U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Black Left and Harold Cruse: A Study of Contrasts

The response of the Black Left to Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual reflected, in many ways, the uncertainty facing many Black intellectuals in 1967. Confronted with “white backlash”, the rise of Black Power, the retreat of liberalism, and the dilemma of Vietnam, Black intellectuals (especially those on the Left) found themselves trying to grapple with a future full of both potential and serious pitfalls. However, Cruse’s work, which was quite personal in attacking many Black intellectuals who still held serious influence on the Black Left, elicited a variety of responses. While it would be a mistake to assume they were all positive or (more believable to assume) all negative, the reviews of Cruse’s book in Freedomways, Motive, and other organs for Black intellectuals showcased a diversity of thought influenced by then-contemporary crises in ideology and vision.

Julian Mayfield’s response to Cruse may be, perhaps, the most interesting to consider in this context. After all, Mayfield was among the intellectuals called out by Cruse. Speaking on behalf of the Harlem intellectuals chastised by Cruse, Mayfield reviewed The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual for Negro Digest, a middlebrow publication for Black Americans that became a showcase for Black intellectuals to speak to a middle-class, intellectually curious audience. The June 1968 review, titled “Crisis or Crusade?” read as the lament of a man who expected far more out of Cruse.[1]

Mayfield began his piece by writing that he was glad a book like Crisis had been written, except for the fact that it completely failed to live up to his expectations. Wrote Mayfield, “despite its promise and all its built-in advantages, (The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) is a glaring failure, and worse, a ship that has sailed into port under false colors.”[2] Mayfield is reflecting on a central issue of what would become Black studies: the lack of many serious books about Black intellectuals was a serious issue for Black academics in the late 1960s, just as many scholars began to finally take a long look at the Black experience in America. For instance, Mayfield laments that Cruse gives an entire chapter to Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright whose career and life were tragically cut short at an early age, while W.E.B. Du Bois, an intellectual giant who lived for nearly a century, doesn’t receive enough attention. Mayfield dismisses the book as a personal grudge machine of Cruse’s, not the work that Mayfield wanted to see  as a true testament to Black intellectual production and thought in the first six decades of the twentieth century.

The review written by Mayfield is not just a chance for him to condemn the book for being unoriginal (he believes that Cruse’s thesis of Black nationalism struggling against a white-dominated integrationist front is wrong and nothing new) but to also stand up for himself and colleagues slammed by Cruse. The review is, in short, an extraordinary document in its own right, a clash of generations and outlooks on Black life that symbolizes the underlying tensions of the world of Black intellectuals in 1967—and beyond. Mayfield, who at one point lived in Ghana and embraced a Black radical tradition effused with pan-Africanism, found himself clashing with Cruse, a writer also familiar with earlier Civil Rights and Black radical traditions, but becoming by 1967 a tribune of Black cultural nationalism. Mayfield was the past; Cruse, while not exactly an inexperienced young man in 1967, was seen as being part of the future of Black thought.

Vincent Harding’s review in Motive magazine provides a different viewpoint from that of Mayfield. I’ve mentioned Harding before on the blog, and his story is one that, I’d argue, requires a good intellectual biography someday. But, for now, it’s important to note where Harding is in 1967: very much part of Martin Luther King’s inner circle, but open to a wide variety of strains of Black intellectual thought in the late 1960s. Harding is, as he would be throughout his long career, on the front lines of Black intellectual debate and development, and reviewing Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was a chance for Harding to expand upon his thoughts on potential futures for Black Americans.

While Harding is critical of the book when he feels it necessary to be, for him Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is also an exciting example of what could be done in the world of American letters to explain the Black condition. “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is the product of an obviously tough, probing, and impressively informed mind,” Harding explains. He continues, “At first glance—and even beyond that—the book seems disorganized, overwritten, and poorly edited, and it is all of these at various points. But such attributes do not comprise the primary reality. More than anything else, Cruse’s study is one of the most honest, illuminating and provocative works on the black condition in America that has been published in this decade.”[3] Clearly, this is a different response than that rendered by Mayfield. And, beyond the fact that Mayfield is attacked in Crisis and Harding is not, there’s more here to think about in terms of why there’s such a disparate difference of opinion. That very difference is also part of the burgeoning clashes amongst the Black Left and, indeed, among the Left in general in the late 1960s.

