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Reading: A Traitor to the Movement

Village Voice critic Stanley Crouch came up through the black nationalist movement, but now he's one of its fiercest opponents.

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In 1971, when I was attending a local community college, black power and black nationalism were at their peak. These overlapping ideologies had already succeeded in dismantling the rainbow coalition that was the civil rights movement and in placing intellectual blinders on some of the most promising minds in the black community. On campus, a former editor of Muhammad Speaks, the racist Nation of Islam's newspaper, was working as the college's black-student adviser, and there was much vocal support among the black student body for the Republic of New Africa, a clandestine organization that advocated the establishment, through armed struggle, of a separate black nation in the southern United States.

One day while giving an oral presentation to a black literature class, I stated that African American music is a uniquely American art form, the result of a fusion of African and European influences. Several days later, outside the classroom, I was approached by a black student who said that he and others in the class were outraged by that remark, which they felt to be racist, and that he had been elected to inform me of this.

I offered to demonstrate my point by taking him to a nearby music practice room and showing him on a piano how, by flattening the third, seventh, and sometimes fifth tones of the European major scale, African Americans had invented a new one found in neither its African nor European antecedents. He would hear none of this, however, and began hurling epithets, including "patty."

"Your mama," I blurted out.

"White boys can't play the dozens," he responded in amazement, then raised his fists and assumed a fighting stance. A scuffle would surely have ensued had not a campus security guard happened along and sent us on our separate ways.

A similar debate occurred two years ago in the New York offices of the Village Voice between two music critics--Stanley Crouch and Harry Allen. Staff writer Crouch, in his reviews of jazz and especially in his essays on culture and politics, had emerged as the most forceful opponent of black nationalism among African American journalists. Allen, a free-lancer who specializes in rap, had embraced some of the more fanatical aspects of the currently fashionable Afrocentric movement. The content of their argument remains unknown, but it was apparently Crouch who struck the first blow, which resulted in his suspension from the paper.

(Crouch is again writing for the Voice, his barbs more uncompromising than ever, though his recent pieces have appeared too infrequently. Allen, on the other hand, hasn't been seen in its pages since an incident last summer when he allegedly leaked word to Public Enemy that the Voice was about to publish excerpts from then-member Professor Griff's now-infamous anti-Semitic Washington Times interview. At last report, Allen was working as a publicist for the Nation of Islam-aligned rap group and mailing out press releases advancing the theory that, because of the lack of melanin in the pigments of white people, they are racist by nature.)

I imagine that the fight between Crouch and Allen may have involved issues similar to the one that nearly caused my face to get smashed 19 years ago. Crouch perhaps argued, as he does so eloquently in his first book, Notes of a Hanging Judge, that African Americans are a mulatto people and that American culture, not just black American culture, is mulatto in much of its language, music, cuisine, and customs. "Blacks and whites retain almost identical taste in foods, and their sense of humor is much the same," he writes in his chapter on Atlanta. "The good old boy, the gentleman, the belle, the orator, the scholar, the tale-spinner, and the fool-cutter also have idiomatic Southern variations on both sides."

Allen no doubt countered that whatever European traits African Americans may have picked up during their stay in North America are the result of brainwashing and must be expunged in order to protect the race from the debasing influence of whites, who, according to Louis Farrakhan, are a "grafted" people created 6,000 years ago by a mad black geneticist named Yakub and are thus "weak-boned," "weak-blooded," and inherently evil. Allen perhaps called Crouch an "Uncle Tom" and a "traitor" to his race.

"I am indeed a traitor to [the black nationalist] movement," Crouch states in the introduction to his collection of essays and reviews on politics, literature, film, and television. Under the influence of Frantz Fanon, LeRoi Jones, and "various Third World revolutionaries," he began his writing career in the late 60s at such black nationalist periodicals as The Journal of Black Poetry, Liberator, and Black World.

"Having been born in 1945," he explains, "I consider myself part of an undeclared lost generation that ran into the xenophobic darkness, retreating from the complex vision of universal humanism that underlay the Civil Rights Movement. It was surely a flight that called for embracing black power, black nationalism, black studies, the racist rants that were known as 'revolutionary black art,' and a comical but tragic version of leadership that recently reiterated itself in the outlandish antics of the advisors in the Tawana Brawley case, all of whom were quick to call any Afro-American critical of their charges and tactics some sort of traitor to the collective skin tone."

