U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Not a Classic: *The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual* Roundtable

Editor's Note

Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor of U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin and the author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and its Legacy.

Christopher Lasch praised The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual as a “monument of historical analysis.”  He was wrong.  Crisis did much to stimulate African American intellectual history and remains a fascinating source for intellectuals historians today.  But fifty years later, Harold Cruse’s book holds up poorly as a work of intellectual history.

Cruse’s discussion of “integrationism” is particularly off the mark as intellectual history.  In large part, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is an attack on the interracial left of the 1930s and 1940s and the interracial civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Cruse declares all the intellectuals associated with these movements to be fundamentally “integrationists,” devoted to assimilating African Americans into American society on the basis of liberal individualism.  To Cruse, integrationism forms a coherent if flawed ideology, one that fails to recognize the basic pluralist nature of American political and cultural life.

He sees integration is an illusory goal because white America itself is not homogenous.  African Americans should rather seek to preserve their “group integrity” and thereby achieve political and cultural power together, just as earlier white immigrant groups had done.  To Cruise, integrationism at best serves only the interests of the African American middle class.

Cruse’s “integrationism” is the flimsiest of straw men.  He criticizes those who “see integration as solving everything” (12) describing “a legion of zealots for whom integration has been hypostatized into a religion” (13).  One wonders who on Earth Cruse is talking about.  Very few African Americans spoke about “integration” as a goal in and of itself (rather than as a tactic to achieve freedom and equality).  I am not aware of anybody who self-identified as an “integrationist” at the time Cruse was writing.  While Cruise does offer specific and at times penetrating critiques of particular “integrationists” such as Lorraine Hansbury and Paul Robeson, his crucial definition of the category of “integrationism” occurs without reference to specific individuals.

To be sure, the concept of “integration” was a central one to civil rights discourse.  But it could mean very different things.  Cruse reduces “integrationism” to its mildest form of color-blind individualism.  But the interracial socialism of an A. Philip Randolph and the “beloved community” of King and SNCC hardly fit this model.  Cruse thought “one of the great traps of racial integrationism [was that] one must accept all the values (positive or negative) of the dominant society into which one struggles to integrate.” But this is total nonsense.  Civil rights leaders and intellectuals wanted to change American society in fundamental ways.  As James Baldwin famously asked, “Do I want to be integrated into a burning house?”  Much of what gave Cruse’s text force as a fresh and radical text came from his attack on integrationism. But one wonders just how radical Cruse’s stance actually was.  I find it very odd that Cruse was able to pass off his pluralism, literally ripped from liberal-cum-neoconservative sociologist Nathan Glazer, as somehow more radical than the visions of Baldwin and King.

Cruse’s key historical claim is that “American Negro history is basically a history of the conflict between integrationist and nationalist forces in politics, economics, and culture, no matter what leaders are involved and what slogans are used” (564).  Reading this today  reminds me of weak undergraduate essays that place undue weight on the “integrationist versus nationalist” framework.  I recall essays by C students who, when asked to analyze texts from the Capper and Hollinger reader, chose King and Malcolm X because they felt they understand the differences between them based on what they learned in high school.  Today’s historiography has proceeded well beyond the time-worn “integrationist” versus “nationalist” theme.

Crisis is not an intellectual history.  It’s a polemic.  Cruse is often incisive in his critiques of both “integrationism” and “nationalism.” But he writes as if there is some easy solution out there to the dilemmas faced by African American intellectuals.  Despite his materialist analysis of how white philanthropists distort African American culture, Cruse’s narrative is essentially one of the “treason of the intellectuals,” as if only more intelligence or courage from individuals were required.  As is typical of this genre of polemic, he vastly overstates the importance of intellectuals, absurdly proclaiming that “With a few perceptive and original thinkers, the Negro movement could long ago have aided in reversing the backsliding of the United States toward the moral negation of its great promise as a new nation among nations” (565).