Harding defends the focus on Harlem that was a large part of the critique rendered by Michael Thelwell that I discussed last week. However, Harding does still criticize Cruse for ignoring one key group of intellectuals: those from the American South. Wrote Harding, “….His single-minded focus on Harlem eliminates treatment of that crucial group of black intellectuals who have operated in the South for the last decade, and who have much to do with the latest resurrection of blackness. He seems especially unaware of the thinking of such crucial persons as MLK, James Forman, Robert Moses, James Bevel, Charlie Cobb, and Julius Lester. (Strangely enough, he also neglects New Yorkers like Bayard Rustin and Kenneth Clark. Why?)”[4] This is a cogent argument by Harding for a failing of Cruse’s book. While Cruse is masterful in his focus on the intellectuals of Harlem, to ignore Black intellectuals who were either natives or did most of their important work in the American South is a serious hole in the book. After all, can one say that there’s a genuine “crisis” of Black intellectuals when the author is only focused on one part of one major American city?  Harding pinpoints four major groups as being central to Cruse’s book: Black leftists, white radicals (who, in Cruse’s estimation, have come to dominate many of the Black leftists), West Indians (Stokley Carmichael and, going back, Marcus Garvey), and Jewish intellectuals (who Harding points out Cruse argues embrace a Jewish nationalism but disparage Black nationalism). Yet, in the context of Black intellectual thought in the late 1960s, is it wise to write about these groups and completely, and utterly, forget about the intellectuals on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle that helped reshape American politics, culture, and intellectual discourse?

Take note, as well, that Harding also mentions other Black intellectuals from New York City (Rustin and Clark) that Cruse ignores. Perhaps Cruse’s book should have been called The Crisis of Certain Negro Intellectuals in Harlem, but that would not have been as catchy. Again, Cruse defended himself on that point by arguing that Harlem was still central to Black thought in the 1960s. Nonetheless, Harding finds the book fascinating, and understands Cruse’s clarion call for a new Black cultural nationalism. “It must be obvious by now that what Cruse is opting for in America is a strong, self-consciously cultivated and celebrated cultural pluralism rather than assimilation,” wrote Harding.[5] Considering Harding’s later leadership of the Institute of the Black World, his interest in developing a cultural pluralism that would include room for a unique Black American consciousness is not surprising.

Another harsh review of Crisis of the Negro Intellectual appeared in the left-wing journal Freedomways. Not appearing until 1969, showing the relevance of the book being recognized beyond the fall 1967 moment, this review was written by Ernest Kaiser, a prominent reviewer for the magazine and a considerable bibliophile of Black works. Kaiser, like other reviewers, saw Crisis as little more than a personal vendetta by Cruse against other Harlem intellectuals. Kaiser argued that white reviewers who looked at Cruse’s work ignored other works on Black intellectual history (for example, August Meier’s Negro Thought in America), again showing the intellectual segregation between white intellectuals and their black counterparts.[6] Albert Murray also makes an appearance in this review, criticized by Kaiser as being far too soft on Cruse’s book and giving it far too much praise.[7]

