In fact, the chapter is jammed with lengthy, back-porch soliloquies. Murray seldom identifies who is talking. And given the preoccupations of the speakers, which happen to be his preoccupations, it’s pretty clear that he orchestrated and intensified what they had to say (much as he would later channel Count Basie in the bandleader’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues). In any case, the results are frequently hilarious. One such speaker gives the back of his hand to the Black Power dream of African repatriation. The Africans, he says, will
take one look at them goddam jive-time Zulu haircuts and them forty-dollar hand-made shoes and they going to lock your American ass up in one of them same old slave-trading jails they put our ancestors in, and they going to have you writing letters back over here to this same old dog-ass white man in the United States of America asking for money. Hey, wait. Hey, listen to this. Ain’t going to let them get no further than the goddam waterfront. They go lock them up with a goddam Sears, Roebuck catalogue. I’m talking about right on the dock, man, and have them making out order blanks to Congress for Cocolas and transistors, and comic books, cowboy boots and white side walls and helicopters and all that stuff.
This is identity politics as black comedy, with some incidental buckshot fired at American-style consumerism. It is also a sly bit of self-mockery, since Murray himself was an avid consumer of fine clothes, fine art, audio equipment, and probably the occasional transistor. And as a boyhood admirer of Tom Mix, he must have longed for the cowboy boots as well. Maybe he should have shared the microphone more often.
Murray’s chronicle of his journey never appeared in Harper’s. Perhaps Willie Morris found it too weird and wandering for his taste. It was one thing, after all, to devote an entire issue of the magazine to the heavy-breathing theatrics of Norman Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex,” quite another to publish Murray’s unclassifiable (and occasionally unreadable) circuit of the South. More to the point, Morris himself was forced out in 1971. The owners argued that revenue was down and blamed the editor’s penchant for long, liberal, supposedly ad-repelling articles. In that climate, it’s no wonder that the raw materials for South to a Very Old Place got spiked.
Murray wrote the book anyway. When South to a Very Old Place was published in 1971, it was nominated for the National Book Award, and reviewed most prominently by a young novelist named Toni Morrison. She praised Murray’s resistance to racial stereotypes and his mixture of “tender familiarity and brutish alienation.” What Morrison didn’t like was his chuckling disdain for “the Afro- part of Afro-Americans”—i.e., his unwillingness to view himself as part of a great diaspora—as well as the short shrift he gave to black nationalism.
Who was right? Murray’s voice is so persuasive that it’s tempting to declare him the victor, but the argument is no simpler now than it was then. In a way, these two formidable intellects were restaging the old quarrel between Booker T. Washington, with his emphasis on stoic self-reliance, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who crusaded relentlessly for equal rights at home and Pan-African solidarity abroad. That Murray would opt for the former position is no surprise—he was a product of Tuskegee, which Washington had founded in 1881. As for Morrison, she was not only a generation younger, but had taught and mentored such firebrands as Stokely Carmichael, who made the phrase “Black Power” part of the popular lexicon. A meeting of the minds was unlikely.