U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and 1967’s Intellectual Crisis

The works of Black American intellectuals since 1965 have been shaped by a growing awareness that the place of Black Americans within larger American society is always in flux. After the major victories for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, questions arose as to what Black Americans could do next to further cement their place as equal citizens and consumers in America. As I examined last week with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here, Black intellectuals began to think about a world after the Civil Rights Movement. For King, obviously, the battle for equal rights and economic justice was far from over. But he was also aware that the tenuous goodwill he and other civil rights leaders gained through 1965 from the mainstream press was beginning to wane by the summer of 1966. The rise of white backlash, feared by civil rights leaders and white liberals alike, finally came in 1966, voiced itself in the midterms that year, and would become a key part of American politics for the rest of the 1960s.[1]

Today I’ll take a look at Harold Cruse, a man whose name is synonymous with Black intellectuals in 1967 thanks to his book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. For Cruse, a former Communist who was finding a new niche within the Left as a burgeoning Black nationalist, the book was a vehicle with which to criticize other Black intellectuals on the Left who, in his eyes, were too naïve to offer an effective vision for Black America’s future. The book is best known for its searing critiques of Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and the growing Black Power movement (which I’ll definitely come back to). Something that cannot be forgotten about the book is his constant critique of the West Indian influence on the Black Freedom Struggle in the United States. I want to argue that the debate about what Cruse had to say in regards to the Black Left is still very important in Obama’s America, and that the debate about what he held as a radical vision for America and its Black population is also very important.

Cruse’s book was written with the idea that the Civil Rights Movement, and the larger Black Freedom Struggle, were uniquely American issues. So, for him, the influence of West Indian immigrants was a hindrance, and missed the uniqueness of the American struggle for equality. He also interpreted the Black Power movement as a misdiagnosis of America’s racial and cultural problems. Wrote Cruse, “But a closer examination of every analysis by each Black Power exponent from SNCC and CORE reveals that while the slogan cast a revolutionary sounding theme and a threat of more intense revolt across the land, the substance was, in fact, a methodological retreat to black social reforms.”[2] (emphasis his) In other words, while Black Power as a slogan sounded new and fresh, it was in fact a return to older forms of Black self-help, and a move away from revolution. I’ve interpreted this critique of Black Power by Cruse as both an attempt to move away from what may have been perceived as a Black Power movement that showed elements of influence by events in the Third World, as well as a return by Cruse to a more radical alternative that, while not multi-racial, was certainly “America” in its prescription for the future.

Cedric Johnson, in his recent book Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics, offers a different take on Cruse’s stance in his landmark work. He argues that critics of Cruse “miss (his) faith in materialist critique” and that Cruse’s “turn to black nationalism/ethnic pluralism was an unfortunate development and might be understood in retrospect as a strategic concession emerging from his fatalistic view of postwar American politics.”[3] Cruse, no less than King, was being influenced by the changing tide in American politics. Where King was swimming more and more against it, however, in some ways Cruse was already beginning to adjust to a more conservative future.

The pivot of 1967 once again shows itself to be important. What I’ve written so far is really just a brief sketch of the Black Left in America as of 1967, as it began to fracture under the weight of planning out a new future for Black Americans. To be clear, these fractures were already forming well before 1967—keep in mind the differences over tactics within the Civil Rights Movement, for example. Nonetheless, 1967 was a key year because of the rise of Black Power, the transformation of King into a publically radical figure, and Cruse’s attempt to adjust his left-wing ideology to a new era. Next week I’ll delve deeper into Cruse, and offer more thoughts on his relationship to 1967’s moment of crisis.

[1] Although, I think it’s important to question the idea of “white backlash” as suddenly coming after the “long, hot summers” of the mid-1960s. Recent scholarship has reminded historians and other readers that concerns about Black movements for civil rights and equal opportunity in jobs informed politics since at least World War II and had echoes in the Reconstruction era. See Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) and Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008) as well as Timothy Thurber, Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship With African Americans, 1945-1974.

[2] Cruse, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, pg. 545.

[3] Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), pg. 5-6.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. This is fascinating stuff, especially how Cruse sounds his critique of black internationalism. After all, this was, as you suggest yourself, the heyday of Tricontinental politics, the rallying calls for the creation of a “new man” along the lines of Guevara and Fanon (recently Vijay Prashad has tried to capture the history of this political thought in The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, perhaps without enough critical distance). I found interesting Johnson’s allusion to Cruse’s materialism. What sort of materialism was Cruse conceiving in the 60s, if he had abandoned his Communist ideals in the 50s? And how does nationalism fit into his materialism? Also, his critique of Black Power as “a retreat to black social reforms” raised my eyebrows. There are definitely elements of “self-help” in the Black Power movement, of creating autonomous community spaces for African Americans, but that doesn’t mean that this was its only objective. If anything, these elements were mostly viewed as a means to an end: revolution. Evidently, Cruse is piling Black Power alongside the Nation of Islam and, earlier, Garveyism.

