Notes of a Hanging Judge

by Stanley Crouch

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2092

Public discussions of emotionally charged issues such as civil rights or affirmative action typically descend into an exchange of cliche’s, of “politically correct” statements that mask the absence of a deeper consideration of what is at stake for the future of a common and united American experience and culture. Too often, such discussions merely generate a tense uneasiness for most in the audience and a resignation to the damning fact that all has been heard and that the only task left is simply the assigning of blame for a certain state of affairs. To assume otherwise is to belabor the obvious and to wander in naive and errant optimism. Rare is the thinker who can penetrate to the heart of race-related issues in order to move beyond stereotypes and intractable generalizations.

In this collection of thirty-seven disparate essays and reviews written between 1979-1989, Stanley Crouch, former jazz columnist and itinerant social critic for New York City’s The Village Voice, proves he is exactly such a thinker. Notes of a Hanging Judge brings together an eclectic set of pieces that nevertheless emanate from a single, piercing vision that refuses to accept the received wisdom about race and class in contemporary America. They chronicle a decade of Crouch’s nonconformist musings on what he calls “the Age of Redefinition,” by which he means an age in which both disillusionment with and confusion about the recent past and its meaning dominate our society, placing the African American in particular historical peril and perplexity. The Civil Rights movement, Crouch avers, helped in many ways to transform a fossilized, comfortably racist America and to make it possible to envision a new kind of community in which both dominant and dissenting cultures could thrive and even merge in peace and harmony.

Yet, the opportunity for such a society has been lost, Crouch believes, because the black community has largely accepted the dogrna of racial preferentialism, forgetting the emphasis that Martin Luther King, Jr. placed on developing a society in which people are judged as individuals, “by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.” Relinquishing this quest for equality, Crouch argues, has bred an ideology of blood guilt and a reliance on unproductive sloganeering that reduces rather than enlarges black character.

The phrase “by the content of their character” in many ways encoded the ethos of the Civil Rights movement and recalls the ideal, as expressed in the 1960’s, of a “color-blind” society. In reading Crouch, one can look back on that period with some nostalgia as well as some alarm, as the color-blind society has not, apparently, been achieved and now is seldom even sought let alone held up as a rallying metaphor. This is the case partly, some would argue, because of the dubious success of the Civil Rights movement in making the ethnicity of racism’s victims such a prominent feature of the proffered solutions offered by both white and black political leaders. The result is ever-increasing race consciousness and racial bickering.

To such an assessment, Crouch would say ’Amen.” Believing that he is part of an “undeclared lost generation,” Crouch searches for the key that will rescue his contemporaries in the larger dominant culture and his peers in the black community from a noble cause that has now “gone loco.” He seeks nothing less than an end to what he regards as a debilitating politics of victimhood that serves to promote only the twin evils of racial warfare and self- segregation. In this posture, Crouch writes courageously and courts alienation from mainstream black activists who, perhaps, most need to...

(This entire section contains 2092 words.)

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hear his contrary opinions of their exploits. Against seasoned politicos such as Jesse Jackson or pop culture avatars such as Spike Lee, Crouch mounts a convincing argument that they are too comfortable in fomenting stereotypes of both white and black culture that engender the breakdown of a once hoped-for community of shared values between the two groups.

Like his fellow dissenting black writers and social commentators Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and Anne Wortham, Crouch is hard to classify politically; is he, as the National Review’s Brad Miner wonders, a “liberal, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, or what?” Whereas it is unlikely that Crouch would be happy being labeled a “conservative,” much of his criticism of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement—as well as his depiction of the more elusive problems of black family life—sounds the familiar themes of self-help and the appeal to color-blind justice associated with Reagan-era policymaking.

Merely to categorize the focus of Crouch’s cumulative wisdom on these matters as politically to the left or to the right is to misconstrue both his intent and the nature of these essays. Crouch is writing not only to or for minorities, but for all Americans—trapped as they are in the morass of their own history and failed attempts to bring equal rights before law to all citizens. For non-black readers, Crouch provides an uncommonly incisive entry point into the world of black culture for the ignorant outsider. In essay after essay, Crouch’s unblinking eye guides the naIve, uninitiated reader into the labyrinthine experience of minorities more skillfully than perhaps any other writer since James Baldwin. Rather than stacking up familiar indictments about racism and bigotry among whites, Crouch prefers to contemplate and champion the epic nature of African-American experience, and thereby to register the hope that Americans can unlearn from the past and recent history as much as they may have learned.

Crouch’s subject matter is varied. He heads the collection with his most recent piece, a profile of Jesse Jackson on the campaign stump in the 1988 presidential campaign, and he expends many pages on the vicissitudes of black political culture. His last piece is a dazzling tour de force that captures the ambience and aura of an Italian jazz festival. Throughout the collection, Crouch authoritatively addresses aesthetic issues within and without black culture, as well as the interactions between the black community and various subcultures such as the feminist and homosexual liberation movements in their appropriation of the tactics of the 1960’s Civil Rights establishment. The index catalogs a breathtaking scope of personages, books, and ideas on which Crouch has offered a refreshingly wry assessment or comparison. In his own words, Crouch is “primarily interested in those affirmations of human value that have brought about reconsiderations of history, the arts, and heavy-handed, demeaning, or soppy media images.” As a consequence, Crouch has little patience with lazy or propagandistic aesthetics.

