Last month Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans was re-released in celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary with a new foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I had the privilege of getting to know Mr. Murray during my tenure at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He was a co-founder of the institution and was also secretary of the board of directors.
One of the things that I was most excited about when I first got to New York from my hometown, Louisville, KY in 2000 was the opportunity to meet Mr. Murray and potentially have a chance to sit at his feet to learn from him. Fortunately, I was able to do just that. He invited me on occasion to come to his apartment to interact with him and his extensive library. I was even able to take my 8 year old son to his apartment so that he could interview him for a school assignment on the Harlem Renaissance.
The first book of his that I read was The Omni-Americans. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to sit with him and hear his eloquent elocution of his particular paradigm on – What does it mean to be black in America? – from his private pulpit.
The book is still relevant 50 years after its initial publication, but with an interesting twist.
Murray’s main theme throughout the assembled essays is best understood from an excerpt from the essay A Natural History: E Pluribus Unum,
“Identity is best defined in terms of culture, and the culture of the nation over which the white Anglo-Saxon power elite exercises such exclusive political, economic, and social control is not all-white by any measurement ever devised. American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”
Murray’s thesis when coupled with Harold Cruse’s below analysis from his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual provide fertile ground for the 21st Century Negro to reimagine, once again, his rightful place on the cultural landscape of this country.
“As long as the Negro’s cultural identity is in question, or open to self-doubts, then there can be no positive identification with the real demands of his political and economic existence. Further than that, without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. He is left in the limbo of social marginality, alienated and directionless on the landscape of America, in a variegated nation of whites who have not yet decided on their own identity. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negores. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”
According to Murray, the dual set of fingerprints on the country’s bifocals that prevents a clear and present, if not prescient view of the possibilities of this country are what he calls White Supremacy Folklore and Black Pathology Fakelore.
For the Negro in America, there isn’t much we can do about White Supremacy as an ideology. We can’t necessarily make white people not think that they are better than black people. However, there are two things that we can do to fight White Supremacy.
1) Don’t believe the hype.
Just because someone thinks that they are better than you doesn’t mean that you have to believe it. Many black ballers on the blacktop or the local gym don’t believe that the white boy who has been putting in work on them for the last 3 games is “better” than them. They may chalk it up to the white boy having a good day or them having a bad day or some combination thereof. And, even if they are able to concede the “better” than point, that superiority isn’t transferable, especially racially.
2) Don’t give unsolicited testimony that supports the case for White Supremacy.
Murray believes that the unsolicited testimony has come in the form of what he calls social science fiction. He makes the case that social scientists have done study upon study to show that Black Pathology is the norm for black life in America.
In the essay, White Norms for Black Deviation, Murray says,
“There is little reason why Negroes should not regard contemporary social science theory and technique with anything except the most unrelenting suspicion. There is, come to think of it, no truly compelling reason at all why Negroes should not regard the use of the social science statistical survey as the most elaborate fraud of modern times. In any event, they should never forget that the group in power is always likely to use every means at its disposal to create the impression that it deserves to be where it is. And it is not above suggesting that those who have been excluded have only themselves to blame.
“It seems altogether likely that white people in the United States will continue to reassure themselves with black images derived from the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology so long as segregation enables them to ignore the actualities. They can afford such self-indulgence only because they carefully avoid circumstances that would require a confrontation with their own contradictions.”
I find it interesting that Murray uses folklore to describe White Supremacy and fakelore to describe Black Pathology when they are both ostensibly false constructs.
The reason that I think he does this is because of the very definition of the word folklore:
folk·lore /ˈfōklôr/noun – the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.
By definition, folklore is the stories that a community or a people tell about themselves. Fakelore is what a people or a community tell about others.
The problem with Black Pathology Fakelore is when it is married with social scientists like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 Report – The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, it becomes fodder for national policy that propagates the narrative of White Supremacy while at the same time creating a pathway for national programs that may lead to the self-fulfilling perpetuation of Black Pathology.
Unlike 50 years ago, the social science fiction that Murray was so concerned about is not the thing that is currently fueling the perpetuation of Black Pathology Fakelore.
In 2020 black folks have a considerable amount of control of the images, culture, music, television shows and films that are sold, streamed and shared on popular and social media.
Unfortunately Black Pathology Fakelore has turned into Black Pathology Fokelore because we have taken the skewed data that the likes of Moynihan have reported on in the past and are now standing in line to portray and proliferate those pictures all over the planet and for what? – personal profit.
That’s right, White Supremacy doesn’t need to employ the social scientists to create skewed reports that amount to a fictionalized version of Black Pathology.
We are telling the story ourselves.
Unfortunately, Murray doesn’t really posit any real solutions to the problem. However, he does do a really good job of explaining it.
Problem definition is the first step in a solution.
So, what is the solution?
I think the solution has been right under our noses for years.
W.E.B. DuBois knew the answer nearly a century ago. In a 1926 article in the NAACP’s publication, The Crisis, he states,
“…All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists…I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
“It is not the positive propaganda of people who believe white blood divine, infallible and holy to which I object. It is the denial of a similar right of propaganda to those who believe black blood human, lovable and inspired with new ideals for the world.”
It’s not what white people say about themselves.
It’s not what white people say about black people.
It’s about folklore.
It’s what we say about ourselves that matters the most.