40 Years of 'The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual'

August 29, 2007

Polemics seldom age well. But when Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual during the fall of 1967, he aimed his verbal artillery in so many directions that it seems as if some of the missiles are still landing four decades later. (At the time of his death in 2005, Cruse was professor emeritus of African-American studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.)

Crisis was certainly a product of its time – a moment when the alliances of the Civil Rights movement were disintegrating fast, and arguments over the direction of African-American politics and culture filled the air. Cruse took the measure of various ideologies and found them wanting. He had no use for what he saw as the illusions of the integrationist agenda. He was a black nationalist, yet quite pointed in criticizing the influence of Marcus Garvey and other pan-Africanists from the Caribbean. It was obvious that Cruse owed a lot to Marxist theory -- but he complained about the blind spots of radicals spreading the gospel of proletarian revolution to the ghetto. At the same time, he was critical of leading figures within the African-American arts.

At just about the time Cruse was finishing work on his manuscript, the call for “Black Power” began to be heard among younger activists. But he kept a distance from that slogan, too: “In effect,” he wrote, “it covers up a defeat without having to explain either the basic reasons for it or the flaws in the original strategy; it suggests the dimensions of a future victory in the attainment of goals while, at the same time, dispelling the fears of more defeats in the pursuit of such goals.”

It was a cantankerous book, then. But there was more to it than that. In arguing with everybody, the author was also, doubtless arguing with himself -- for along the way he must have adopted at least some of the positions under attack in its pages. Rereading The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual not long ago, I came away convinced that is one of the classic works of American cultural criticism. If the author seems cranky at times ... well, so does Thorstein Veblen.

Rather than devoting this column to celebration of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual on its 40th anniversary, however, I thought it would be more interesting to discuss Cruse’s work with a young historian who is by no means uncritical of the book.

Peniel E. Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt) and the editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (Routledge), both published last year. I have not seen the latter volume, but can attest that Midnight Hour deserved being named one of the best books of 2006 by The Washington Post.

Joseph answered some questions by e-mail about Harold Cruse and his legacy. A transcript of the discussion follows.

Q:The title of Cruse's book will sound rather dated to many readers now -- and it probably already did to some readers in 1967, even. Was there anything in Cruse’s background to make him want to insist on “Negro,” rather than some other expression?

A: I think that Cruse's decision to use the term "Negro" in this instance is very purposeful and in some ways ironic. By 1967 many Black Power militants, most notably Stokely Carmichael, were urging African Americans to identify themselves as "black." Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had been key forerunners, in the national sense, of a black consciousness movement that disparaged the term "Negro." Cruse had used the term "Afro-American" in a 1962 essay published in Studies on the Left that achieved a cult following among a certain segment of young black radicals.

But Cruse was also a highly idiosyncratic thinker and former activist who came of age during the Great Depression--World War II era. Transplanted to New York from Virginia, Cruse encountered a Harlem that, although past the prime of the New Negro heyday of the 1920s, featured street speakers keeping the embers of Garveyism alive. Local nationalists, from Carlos Cooks to Lewis Michaux, characterized African Americans as "black" or "Afro-American." Cruse did not take the explicitly nationalist route however, preferring to join the Communist Party around 1946. Yet he retained a race pride that left him unable to completely repudiate the cultural and racial consciousness of black nationalism and pan-Africanism.

The Cold War impacts Cruse, as it did others, in indelible ways. By the early 1950s Cruse had abandoned the Communist Party and Harlem for both political and professional reasons. Politically, he felt the party promised more than it could deliver for African Americans and played favorites, lionizing figures such as Paul Robeson while failing to nurture younger, lesser know types such as himself. Professionally, ties to the CP were becoming more of an albatross than an asset. Cruse, like the young Ralph Ellison, held a driving ambition to make it as a writer at all costs.

So between 1953 and 1967, Cruse is an itinerant writer, cultural and social critic, and a sort of political vagabond living in cheap flats in New York City's Lower East Side. He encounters figures such as the precocious LeRoi Jones with a mixture of bemusement and bitterness. Cruse also held enormous resentment against some of Harlem's leading black political and cultural figures. The list is too long to properly detail, but a few names should be mentioned: Lorraine Hansberry, Robeson, John Oliver Killins and members of the Harlem Writers Guild. This is as much about professional aspirations as it is about politics since, before The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual's publication, all of these figures managed to carve out better careers than Cruse.

