The Enduring Crisis of Black Intellectuals In America

The Rev. Jesse Jackson talks to newsmen at the opening of the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, March 11, 1972. Gary’s Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, left, and Amiri Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, look on (Photo: AP/Charles Knoblock).

*This is the concluding essay of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent roundtable on Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). Click here to read Robert Greene II’s introduction to the roundtable.

Suffice to say, the roundtable this week has generated plenty of discussion and debate. They merely join a long line of critique—and praise—for Cruse’s book. One of the reasons The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is such an important work in American intellectual history is that it has generated decades of debate, polemic, and introspection among intellectuals in the United States. Notice that I do not say it started debate among just African American intellectuals—although, for that group, the debates have been important and especially brutal. But we would do well to remember that, in American intellectual history, debates among one group of intellectuals hardly ever stay there. And when you consider the groups against which Cruse aimed his rhetorical and analytical fire, there was no question that The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual would become one of the most important books of the nineteen-sixties.

The roundtable entries for this week covered Cruse’s magnum opus from a variety of directions. Dan Geary opened up the festivities by calling into question just how we should see Cruse’s work—as a work of history, as a polemic, or both. While for him the answer was clear-cut, for many respondents in the comments the debate centered around why the term “polemic” is not a bad one—in fact, polemics are, essentially, what make the intellectual world go ‘round. Andrew Hartman continued the analysis of Cruse by thinking about his work in relation to the rest of the American left in the 1960s. He does this by  situating The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in three different historiographical debates: the American left, questions of Black nationalism, and the relationship between these two ideologies. Holly Genovese covered the description of James Baldwin by Cruse—a welcome intervention, considering how both men stood at the intersection of Black literature’s climatic 1960s. Josh Myers’s work put Cruse and his writings in conversation with the Black Radical Tradition that so many of us know through Cedric Robinson. Myers makes clear that to understand modern Black thought, you have to go back to Cruse—whether you agree or disagree with him.

There is also no question that a crisis for Black intellectuals in the United States continues. The responses to Cruse’s work from 1967 until the present point to some of these problems. Critics such as Vincent Harding found the book to be a masterwork—but also worried that Cruse’s leaving out of Southern intellectuals hurt the quality of the book. Later, in a 1994 retrospective on the book, Hortense J. Spillers pointed out that Cruse’s focus on Harlem seemed especially dated—the move of capital from New York City to the Sun Belt (along with the move of political power as well) made Harlem less important to African American culture than cities such as Atlanta or Memphis. Regardless of their critiques, however, both Harding (in 1969) and Spillers (in 1994) saw the book as holding intrinsic value for the provocative questions it opened up—for intellectuals and lay readers alike.

The relationship between Black Americans and American society is at the heart of Cruse’s book—and indeed, many of his later works. As Stanley Crouch argued in the introduction to the indispensable The Essential Harold Cruse

With (The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) Cruse did, in his own way, what Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray have become either well known or barely known for arguing. He recognized that the call and response between the Negro and America at large is central to what Negroes became and what this nation became.

I think it’s important to think of Cruse as a contemporary of Ellison and Murray. They all had different approaches to a timeless question: what, exactly, is the relationship between Black Americans and an American society that continually fails to live up to its greatest ideals? Cruse sought this answer through—to borrow Andrew Hartman’s wording—“ruthless criticism.” Ralph Ellison tried to fashion an answer through his fiction, literary criticism, and essay writing. Albert Murray did the same, albeit with much more of an emphasis on the South than Cruse or Ellison ever sought to do.

Harold Cruse

We would do well to remember that Cruse’s career as an intellectual did not begin—or end—with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. That book should serve as the fulcrum point for his career. Before it was released, Cruse was only somewhat known among a handful of left intellectuals and the Harlem bohemian scene. After its release, Cruse was well-known among many Black intellectuals and readers. He was also granted a larger audience among the left—with his book receiving reviews in places such as The New York Review of Books and Partisan Review. As you can see I’ve written about those reviews before, but they bear thinking about again as questions of race, class, and ideology once again divide the American left.

Ultimately, I find myself thinking about Cruse and the problems he tackled in his writing. By the 1970s, Cruse spent an extensive amount of time chronicling the weaknesses of the Black left in the United States. His coverage of the 1974 National Black Political Convention, held in Little Rock, Arkansas—and often overshadowed by the 1972 convention in Gary, Indiana—serves as both a stinging critique of modern Pan-Africanism and a warning that Black political organizing was not a problem to be solved in a day, a year, or even a decade. In one of his sections of biting critique of Stokley Carmichael, the Black Power Movement, and other leaders that had drifted to Pan-Africanism by 1974, Cruse wrote:

If an independent Black political party is unwise and unfeasible, then so is revolution unwise and unfeasible, and all talk from either the leaders or the followers about “revolution” is nothing but empty rhetoric and pretentious sham. There can be no other explanation for the fact that both leaders and followers assembled (at Little Rock) simply to tell each other, ‘We ain’t ready!’1

Harold Cruse as a writer and intellectual held forth on questions of Black culture, Black politics, and Black participation in American society. To read what he wrote is to wrestle with the great questions of the day that many Black intellectuals dealt with–political conventions, race and culture, or how to build a truly democratic and pluralistic society. With The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, he pushed Black thinkers to consider what they were doing for the rest of Black America. Never an easy question to ask, we may need to cut Cruse a little slack on his biting criticism. Thinking about the book again, I cannot help but read it with a jolt of desperate energyas those Cruse knew he had a lot to say—even plenty of space within to say it—but little time in which to say it. The backlash politics that would give us Richard Nixon already gripped America by 1967. Cruse knew, all too well, that both the political and intellectual energy devoted to the issue of racism in American society had only a finite supply.

Being a Black intellectual in America means never being able to avoid talking about racism. It takes a toll—sometimes, perhaps, you would prefer to work on something else. Or you dream of a world where everyone else “gets it” and you no longer have to explain structural racism, or continued inequality. But that world, alas, does not exist. Harold Cruse wrote for people yearning for that world—and willing to work, in this one, to achieve it. His corpus of works—Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Rebellion or Revolution? (1968), Plural but Equal (1987), and his many essays for places such as Negro Digest/Black World, New York Review of Books, among others—was a testament to thinking out loud about American race and culture. Cruse was a serious thinker devoted to causes of world-historical importance. I suspect that, when we reach 2067, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual will still be celebrated as a window into an era of thinking about race and politics that we have never fully escaped.

  1. Harold Cruse, “The Little Rock National Black Political Convention, Part 2,” Black World, November 1974, 10.
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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.

Comments on “The Enduring Crisis of Black Intellectuals In America

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    Readers may be interested in 1964 interviews by Robert Penn Warren with civil rights activists and literary figures for his volume “Who Speaks for the Negro?” 40+ interviews w/audio tapes and transcripts, including Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more.

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