Summer Readings & Screenings

‘Crisis of the Negro Intellectual’ & ‘Losing Ground’
Duane Jones and Seret Scott in ‘Losing Ground’ (Courtesy Milestone Films)

In this second installment of our summer series, we’re thinking about race in America with the help of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and the film Losing Ground, written and directed by Kathleen Collins.

Catch up on our first installment on Italian fascism here, and check back again in two weeks when we’ll discuss Havoc by Tom Kristensen and My Night at Maud’s by Eric Rohmer.

 

Griffin,

In a recent essay for n+1, Nicholas Dames talks about reading history typologically—that is to say, seeing past events as pointing toward and being fulfilled by future events. As he writes, typology “invites us to see the past as offering an essence to be tapped, not a comparison to be parsed. It tells us: what happened in the past is.” It’s not just that 2020, with its protests against police violence and state-sanctioned racism, resembles 1968. In a way, 2020 is 1968.

What better book to read right now than Harold Cruse’s 1967 The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Appropriate for our own bleak time, the book offers a catalog of failures: how black intellectuals failed to see that social revolution comes about not only through civil rights but also through black political, economic, and cultural self-sufficiency; how the Left failed to see black America as the real locus of revolutionary potential; how American society failed in its vision of equality and justice for all. Cruse, a social critic and would-be playwright, sniffs out cant in liberals and conservatives, integrationists and nationalists, offering a thoroughly dyspeptic account of American history. (It’s appropriate that the ever-crabby Stanley Crouch writes the introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue.)

Moving between politics, art, the labor movement, mass media, and much else, Cruse returns to three key claims. First, “American Negro history is basically a history of the conflict between integrationist and nationalist forces”: Booker T. Washington vs. Martin Delany, Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X. Second, America isn’t a melting pot but “a nation of nations,” an ethnically pluralistic society in which individual rights are “backed up by the political, economic and social power of one group or another.” Third, any real movement toward black equality must integrate cultural, political, and economic revolution.

With stylistic brio and rhetorical force, Cruse asks and answers a series of questions. Should black Americans focus on integration or autonomy? Autonomy, Cruse argues, in the form of all-black business cooperatives and tenant cooperatives, since “the structure of American society...permits whatever amount of token integration is necessary either to let off steam as it were, or to satisfy the gradualists.” How should black intellectuals—poets, playwrights, novelists, critics—contribute to social revolution? By calling out the structural bases of white supremacy, including predatory lending practices and white ownership of property in majority black neighborhoods, and by forming their own robust networks of cultural production and distribution. What is the role of the “cultural apparatus” in the movement toward racial justice? Essential, Cruse asserts: black theaters must be supported by the black middle class, and the American music industry must be remade root and branch. (Recent pushes for changes in the board membership of the National Book Critics Circle and Poetry magazine show that the Black Lives Matter movement agrees with Cruse’s analysis.)

Cruse poses other kinds of questions, too. Does the future of the Left lie in mobilizing the working class, or in identity politics? Is America a country of individuals or “a nation dominated by the social power of groups, classes, in-groups and cliques”? As Cruse puts it, “Where is the ‘real’ America to be found?” His answer resembles the one offered by Albert Murray in The Omni-americans and by Ralph Ellison in all of his writing. If you’re looking for American music, listen to jazz and the blues. If you’re looking for American freedom, consider the black struggle. The most American of Americans are black Americans. 

Cruse addresses these questions in twenty-eight intelligent and maddening essays, some granular (the summer 1963 issue of Freedomways, a journal of black politics, gets three essays of its own), many expansive. The introduction to the NYRB Classics edition actually begins with a quotation from a 1968 Commonweal review, in which critic Arthur Tobier sums up Cruse’s achievement:

In this book—at times brilliant, sometimes shrill, but seldom unimportant—we are in the presence of a man freeing himself from the abstractions that have attempted to shape him into an abstraction: a man who wants not only to know who he is but who is acting to extend that knowledge existentially, and who insists on establishing his own field of vision.

Harold Cruse is a polemicist’s polemicist, and The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual doesn’t stint on spleen. “Crisis” derives from the Greek krinein, to judge or decide, and boy does Cruse enjoy judging and deciding (against). Lorraine Hansberry “always tried to say important things, and she also took herself very seriously. The pity of it all was that she took herself too seriously, in light of what relatively little she had to say.” Paul Robeson was “a unique leader who forthwith negated his own uniqueness.” James Baldwin was a “rather innocent and provincial intellectual” who “wants to avoid dealing with the facts of Harlem as they exist.” Cruse would thrive in our current moment of takes: “Even at this advanced stage in Negro history, the Negro intellectual is a retarded child whose thinking processes are still geared to piddling intellectual civil writism and racial integrationism.” Send tweet. 