By the early 1960s however, Cruse seemed reinvigorated enough to travel to Cuba (alongside of Robert Williams and Le Roi Jones--two figures criticized in Crisis); participate in the New York chapter of the Freedom Now Party; write several essays for small left-wing publications; and serve as a writer for the influential nationalist magazine, Liberator. In retrospect, it's unclear whether Cruse was really inspired to recommit himself to the kind of political organizing he had participated in as a young man, looking for fodder for his writing, or simply curious about the development of a new generation of activists and eager to lend his own unique insights. By the time Crisis was published, Cruse was 51 and seems to have undertaken one last political shift that found him more open to a rather conservative brand of black nationalism and unwilling to engage in the type of internationalism that characterized the essays he wrote in the early 1960s.

Thus, the term "Negro" in the book's title amounts to a pointed rejection of a style of "blackness" that Cruse castigated as being voguish, inadequate, and naïve. Scores of white critics, perhaps most notably Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books, would whole heartedly agree, and Cruse would be lionized as a breath of fresh air and a new intellectual star. In middle age, he became an overnight sensation.

Q:Cruse is very strongly critical of the integrationist impulse among black intellectuals. But he's also dubious about pan-Africanism, which he treats as a bad idea from the Caribbean. If you had to characterize the positive content of his thinking, would that be possible? Or is his book strictly a polemic?

A: One of the most fruitful aspects of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual resides in the fact that Cruse took black intellectuals and cultural workers and activists seriously. For him, they comprised the vanguard of efforts to transform America's democratic culture. This is especially significant since the activities and achievements of black intellectuals remains contested terrain in a society that devalues and denigrates black intellectual capacity. Cruse took the idea of black brilliance in the world of arts, letters, and politics as a give-in and attempted to chronicle why, for all of their intellectual and artistic gifts, black (at least according to him) were in worse shape in the late 1960s than they had been during the Great Depression and Second World War.

Since Cruse was very much a product of the internationalism of the post war year, it is significant that Crisis attempts to document and analyze the shift from the "Double V" heyday of the war years to the civil rights-Black Power era. Now much of this analysis is marred by polemics and ad hominem attacks, but Cruse understood that a shift had occurred and attempted to grapple substantively, if ultimately unconvincingly, with it. Cruse also grappled, although at times in a highly idiosyncratic manner, with ideas of black nationalism and integration, self-defense and non-violence, that contoured the civil rights era's heroic period. But for every nugget of insight found, it is imperative to remember that Cruse had some sort of personal and professional relationship or interaction with many of the historical and literary figures covered in the book, a fact that he steadfastly fails to divulge.

Q:What sort of influence did the book have in early days of black studies programs?

A:The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was published in the fall of 1967. Contemporary publications by notable black figures of the time included Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's Black Power and Martin Luther King's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Cruse's book was published with an impact of an unexpected blockbuster, receiving generous reviews in The New York Times and, perhaps most notably, Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books.

The irony is that both black and white critics mistook the book for an intellectual history, rather than a sweeping polemic that drew from history and personal experiences in a highly personal and subjective manner. White critics in influential periodicals hailed Crisis as a riveting manifesto that rightfully criticized contemporary Black Power nationalists for a "more militant than thou" attitude that the mainstream quickly found alienating. Black militants, especially cultural nationalists, were impressed by Cruse's forensic critique of interracial organizing (especially the influence of white Marxists on black activism) and drawn to his suggestion that culture would prove key to any successful black revolt.

For Cruse, who was well into middle-age at the time of its publication, the book proved to be a most intoxicating victory. Made more so because he achieved a measure of the long-sought fame and success as a writer that he had always craved, in a treatise that not only settled scores against luminaries like Lorraine Hansberry and Paul Robeson, but established him as a social, political, and cultural critic par excellence (one well received by both blacks and whites, for different reasons). A professorship at Michigan soon followed and he received tenure by the late 1970s.

Cruse' impact on Black Studies was enormous in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was intensely sought out as a university speaker, mentor, and sage by a generation of young militants trying to make their way through the complex and murky haze of the recent past. For Black Studies programs the weightiness, both literally and figuratively, of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual could be used to justify the substantive importance, even existence in some instance, of rich, vibrant, and complex black intellectual production and scholarly achievement. Indeed, the tome's sheer heft, made it required reading for tens of thousands of students during this era who read it alongside of such classic texts as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.

Q:We seem to have "anniversary fever" nowadays -- always measuring our distance from important moments some decades ago. The upheavals of 1968 will be revisited again shortly. (The '68 industry is quite well-capitalized.) But if 1967 was the year of Black Power, you'd never know that now. Why is that? Or are the commemorations just not getting publicized?