This passion is a particular feature of his redoubtably effective film and fiction criticism. With estimable skill, Crouch pronounces some devastating judgments on the aesthetics of several prominent black artists, including in his collection two particularly scathing reviews of the work of filmmaker Spike Lee and novelist Toni Morrison. Writing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Crouch first praises Lee’s technical skill as a director and his gift for comedy and then does not equivocate in accusing him of prostituting his art to exploit racial aggression. In the slashing climax to his unabashedly negative review, Crouch ponders Lee’s success with critics, particularly white liberals:

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 hit clown suit, entertaining those who cannot believe the bodies buried under his house.

For Crouch, Lee’s films try to wish away the “unarguable persistence of a declining racism”; the result is cinema that panders to “[i]ntellectual cowardice, opportunism, and the itch for riches by almost any means necessary,” that is, propaganda in the service of personal wealth and glory.

Compared with his decimation of Spike Lee, Crouch’s treatment of Toni Morrison’s prizewinningBeloved (1987), a brutal chronicle of slavery and its effects on the black psyche, is almost charitable. In citing Morrison’s skill, he nevertheless proceeds to undermine the reader’s confidence in it: “Morrison, unlike Alice Walker, has real talent…but she perpetually interrupts her narrative with maudlin ideological commercials.” Doctrinaire ideology is the enemy, Crouch pleads, of artistic achievement and of black advancement in particular, and he proclaims thatBeloved was written to placate feminists who earnestly desire “that the vision of black woman as the most scorned and rebuked of the victims doesn’t weaken.” Art that attempts to sentimentalize atrocity thus demeans the artist and the people she seeks to redeem. Crouch’s summary comment is lit up by mordant wit:

Beloved, above all else, is a blackface holocaust novel. It seems to have been written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest, a contest usually won by references to, and works about, the experience of Jews at the hands of Nazis.

Perhaps Crouch’s most daring piece is his coverage of the Bernhard Goetz case about the subway avenger who shot four black teenagers who allegedly attempted to extort money from him. Here Crouch finds not simply another example of white racism, but an essential insight into white fear about the real and imagined threats posed by a black underclass. Crouch suggests that whites “aren’t troubled by Negroes per se. Their nemesis is the violent criminal who is too often construed as emblematic of the black underclass. I would suggest that their anger isn’t so different from that of anyone humiliated by a person inferior in every way other than his ruthless willingness to intimidate or assault.”

The major contribution of this collection remains Crouch’s searing indictment of the self-styled messiahs of the black oppressed. The title of the collection is drawn from a line in his introduction to the collection in which he confesses he has outlived and outgrown many of his earlier allegiances and associations, and has come to reject many of the politically correct notions most black intellectuals are supposed to accept: “I have become something of a hanging judge, much like Henry Morgan, who sent many of his former pirate buddies to the gallows, certain that they deserved what they got.” In Crouch’s estimation, black activism has been wallowing in a “xenophobic darkness” and has retreated from the vision of universal humanism that animated the original Civil Rights movement.

In its place has come what Crouch calls an “ethnic nationalism,” which strategically rejects the concept of universal equality commonly associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition and liberal Jeffersonian democracy. This concept views each individual as a unique creature of God who, bearing His image, inhabits a society of persons created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. The ethnic nationalist offers a progressive extrapolation of the individual from himself as a unique person. In this stratagem, personal identity is reallocated to an abstract class, race, or tribe; personhood is merged into the vagaries of a stereotyped, collectivist group-identity. Life becomes one grand class action against Western culture on behalf of the oppressed.

The marshaling of political forces behind racially based hiring and promotion procedures helps to create the notion that no individual as such exists, and that there is no universal personhood requisite to a man or woman except that which can be buttressed with the statistical credentials of the victimized minority. The fruit of this dissociation of individual uniqueness, character, and merit from the meaning of personhood is an antinomianism that dismisses the concept of equality before the law while flaunting it in the pursuit of power. The results, Crouch observes, can be seen in the disintegration of the black family.

Crouch is thus unsparing in his criticism of the “base opportunism” which he believes is at the heart of much contemporary racial activism: “[Aifter all these years of asserting that whites should vocally separate themselves from racists, demagogues, and hysterics in their midst, few black people in positions of responsibility are willing to do what they demand of others.” Crouch is anxious to get on with the difficult business of learning how to live together as one multicultural people; yet, he is not blinded to its current impossibility. Notes of a Hanging Judge is his manifesto for declaring it possible even to imagine such a promise again.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, February 1, 1990, p.1055.

Library Journal. CXV, February 15, 1990, p.204.

Los Angeles Times. May 21, 1990, V, p.1.

The Nation. CCL, May 21, 1990, p.710.

National Review. XLII, June 11, 1990, p.56.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p.9.

Time. CXXXV, April 9, 1990, p.92.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, April 8, 1990, p.S.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LXV, September, 1990, p.117.