Author, educator, social critic
When The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was first released, it was hailed as a revolutionary work, and its author, Harold Cruse, as one of the great philosophers of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Cruse, however, felt little connection with the various artists, philosophers, and writers of BAM. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, in fact, blasted the major components of the movement as well as the prominent black leaders at that time as being too confined to one area. According to William Jelani Cobb, an AOL Blackvoices columnist, Cruse "traveled his own path, creating an intellectual middle road from which he attacked all schools of thought and picked apart a broad range of topics, always digging, trying to get at the bottom of black America's most entrenched problems."
Harold Wright Cruse was born in Petersburg, Virginia, on March 8, 1916. His family, which consisted of his father and stepmother, moved to New York City during his childhood. An aunt helped spark his interest in becoming a playwright by taking him to plays and musicals. Upon graduation from high school, Cruse worked as a film editor, and as an office clerk, before joining the army during World War II. From 1941-1945, he was stationed in various locations, including Italy and North Africa.
Traveled His Own Path
After completing his stint in the army, Cruse attended New York's City College briefly. According to the Detroit Free Press, Cruse's longtime companion, Mara Julius, stated "he was self-educated.… He was an avid reader, spending much of his time in the library."
For a short time, Cruse was a member of the Communist Party. He contributed drama and literary reviews for the party's newspaper, the Daily Worker. However, he left the party because he felt it constricted the black experience.
Cruse returned to his first love, playwriting. During the 1950s, he wrote several plays. He also wrote essays that helped to cement him as one of Black America's leading social critics. Cruse helped co-found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School with poet Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). He also taught black history at the school as well as directed plays, and acted as stage manager for various productions.
Released Book to Critical Acclaim
In 1967 The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was released. The Independent of London, England, called the book "the most definitive critique of the [N]egro intelligentsia and most lucid analysis of the impasse in race relations in America." The New Yorker stated that Cruse's work would "infuriate almost everyone." The book called for a black autonomy and since its release has been used in numerous classrooms and has been the cause of many discussions about the state of black America. Its release in the late 1960s occurred post Civil-Rights Era, in the full throes of the Black Arts Movement, and during the birth of the Black Power Movement. However, no movement was held in high regard by Cruse, for he was neither Afro-centric nor in favor of integration. In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Cruse covered all the issues and major contributions that dealt with black America in the 20th century. He criticized various sects, including liberals and Communists, despite his brief affiliation with the latter. He also spared few people, including W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), actor/activist Paul Robeson, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and author James Baldwin. The New York Times stated that "[Cruse] concluded that blacks must form their own political, economic, social and cultural base to work on all fronts toward an accommodation with capitalism as it was modified by the New Deal."
Many have praised Cruse's work as thought-provoking, inspiring, and cutting-edge. The book became a main-stay in academia. His critics felt that he was biased against women and various other minority groups. But this did not deter Cruse, nor silence him.
After the release of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Cruse began lecturing at the University of Michigan. He became a professor at the university, despite having no college degree. He helped in the creation of the school's Center for Afro-American and African Studies, and was interim director in 1972. He earned his tenure, and later became professor emeritus of history and African-American studies in 1984.
Continued to Write About
Cruse also wrote Rebellion or Revolution?, Marxism and the Negro Struggle, and Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America's Plural Society. His work was also included in a few anthologies, and The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader, edited by William Jelani Cobb, was released in 2002. In her review of The Essential Harold Cruse, Sherri Barnes of the Library Journal stated "Cruse's legacy is awe-inspiring, and this new work is highly recommended for public and academic libraries."
In his later years, Cruse's health began to fail. Despite this, Cruse had planned to finally answer his critics, but before he began work on his follow-up to The Crisis, Cruse died of congestive heart failure on March 25, 2005. In addition to his longtime companion Mara Julius, Cruse was survived by two half-sisters, Shirley Toke and Catherine Jones; both reside in Virginia.
Writer Molefi Kete Asante stated in an article located on his Asante Web site that Cruse was "arguably one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. Among African American intellectuals he is almost in a class by himself, centered in his own cultural history, steeped in the traditions of activism, and committed to social, economic, and cultural justice." In a review of Cruse's Plural But Equal, Joseph Sobran of the National Review commented that Cruse's writings and observations were those "of a man who thinks in terms of how the world really works, not how he would like it to be. His prescriptions aren't ideological." Cobb stated in his column on the AOL Blackvoices Web site that the social critic was "[u]nsentimental, unsparing and, truth told, uncharitable at times… Cruse wasn't concerned with the cotton-mouthed niceties. He wanted to speak sharp-tongued truths." Harold Cruse's social criticism of the institutions of black America may have separated him from the other philosophers of his generation, but it has placed him among the select few who have also provided solutions to the betterment of the African Diaspora, without using clichés or popular slogans.
At a Glance …
Born Harold Wright Cruse on March 8, 1916, in Petersburg, VA; died of congestive heart failure on March 25, 2005, in Ann Arbor, MI; son of railway porter. Education: Attended City College, New York, NY. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1941-45. Politics: Communist Party, 1940s-1950s.
Veterans Administration, film editor, office clerk; New York Labor Press, film and drama critic; Daily Worker, literature and drama critic, 1940s; black history teacher, researcher, writer, political activist, 1946-67; Black Arts Theatre and School, co-founder, black history teacher, writer, director, stage manager, 1965-66; author, 1968-2002; University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, visiting lecturer, 1968, Department of History, staff, 1968-77, helped create U-M's Center for Afro-American and African Studies, 1970, interim director, 1972-73, professor of history and Afro-American and African studies, 1977-84, professor emeritus of history and African-American studies, 1984.
Phi Kappi Phi.
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Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America's Plural Society, Morrow, 1987.
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New York Times, March 30, 2005, p. A15.
Publishers Weekly, February 11, 2002, p. 180.
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"Harold Cruse," Infotrac Custom Newspapers-Southfield Public Library (Southfield, Michigan), http://splweb.sfldlib.org:2057/itw/infomark/0/1/1/purl=rc6_SP02?sw_aep=lom_mspl (July 11, 2005).
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"Past Imperfect: Sharp-Tongued Truths, a Tribute to Harold Cruse," AOL Blackvoices,http://bv.channel.aol.com/edumain/sub/pi04062005 (July 6, 2005).
—Ashyia N. Henderson
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