Griffin, what did you think of Cruse’s pessimistic reading of American history? Do you buy his vision of America as “a nation of nations,” one society composed of competing communities? (This claim leads to unsettling and essentializing statements about “the Jew” and “the West Indian” throughout.) Finally, how does The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual resonate with our film, Kathleen Collins’s 1982 Losing Ground—a movie directed and written by a black intellectual that centers on the life of a black intellectual?

*

Tony,

Moving from Cruse to Collins is like opening a window or leaving the overheated city for the breeze-filled country.

I agree, there’s no writer more suited to our contested time than Cruse—though I suspect that what makes Cruse such necessary reading today is also what might dissuade readers from actually doing so. To say that his book offers few “easy answers” to the hard questions Cruse raises (about racial justice in America, art and politics, history and economics, the role of the intellectual) isn’t simply an understatement; in many ways, it’s beside the point. Cruse often seems more interested in intellectual score-settling via exhaustive negative critique than he is in writing positively and concretely about the kinds of ideas, works of art, and thinkers he actually likes. I know he despises the Left and Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. But what does the self-determining black culture he posits as the necessary revolutionary hinge for the regeneration of America (not just black, but all America) actually look like?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual—all 565, heavily footnoted pages of it. You asked about Cruse’s pessimistic view of American history, to which I’d respond: Does he really have one? Sure, he makes glancing references to the Revolution, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. But what really interests him is one place, at one time: Harlem in the 1920s. Cruse grew up there, then spent decades agitating in its various radical, political, and artistic groups, so in part his fascination with the place is understandable. But for him Harlem isn’t simply a place; like Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible, Harlem (Dames might say) is also a typology, a microcosm of black life in America. It’s both the symbol of the black community’s highest economic, cultural, and political achievements (in the 1920s), and the harbinger of its crashing demise following the civil-rights era (in the late 1960s). “As goes Harlem, so too the rest of black America,” Cruse keeps reminding us.

And by 1967, Cruse notes, things had gone very badly: “Harlem, once called the cultural capital of the Negro in America, has become, if not the most economically depressed and retarded of all Northern black enclaves, the most politically backward and the most racially irresponsible.” That tweetable barb comes at page 316, near the center of the book. Cruse’s analysis is sharp (note how he very deliberately links cultural irrelevance with political and economic stunting), but it only goes downhill from there. Once his idea of a luminous, flourishing Harlem is snuffed out, his argument never recovers, lapsing instead into critical dead-ends and, as you grimly note, outright racist and anti-semitic polemics.

What a relief, then, to discover Kathleen Collins’s film Losing Ground (1982), released posthumously in 2015 and made available for free by the Criterion Channel after the killing of George Floyd. You’re right: Collins was every bit a black intellectual. In addition to being a civil-rights activist and one of the first black women to direct a feature film, she held a PhD in French; wrote poems, plays, and short stories; and taught as a professor at City College in New York before dying of breast cancer at age 46. Equally a black intellectual is her film’s protagonist, the biblically named and spiritually curious Sara (Seret Scott), a young philosophy professor in New York. Sara is brilliant, beautiful, and thoroughly middle class ( “integrated,” Cruse would say); she nevertheless complains about feeling unfulfilled. In part, that’s because she’s eclipsed by her husband, a successful bohemian painter named Victor. (“Why does everyone always ask me about the husband thing?” Sara complains.) But it’s also because her ever-churning mind (“I just think, and think, and think,” she tells her mother) won’t allow her to experience what everyone around her seems to be able to enjoy: “ecstasy,” the release from self into union with something larger.

The film’s plot is simple. After the semester ends and Victor sells a painting to a major museum, the pair retreat to a large stone house in lush, upstate Hudson Valley. Victor is there to paint from nature (up till then he’d focused on abstraction—“color, space, form”), while Sara begins to put together a paper on ecstasy. As the title Losing Ground implies, their marriage is on edge, a taut situation that Collins brilliantly metaphorizes in a dinner scene involving a very long table and a lot of slow, back-and-forth horizontal panning. As Victor turns his attention to a new muse (Celia, a Puerto Rican who likes to dance), Sara upsets him by going back to New York to star with an elegant man named Duke in one of her students’ experimental films: a modern, black take on the Frankie and Johnny love-triangle myth.

In many ways, Losing Ground is a film about filmmaking, and the ecstatic possibilities it affords black intellectuals. If Cruse is apophatic, gradually sketching his concept of the black intellectual by telling us what they are not, Collins is cataphatic, reveling effusively (like Victor’s paintings) in the pleasures of the aesthetic—“color, space, and form,” but also sound and motion. It’s not that Sara’s blackness doesn’t matter, or that it’s uncontested; there are plenty of conversations about race relations in the film (especially about black-Latino relations, which Cruse hardly touches). It’s that Sara is also a complex person, a woman on a journey of self-discovery who asks questions about more than race alone.

