Johnson was quoted in the someone mediocre Ken Burns series on the boxer. His last novel, The Magic Keys, was published in 2005, when he was 89 years old. Through this whole few decades, Murray gave many talks, taught at many schools, and was one of the nation’s leading intellectuals. He had a very long, slow decline as his health began failing, but he was known for his vice-like handshake until his last year and still managed to release the autobiography of Papa Jo Jones told to Murray in 2011, when he was 95 years of age. He died in 2013. Wynton Marsalis hosted the memorial service at Lincoln Center. Pretty impressive career for a guy who never published a book until on the wrong side of 50.

Albert Murray is buried at Tuskegee University Cemetery, Tuskegee, Alabama. A couple of notes on the state of the grave. Even though he died in 2013, it looks recently buried and I visited this just last month. I’m not really sure about this. His wife of 72 years when he died just recently passed away. It’s possible that the plan was to bury them together. Sometimes, actual grave constructed is delayed, even with famous people. Given his long connection to Tuskegee and the small size yet significant prominence of this cemetery, I strongly doubt that it is just suffering due to neglect, but I don’t really know. It’s also worth noting that his grave is listed on the internet as unknown, but sometimes, you can just find them yourself. I had a hunch he might be there. This was the same with the grave of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, which I just happened to stumble upon while looking for someone else; as far as I know, their grave is listed on the internet as unknown as well. So you never know what you will find if you look.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am greatly appreciative of the opportunities you all have given me to make this series happen. If you would like this post to cover other people mentioned in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Count Basie is in East Farmingdale, New York and Robert Penn Warren is in Stratton, Vermont. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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