Harold Cruse

Author of 'The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual'

Irascible, angry but gifted, the social analyst Harold Cruse was a leading black public intellectual of the 20th century, writing on the unresolved race-class issues that plague black and white America.

Harold Wright Cruse, social critic: born Petersburg, Virginia 8 March 1916; staff, Department of History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 1968-77, Professor of History and Afro-American and African Studies 1977-84 (Emeritus); died Ann Arbor, Michigan 25 March 2005.

Irascible, angry but gifted, the social analyst Harold Cruse was a leading black public intellectual of the 20th century, writing on the unresolved race-class issues that plague black and white America.

Cruse was the arch-enemy of integrationist black intellectuals as Harlem in the 1940s emerged from the depths of the Great Depression. He believed there was a profound leadership problem. Although briefly associated with the Communist Party, Cruse believed that black intellectuals and their white, socialist, particularly Jewish, allies, were misdirecting negroes from truly radical and creative actions. This hiatus arose, he claimed in his best-selling book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), because of their alienation from the masses and hence their inability "to specifically and independently define negro goals".

Cruse was ideally placed to make these observations. Born in 1916 in Richmond, Virginia, seat of the slave-owning confederacy, he was a migrant to Harlem, the Mecca of the New Negro, along with thousands of other poor black southerners, and from an early age lived with his working-class father and stepmother.

He served in the segregated US Army in the Second World War and then, largely self- educated, got most of his schooling in militant labour and Communist Party cadres.

Cruse was a formidable and audacious critic of black social, political and artistic life. But The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual established his place in American and African American Studies. It is probably the definitive critique of the negro intelligentsia and most lucid analysis of the impasse in race relations in America.

His analysis begins with the crucial clash in the 1920s between the black nationalist and pan-Africanist principles of the mass movement leader Marcus Garvey and the integrationist approach championed by W.E.B. Du Bois, then an officer in the white-influenced National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Cruse criticises severely the editors of Freedomways, the pre-eminent progressive black journal of the period, led by Du Bois and Paul Robeson. By contrast, he praises self-determined grassroots southern and northern black leaders: the armed self-defence committees of Robert Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, and the rebels of the Watts uprising in Los Angeles.

Cruse concludes with a "Postscript on Black Power" and a controversial question that still gnaws at the vitals of today's black intellectuals in white societies: "How do we measure up to the complex problem of being spokesmen on behalf of the black masses?"

New assessments of Cruse's work are under way at the Atlanta think-tank the Institute of the Black World, and the Black Policy Conference at Harvard University this month will keep his adversarial points of view alive.

The significance of his work - his suggestion that intellectuals must learn from the black masses and play a central role in movements for radical change - is still hotly debated. The Harlem intellectual Howard Dodson, Chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, concludes, however,

Cruse was probably right, the mid-century mass actions in the North, of Harlem negroes led by the Rev Adam Clayton Powell Jnr, and the brave vanguard of the civil rights movement in the South, were probably more productive in the equality struggles than the posturing of black and white socialist intellectuals.

Following the publication of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Cruse took up a position at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in African American Studies and retired in 1984 as Professor Emeritus.

His later books include Rebellion or Revolution? (1968) and Plural but Equal: a critical study of blacks and minorities and America's plural society (1987). His work is also celebrated in The Essential Harold Cruse: a reader (2002), edited by William Jelani Cobb.

Thomas L. Blair

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