A: Black Power remains a period in postwar American history that the mainstream, with some glaring exceptions, would rather forget. 1967 is instructive on this score. That year is scarcely as well remembered as 1968, with its famous political assassinations, May Day revolts, and Tet Offensive, but perhaps is just as important. Urban rebellions in Newark and Detroit during the summer rattled the nation's and president Lyndon Johnson's composure. Black militants in Newark, most notably LeRoi Jones, used Newark's violence as a catalyst to assume political power over the city by 1970.
It's important to remember that racial violence in American cities was spoken of, at least at the time, as the product of institutional racism, and not just by radicals, but by voices of liberalism such as The New York Times. 1967 is also worth remembering for Martin Luther King's public denouncement of the Vietnam War on April 4 at New York's Riverside church, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis.

Before the King speech it was Stokely Carmichael and SNCC who represented America's most visible anti-war activists. The idea that he was following Carmichael's lead annoyed King, since he had come out (and subsequently stayed silent) against the war as early as 1965, but militants could not help but point out the sequence of events. Stokely Carmichael's political activities during 1967 are nothing short of remarkable. January found him defending legendary Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell and consorting with Black Power militants in the Bay Area. In April he headlined a huge anti-war rally in New York that featured Dr. Benjamin Spock and Martin Luther King. By May he had stepped down as SNCC chairman and vowed to return to grassroots organizing to take over Washington, D.C.

But it was his activities outside of the country that shook America to it core that year. Between July 15 and December 11, Carmichael toured the world, stopping in London, Cuba, China, Vietnam, and various parts of Africa and Europe where he forecast guerrilla struggles on the streets of America in the service of black liberation. Eldridge Cleaver famously remarked that 1968 was the "Year of the Panther," but the organization made important strides in 1967. The BPP's May 2 "invasion" of California's state capitol in Sacramento garnered the group national headlines, which was followed by an electrifying profile in the August New York Times Magazine. Huey P. Newton's arrest for murdering a Oakland police officer in October would ignite a "Free Huey" movement that would draw together disparate activists and organizations and help enshrine the group as legend.

Much of these historical events are seen as too complex, messy, and even threatening to explain, recall, or commemorate in the mainstream. What's so very extraordinary is that Cruse's work was published amidst all of these roiling events and at a time when universities were being pressured to except large numbers of non-traditional and African American college students. Hundreds of Black Student Unions, coupled with the advent of Black Studies, made the intellectual exploration of black life a vital and necessary aspect of black activism.

Of course, at the grassroots level, many activists and long-marchers from this era are well aware of the significance of these anniversaries and are passing the significance of these events to younger generations.

Q:How well has Crisis aged, in your opinion? Is its interest now mainly historical? Is it still a live influence?

A: Contemporary African American history has achieved a level of sophistication in the past four decades that is extraordinarily impressive. A new generation of scholars are actively rewriting postwar African American history. New narratives are historically contextualizing the period which Cruse analyzes and uncovering a far more complicated, less Manichaen, black political, social, and cultural spheres than Cruse imagined. New histories of Black Power, what I call "Black Power Studies," are revising standard conceptions of the era and adding texture and nuance to Cruse's overly facile portrait of black radicalism.

The Black Power Movement's relationship with civil rights comprised more than rancorous debates between black nationalists and integrationists and goes beyond confrontations between advocates of self-defense and nonviolence. Cruse's own political evolution, one that he was unable to document in an objective sense, bears witness to the interaction between militants and moderates, intellectuals and activists, and civil rights and Black Power in a way that Cruse in unable to acknowledge.

In this sense, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is very much a product of a specific historical time, one whose age, biases, and limitations become more readily apparent as time goes by. That being said, Cruse deserves kudos for tackling such a big, ambitious subject with verve, moxie, and boldness in ways that still seem unprecedented. In many ways Cruse's tome will consistently serve as a right of passage for generations of aspiring scholars and activists seeking to make sense of the evolutions, debates, and conflicts within African American social, political, and intellectual circles between the Great Depression and Black Power eras.

Q:Well, I’m reluctant to go along with any scenario in which Cruse is just an important but misguided ancestor. Maybe the historians have surpassed him, but the cultural critics haven't, necessarily.I’m thinking of an academic conference on hip-hop a few years ago that was struck me as incredibly underwhelming at the level of analysis and argument. (It was the Authenticity Olympics, pretty much.) The qualities that make Crisis so readable after all this time -- the critical edge, the skepticism, the sense of cultural history as something to fight about rather than just to celebrate – were not much in evidence. If Cruse had been there, he would’ve cleaned everybody's clock.

A: Cruse's skepticism is to be applauded in certain instances, but it's also important to remember the many biases (for instance the book's anti-Caribbean tone) that haunt the book. There are also historical inaccuracies since Cruse, although a great appreciator of history, was not a historian. Crisis represents not so much a history than an impassioned, first hand account of the postwar era through an analysis of many events, meetings, conferences, etc. that the author participated in.

