The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual {reading notes} / Passing the Torch Is Kinda Hard In A Crisis

In a speech given at Howard University this past spring, road-traveled Harry Belafonte, sought to instruct his audience, predominantly students, on social and political responsibility through recounts of his life as a musician and activist. Acknowledging the gap that exists between his generation and ours, Belafonte highlighted his speech with an analogy likening the "fumbling of the baton" which took place in the recent Olympics with the US women’s team to the faulty transmission of social and political momentum achieved by the Civil Rights generation to ours. While well-intentioned in attempting to engage our generation’s ideological cloudiness, Belafonte failed to place his finger on something more fundamental: his touted Civil Rights Movement bore similar murkiness in its aims. By failing to mention this fact, the space missed an opportunity to engage in a healthy discussion on the shortcomings of that movement and possible ways to avoid those today. Although he did address this in part by recalling a conversation in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hauntingly prophesized that ‘we may have integrated into a burning house,’ the subject lacked adequate probing. Left suspended in the air, so too did our generation leave his lecture, fired up but nevertheless suspended, unsure of what that next step should look like.

Luckily for us, the lacuna Belafonte neglected to explore had already been taken up by recently passed scholar-activist Harold Cruse in his magnum opus, "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual." Published in 1967 (and recently re-released by the New York Times Review) Cruse was able to demonstrate that the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were fraught with their own contradictions, deficiencies and cloudiness of aims. As historian Adolph Reed states, "Where Malcolm X was the intellectual inspiration of Black Power and Kwame Ture was its principal ideological architect, Cruse was without question its definitive critical interlocutor." Thus, it is worth revisiting the text. Maybe, it can provide a moment of clarity into these seemingly overcast and uncertain times.

"The Crisis" provides a biting analysis of the Civil Rights movement. Cruse commences by revealing the prime blind-spot of integrationist forces who assumed the mantle of the Civil Rights movement. Their insistence on integration belied the reality of the American social landscape. He states that "while America idealizes the rights of the individual above everything else, it is a nation dominated by the social power of groups, classes, in-groups and cliques -- both ethnic and religious." Stated differently, the ground reality of American demographics has always considered these factions (Anglo-Saxon, Catholic, Jewish, etc…) particularly in the political, cultural and economic sphere. Being a "nation of minorities ruled by a minority of one," the group -- Anglo-Saxon/Christian Right -- which resides at the top through welding the most influence and power finds benefit in projecting a nebulous society of a colorless, raceless and creedless America because it makes them invisible. And as the old maxim goes, you can’t touch what you can’t see. This masquerade entices people to believe that the dominant culture is normative rather than a specific groups’ construction. Sadly, pro-integrationist forces during the Civil Rights heyday imbibed this myth and used it as their premise for social and political action.

Equal criticism is meted out to the Black Power movement. While the movement has entered the realm of immaculate in our generations’ imagination, it also suffered from some major flaws. Flaws Cruse is all too happy to flesh out. The first thing he deals with is the general misconception that the Black Power movement was a radical departure from the Civil Rights movement. In fact, in terms of aims, the two shared much in common. Its direct-action approach mirrored much of the Civil Rights tactics. Black Power, he asserts, gave more credence to appearance than substance. A fact made clear by its inability to ever define exactly what Black Power was. The brashness exhibited by gun-toting militants was betrayed by their conflation of defense with revolution. For Cruse, it's one thing to arm a couple of folks, it’s another thing to see how this display will translate into solid social and economic benefits. After all, one cannot necessarily shoot his/herself into a job or voting booth. Their pragmatic emphasis which downplayed theory he argues also led the movement into a quagmire. Their inability to produce tangible economic alternatives to welfare-state capitalism forced them to exist within and even depend on the spoils of that system. A fact that was never adequately dealt with.

