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Remembering Harold Cruse, 50 years later

By Yolande Robbins

This afternoon I had the good fortune to meet a young man who had been listening when I spoke a throwaway line about Harold Cruse still being an anomaly more than 50 years after his groundbreaking book called “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” first hit the bookshelves. I can’t even tell you why I said it. But he and I discussed it at some length and will continue to when he calls me later in the week.

But it had been on my mind for quite some time and I had raised it gingerly with friends and contemporaries of late who were more disposed than I was to dismiss him. He had been such a force in the development of our 20-year-old selves, and now, after 50 years, we simply “knew more” …or “understood better” …and had let him go.

Harold Cruse was a remarkable man. He died at 89 in 2005 and was for years a tenured professor at the University of Michigan who had never even graduated college. He was a self-educated man. And in 1967 he lit the world on fire with publication of his book in the world of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and others like them to say we were romanticizing — and losing — the battle we needed to be fighting and win.

He called for analysis more than rage. He saw the poetry and music of the movement as enervating the choices we needed to make and said that we were lacking both in the will and the capacity to choose. He regarded the formulations of an integrated society and even its opposing “black power” as slogans or therapies to help evade both the choices and the competencies we needed to develop as a people.

I think he was right both then and now.

We are mired in this economy with young people doing little but walking about the entire summer. We rely on an economy of cutting grass. We have no active self-identity as either Africans or Americans, or as hybrids of both. Even with competence, we have no standing. And even a half-century later, people are still choosing their iconic, their revered “Dr. King” as the one in Selma or Montgomery, but not the one, as my new friend noted, in Chicago or L.A.

A genuine intellectual life and thought, along with efforts to result from it, was the way to go, Cruse said, and what was genuinely lacking to that point. A half-century beyond that, I don’t think we have advanced that much.

Some object to the implied separateness of attending to our separate needs. But such thoroughness is lacking and is needed, I think.

Since Cruse, the world-renowned black sociologist, Professor William Julius Wilson, has often charted the decline of black neighborhoods, the “disappearance of work”, and the ”declining significance of race” to help explain our spiraling downward even after the successes of the civil rights struggles and the 1960s.

Harold Cruse was definitely onto something.

And I think we should read his book again.

Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.