undefinedAlbert Murray in his apartment in Harlem, 1970s. Courtesy of the Albert Murray Trust

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you see the modern black writer’s relationship to his “past”? And how does Africa figure into that, legitimately or illegitimately? 

MURRAY

I think a writer’s individuality, his originality, and his achievement of self-hood are all determined by what he accepts of what he inherits, as well as by that which he rejects. Do you follow me? If the black writer looks at his past, he’s going to find much that he can, and will have to, reject. At the same time, he’ll find certain things he can accept, that are orienting for him. They give him a sense of direction, a sense of development. Unfortunately, I think that a number of black writers are so determined to look too much to the past, to set up a pantheon and to move into that pantheon. I keep thinking that if they are serious students of literature and of black experience, they’re going to find very few people to put in a literary pantheon. That’s the problem—the refusal, or not necessarily the refusal but the inability to look clearly at the nature of the so-called black literary heritage in the United States. It’s ­obscured for various reasons. One is that very few of these guys, although they opt to be writers, care very much for literature. Another reason is a sort of unfortunate self-righteousness that develops among people who regard themselves as ­oppressed—they can always make excuses for their ­shortcomings and say, Such and such writers were great but have not received their just deserts because the establishment was prejudiced and would not recognize them. 

I believe, after my good friend Kenneth Burke, that literature is equipment for living. How do you look at the world? Who helps you most to see the world as it is? Now, if I’ve got a bunch of ancestors who simply tell me that the whole problem of life is injustice, then they have not told me enough about what life is. The black literary tradition has let me down in this sense, because it didn’t do the job as well as the fireside tradition or the barbershop tradition in the old days. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you see black literature as being essentially propagandistic? 

MURRAY

Yes, I do. 

INTERVIEWER

Should we back up and say what you mean by propaganda, as opposed to art? 

MURRAY

When the basic purpose of the literary statement is to promote some ­immediate value, some virtue, to counterstate some vice, to sell some program, then I think of it as propaganda. There’s no pure definition of propaganda because every statement has to do with values, but when the complexities of human motive, of human behavior, of human aspiration are oversimplified in the interest of a specific social or political remedy, then we’d call it propaganda. Do you see? Whereas, take a very complex story, let’s say Hamlet. Certainly it’s against corruption, but the way it is presented tells us so much more about life than simply the news that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve compared the kind of heroism that is implicit in blues music to the kind of heroism in Hamlet or the heroism in the Odyssey. You obviously would recommend that a black writer read Hamlet. But would you also want the black writer to begin at home, so to speak? 

MURRAY

Yes, for the very same reason that I don’t want him to begin in Africa, because he doesn’t know a damned thing about Africa. He doesn’t know any of the nuances. He knows everybody, loves everybody. People can’t stand each other living twenty-five miles apart—but he goes over there and he loves them all. We have enough trouble with our own do-gooders and social workers, who come into the so-called black community and put you together with people you don’t want to be with because they do not understand the nuances that define our lives.