U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Grouchy Crouch: Black Intellectuals

I was just reading Stanley Crouch’s introduction to a 2005 edition of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and it is a very strange document. It professes the importance of Cruses’ work while tearing apart all the ideas presented in it as either wrong or rather silly. For example:

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual seemed to assume that there was a substantial intellectual tradition among American Negroes. That was neither true forty years ago nor is it true now. Very little arrived that would challenge the depth of thought found in the works of men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot, Gilbert Seldes, Lincoln Kirstein, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, and so on. There has never been a substantial body of thought on any Afro-American subject that was formed of deep studies, original theories, probing cultural examination, complex religious assessment, and schools of philosophical concern that raised questions about essences as opposed to superstitions, hearsay, and propaganda. There have been attempts here and there, usually caught up in Negro politics or Negro art movements based more in exotica than the kinds of challenges to convention that jazz brought to the table of Western music. No serious gathering of ideas, as full of yea as of nay, has appeared that was so well conceived and so eloquently expressed that it would add something of value to either American thinking or the larger and more formidable fact of life we call Western thought.

In the Salon, Amy Alexander explains that this is typical Crouch.

Armed with an elephant’s memory and a passionate knowledge of and engagement with art (blues and jazz especially, though not exclusively) and history (American, though not exclusively), Crouch delights in slaying the dragons of convention — particularly those that guard the sometimes-insular world of black intellectuals.

But also argues that there is more to him than his contrariness:

Underneath the mask of Crouch the Grouch is a down-to-earth individual who would rather engage you in debate than cut you dead with pretensions of writerly superiority. He is one of the rare top-echelon literary figures who not only welcomes conversation with unknown young writers (he gives out his home office phone number and usually picks up when it rings), but is also wont to commandeer them for marathon swirls through his downtown universe of smoldering jazz clubs, big-portion restaurants and Runyonesque watering holes.

Although routinely and incorrectly described as a black conservative, Crouch calls himself a “radical pragmatist.” To the uninitiated, his philosophy might best be described as rigidly humanist. It centers on an unsentimental vision wherein we must fight the siren temptation to obsess about our (mostly superficial) differences, lest we miss the chance to embrace our (very real and very numerous) commonalities.

Of all the things that could be said of Crouch, one cannot deny that he is a very intelligent man and an excellent jazz critic. Why, then, would he claim that there was no black intellectual tradition? Why would a publisher, New York Reviews Books Classic, put him at the beginning of the reprint of Cruse, generally acknowledged as a major contribution to black intellectual history? What can we take seriously in Crouch’s critique and what can we dismiss as his famous “grouchiness?”

I think this might be more interesting as a discussion than simply me offering an opinion, though I will point out that Du Bois’ interpretation of the Reconstruction, published in the 1930s, is now the staple interpretation (minus some of Du Bois’ Marxism).

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I haven’t read the review, and am not especially well versed here–although i have read a little of the historiography–but i would point out that it is one thing to say that there is no black intellectual tradition, as i take it Crouch does, and another thing entirely to say that there is no tradition of black intellectuals.

    Crouch is certainly being polemical, but isn’t the issue really the *autonomy* of a tradition identifiable as ‘black intellectual,’ rather than the presence of certain black intellectuals–Du Bois, for instance, in a broader tradition? The argument, as I understand it, would be not so much that Du Bois didn’t contribute to intellectual life, but that the manner in which he did it was not most interesting for its blackness. of course one should probably still be skeptical of such claims; but i think there is an inherent plausibility to attacks both on specific coherent and autonomous ‘traditions,’ and on the very idea of such a thing, that we shouldn’t just dismiss.

  2. For the six of you who attended the panel I was on in November, you know I have an opinion on this subject. Like a lot of debates I suspect this stems, in part, from a question of definitions and terminology. If Eric is right, that Crouch is referring to the lack of a tradition and not a lack of individuals, then Crouch may have a point. However, I take issue with Crouch even on the more narrow point.

    My work examines black opinions of African colonization and the broader question of their place, or lack thereof, in America. Certainly this tradition dates back to the 1780s and was much discussed by black individuals. Of course white indivduals shaped this tradition, but blacks also profoundly shaped white attitudes as well. (William Lloyd Garrison springs to mind).

    The other, somewhat overlapping, area where a black intellectual tradition exists is in race and racial identity. Blacks have been forced to confront this issue throughout American history. Obviously, this is not an “autonomous tradition”, but there are no truly autonomous traditions. The fact that black intellectuals have grappled with and confronted this issue for over 200 years surely makes it a tradition by any definition.

  3. After having thought a lot about this, I think what Crouch is trying to do is pull African American ideas (or a tradition) away from the Africana and Black Nationalist types and towards consideration fully within the American tradition. However, he does this in an exceedingly provocative (well, offensive) way.

    And it’s not just about tradition–he lists a bunch of individuals and challenges his readers to name African Americans who could stand up to them in intellectual merit. This is the kind of name calling game that seems easier to excuse oneself from rather than start to examine whether Du Bois is more or less interesting/provocative/important a figure than Emerson.

    I just picked up a 2010 edited collection called _Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought_ edited by Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren et al. Let me quote the opening paragraph of the introduction for an argument just as provocative as Crouch’s, but with a greater chance of being taken seriously (it seems to me).

    “This volume coheres around a presumption that African American studies and its subject matter are both nested within and partly constitutive of broader currents of American history and thought and, therefore, that making sense of the black American experience requires situating it fundamentally within the larger cultural, political-economic, and ideological dynamics that shape American life in general. Specifically, we stress this view against the tendency to attempt to reposition the field within putatively ‘diasporic’ frames of reference. Although such perspectives have attracted considerable interest over the past two decades, their appeal stems more substantially from their privileging of racial commonality as the fulcrum of inquiry than from the quality of the accounts they render of black American life. We should be clear that our objection is not to translatlantic inquiry in principle. However, much of the discursive strain associated with the frame of the African diaspora, particularly that lying oustide the nonverbal arts, relies on exceedingly thin intellectual or cultural history, naive textual interpretation, nimble yet facile cultural analysis, or other forms of metonymic fallacy to justify a claim that black Americans’ beliefs and practices are most authentically understood as nodes in a supraterritorial world of African descent. This objective is rooted in the unproblematized conflation of scholarly and political legitimations that besets the field, including the presumptive posture that black studies scholarship articulates needs, concerns, and perspectives for the race.”

    Next I will find a succinct justification for black studies, Africana, and the diaspora concept to offer to you all.

  4. Manning Marable’s statement of one black intellectual tradition: “The greatest casualty of racism is democracy. Afro-Americans have understood this for many decades, and their leaders have attempted to redefine the American political system for the benefit of all citizens, regardless of race, gender, and social class. Most of the pivotal figures in the black experience who pursued the goal of multicultural democracy were charismatic leaders and orators—from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. But the most complex social theoretician of this black tradition was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.”
    p 1 _W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat_

    This is now so accepted perhaps it does not seem as radical as it was when Douglass and Du Bois spoke and wrote about it.

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