Moreover Cruse argues the naiveté that characterized black political, cultural and economic actors were not shared by other groups who used this understanding to their advantage. With particular emphasis on the Jewish nationalists who were able to appropriate and refashion American Marxism to their liking, Cruse illustrates how they not only dominated discussions on Civil Rights but were in fact behind-the-scene architects of the aims and goals of the movement. Guarding selfishly their relatively secure status in the United States, they championed integration for blacks while remaining staunchly separatists; an irony-of-ironies for those who recall their vicious attacks on figures like Khalid Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in general. Yet, as Cruse points out, there was logic to these attacks; one that recognized that blacks as a sociopolitical bloc comprised the largest minority population in the United States (at the time) and thus had the potential to challenge their quasi-dominance as a minority group. Blacks, with the perception of a monolithic social order were unable to come to grips with the multi-group dynamic of America and were thus situated beyond the pale of political and economic power. It is here we confronted the quintessential paradox of the Civil Rights harvest. Representation in the political and economic sectors grew tremendously just as social degradation in majority black neighborhoods gathered momentum. Marked by deindustrialization, the import of lethal drugs, and sharp withdrawal of federal funds from social and educational programs, these new black politicians could only shake their heads forlornly as they attempted to grapple with forces vastly bigger than the municipalities they now presided over. In a cruel joke, they were left to administer social ruins.

The most covered subject in the text however is reserved for the Black intellectual class. According to Cruse, this stratum includes those in the academy and artists, performing, creative and literary. Their dilemma lies in their residence in the only integrated sphere in America. Today this integrated sphere has expanded to include corporate America whose zealous rush to fill quotas and avoid civic backlash has created an emaciated class of black mid-level executives and entry-level employees. Cruse convincingly illustrates that this groups’ reality is warped because they tend to think that the tentative acceptance they enjoy in these spaces is indicative of American society writ large. Consequently, their energy is directed more towards being interlocutors or spokespersons of Black America to White America rather than invest their time in building with their own community. An anecdotal example by a former Howard University Hospital employee recounts how "Alain Locke used to whisk by black folk to go discuss them with white folk." Their reliance on the spoils of war, in our case the hard-fought gains of the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately renders them reliant and more invested in the institutions that cut their checks than the communities from which they were birthed. Thus, Cruse aptly labels them "a rootless class of displaced persons who are refugees from the social poverty of the black world." Given today’s ultra-sensitive racial milieu, at least when it comes to overt acts, this group enjoys relative stability and have taken to resting on their laurels in these sites. Their folly lies in their ignorance or wistful thinking that Black America’s woes will somehow bypass them. For Cruse, their challenge is to turn their gaze inward to their communities. Rather than key on being their voice, they should add their voice in their discussions, focus their resistance, and explicate their conditions in a more comprehensive manner by bringing into the fold the international and historical forces that shape their local realities. In essence, their theories must be informed by the community and in turn they must help to shape the community’s understanding of their condition. Cruse likens this engagement to Karl Marx, the primer theoretician of European Communism, and the "Young Hegelians" who were crucial in developing new theories to explain the emergent industrialist age that wrecked havoc on the masses of folks then dwelling in the urban centers of Europe.

Certain to delight and vex many, this book nevertheless has surely changed the complexion of discussions on black resistance and its ultimate quest for social change. In his brilliant tome Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson states that "new theories require new histories." The Crisis" achieves this feat. For those of us sincerely interested in creating new theories to manage new generational challenges "The Crisis" should adorn each of our bookshelves. In one of his last interviews, Cruse mentioned that the book was a modest attempt to answer some of the questions Dubois posed through his life’s work. Interestingly enough, for fans of Robinson’s remarkable Black Marxism you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that his text was an attempt to address many of the questions posed by Cruse in an essay entitled "Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American," a piece that would inform much of his thematic focus in "The Crisis." So there we have it in short order, from Dubois to Cruse to Robinson. I implore all to snatch up publications authored by these intellectual giants. Perhaps, you can then add your footprints in the sand and provide rejoinders to their ever-important inquiries. Answers that will take us that much closer to full liberation.

{ exclusive feature}
by Melvin Barrolle (The Liberator Magazine 4.3 #11, 2005)

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