Sara’s most pressing questions are, if not explicitly religious, at least decidedly spiritual. That’s partly a reflection of her creator. Surveying Collins’s career in a recent piece for the New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham argues that Collins is above all “an artist and an interpreter of the striated psyche,” with an abiding interest in how human beings reveal the glory of God by becoming fully alive. I think that’s apt, and that’s what I take from Losing Ground, whose title, interpreted another way, implies a mystical ascent. (“When I was a child, I would dream about going up and up, into the sky,” Sara reminisces.) As she climbs into the sky, Collins hardly forgets about Harlem; she just films it in another way. Toward the end of the film, we see 125th Street and central Harlem in the background as Sara dances high up on a patio at City College. The implication is clear: Harlem can, as Cruse had hoped, become a new black Jerusalem. But only after its intellectuals are free to dance.

Tony, have I been unfair to Cruse? And what did you think of Losing Ground? How is Collins’s idea of the black intellectual different from Cruse’s?

*

Griffin,

Now is a time of political and social critique, when the blandishments of American discourse are being stripped away.

After his first visit to the imaginary town of Riverview in the Hudson Valley, Victor moonily declares to Sara, “I feel a little light-headed, like I’ve been walking around in a dream.” That’s kind of what it’s like to watch Losing Ground after reading The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. The darkness of Cruse’s mind gives way to the color of Collins’s filmic vision: the lush greens of Riverview, the orange stained-glass windows of Sara’s university office, the vibrant purples of her many dresses. Cramped critique—here’s why Robeson was wrong, here’s why the Communists were wrong, and here’s why everyone but me was wrong—becomes graceful dancing, both in the movie-within-a-movie (Sara and Duke’s choreographed boogie) and in Victor’s seduction-by-salsa of Celia. Moving from Cruse to Collins is like opening a window or leaving the overheated city for the breeze-filled country—or, as you suggest, like moving from apophatic negation to cataphatic exultation.

Despite all the marital infidelity and frustrated intellectualizing, did you notice how much laughter there was in Losing Ground? Victor laughs over wine with his artistic mentor, Carlos. Sara laughs after imagining saying “Ain’t that a blip?” to her white colleagues at a faculty meeting, and giggles with her mother about the comedy of sex. (Sara remembers when, as a child, she overheard her mother saying “Take it out” to her boyfriend. “And I said, ‘What in the world could she want him to take out? Was it his stamp collection? The garbage?’”) In Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, a recently published collection of Collins’s writings, we’re told that Collins described Losing Ground as “a comedy drama about a young woman who takes herself too seriously.” And the film is, among other things, a comedy. You’re right that the title suggests mystical ascent. It also suggests a bookish woman slipping on a banana peel. Sometimes the route to the divine is through the slapstick.

In the paper she’s working on, Sara describes the divine as “energy, amorphous energy.” Art works by giving shape to this amorphous energy, holding ecstasy in quivering tension with formal constraint. Losing Ground is filled with energy: there’s laughter, there’s music, there’s dance, there’s the patter of everyday speech. (As Duke says at one point, “The rhythm of speech...defines the truth more deeply than the words we attempt to say.”)

But this energy is given form by Collins’s superb camerawork. She often frames her shots in a painterly fashion. In the shooting script, Collins describes Sara in one scene as having “the slight medieval air of a Negro nun in a cloister,” and the shot does in fact resemble a Piero della Francesca. Riverview becomes dream-like because of how Collins frames it. The camera effortlessly follows Victor’s perspective: we see what he sees (beautiful women, open balconies) and hear what he hears (women gossiping and catcalling him in Spanish). The ecstasy Victor feels is tied up with the aesthetic—his sense that the town is, as he says, “like a painting.” And the ecstasy the viewer feels comes about because of Collins’s aesthetic decisions, because she has grounded that “amorphous energy” in something shapely and disciplined. For Collins and for Sara, as you suggest, the aesthetic leads to the ecstatic.

I mentioned Albert Murray’s The Omni-americans earlier. Here’s one of my favorite sentences from a book full of great sentences: “Art is by definition a process of stylization; and what it stylizes is experience.” Everything is stylized in Losing Ground, from the color scheme to the framing to the way Victor, with his lean, ropey frame, slinks and dances and drinks and laughs. In interviews, Collins expressed frustration with being labeled a “black female filmmaker.” Not that she wasn’t those things. Of course she was, and of course each of those three terms informs Losing Ground, from the language (“Ain’t that blip?”) to the camerawork (women are often framed within the male gaze) to the content (the film concludes with the film-within-a-film). But Collins resented the cramped understanding of what a “black film” could be about. Why couldn’t it feature artists arguing about abstraction, a professor lecturing on Sartre, and time spent in a country house? That’s all part of black experience, and it’s Collins’s genius that she found a style appropriate to it.

Now is a time of political and social critique, when the blandishments of American discourse are being stripped away. That is good and necessary. But it’s nice to be reminded that critique isn’t everything, that something—laughter, color, dance, life—lies on the other side of apophaticism. I’m glad we read The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. I’m thrilled we watched Losing Ground.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

Also by this author
Summer Readings & Screenings

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections