This is by William Jelani Cobb, the editor of [ame=" 6path= R2"]The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader[/ame].

Sharp-Tongued Truths: A Tribute to Harold Cruse

I've learned enough to know that life doesn't really care about your own individual sense of timing. Still the recent news that Harold Cruse, the critic, playwright, essayist, activist, professor and intellectual swordsman superior had passed away came as a shock.

I first encountered Cruse on the far wall of the "politics" section of Pyramid Bookstore in Washington, DC. His massive Crisis of The Negro Intellectual sat dominating the shelf, its stark black and white cover daring me to pick it up. This was back in the late 1980s when just discovered that entire canon of black writing - Yosef Ben-Jochanon's Black Man of The Nile, J.A. Rogers' From Superman to Man, John Henrik Clarke's African World Revolution and Cheikh Anta Diop's African Origins of Civilization - all of it was all new to me and I had set out to methodically devour every page of it. Cruse was not of that ilk - even though he and Clarke had been friends back in the 1950s and 60s.

He was traveling a different road, concerning himself with an entirely different set of questions and I passed over The Crisis in favor of some other now-forgotten piece of Afrocentria.

I came across the book years later, in my mid-20s and the flair, originality and straight-up acidity of his prose left my head spinning. It was as if he had taken the dozens and applied them to intellectual discourse. Communists, liberals, muddle-headed race officials of all political stripes - it didn't really matter what they were calling themselves because Cruse analytically gin-su'ed them anyway. Neither Baldwin, nor Wright, nor Hansberry, nor Robeson escaped his pen unscathed. Unsentimental, unsparing and, truth told, uncharitable at times, Cruse wasn't concerned with the cotton-mouthed niceties, he wanted to get at the sharp-tongued truths.

I could not have known it at the time, but I would spend the better part of the next decade grappling with the questions he raised. He was one of the primary reasons that I wound up writing a doctoral dissertation on African American anticommunists. While researching that project, I came across a cache of Cruse materials at NYU that had never been published. I wrote him a letter and asked if he would consider me as editor of a Harold Cruse Reader. I really didn't expect him to agree, but when he did, he flew to meet with him in Michigan at the retirement community he was living in. What I found when I arrived was an old man whose quick admissions of failing health were like intellectual versions of Ali's rope-a-dope. Give him a minute and Cruse could still take you to school on the finer points of theater criticism, the failings of American Marxism, the farcical pursuit of reparations ("They'll give 'em to you right after you get on the boat back to Africa") and the poor state of contemporary black intellectuals ("A bunch of god-#&% dummies!")

Cruse was born in Virginia in 1916 and came to New York in his childhood. An aunt dragged him from Queens to Harlem as a child so he could attend the plays and musicals of the waning Harlem Renaissance. He witnessed the tide of radicalism that swept the country in the 1930s, fought in World War II in the 1940s and joined the Communist Party for a brief period before leaving at the dawn of the McCarthy era. His first love was the theater and he hoped to make a go of it as a playwright. That didn't happen and by the time his manifesto reached shelves in 1967, he was already well into middle age.

The thing that Cruse brought to the table was a commitment to resolving the issues that he saw as undermining black leadership - and thereby black people - for decades. He favored the adage that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it and he therefore applied his massive power of comprehension to the issues laying before us collectively. And unlike a whole lot of others who wear that mantle of public intellectual, Cruse actually did things. With Crisis he laid down an intellectual blueprint for the Black Power Movement of the latter 1960s. He continued that work in the 1970s at the University of Michigan as a pioneer in the field of black studies.

He made big statements and in so doing ran the risk of having large flaws. Successive generations of thinkers criticized Cruse for bias against West Indians, women, the left generally and the Jewish left in particular. He admitted that Crisis was a flawed worked, but even now, three-plus decades after its publication, it is a cornerstone - chipped and cracked, but a foundationnonetheless.

He followed Crisis with Rebellion or Revolution? And then, in the late eighties, Plural and Equal both of which elaborated on the themes he had worked on in the first book. A few months ago he gave me a call and told me that he was working on a book that would respond to his many critics and that he might need my assistance in researching it. And, man, did he have some people in his crosshairs.

By that point, though, his claims to poor health were no longer camouflage and I didn't know if he was physically strong enough to see the project through to completion. But I will tell you this: there is some degree of comfort to be had in the fact that his life expired long before his willingness to start an intellectual brawl ever did.

Peace be upon you

The National Afro-American League (1887-1908)
The National Afro-American League (1887-1908)

Posted April 11th, 2005 by Prometheus 6
The Essential Harold Cruse | Prometheus 6