Albert Murray‘s delightful South to a Very Old Place (1971) defies easy categorization. It’s both stream-of-consciousness travelogue and impressionistic snapshot of the New South at the moment the Old South has just started to fade away. Either way, it’s a wide-ranging collection of thoroughly original essays.
If you’re interested in stories about newsmen, the book is a treasure. Murray travels to North Carolina to rap with future Pulitzer winner Edwin Yoder about editor and author Jonathan Daniels. He visits Georgia, where Ralph McGill agitated for desegregation in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution long before it was acceptable. He stops in Mississippi to meet Hodding Carter, another crusading Southern journalist who editorialized for integration at great personal risk.
But South to a Very Old Place is not about journalism personalities. At its core, it’s an intensely personal journal. Murray’s improvisational reminiscence of his college days at Tuskegee flows like a literary jazz solo. It’s easily the book’s most engaging chapter. Another vignette describes the delightful cognitive dissonance he experiences after checking into a formerly segregated hotel in his hometown of Mobile.
The writing is all the more enjoyable because Murray, a black man, unapologetically embraces the subtle multiracial sophistication of his Southern heritage, a down-home cosmopolitanism he rightly views as “incontestably mulatto” rather than irrevocably segregated. That cultural miscegenation is a vital gift to America, and it touches nearly everything — our music, language, law, sports, cuisine and much more.
That aspect of the South too often gets overlooked amid the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, but it’s a deeply humanizing perspective, and we should applaud Murray for sharing it with us.