The All-American Skin Game, or, the Decoy of Race

by Stanley Crouch
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027

That the Constitution of the United States is a “blues document” is, one suspects, a point not commonly made in civics classrooms across America. It is, furthermore, an observation likely to please neither those white racists hip enough to recognize and honest enough to acknowledge the black origin of the blues nor those black nationalists determined to locate the Constitution among the instruments of white oppression. Yet making points not commonly made and giving offense across racial lines, especially to those resolved to define themselves in racial terms, are precisely the kinds of provocation readers have come to expect from Stanley Crouch, who voices this particular provocation in The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race: The Long and Short of It, 1990-1994.

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Earlier in his career, Crouch was identified primarily as a respected jazz critic; he is, with Wynton Marsalis, a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he has been at work for some time on a biography of Charlie Parker. The present book confirms that Crouch remains a formidably perceptive and articulate jazz critic. His essays on music and musicians, including pieces on Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, are among the delights of the collection. Yet the Crouch who, as columnist for the New York Daily News and contributing editor of The New Republic, has established himself as an incisive, controversial cultural critic is even more in evidence here.

As his observations on the Constitution attest, the two Crouches cannot after all be separated. The African American musical tradition remains for Crouch a crucial cultural reference. In this tradition, he discovers what is for him a central truth of the African American experience and a basis for placing that truth at the center of the American experience at large.

What is entailed by the claim that the Constitution is a blues document? The Constitution, says Crouch, is a metaphor, and at the heart of that metaphor one finds a tragic optimism, comparable to the tragic optimism at the heart of the blues. The Constitution functions like the blues, and like jazz founded on the blues. Both the blues and the Constitution assume human frailty and infidelity—that is the tragedy—and affirm the possibility of transcendence beyond, not denial of, those sobering realities—that is the optimism. People play the blues to rid themselves of the blues. Through the amendment process, individuals use government to rid themselves of the blues of government. The constitutional spirit values innovation, reinterpretation. Both blues and Constitution reject sentimentality while asserting the possibility of redemption.

Jazz itself represents for Crouch the highest level of artistic achievement American culture has so far reached and the art form that most fully encapsulates the spirit of American democracy. In his account, jazz consists of actions whose artistic truth inspires reactions, generating the interplay of musician and musician; thus its music is created in performance, not merely rendered as in the European tradition, and the coherence of the whole is achieved through the fullest realization of the individual powers of each player. The description, he insists, parallels closely the dynamics of a healthy democracy, like that to which the American system aspires.

As an African American—or, as he seems currently to prefer, an American Negro—Crouch celebrates the African American achievement in art and indeed places the central truths of African American art at the center of American democratic culture. Although Crouch went through a nationalist phase in the wake of the Watts riots of 1965, he has since come to view that ideology as a combination of foolishness, sentimentality (for him one of the harshest of criticisms), and opportunism. Any attempt to separate African American culture from American culture at large is in his view either uninformed or dishonest.

Implicit in Crouch’s conviction of the significance of African American culture for all Americans is an equally firm commitment to the belief that African Americans may claim as their own the cultural heritage that belongs to all Americans. That much of this heritage derives from European sources is for Crouch no stumbling block. There is, he asserts, no more destructive lie than the claim that black people, especially black children, are capable of being inspired only by members of their own race and sex. In affirming their humanity in the face of racist denial, black people have drawn consistently on concepts of a transcendent humanity originating in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are, Crouch argues, no comparable African sources. In fact, he says, “Everything truly important to me is the result of American democracy and the European ideas that were expanded and refined in order to adjust to the intricacies of human experience, action, conflict, and ambition within these United States.”

Not surprisingly, Crouch is unimpressed by Afrocentrism, which he dismisses as a “hustle.” Part of the dishonesty or intellectual confusion of this movement, at least in Crouch’s view of it, is its failure to acknowledge that it is an absolutely Western concoction—not least in its obsession with a fictional unity called “Africa,” bearing only occasional and incidental resemblances to a complex and often conflicted reality. Sentimental affirmations of African solidarity founder on the rocks of tribalism. Attempts to portray the European as disrupting what had been a pastoral harmony are refuted by a long history of enslavement of African by African—although neither enslaved nor enslavers would have defined themselves as African. Afrocentrist claims for the cultural precedence of Egypt, by no means self-evident, have at any rate little to do with African Americans, most of whose ancestors came from the west coast of Africa, far from Egypt.

Crouch’s harsh criticism of Afrocentrism is typical of the asperity with which he treats all instances of what he regards as inauthenticity in matters of race. He has in the past denounced such highly regarded African American writers as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. He is no fan of Spike Lee. Al Sharpton, Vernon Mason, Alton Maddox, and Marion Barry he dismisses as manipulators—and what other African American writer would describe Malcolm X as “the Elvis Presley of race politics, a pop black power icon mistaken for a serious thinker”?

