By Gary McFarlane
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Tough Questions

This article is over 16 years, 1 months old
Review of 'The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual', Harold Cruse, Granta £9.99
Issue 302

Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the writings of Richard Wright and James Baldwin – all were essential reading for well-versed political activists in the 1960s, both black and white. But there is one title that was also a part of the canon but today is little read or cited – the work of Harold Cruse and his book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, first published in 1967, just as the civil rights movement was morphing into the Black Power movement.

One reason for the virtual disappearance of the book from public discourse was its perceived difficulty – not entirely the responsibility of the author, for its style is certainly engaging. Instead the difficulty springs from the nature of the subject under consideration – chiefly how to reconcile the two contradictory, and at the same time overlapping, concepts that were in constant play both in the minds of the ‘Negro intellectual’ and in the actions of black people themselves – separatism and assimilation, black nationalism and integration.

But there is another reason for the book’s low profile since those days of struggle and hope – namely, the apparent disappearance of both. As Cruse made clear, the object of his tome was to clear out the cobwebs, as he saw it, befuddling the minds of black artists and political activists. He sought to develop a specifically African-American explanation of, and solution to, the problem of systemic racism.

Unfortunately for Cruse, in describing and explaining this experience, he is forced to subject all of the ‘heroes’ of the black liberation movement to the most withering of criticism. No one is spared, from Marcus Garvey to Paul Robeson. This attitude was born of Cruse’s grounding in the Marxist tradition as espoused by the Stalinist US Communist Party. In fact much of the book can only be fully appreciated if one is aware of his split from the party in 1940, ostensibly over its cultural work in the black community and the warped strictures of ‘socialist realism’ (Cruse was a film and theatre critic on the CP’s Daily Worker). So he attacked the integrationists for their uncritical stance towards the capitalist nature of the society whose mainstream they wished to join. With the nationalists he latched onto the other-worldliness of their ideas, which failed to address the American-centric problem of black people, through Garvey and his ‘West Indian/British’ mindset or Malcolm X with his Muslim and nascent Third Worldist perspective.

The major failing of the book is Cruse’s inability, despite his lucid attacks on others, to offer a clear line of march for the struggle. At best his ideas can be summed up in the search for a middle way between the black nationalists and the integrationists. He became increasingly hostile to Marxism, seeing it as encroaching on the ‘autonomy’ of the black culture and struggle – and, quite rightly, he vehemently attacked the slavish loyalty of American CP leaders to all things Russian.

For Cruse the ‘black intellectual’ was stuck in a schizophrenic world: ‘The Negro intellectual must deal intimately with the white power structure and cultural apparatus, and the inner realities of the black world, at one and the same time. But in order to function successfully in this role, he has to be acutely aware of the nature of the American political dynamic and how it monitors the ingredients of class stratification in American society.’

And this is about as near as he gets to a strategy for the black activist, which he subsumes in the term ‘intellectual’. Indeed the statement can be seen as autobiographical because Crisis brought Cruse to the attention of white academia, and he became one of the first beneficiaries of the Black Studies programmes that were about to be introduced to some university campuses.

Dr Harold Cruse died this year after a long career, which ended as a professor at the University of Michigan. When asked , in an interview for the Michigan Citizen newspaper, ‘Are we going to make it?’ Cruse replied, ‘It’s doubtful. But then if you look at the numbers, we shouldn’t have survived slavery.’

Cruse displayed a critical mind, always willing to tackle the tough questions. This explained the respect, if not agreement, Crisis and its author enjoyed. And underneath his apparent antagonism to the ideas and works of most black leaders, from the pre civil war Booker T Washington to Martin Luther King, he nevertheless drew comfort from the abiding ability of black people, if not their intellectuals, to struggle and survive.

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