Peniel E. Joseph: Interviewed about Harold Cruse's "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual"

Historians in the News

Polemics seldom age well. But when Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual during the fall of 1967, he aimed his verbal artillery in so many directions that it seems as if some of the missiles are still landing four decades later. (At the time of his death in 2005, Cruse was professor emeritus of African-American studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.)...

Rather than devoting this column to celebration of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual on its 40th anniversary, however, I thought it would be more interesting to discuss Cruse’s work with a young historian who is by no means uncritical of the book.

Peniel E. Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt) and the editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (Routledge), both published last year. I have not seen the latter volume, but can attest that Midnight Hour deserved being named one of the best books of 2006 by The Washington Post.

Joseph answered some questions by e-mail about Harold Cruse and his legacy. A transcript of the discussion follows.

Q: The title of Cruse’s book will sound rather dated to many readers now — and it probably already did to some readers in 1967, even. Was there anything in Cruse’s background to make him want to insist on “Negro,” rather than some other expression?

A: I think that Cruse’s decision to use the term “Negro” in this instance is very purposeful and in some ways ironic. By 1967 many Black Power militants, most notably Stokely Carmichael, were urging African Americans to identify themselves as “black.” Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had been key forerunners, in the national sense, of a black consciousness movement that disparaged the term “Negro.” Cruse had used the term “Afro-American” in a 1962 essay published in Studies on the Left that achieved a cult following among a certain segment of young black radicals.

But Cruse was also a highly idiosyncratic thinker and former activist who came of age during the Great Depression—World War II era. Transplanted to New York from Virginia, Cruse encountered a Harlem that, although past the prime of the New Negro heyday of the 1920s, featured street speakers keeping the embers of Garveyism alive. Local nationalists, from Carlos Cooks to Lewis Michaux, characterized African Americans as “black” or “Afro-American.” Cruse did not take the explicitly nationalist route however, preferring to join the Communist Party around 1946. Yet he retained a race pride that left him unable to completely repudiate the cultural and racial consciousness of black nationalism and pan-Africanism.

The Cold War impacts Cruse, as it did others, in indelible ways. By the early 1950s Cruse had abandoned the Communist Party and Harlem for both political and professional reasons. Politically, he felt the party promised more than it could deliver for African Americans and played favorites, lionizing figures such as Paul Robeson while failing to nurture younger, lesser know types such as himself. Professionally, ties to the CP were becoming more of an albatross than an asset. Cruse, like the young Ralph Ellison, held a driving ambition to make it as a writer at all costs....
Read entire article at Scott McLemee at the website of Inside Higher Education

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