Harold Cruse, Black Nationalism
and the Alt-Black Movement
Alt-Black.com's inaugural observance of Black Alternative History Month, is honored to pay tribute to author, academic and social critic, Harold Cruse.
In the Darker Nation's pantheon of intellectuals and thought leaders, Harold Cruse occupies a singular historical space. For the Black alternative movement, which seeks to build new truths outside the dominant social narrative, the corpus of Cruse's works has special relevance.
The publication of his book, "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" in the Sixties altered the trajectory of the most profound Black uprising in American history.
Its impact is still felt today, because Cruse's challenge to Black intellectuals to reclaim their culture, build institutions within the Black community, and craft a social theory that embraced the "other stratum" of Blacks who don't adhere to the integrationist Civil Rights orthodoxy, remains unfulfilled. Cruse identified the "other stratum" as the "residual stratum of Negro ethnic group consciousness." In short, it is the specter of Black Nationalism resurrected.
"Crisis" appeared in 1967, during the tipping point when political momentum was shifting from the civil rights era to the Black Power era.
That summer, Martin Luther King's last book, "Where Do We Go From Here?" argued against Black separatists and violence, while attempting to steer the civil rights struggle to the left. On its heels, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's publication of "Black Power" called for abandoning the integration strategy in favor of a confrontational and more separatist approach.
Amid the debate over what the post-civil rights world would look like, "Beale Street" (the Black street) weighed in. Newark's rebellion followed by the "Detroit Insurrection" unsettled the nation's equilibrium. 1967, the year for cool contemplation and course corrections of a fatigued civil rights movement, turned into "the long hot summer."
Few anticipated that an obscure, failed playwright from Harlem, who mused "It's time to put direct action aside and start thinking," was about to emerge as the authoritative voice of black political thought.
Against this backdrop "Crisis" was hurled into the maelstrom. Cruse laid down a line of fire assailing icons and organizations alike, who espoused the gospel of racial integration. "Crisis" was an anti-integration manifesto that captured the imagination of radicalizing Black students across the country.
They had been thrown into the tempest of civil rights struggles, Vietnam war protests, Black Power risings, Pan-African liberation movements, and Mao's
Chinese Cultural Revolution. "Crisis" knifed though the Gordian knot of these competing ideologies, in part because Cruse leveled his fire against them all.
Cruse's frontal assault began by taking Black intellectuals to task. The younger generation, said Cruse "must first clear the way to a cultural revolution by a critical assault on the methods and ideology of the old-guard Negro intellectual elite"
To Cruse, the Black intelligentsia had been ideologically corrupted by the "great American ideal" that posited the rights of the individual rise above everything else. "In reality" he said "the nation is dominated by the social power of groups, classes, in-groups and cliques-both ethnic and religious. The individual in America has few rights that are not backed up by the political, economic and social power of one group or another. To idealize the role of the individual in opposition to Black group rights is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant project."
Refusing to insist on their group rights in deference to integration, is precisely what Black intellectuals did repeatedly. Why, Cruse asked, would Black intellectuals and artists voluntarily surrender control of their own cultural, economic and political power to another people?
Black intellectuals for various reasons did hue to the belief that White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture was superior to their own, and craved its validation. They also sought to imitate it. This was a stunning capitulation in Cruse's mind. He observed that "the white Anglo-Saxon in America has nothing in his native American tradition that is aesthetically and culturally original, except that which derives from the Negro presence."
For all the great talent that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance (Zora Neal Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude Mckay, Joshephine Baker, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Florence Mills, George Schuyler, Bill Robinson, Louis Armstrong, E. Franklin Frazier, Ethel Waters and others), it's difficult to imagine some had to go the 5th Avenue Village salons of Mabel Dodge and Carl Van Vechten to get white sponsors?
True enough, their offerings did not receive the support they should have by the Black middle and upper classes. But, they also sought more than money and exposure; they wanted their works validated as "legitimate" cultural products.
With the exception of DuBois, who wrote an article called "The Criterion of Black Art" in 1926, no other Black intellectual attempted to address the social philosophy that lay behind the cultural explosion of the "Harlem Renaissance," or its future implications.
"Crisis" also laid siege to the integrationist designs of the Communist Party USA in the 30's and 40's on the political and the cultural front. The CP's position supported Black peoples' right to self-determination, and to establish its own nation in the Black-Belt southern states. They did nothing to support that position. Quite the opposite, Blacks not adhering to building a unitary black-white working class movement were labeled "Garveyite" troublemakers.
Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, like Cruse, both wrote for Communist Party USA papers and magazines. They resigned after World War II. The CPUSA had no use for serious literary works exploring the deep well of Black life. In a letter to Wright, Ellison said "These party leaders were “as dangerous as Nazis.” Ellison's greatest work, "Invisible Man" reflects his deep disillusion with the CP and its treatment of Black people.
Ironically, when it came to Jews in the Communist Party, it was a totally different story. Jewish party members, were the editors of the CPUSA's main newspaper, the "Daily World" and its cultural magazine called "The Masses." Indeed, in 1937, the Jewish Bureau of the New York State party sponsored the release of "Jewish Life," a Jewish monthly cultural magazine.
Cruse came under fire for his criticism of Jews in "Crisis," although he was never excoriated as many unjustly are for being anti-Semitic. Cruse took the heat, but never walked back his position that in a pluralistic America, all racial and ethnic groups fight for their own culture, economic and political power. Jews, he said were one of the three white power groups in America, after the dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and White Catholics.
