NEW YORK — Albert Murray, an influential essayist, critic, and novelist who found literary inspiration in his Alabama roots and saw black culture and American culture as inextricably entwined, died Sunday at his home in New York. He was 97.
Lewis P. Jones, a family spokesman and executor of Mr. Murray’s estate, confirmed the death.
Mr. Murray was one of the last surviving links to a period of flowering creativity and spreading ferment among the black intelligentsia in postwar America, when the growing force of the civil rights movement gave rise to new bodies of thought about black identity, black political power, and how African-Americans can live in a society with a history of racism.
As blacks and whites clashed in the streets, black integrationists and black nationalists dueled in the academy and in books and essays. And Mr. Murray was in the middle of the debate.
One of his boldest challenges was directed toward a new black nationalist movement that was gathering force in the late 1960s, drawing support from the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam and finding advocates on university faculties and among alienated young blacks, who believed that African-Americans could never achieve true equality in the United States.
Mr. Murray insisted that integration was necessary, inescapable, and the only path forward for the United States. And to those — blacks and whites alike — who would have isolated “black culture” from the American mainstream, he answered that it couldn’t be done.
With a freewheeling prose style influenced by jazz and the blues, Mr. Murray challenged conventional assumptions about art, race, and American identity in books like the essay collection “Stomping the Blues” and the memoir “South to a Very Old Place.” He gave further expression to those views in a series of autobiographical novels, starting with “Train Whistle Guitar” in 1974.
Mr. Murray established himself as a formidable social and literary figure in 1970 with his first book, a collection of essays titled “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture.”
“The United States is not a nation of black and white people,” Mr. Murray wrote. “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” America, he maintained, “even in its most rigidly segregated precincts,” was a “nation of multicolored people,” or Omni-Americans: “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro.”
The novelist Walker Percy called “The Omni-Americans” “the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture,” published in his generation. But it had fierce detractors. Writing in The New York Times, the black-studies scholar and author J. Saunders Redding called the essays contradictory, Mr. Murray’s theories “nonsense,” and his “rhetoric” a “dense mixture of pseudoscientific academic jargon, camp idiom, and verbal play.”
Albert Lee Murray was born in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty. Mr. Murray learned of his adoption when he was about 11.
After graduating from the Mobile County Training School, where he earned letters in three sports and was voted the best all-around student, Mr. Murray enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where he discovered literature . He met Ralph Ellison, an upperclassman, as well as another student, Mozelle Menefee, who became his wife in 1941.
He leaves his wife and their daughter, Michéle Murray, who became a dancer with the Alvin Ailey company.
Mainstream recognition was slow to come for Mr. Murray. But by the mid-1990s, the critic Warren J. Carson had called him “African America’s undiscovered national treasure,” and in 1997 the Book Critics Circle gave him its award for lifetime achievement. The next year he received the inaugural Harper Lee Award as Alabama’s most distinguished writer.