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.
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?