Cruse, Harold Wright

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Cruse, Harold Wright

(b. 8 March 1916 in Petersburg, Virginia; d. 25 March 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan), African-American scholar and social commentator whose best-selling study The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) critiqued the integrationist approach of many liberal African-American thinkers.

Cruse was born in Virginia but as a young child was brought to New York City by his working-class father, who had divorced his first wife, Cruse’s mother, and remarried. Cruse’s family included two half sisters. As he recounts in the preface to his book Rebellion or Revolution? (1968), Cruse attended a wide spectrum of educational institutions, including segregated schools in Virginia, an integrated school in Queens, and a predominantly black school in Harlem. Although he grew up in the Harlem of the 1920s and 1930s, the mecca of the New Negro movement, he subsequently showed little sympathy for the literary and artistic Harlem Renaissance, which he felt was too integrationist in spirit and failed to address fundamental issues of African-American identity. Cruse did acknowledge, however, that the teachers of his junior high school in Harlem, P.S. 139, stimulated his intellectual awareness of black history and art by taking him to the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, and explaining its importance. During his childhood and adolescence, Cruse also found his admiration for the arts fostered through his attendance of black vaudeville shows and through a technical job he held at the Young Men’s Christian Association theater in Harlem.

Throughout World War II Cruse served in the segregated U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. After the war he was drawn to the political left and the Communist movement, whose ideas he later criticized bitterly. He attended the George Washington Carver School, a Harlem institution with ties to the Communist Party. Under the direction of the writer Gwendolyn Bennett, the school hosted lectures by civil rights leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois. Cruse also attended City College but never graduated. Because of his irregular academic education, Cruse is unanimously described as an autodidact who began writing with little training. In the postwar years he started a career as a freelance journalist, which led him to contribute to a number of different publications, including the Communist Daily Worker, for which he briefly wrote theater and film reviews. In the 1950s Cruse turned to writing plays, but his attempts proved unsuccessful. At the end of the decade he joined a delegation of black intellectuals that traveled to Cuba and witnessed the seizure of power by the rebel army led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

During the 1960s Cruse rose to prominence on the American intellectual scene. He first taught black history for the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, founded and directed by the controversial African-American intellectual Amiri Baraka. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, first published in 1967, established Cruse as a leading personality among African-American thinkers. The book caused widespread debate through its polemical attack on the integrationist policies pursued by most black intellectuals, whom Cruse described as manipulated by white liberals and Communist militants. African Americans, the book charges, were then unable to start from a common and autonomous cultural and social base in their fight for racial equality; that is, they were too often borrowing ideas from other ethnic groups rather than analyzing their own heritage. “The Negro today,” Cruse asserts, “is the victim of the incompetence of radical social theory.” The book takes issue with the Communist Party, indicting Communist Jewish leaders for the greatest brainwashing of black intellectuals, who too readily accepted an alien philosophy inapplicable to the American experience. These remarks resonated with particular meaning during the zenith of the cold war.

Regarding Crisis, a New York Times reviewer wrote, “It’s a book that will provoke finger-waving rebuttal, shouting arguments, name-calling accusations.” His prediction was right, and the debate generated by the text thrust Cruse into the spotlight of academia. He was invited to lecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1968, and the following year he cofounded the university’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, becoming its first director. In 1977 Cruse became one of the first African Americans to receive tenure at a major university without possessing a college degree. He retired in 1984, becoming Professor Emeritus of History and Afroamerican and African Studies. Cruse died from congestive heart failure in 2005 at Sunrise Assisted Living in Ann Arbor. He was survived by his companion of thirty-six years, Mara Julius.

Both during his tenure and after his retirement, Cruse always retained his taste for controversy. His targets included respected African-American personalities, such as the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the singer and actor Paul Robeson, and the dramaturge Ossie Davis, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was not afraid of attacking so influential a white composer as George Gershwin, calling for black performers and technicians to boycott productions of his opera Porgy and Bess for its stereotypical depictions of African Americans. Cruse’s later books Rebellion or Revolution? (1968) and Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America’s Plural Society (1987) continued to expand on the rejection of integrationism at the heart of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. In Plural but Equal, Cruse went so far as to criticize the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. The implementation of Brown in the South, Cruse argued, in fact entailed the elimination of a whole generation of black teachers and school administrators. To black people, then, integration was just another form of exclusion, as they were left “stranded and stalled at the edges of power while the inner sanctums were protected from change.”

Cruse’s extreme provocations have been historicized in the cultural context of the cold war by a series of revisionist cultural critics, including William J. Maxwell, Barbara Foley, and Michael Denning, who have taken issue with Cruse’s virulent attacks on left-wing intellectuals. They have charged The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual with a devaluation of black intellectuals’ agency and have argued that the book’s central thesis, the manipulation of black intellectuals by predominantly white Jewish Communists, dramatically underplays fruitful cultural and political exchanges and mutual influences. Nevertheless, Cruse’s account of African-American cultural history is defined as “unignorable” even by those who have reached widely discordant conclusions. Whether as a valued point of reference or as a target for progressive revisions, Cruse’s oeuvre continues to stimulate debate among American cultural historians.

Biographical information on Cruse is available in William Jelani Cobb, ed., The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader (2002). For information regarding the impact of Cruse’s philosophical strain on society, see Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (1993); Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1998); William J. Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (1999); and Cynthia Young, “Havana up in Harlem: LeRoi Jones, Harold Cruse and the Making of a Cultural Revolution,” Science and Society 65, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 12–38. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (29 Mar. 2005) and New York Times (30 Mar. 2005).

Luca Prono