In the opening section of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, “Individualism and the ’Open Society,’” Cruse makes short work of the American myth of individual achievement. He argues that, while the bulk of the Constitution recognizes the sanctity of the individual, certain sections—specifically, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments—derive from the political and social experiences of groups—for example, the former slaves. This double trajectory of the Constitution is replicated in a number of areas in American life, but for Cruse’s purposes its pertinent incarnation is cultural nationalism and civil rights agitation, loosely corresponding to group segregationism and individual integrationism in African American history. Just as W. E. B. Du Bois’s central argument against Booker T. Washington was that economic development required the a priori deployment of political power, so Cruse’s argument against integrationists is that individual rights in any one sphere of activity (social, economic, and so on) can be protected only by group power in other, if not all other, spheres. Thus, for Cruse, “power” always means the simultaneous wielding of cultural, political, and economic clout.
This premise governs every subsequent argument Cruse constructs. Thus, in section 2, “Harlem Background: The Rise of Economic Nationalism and Origins of Cultural Revolution,” Cruse delineates the failure of both ordinary Harlemites and the intelligentsia to support the few businesses and cultural institutions actually owned by African Americans. He traces this separation of cultural and economic power in discussions of the rise and fall of the Afro-American Realty Company, the communist-inspired picketing of a film showing at the Apollo, the failed strike of the Lafayette Theatre, the paucity of...
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Harold Cruse’s book appeared in 1967, in the middle of student demonstrations for free speech and black studies programs at universities and colleges, the Civil Rights movement, and a Black Power movement coming to grips with the post-Malcolm X Nation of Islam. His work was widely praised and condemned, not least by African American cultural activists, politicians, historians, and literary critics. Cruse was accused of making ad hominem arguments that were unsubstantiated by real historical analysis and putting forward an unrealistic assessment of the viability of separate black political and economic institutions. Perhaps most damaging was the criticism that took Cruse to task for conflating the unique historical experience of Harlem and its populace with those of other black urban centers.
At the same time, Cruse was praised by those who were more sympathetic to the Black Power movement for his willingness to take on the sacred cows of the Civil Rights movement and the Nation of Islam, both of which, in retrospect, were already at the height of their power and influence over the general American public. Cruse’s historical analysis, however scattershot in approach, hit a few nerves for yet another reason. Cruse’s critique of integration and segregation as embodied in the figures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X was primarily a critique of religion-inspired movements within African American history. In taking this position, Cruse was literally going against certain presumptions underlying the trajectory of black history and culture: the unavoidable reliance of African Americans on religion (whether Christianity or Islam) in their struggles for civil, economic, and political rights and power.