Crouch, who now describes himself as "something of a hanging judge," came to reject black nationalism. Its ideas, he argues, "helped send not only black America but this nation itself into an intellectual tailspin on the subjects of race, of culture, of heritage. Where there was not outright foolishness, there was a mongering of the maudlin and a base opportunism. Those qualities tainted a good deal of the writing that came out of that period and supported more than a few of the conceptions that many are only now coming to recognize as the self-destructive double standards they always were. What I frankly consider cowardice or intellectual dishonesty among Afro-American intellectuals and commentators allowed for the sustained power of more than a few silly ideas."

Besides such predictable targets as LeRoi Jones, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party, and Farrakhan ("he piled his points in Dagwood sandwiches of contradiction"), Crouch aims his verbal darts at more widely respected figures, such as James Baldwin and Spike Lee. Baldwin, he contends, "settled for sassing the white folks when ideas of substance would have been much more valuable. His considerable gift for making something of his own from the language of Henry James and the rhetoric of the black church was largely squandered on surface charges and protest fiction." And of Lee, Crouch says, "It is precisely because Lee can make audiences laugh that the fascist aesthetic he follows with such irresponsible deliberation slips the critical noose. Intellectually, he is like John Wayne Gacy in his clown suit, entertaining those who cannot believe the bodies buried under his house."

Fortunately, at least for the sake of balance, Crouch is not a total grouch out to hang everyone. Among the people he salutes are novelist-critic Albert Murray (perhaps Crouch's primary intellectual mentor), Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, former SNCC leader Bob Moses, British-born African aviator-author Beryl Markham, former New York deputy mayor Haskell G. Ward, novelists Charles Johnson and Martha Lacy Hall, the late painter Bob Thompson, and boxer Muhammad Ali. "Breaker, trick rider, picador, and the heavyweight ring's fastest jockey," Crouch writes, "Ali has made ring time canter and canter, bow, leap over giant bushes, and move so much in his own terms that time became mutual with his grace. Truly the Professor of Boxing, he elasticized his profession, made daring and cunning and mystery part of the craft."

When writing about jazz or, in the case of Ali, a related form of improvisation, Crouch is at his most poetic, the rhythms of his words and sentences evoking a beauty akin to the new melodies a master jazz musician sculpts over the chordal skeletons of 32-bar standards and 12-bar blues. Unfortunately for fans of Crouch's music criticism, there is little of it in Notes of a Hanging Judge. Some space within essays on broader subjects is, however, devoted to analyses of the music of Louis Armstrong, James Cotton, and Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Crouch particularly finds great idealism and hope in Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition he forged for his 1988 presidential campaign. The finest achievement of that campaign, in Crouch's view, was to make possible "an atmosphere of multiracial coalition unrivaled since the most inspired moments of the Civil Rights Movement," when an unprecedented coalition of blacks, women, and gays was brought into the mainstream of American politics. Jackson was at once able to challenge black people, in a way no white politician could have, "to get off dope, to raise the babies they make, to stop being lackadaisical in public school, and to work their ways out of problems rather than merely whine as they sullenly accept their conditions," and at the same time appeal "to a good number of whites, whether or not they would like to see him hold high elected office."

Perhaps the greatest measure of Jackson's success was the reception he received in Wisconsin, where he took nearly a quarter of the white votes. At a barn rally in Janesville, Crouch writes, an audience of mostly rural white people "held up their children to see, teenaged blonde girls giggled and discussed his good looks, skeptics were drawn in, and by the conclusion of the address, they were chanting, 'Win, Jesse, win! Win, Jesse, win!'" And he quotes a white man leaving a Jackson rally in Long Island, "It feels good to go to an event that's not all white." Crouch adds, "In other words: It felt good to feel like an American."

Crouch, always the rigorously honest analyst, does not shrink from pointing out Jackson's shortcomings, including his failure to meet with local Jewish leaders in Manhattan, and exposing his dirty linen, particularly the shirt the reverend once fraudulently represented as having been splattered with the blood of the martyred Dr. King.

Notes of a Hanging Judge arrives at a time when the fascist fringe of the new Afrocentric movement, particularly through rap records and community-access cable TV programs, is goose-stepping its way into the cultural arena. Crouch's book is a welcome if frequently harsh antidote to such self-destructive tendencies, an essential read for anyone concerned with the future of race relations and the realization of true democracy in America.

Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989 by Stanley Crouch, Oxford University Press, $22.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzeberg.

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