Harold Cruse: Cultural Revolutionary

Historians in the News

Rachel Donadio, in the NYT Book Review (5-29-05):

[Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.]

WHEN it came out in 1967, ''The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,'' by Harold Cruse, crystallized a moment. The moment passed, but Cruse, a black cultural nationalist, was not just a footnote to history.

''The Crisis'' was at once an anti-integrationist manifesto and a critical history of 20th-century African-American culture and politics, and it arrived like a thunderclap just as the civil rights era was shifting into the black power era. ''Throughout the late 60's and the early 70's one could see the signal bright red cover almost everywhere that young people were gathered,'' Stanley Crouch writes in the introduction to a new edition of the book, to be released on June 10 by New York Review Books.

In ''The Crisis,'' Cruse urged black intellectuals and artists to establish their own institutions and reclaim black American culture from those who sought to appropriate it. ''The special function of the Negro intellectual is a cultural one,'' he wrote. ''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 ethos and transformed the American people into a nation of intellectual dolts.''

His words reverberated widely. ''I think many of us received the call to be an intellectual through Harold Cruse,'' Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard University, said in a telephone interview. Cruse taught that ''being an artist or an intellectual didn't mean musing merely on Grecian urns. It meant we could make an intervention, implicitly political, for our people, and by teaching we could make a direct contribution to the broader struggle for rights for the African-American people,'' Gates said. ''As hokey as that might sound today, I think that's why many of us became academics and scholars.''

When he died in March at the age of 89, Cruse was largely off the radar, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, where he had taught since 1968 -- the early days of its African-American studies program. A famously curmudgeonly autodidact and the son of a railway porter, Cruse grew up in New York City. He never finished college, and was among the first blacks to receive tenure at an American university without a college degree. Many black intellectuals said they learned as much from the example of Cruse as from his writing. ''He was self-taught, tremendously disciplined and unrelenting in his commitment to black freedom,'' Cornel West, a professor of religion at Princeton University who has written widely on African-American topics, said in a telephone interview. ''I agreed with him very little, but I learned much from him.''

''The Crisis'' offered something for everyone, since it criticized everyone, from icons like W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson to West Indians and Jews. For every argument that holds water, there's another that unravels, often into conspiratorial vitriol. Cruse accused West Indians of looking down on American blacks, and was distinctly sniffy about some members of the black power movement's leadership, including Stokely Carmichael, Lincoln Lynch and Roy Innis, who were all of West Indian descent.

But Cruse reserved special venom for Jews. In ''The Crisis,'' he asserted that ''the great brainwashing of Negro radical intellectuals was not achieved by capitalism, or the capitalistic bourgeoisie, but by Jewish intellectuals in the American Communist Party.'' He also cited passages from Dostoyevsky, oddly enough, about how Jewish merchants exploited blacks in the South. When the book was published, reviewers tended to ignore its anti-Semitism. In a recent interview, Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, said he didn't think people take Cruse's analysis of black-Jewish relations ''very seriously'' today, especially not Cruse's dismissal of the role Jews played in the civil rights movement. ''It's too ahistorical and too conspiratorial to have much weight outside the sort of anti-Semitic fringe of the black intelligentsia, which is now a fringe, not mainstream,'' Naison said.

Click here to continue reading this article.

comments powered by Disqus