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also delve into Kaiser’s Left critique of Cruse’s work. Kaiser argues that Cruse pursues the wrong people (white Communists and their black fellow-travelers) and leaves the real adversaries of Black American off the hook: “Unable to oppose his real American oppressors, who are highly vulnerable with a system full of destructive contradictions, he blames the Marxists or Communists and the Negro people themselves for the Negroes’ plight and lets the capitalists off the hook,” argued Kaiser.[8] This critique fits within the larger radical tradition of Freedomways. More important for Kaiser, however, is Cruse’s inability to accurately examine the plight of both Black intellectuals and the larger Black populace. For Kaiser, those two groups cannot be divided, unlike Cruse’s critique of intellectuals. “The Negro playwright develops, as Shakespeare did, by being closely associated with and writing for a Negro people’s theatre. And both the Negro playwright and the Negro intellectual or critic must have a clear social philosophy in order to develop something more than the vague cultural apparatus stuff of C. Wright Mills or the nebulous cultural nationalism of Harold Cruse,” begins Kaiser in the climax of his harshest critique of Cruse. “This is a very confusing, disorienting, dangerous book since Cruse, posing as a know-it-all, voluble super-critic, seems, to many who cannot see through his tricks and one-upmanship at all times, to have the answers for everything. The trouble with what Cruse is advocating is best exemplified by his book: Cruse is always analyzing Negro programs in a vacuum, never as programs, demands or developments that grow out of the Negro people’s struggles.”[9]

What did Cruse’s book mean to Black intellectuals? It depended on how close your ties were to the Harlem-based Black Left. In the case of Vincent Harding and other young Black intellectuals, however, the book presented an opportunity to begin thinking about Black intellectuals and Black intellectual thought in a new light. The book’s release in 1967 was also convenient as part of the growth of Black Studies and, of course, Black Power. Cruse disparages Black Power, despite his interest in cultural nationalism. Of course, Stokley Carmichael himself wrote a book that best described his program of Black Power to the nation. It’s to that book that we shall turn to next week.


[1] Mayfield, Julian. “Crisis or Crusade?” in Negro Digest, June 1968, Volume XVII, No. 8, pp. 10-24. There’s a great deal more here in the review, and it’s one I’d recommend reading once one is finished with Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Luckily, it (and many issues of Negro Digest) are available via Google Books.

[2] Mayfield, p. 11

[3] Harding, Vincent. “Beyond the Black Desert,” in Motive, March 1968, pg. 45-48, quote on pg. 45.

[4] Harding, pg. 47-48.

[5] Harding, pg. 46.

[6] Kaiser, Ernest. Freedomways, Vol. IX, no. 1, Winter, 1969, pg. 24-41.

[7] Kaiser cited a review from the Chicago Sun-Times from the date November 26, 1967. Murray, a supporter of the idea of a unique Black contribution to a unique American culture, would probably be amenable to some of the arguments of Cruse on Black cultural nationalism. I’ll have to definitely find this review and consider it in context of Murray’s future writings.

[8] Kaiser, p. 34.

[9] Kaiser, pg. 41.

6 Thoughts on this Post

    • Ditto! I love seeing these reviews, especially Vincent Harding’s. And I chuckled at your alternate title, Robert, for Cruse’s book.

      • It was something that occurred to me in the middle of the night as I wrote this post, heh. It just proves, though, that everyone felt that they had to respond to this book, whether they agreed with it or not. And not just in a “oh, I’ve got to review it” but in a “my review must EMPHATICALLY either support or disagree with the book.”

        One thing that looking at all these reviews made me realize is: does a similar public forum exist where we’d have so many prominent folks reviewing the same book? I suspect if a book like this came out today, half the reviews would show up on websites instead of literary or middlebrow publications. Mainly because, well, we no longer have as many of these pubs in a prominent place in public life.

  1. Thanks for your review. I’m not well read, but after reading a few seminal Black works, I concluded that Harold Cruse’s book is supreme in its mapping out of the problem. And its interesting to see how other black intellectuals responded to it. One of my heroes, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, also dismissed ‘Crisis of the Negro Intellectual’. I’m wondering if any of the critics actually counter any of Harold’s points instead of giving reasons to dismiss his work.
    I also went to HU. Are you ever in the Washington D.C. area?

    • I’m so sorry I’m just responding to this, but I’m glad to hear from you.

      I think your concern about how they tackled Cruse’s points is a good one. On the whole, most of the people I read who praised the book did have a firm grasp of his arguments–it just seems a few had qualms about the geographic limitations of the people he studied.

      Sadly I’m not in the D.C. area that often–but I hope to be there this year for the S-USIH conference. Of course, also feel free to contact me via email as well! Thanks again for your kind words here and at the other post.

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