In short, Crisis does not deserve the status as a classic text of African American intellectual history.  However, it nevertheless remains valuable text for intellectual historians.  Regardless of its merits, the concept of “integrationism” was a significant one for the Black Power era and Crisis was one of two key book that introduced it (the other was, Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton‘s Black Power, published the same year).  For intellectual historians, Crisis is a poor guide but a key signpost.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Dan, I have handled this text as a primary work in the history of AA thought not as an intellectual history. A polemical work, as you say. Can you give some specific examples of the use and reliance on Cruse as a secondary source of intellectual history?

    • No, and I’m not sure that it is influential on the practice of African American intellectual history today. That said, the book is definitely an intellectual history and I came to it with the general impression that it was considered by many as a “classic” in the field. But I couldn’t tell you where I got that from. For me, this was a book I’d been hoping to read for 20 years, so my disappointment in it came largely from my high expectations.

      • Great post. Seems like it might be time to revisit what makes for the black “canon,” implicitly even. There are a ton of books that were not nearly as revered as Cruse’s work, but that, once visited, provide genuine illumination. Abram Harris’s The Negro as Capitalist (1936), and C.L.R. James’s Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (1953), come immediately to mind. There are also a host of case studies — like Walter B. Weare’s Black Business in the New South (1973) — that, once read, still remain historiographically impactful (in large measure because they’ve been ignored). The point that both you and this broader condition makes, it seems, is clear: find and read “old” books (even “the Classics”). Thanks again.

  2. Cruse was my professor at the University of Michigan. He always understood his work to be polemical. He wanted to stir debate, as well as settle scores. Well this blogger fails in my opinion by not knowing or identifying the intended audience of the book ?. Cruse was not talking to risk adverse academics, the book was published to be conversant with the discussions taking place in urban Black communities whose intellectual life and interests were largely ignored in 1967. This book was hotly debated in barbershops and beauty parlors. While I appreciate the self discovery of Cruse by the blogger his critique is shallow if he did not understand whose Cruse’s readers were and why it resonated with them at the time of its release. Finally the word Negro and intellectual weren’t to be found on too many titles of books at that time. Having sat in Cruse’s class he recognized that there were different traditions of thought on “integration.” He simply didn’t believe it was good politics to play around with white liberals. And the longer I stay in the academy I think he was onto something.

  3. This is rural idiocy dressed up in semi-scholarly language. Cruse’s book is in constant and productive dialogue with Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn, esp ch 7, where he analyzes the pitfalls of the nationalist and the integrationist–assimilation is the word SNCC used at the outset, before Carmichael and Lewis did their rethinking 1965 ff.–tendencies within the movements for black liberation from David Walker on toward BTW and MLK. Of course it’s a polemic. Since when is that a criticism of an intellectual’s work? A historian’s craft? Cruse had a profound influence on Huey Newton and Cedric Robinson via the originary essay in Studies on the Left (1962). His voice echoes today through the writing of Ta-Nehesi Coates, who is also channelling James Baldwin. Their point is simple: Marxism can’t explain the racialized history of the US, not can it adequately address the predominant political tendency among black folk, which is not assimilation or integration but cultural separation, as per Du Bois’s brilliant diagnosis of 1940. Say what you want, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is the most significant analysis of race, class, and the American Left ever published–you can disagree with it, of course, but you can’t dismiss it because you don’t like its conclusions or implications.

  4. Personally, I do think polemic makes for bad history, especially intellectual history where trying to understand what actors were doing in their own terms is essential if insufficient. In Cruse’s case, this leads to misrepresentation of his targets. He is often very incisive on the dilemmas facing “integrationists” but often writes as if it is only their intellectual and moral failings that prevent them from seeing the truth.

    I agree with Randal that the force of his critique centers around the utility of working with white liberals. I think that even here Cruse’s critique would have been more persuasive had he taken his interlocutors more seriously rather than debating straw men.

    I was evaluating Cruse mainly as a work of history. But his work may have other merits when judged on other grounds and it certainly an important text to understood in the context of the time.

    I would say more about Jim’s comment, but unfortunately I have to milk the cows here in rural Ireland before it gets too late.

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