He was never a household name, but Albert Murray was one of the most important Black thinkers of the 20th century.
The essayist and social critic changed the way people talked about race by challenging Black separatism and insisting that the Black experience was central to American culture. He once remarked that American society is “incontestably mulatto” because Black and White people are inextricably bound to one another.
“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.”
Murray was what one friend called a “militant integrationist.” He didn’t use the terms “Black” or “African-American.” He called himself an American.
Born in Alabama, Murray attended Tuskegee Institute, where he befriended Ralph Ellison, author of the classic novel “Invisible Man.” Murray also eventually became close friends with Romare Bearden, the influential painter, and a mentor to jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.
Murray was a novelist, but it is through his pugnacious essays that he is best known. They are informed by his love of music — he wrote passionately about blues and jazz — his knowledge of Black culture and his astonishing command of literature.
One of his best books, 1970’s “The Omni-Americans,” was a collection of essays and a punishing critique of Black separatism. Filled with Murray’s trademark blunt wit, it insisted that America was a nation of multicolored people who share a common destiny.
Writer Walker Percy called it “the most important book on black-white relationships . . . indeed on American culture . . . published in this generation.”