This week, just in time for the start of Black History Month, Library of America publishes a special fiftieth-anniversary edition of Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, the classic 1970 work of nonfiction that heralded Murray’s arrival as a major new figure in American letters. The paperback reissue includes a new introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who co-edited, with Paul Devlin, the Library of America volumes of Murray’s Collected Essays & Memoirs in 2016 and his Collected Novels & Poems in 2018.
Murray’s writing famously draws on literature and music with equal authority. The new LOA edition of his debut follows a pair of noteworthy signs of the influence The Omni-Americans continues to have across disciplines.
On Sunday, January 26, for example, trumpet player Brian Lynch won the Grammy award for Best Album by a Large Jazz Ensemble for The Omni-American Book Club—an album whose title, Lynch acknowledged in his acceptance speech, is a tribute to the “inclusive vision” of Murray’s first book and also to his abiding influence on Lynch’s music.
A few weeks earlier, The Omni-Americans was the subject of an entire episode of Manifesto!, the podcast on culture hosted by writers Phil Klay and Jacob Siegel, who were joined for the occasion by memoirist and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams. Williams (who contributed a blurb to the new LOA edition of The Omni-Americans) declares his affinity early in the program by explaining that “Part of any mission I have as a writer is to try to bring as many people as I can possibly reach to Albert Murray, who I think is a real, genuine, American-original genius.”
Williams calls The Omni-Americans “a real source of inspiration” and continues:
It’s a book that must be read in its entirety, there are so many cul-de-sacs, caveats . . . . What I take away from it is the idea that America is fundamentally a mongrel society and culture and that African Americans are fundamentally native and modern people that embody all of the major strains of American identity within themselves.
Siegel testifies that for him Murray was a “deep and early influence on me in my thinking about not only race but . . . America and identity in the broadest possible sense.”
These testimonials are only the prelude to a long, freewheeling conversation in which Klay, Siegel, and Williams discuss Murray and The Omni-Americans in the context of such writers as Ralph Ellison and Stanley Crouch, Zadie Smith, and the historian Gordon S. Wood. Listen to the complete episode below: