The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 We all do strange things with our voices when we find them. Cruse uses his to dissent.

There are moments when he loses control of his voice and it records only what he so capably exposes elsewhere–the closed-off world of leftwing ideological and political onanism.



The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

A Historical Analysis of the Failure of the Black Leadership

By Harold Cruse

Reviewed by Arthur Tobier


“You are saved,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The Negro,” came Benito Cereno’s reply.

The two words resonate here still, in this country of the mind, as Emerson called it. 

Harold Cruse’s first book will not assuage the pain or the astonishment. We’ve learned too little from history for that. But what the book should at the least for many, even the most reluctant, is to suggest the passionate wish of individual and nation to be, and immutably connected with this, the passionate sense of failure. And at the most, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual  might fix into our sensibility how complicated it is to create a self of substance.

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. It is, in part, a book about the crises of the intellectual community whatever its shading. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies,” Ellison’s Invisible Man ends, “I speak for you.” Cruse doesn’t presume to be Ellison’s narrator, but obviously, just as Ellison’s novel ten years ago prefigured the riots of Watts and Detroit and Newark, it prefigured the coming of Harold Cruse.

Born in Virginia, he came of age in Manhattan. he writes about Negro artists, and Harlem in the 1920’s, and in all the decades since (for 40 years unable to extend itself intellectually); about the “cultural compulsives” of Jewish and Protestant intellectuals; about chauvinistic West Indians, and the Communist Party; about social realism, integrationism, nationalism, separatism, black powerism; about the images of the mass media; about the theater of illusions and the illusions of economic change and political reform; and the intrusions of the politics of culture on the imagination of creative intellectuals. Layer upon layer of disciplined abstraction into which Harold Cruse and others were folded and left to muddle through to their own voice.

We all do strange things with our voices when we find them. Cruse uses his to dissent. There are moments when he loses control of his voice and it records only what he so capably exposes elsewhere–the closed-off world of leftwing ideological and political onanism. And then his voice sounds like this: “The special function of the Negro intellectual is a cultural one. He should take to the rostrum and assail the stultifying blight of the commercially depraved white middle-class who has poisoned the structural roots of the American people into a nation of intellectual dolts. he should explain the economic and institutional causes of this American cultural depravity. He should tell black America how and why Negroes are trapped in this cultural degeneracy, and how it has dehumanized their essential identity, squeezed the lifeblood of their inherited cultural ingredients out of them, and then relegated them to cultural slums.”

But when he permits himself to listen to his own mind, for undertones and further meanings, he writes: “It is perfectly understandable why many new Afro-American Nationalists in the cities of the North must experience a separatist mood of withdrawal from any or all contacts with the white world. The historical character of black and white social relations in America makes such a mood a prerequisite for positive reexamination and reevaluation of the black personality. For groups as well as individuals it is often necessary to retreat.”

Cruse criticizes both current integrationist and separatist philosophies. Integrationism, he insists, is still only integration, “and the dynamics of  integration are its social aims. the integrationist philosophy sees Negro ghettos as products of racial segregation that should not even exist. Hence nothing in the traditions of ghettos is worth preserving even when ghettos do exist in actuality.” Black power he sees as self-defeating from the other end and he perceives its being reduced to a game of dozens: “I’m blacker than you, and so is my mama, so I’m purer than you and your mama. therefore I am also more nationalistic than you, and more politically trustworthy than you and your mama, in the interests of Black Power.” But most important of all, I think, for the audience Cruse is addressing are his insights into the connections between Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B. DuBois, whom he calls the Big Three, and how their work has been misconstrued.

Cruse convinces with his intelligence and strength of mind in each of the 28 essays that make up the book. But he might have done well to make more than just this one book out of his material. It isn’t meant to detract from its achievement to say that The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is not well edited. The book knows a great deal about what is happening now in Harlem (and perhaps by extension in Watts and Detroit and Newark and Chicago). But it wanders, it repeats, it moves from detached observation to polemic and back, it compels, insists, and overstates, often without support. This is particularly noticeable in Cruse’s discussion of economics.

And I disagree with Cruse’s argument that the only original element in American culture is Negro music. Language and humor from all sections of the country, as Constance Rourke’s work has shown, have helped shape American character at least as much as jazz. To insist on the primacy of any one aesthetic is to be held down by an act of will. but I would prefer to guess that Cruse knows this. His central concern says he does. The theme that weaves its way throughout the book is the attention that must be paid the plural experience in America. 

For the author, the key to extending the society and each of us, is to establish cultural democracy. He finds it absent outside the intellectual community. To democratize the cultural apparatus [and Cruse feels it cannot be accomplished without serious and creative effort by Negro intellectuals now in their twenties and thirties] is tantamount to revolutionizing American society into realizing its professed ideals. Either we find all groups speak for themselves and for the nation, or American nationality will never be determined.” Revolution? Seems to me that’s where we came in. What Cruse is saying is that the revolution is to discover America.

Arthur Tobier was on the staff of the Center for Urban Education in New York.

Source: Commonweal (1968)

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Harold Wright Cruse (1916 – 2005) was an American academic who was an outspoken social critic and teacher of African-American studies at the University of Michigan until the mid-1980s. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) is his best-known book.

Harold Cruse was born March 8, 1916, in Petersburg, Virginia. His father was a railway porter. After his parents divorced, Cruse moved to New York City, N.Y.. Cruse became interested in the arts as a young man, thanks in large measure to his close relationship with an aunt who often took him to shows on the weekend. During World War II, Cruse joined the U.S. Army and served in Europe. Upon returning home, he attended the City College of New York without graduating. In 1947 Cruse joined the Communist Party for several years. . . .

After publishing The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1967, he was invited to lecture at the University of Michigan (1968) and taught in the African-American Studies program at the Center for Afro-American and African Studies there until the mid-1980s. Cruse was one of the first African-American studies professors, without holding a college degree.

A theme of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is that intellectuals must play a central role in movements for radical change. This idea re-appeared in his other works including Rebellion or Revolution, a compilation of essays, and Plural But Equal.

On March 25, 2005, Cruse died from congestive heart failure while living in an assisted-living facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was survived by his wife of 36 years, Mara Julius.—Wikipedia

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