    When I think of the Black Panthers and other radical African American groups of the period, I also think of the Young Lords Party, how they had very similar dialogues with their “brothers” and enacted similar community projects. To some extent one can say they appropriated those revolutionary project, but as they state in the 4th paragraph of their 13 Point Program, their vision was wholly trans-racial. In this point that assert that their struggle is directed against racism, but also that “Millions of poor white people are rising up to demand freedom and we support them. These are the ones in the u.s. that are stepped on by the rules and the government. We each organize our people, but our fights are against the same oppression and we will defeat it together” (This idea was connected to the fact that Puerto Ricanness, is not a racial identity, though it is often treated as such in the US). I bring this up thinking of the possibility of similar positions among radical African Americans. Stokely Carmichael, for instance, saw Fidel (a white Cuban of Spanish parents) as a fellow “Black” revolutionary, a signifier of his proposal of an hemispheric revolution and the creation of a USA from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, inspired on the ideas of Tricontinentalism.

    Taking all of this into consideration, was Cruse’s critique merely a pragmatic turning of the page towards a more conciliatory “third way”? With our hindsight, I can imagine him already feeling out the failures of the tricontinental movement, as the Cold War intensified and the US government increased its global repression of anything viewed as “radical” or “sympathetic” to revolutionary causes.

  2. Excellent comments! I’ve always found Cruse’s dismissal of Black Power to be what you alluded to, a greater dismissal of Pan-Africanism and transnational movements. I think the materialism Johnson is referring to may be an analysis of Cruse’s push for cultural nationalism within an American framework. Right now I’m looking at Cruse’s post-1967 works to tease out where he goes from here, but I’m also going to (for next week) look at critical responses to Cruse.

    I think Cruse saw the writing on the wall when it came to Black Revolutionary movements. Ironically, I’m writing this post after viewing “Black Power Mixtape” and I keep asking myself two questions: 1) did leaders who espoused Black Power really believe a worldwide revolution was coming? I think most did….but then there’s 2) How many Black Americans actually bought into the program? Certainly there was a cultural awakening for most Black Americans by 1970 thanks to Black Power, but I suspect elements of that (especially Black self-love and self-help) had been around a lot longer, they were just given new language. Honestly, I think what we need is a history of Black Americans who weren’t in the Black Power movement, or who weren’t in Civil Rights movements either. I’m not sure how one would write that, but at some point, most Black Americans simply had to live their lives during the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s.

    Another element to consider, too: stopping the clock in 1967, as it were, allows us to think about these intellectuals in a time period when so much is still up in the air. Third World solidarity is still the name of the game for so many on the Left. Johnson’s War on Poverty programs are allowing additional space on the grassroots level for activists to gain real power. And, in an international context, the Left has yet to see both the promise of the Prague Spring, and the repression of it by the Soviet Union. Much to digest in 1967.

    • Thanks for the response, interesting what you say about tracing the history of the “other” Black Americans, sounds like a very worthy line of thinking. I also had the same reaction when I saw Black Power Mixtape, which tells a wonderful narrative but projects a certain nostalgia around the subject typical of contemporary old school leftism in all fronts (not so much in groups like Occupy, which are very conscious of the failures of their older comrades). Perhaps the main problem of movements like the Young Lords, Black Power, the Yippies, etc. was that they still had the messianic faith in the emancipation to come, which they viewed as historically determined. That, and their faith in themselves as a revolutionary leadership, Lenin’s idea of a “revolutionary vanguard” that would lead the alienated masses. Look forward to your next piece on Cruse!

  3. Great post. I have been thinking a lot about E. Franklin Frazier and the politics of today’s African American public intellectuals; I wonder if Cruse is the more relevant thinker… what do you think Cruse would say about the contemporary scene if her were somehow magically transported to the present?

  4. Harold Cruse in the “Age of Obama”? Good question. I think he’d immediately get into it with Cornel West and others on the Black Left who’ve been very critical of the president’s lack of a “Black agenda”. That’s just what I think right now.

  5. For all,

    Take note of this from yesterday’s CHE/Chronicle Review—in a piece from David Hollinger no less:

    “Consider an important case from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In the late 1960s, the university brought into its faculty a black writer who did not have a Ph.D., and indeed had never completed college, as a full professor of history. He was Harold Cruse, a former member of the Communist Party who, in 1967, had published a vast book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Some 45 years later, it is remembered as one of the great landmarks in the study of African-American history. Michigan did the right thing. Cruse brought evidence and reasoning to his discussion of black intellectuals and their relation to white leftists. Although his “black nationalism” called for African-Americans to go their own way, resisting many integrationist programs of his era, what most impressed scholars of all political orientations, then and later, was Cruse’s detailed and sophisticated account of the history of African-American intellectuals in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

    Did every initiative taken in the borderlands by departments of history and English and sociology and political science in the anxious 1960s and after work out so well? Of course not. But the United States as a whole, and American universities in particular, are better off because the human sciences were not afraid then, and are not afraid now, to take some chances.”

    • WOW. Thanks for this! I’ll definitely have to read the full article. I remember being stunned when I learned that Cruse was allowed to teach despite his lack of “proper” academic credentials.

  6. I fine Harold Cruse’s book supreme to all ( the little ) that I have read. My Dynamics professor, Dr. Taft Broome, always said, in order to solve a problem, one must look at the governing equations. To me, Cruse acknowledge that all the struggles were not well thought out if they didn’t do a simulation stance against the current leading western social idea of capitalism. Most were dreamers, who didn’t want to really look at what would happen to their movements. Similar to many people who talk of leaving America, but don’t see that many others are trying to get in, not for rights, but for sustinance. Also, a movement cannot be sustained without a studied mass, not a reactionary protest given mass.

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