Black Odyssey

KING, RICHARD H.

Black Odyssey South to a Very Old Place By Albert Murray McGraw-Hill 230 pp $7 95 Reviewed by Richard H. King Assistant Professor of History and Philosophy, Federal City College, author, "The...

...Black Odyssey South to a Very Old Place By Albert Murray McGraw-Hill 230 pp $7 95 Reviewed by Richard H. King Assistant Professor of History and Philosophy, Federal City College, author, "The Party of Eros" Southerners who write about the South are a strange breed Invariably they feel deep affection and concern for their region and its history And almost as invariably they come to rest north of the Mason-Dixon line Granted this applies principally to white Southerners Black writers who have fled the area rarely display much nostalgia for Southern comfort, nor do they shed many tears for the fate of Dixie In this respect and others, Albert Murray's South to a Very Old Place is extraordinary free-wheeling, at times openly nostalgic but always clearheaded and wry account of an Alabama-born black's voyage of rediscovery The return home is of course an archetypal experience, a quest of profound dimensions As Murray notes, while home is the familiar and the yearned-for, it is also the place we chose to leave, the source of complication and pain Therefore anyone who hazards the homecoming, in fact or in imagination, must expect to be jarred to the depths Wendell Berry, a white writer who returned south to live, says that "in memory begins consciousness " Murray's trip back is both a jog to the memory and an expansion of consciousness In this remarkable narrative, language is not only a neutral medium for conveying ideas and experiences but also takes on a formative power, becomes an instrument of perception in its own right Murray mixes jazz and blues rhythms with down-home black idiom with literary intellections, the result is a Joycean delight m what words can reveal about ourselves and our world Here is Murray on country music...
...wmng - ding - doodle banjos and twang - nosed - talking, Jim - Crow-walking guitars", on Southern whites ?old man whicker-bill Charley Comesaw's bony-butt, high-instep strut", on poor crackers?some sure enough mean-ass peckerwoods so mean and evil they breathe like rattlesnakes " But it is not all rhetorical hijinks, for which many Southerners, black and white, exhibit both a gift and a weakness By now the North Star has dimmed, if not burned out, and for black Americans there is nowhere else to escape to Accordingly, Murray sets out to reconnoiter his personal terrain as it relates to that of the contemporary South, thereby perhaps to discover a way out of our racial and political impasse As in his previous book, The Omni-Amencans, he firmly declares that whites are part black and blacks part white, and that neither have much to discover in Europe or Africa Nor, to Murray's way of thinking, are New York intellectuals, social scientists, or militants of any use m race relations For instance, Murray finds to his surprise that Southern blacks retain a grudging respect for LBJ, "progressive ' opinion notwithstanding As one older man says, it's about time "some mean-ass crackers [were] on our side tor a change, for whatever goddamn reason " Scorning the "folklore of white supremacy and the filthlore of black pathology," Murray maintains that blacks lead fiom weakness by overemphasizing the destructive impact of white society The product will only be pity from liberals, and pity is not very far from contempt Moreover, Murray knows that black culture did not begin with Malcolm X or James Brown, and that it is more than just a stick to beat whites with He locates its essence in the jazz-blues tradition, a way of viewing the world that enables one to remain whole m the face of adversity Not only is the South the source of much of black culture, Murray observes, but it is also where some lessons of the black experience may have touched whites Some Southern intellectuals, unlike their know-it-all Yankee counterparts, have an "Uncle Remus (or Remus-derived) dimension of downhome or blues-idiom orientation to the ambiguities of human actuality, an Uncle Remus-denved respect for human complexity, a Brer Rabbit-derived appreciation for human ingenuity " Thus not a black panther but Brer Rabbit serves as the totem It is irrelevant whether a white man has soul or talks jive or dresses cool, what counts is whether he can deal with the historical contexts in which peopleónot abstract problems?struggle to woik out their lives Murray gives high marks to such writers as C Vann Woodward, Walker Percy, Robert Perm Warren, and Willie Morris because they share his opinion that Southerners have a healthy aversion to abstraction, and m that regard are a step or two ahead of most intellectuals Though no bhnd worshipper of Faulkner, Murray has gone to school under him Revisiting Tuskegee Institute, he remembers that when he and Ralph Ellison were students there, their favorite activity was to populate a nearby deserted mansion with phantoms from the latest Faulkner novel Murray's offhand gloss of Absalom' Absalom' ("a Mississippi white boy's brownshirt barbershop version of Moby Dick") makes even the daring critical judgments of Leslie Fiedler seem pale and pedantic by comparison This is not to say that Murray never misses the mark in South to a Very Old Place One would have preferred to see a bit more of the man and a bit less of the cocksure guide to a complex cultural landscape At times the distaste foi Northern intellectuals is annoymgly obsessive and one wonders why the author failed to talk with any black intellectuals in the South Are there none left9 On the whole, however, Murray s odyssey from North to South to North again is a dazzling performance, one that presents a much needed perspective on the experience ot the races in this country Murray has found much to admire back home, yet he is not about to mouth the old saw that "the South is really better than the North because it is less hypocritical' There is enough hypocrisy to go around and, if one must choose, hypocrisy is preferable to open abuse Finally, Murray urges blacks to forge a new political style by drawing upon the "dynamics inherent m the blues idiom " And he wonders "how to make more white intellectuals not only downhome but perhaps elsewhere more responsive" to the truth about their history Because the South has seen the closest interweaving ot black and white destinies, and because it retains some strange hold on its wayward sons, a new and healthier vision of national culture and politics might still emerge there...

Vol. 55 • May 1972 • No. 9


 
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