Cruse did not so much take exception to Jews fighting for their own interest, but to their systematic attempts to deny the contributions of Black culture, and writing revisionist accounts of Black history. The CPUSA attempted to take over control of branches of the Black historian Carter G. Woodson's "Study of Negro Life and History" organization. Herbert Aptheker the Communist Party's chief historian, consistently attacked and undermined W.E.B. DuBois's book "Black Reconstruction." For that reason, Cruse wrote: “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.”
When "Crisis" hit the streets in 67, the Civil Rights movement was already in decline. Cruse's withering attack of the integrationist strain represented by the "Tabernacle" (Civil Rights establishment of the NAACP, CORE and the Urban League) pushed them further back on their heels, as groups like the Black Panthers began to surge. But, "Crisis" did not clear the field for the rising forces of Black radicalism.
If there was one thing Harold Cruse despised, it was empty radical sloganeering and revolutionary romanticism. He had no use for it, and he was keenly aware of the Black masses susceptibility to demagoguery during those stormy upsurges of the Sixties.
"Crisis" attacked the slogan of "Black Power" head on. Cruse noted that "A closer examination of every analysis by each Black Power exponent from SNCC to 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."
Cruse characterized the "Black Power" slogan as an attempt by the SNCC and CORE to cover the defeat of its integrationist direct action strategy getting bogged down, without having to explain its shortcomings. At best, Cruse said, "instead of radical integrationism, the theme of Black Power became economic and political control by blacks in the back ghettos and in geographical areas of black majorities in the South. This formulation with a few wrinkles, was no different the Nation of Islam program, or Malcolm X's more secular OAAU version, or for that matter Adam Clayton Powell's original formulation.
Beyond SNCC and CORE, the "Black Power" slogan emerged as the radical currency of the moment, with many attaching themselves to its star power. Among those Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, declared Black Power was a call for Negros in America to take their rightful place within the African community. It was the latest reiteration of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" program.
As he did with revolutions in other countries that were presented as a model for Blacks in America, Cruse blasted Ben-Jochannan's notion that Blacks in America were a colony. He argued that the Black experience in America is totally different from Africa's colonial past. He said Blacks in America were never serfs, peasants or colonials. The development of our cultural project in no way resembled the African experience. The path to any form of Black liberation or self-determination in an advanced capitalist country would be different than in the developing world. In many respects, it was the same deviation he fended off by romanticists followers of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions.
But Cruse couldn't leave it there. His row with Ben-Jochannan afforded him an opportunity to take another swipe at West Indian radicals. This tendency, started with Garvey's "Back to Africa" call. Cruse observed that when the "Black Power" slogan was asserted, Roy Innis of CORE and Stokely Carmichael of SNCC, both of West Indian descent, "played up the alleged Caribbean influence behind the slogan...Although Ben-Jochannan discusses White Power versus Black Power all over the world, wherever it involves the undying and unquenching energy of African peoples everywhere, he makes no reference to either black West Indians or the British Commonwealth. The implicit, typically Garveyite assumption here is that the black West Indies already has Black Power."
Cruse pointed out that Garvey's Back to Africa radical romanticism caught fire among West Indians and others in Harlem in the 20's, but was rejected in his native Jamaica. As for Black Power in the Caribbean nations, their economies were still largely dictated by the finance capitalist of London. If they were so independent, why were they still part of the British Commonwealth's neo-colonial arrangement?
Finally, to the honest Black revolutionaries, including the new Marxists who were advocating the overthrow of the "Tower" (U.S. Government), Cruse asked where is your analysis? If revolutions of the working class and the "oppressed" had never happened in advanced capitalist countries, what conditions had changed in the United States that made revolution possible? What role would white workers, if any, play? Cruse warned that a Black Revolution must include an alliance with whites to have any chance of success, thereby rejecting separatism.
He concluded that in the Sixties, despite the radical upsurges, the overall objective conditions and the strength of the revolutionary forces was not sufficient to wage an armed struggle to seize power from the capitalist class. His assessment was correct, and he did not try to sugarcoat it.
Five decades later, Harold Cruse remains as controversial a figure as he was in the Sixties. In 2017, on the 50th Anniversary of the publication of "Crisis," historians, think tanks, leftist websites, Black academics, Black Nationalists and even the Alt-Right revisited "Crisis." One commentator said of Cruse, "He aimed his verbal artillery in so many directions that it seems as if some of the missiles are still landing four decades later."
Over the past half-century, no other publication has matched the scholarly firepower or comprehensive critique of Black culture, politics and social commentary set forth in "Crisis." This is both a testament to the power of Cruse's work, and arguably, the lamentable state of Black intellectual life today.
The legacy of Harold Cruse and the publication of "Crisis," is that it the cleared the ideological battlefield of Black Nationalism's enemies. He took on all comers, and treated their arguments with the utmost seriousness. He erected an impenetrable shield around Black Nationalism in its hour of danger. Harold Cruse was, and remains Black Nationalism's "Lord Protector."
In doing so, Cruse left the door open for the next generation of intellectuals and activists to define a new, or alternative Black nationalist doctrine. Alt-Black.com proudly accepts the challenge of building on the contributions of Harold Cruse. His work exemplified the essence of seeking new truths outside the dominant social narrative.