Each of these evaluations is controversial, and the cumulative effect of them has for some raised questions about Crouch’s authenticity. Is he being deliberately perverse as an attention-getting device? Is he currying favor with the white establishment? Is his work, when all is said and done, one more hustle? Is he a neoconservative icon mistaken for an independent thinker?

“In the world of the prematurely cynical,” says Crouch, “the bad boy reigns.” This is not in the original context intended as a confessional statement, but it is possible to see in some of Crouch’s postures an assumption of a bad boy role, a perhaps unbecoming eagerness for shock effect. He can be generous to a novelist such as Leon Forrest, an underappreciated author to whose Divine Days (1992) Crouch pays close critical attention and gives high praise. Yet it sometimes seems more difficult for Crouch to honor an artist (Morrison, Walker, Lee) who has been more widely accepted. Even when Crouch’s negative evaluations are on target, he seems sometimes to ignore virtues perceived by generally discerning audiences.

Yet this observation must be balanced by a proper awareness of the intensity of Crouch’s enthusiasms, especially as they relate to the accomplishments of African American artists and the vitality of African American culture. These come across most strongly when he celebrates the musical genius of artists such as Ellington, Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong. His praise of Miles Davis is more reserved, but in this context all the more impressive because the reservations lend precision to the praise. Crouch’s admiration for his associate Wynton Marsalis is reinforced by the closeness of Crouch’s analytic attention to Marsalis’ music.

Among writers, Crouch especially honors two, both of whom he regards as mentors. Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans (1970) is for Crouch a book that should be read by anyone who wants to understand this country. Ralph Ellison, not only in his great novel Invisible Man (1952) but also in the essays collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), provides Crouch with a touchstone. He credits these two men with liberating him from the confinement of black nationalism. Both confirmed in him a sense of his American identity, while approaching a full expression of the complexities of the black experience in America—complexities too often missed by nationalists, Afrocentrists, sentimentalists, and polemicists of all persuasions.

A central symbol for Crouch emerges from the life of Frederick Douglass, the ultimate self-made man but also a mentor to his fellow slaves and, as such, a hero of community. In Douglass’ mixed racial identity Crouch finds a symbol of America itself, an America whose culture is, as Murray has pointed out, “mulatto.” In the determination of Douglass’ fellow slaves to learn how to read, although there was no likelihood in the context of slavery that that accomplishment could mean anything beyond itself, Crouch sees the slaves “inserting themselves into a world beyond the one imposed upon them.” In the course of the book Crouch develops variations on this theme, which implies a rejection of the notion that the meaning of African American history rests in victimization or, more benignly, in nostalgia for a lost past.

For all the severity of his rejections, then, Crouch emphatically affirms his own version of African American history and culture and his own pantheon of cultural heroes. Furthermore, Crouch can be coolly effective in dealing with some contemporary manifestations of white racism, even though his tactics will no doubt give offense (yet once again) to some of his black critics. He dismisses the racially charged implications of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), for example, by asserting that whatever one says about African American culture, there is no such thing as an African American race; in the process, he incidentally skewers Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and Louis Farrakhan.

Even the African American culture that Crouch thus affirms is not in his view properly understood or appreciated if separated from American culture at large. It is time, he says, to move beyond the skin game. Terms such as “black” and “white” are useful only insofar as they serve as loose approximations of skin tone; beyond that limited function, they become simple-minded and culturally inaccurate. What interests Crouch most, he says, is what Americans have in common.

According to Crouch, Americans should celebrate their “multiple miscegenations,” which enrich their identity and grant democratic liberation. To such familiar metaphors as the melting pot, the salad bowl, the mosaic, and the rainbow, Crouch adds one of his own: “As people of the Americas, we rise up from a gumbo in which, after a certain time, it is sometimes very difficult to tell one ingredient from another. All of those ingredients, however, give a more delectable taste to the brew.”

In rejecting the orthodoxies of discourse on race and its discontents, Crouch invites and has provoked strong responses, positive and negative. It is difficult to imagine a reader who will agree with everything that Crouch says, and almost as difficult to imagine a reader who will never respond to Crouch’s provocations with anger. His weakness, as writer and thinker, is that he seems often tempted to seek such a response. When he resists that temptation, when he lets his considerable intelligence and imagination freely and fearlessly explore the material under consideration, he becomes one of America’s most valuable observers of contemporary society. Surely few journalists working today match the strongly felt sense of culture that Crouch brings to bear on a variety of topics. Never a comforting writer, he is always a writer worth arguing with, and his vision of commonality is one that readers should not dismiss.

Sources for Further Study

The New York Times. December 11, 1995, p. C15.

The New York Times Book Review. C, November 12, 1995, p. 7.

The Wall Street Journal. November 20, 1995, p. A12.

The Washington Post. October 30, 1995, p. E4.

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