Certainly contemporary cultural critics should take note of Cruse's boldness, if not his belligerence. By 1967 it seemed that Cruse took a little too much relish in excoriating even attempts at political organizing. More eager to tell people why they were in error than to see the merit in constructive political engagement. This was a long way from the young activist who joined the CP or even the middle aged wander who visited Cuba in 1960 and was active in the Freedom Now Party in the early 1960s. Part of this may stem from political burnout, a breaking point that Ralph Ellison had reached by the 1940s.

By the late 1960s Cruse was content to serve as a sort of angry sage, telling younger folks what they were doing wrong while his contemporaries shook their heads in shock and disbelief at his newfound stature.

Its worth noting however, that none of them who could do so (figures like Julian Mayfield and John Oliver Killins and John Henrik Clarke) responded to Cruse with their own book-length manifesto (Mayfield did criticize the book in a review in the pages of Negro Digest). So a lot of this is based on how seriously do we take African American history. If we do, than we must take note of the way in which Cruse sees the period through odd, sharp angles that cut out whole swaths of history that a contemporary generation are uncovering and putting together in a more holistic manner.

In many ways Cruse was praised for his biting wit, caustic style, and ad hominem attacks than substantive historical analysis. There remains much to admire about Crisis, most notably its scope and ambition, but we must be vigilant about overreach. Christopher Lasch called the book a "monument of historical analysis," which is precisely in fact what it wasn't.

Q:The most recent edition of Crisis comes with an introduction by Stanley Crouch, who also wrote the foreword to The Essential Harold Cruse . Crouch definitely has a profile as polemicist (he’s someone the left loves to hate, and he revels in that) and his insistence on using the word “Negro” is contrarian enough. But in other ways it seems like an odd match. What do you make of the emergence of Crouch as one of Cruse’s more visible advocates?

A: Cruse, for many contemporary black intellectuals, represents the ultimate iconoclast, and thus he attracts admirers across ideological lines. In this way Cruse's willingness to cut across the grain of accepted discourse within black intellectual circles is, in some instances, similar to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Since Cruse distanced himself from his earlier political radicalism, which covers at least two decades of his professional career, his corpus of well known works emphasize the kind of critique of black militancy that conservatives of all stripes find refreshing.

Q:Really? It's hard to imagine that many white conservatives would read Crisis and think, "Hell yeah!" Its framework is still quite Marxist, in a lot of ways. On the other hand, your comment about Cruse’s similarity to Ellison and Murray does seem very on-target – and Ellison, at least, does have some admirers on the right. (Meanwhile, Albert Murray remains criminally neglected by almost everybody.) Would you say something more about the sense in which Cruse can be called a conservative?

A: Cruse would not conform to contemporary standards of black conservatism. He was very much appealing for blacks to wield control over what he called America's cultural apparatus. His strategy for doing so however, remain frustratingly murky. Cruse rejected a facile black nationalism that he viewed as naive and insular, but at the same time promoted a robust version of black self-determination, especially over indigenous cultural political expressions.

The appeal to conservative could be found in the Crisis' criticism of black protest traditions (whether in the form of Lorraine Hansberry's writing, Paul Robeson's activism, or Robert F. Williams' militancy) as largely symbolic. Cruse was equally as harsh with contemporary Black Power militants. Cruse's discussion of the demise of the Amiri Baraka founded Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) is especially instructive here. "The only real politics for the creative intellectual," he writes, "should be the politics of culture." He subsequently separates black intellectual work from social protests waged by civil rights activist and black nationalists.

This notion that black culture can be separated, or even should be, from bruising organic street protests is something that contemporary black conservatives would find tremendously appealing. It echoes elements of Bayard Rustin's famous notion that the movement had progressed from "protest to politics."

The relative absence of the black movement's international dimension is also important here. Surprising since Cruse was so well traveled and well read and had written incisive essays about the impact, for instance, of Cuba and African decolonization on the black movement in America. The surprisingly parochial view of racial dissent in America encourages the view that black freedom struggles are uniquely American and have no connections to global movements for decolonization and social justice and human rights. The final paragraph of Crisis argues that black Americans need to learn their historic roots in the U.S. more profoundly, which suggests Cruse's apparent fatigue with pan-Africanist and internationalist traditions that had in fact, along with Marxism, shaped his intellectual trajectory and political career.

In short Cruse's strident criticism of black nationalism, excoriation of a younger generation of militants, skepticism regarding the Cuban revolution, and insistence that African Americans' political, social, and cultural destiny was distinct from other parts of the diaspora (most notably descendants from the Caribbean) makes Crisis appealing to conservatives who have no use for, and would be offended by, the Marxist influences.

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