Crouch to the Contrary : Books: In “Notes of a Hanging Judge,” essayist Stanley Crouch lambastes black intellectuals for separatist attitudes that he says betray the civil rights movement.
OK, “here I go with the written part,” the main theme, says essayist and jazz critic Stanley Crouch. “Then I’m going to step out,” lay out some variations and riffs.
The crowd is with him, smiling, nodding, although most conferences on race relations--especially sessions sponsored by the neo-conservative National Forum Foundation in Washington--seldom get this swinging a keynote speaker.
The jovial, gruff-voiced Crouch begins a metaphoric howl into what he has defined as an abyss of intellectual and moral cowardice.
His targets: contemporary African-American intellectuals, who he characterizes as selfish opportunists, suffering from critical bankruptcy in the face of fashion and ideology.
If one finds wisdom in his words--and this crowd does--they are acid-dipped pearls taken from his new book “Notes of a Hanging Judge.” One need only imagine the power of Duke Ellington’s all-star road band pulling out all the stops at 1 a.m. to an audience of the jazz cognoscenti to sense Crouch’s relentless rhetorical swings in person and in print.
Bop ! Toni Morrison, he says, is “a literary conjure woman.”
Sh-wee-doo ! Black cultural separatists, he calls, “mirror-licking nationalists.”
Doo-wee-ahhhh !: Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan? “Consistently incoherent.”
Sh-wee-ah-bop-bop !: Spike Lee? A “miniaturist in more than size,” dwee-ah , whose “Do the Right Thing,” for all its wit, is the sort of rancid fairy tale one expects of the racist, whether or not Lee actually is one.” Sh-bop, bam!
And rap group Public Enemy and those of their ilk who have engaged in the baiting of Jewish people, Sh-wee-ah Boom ! “Afro-fascists.”
Crouch says the civil rights movement was a noble cause “gone loco,” once black power advocates and black cultural nationalists held sway.
The pre-Mecca Malcolm X, while part of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, was the “chief heckler of the civil rights movement,” he says.
With its science-fiction theories of race and xenophobia, the Nation of Islam ushered in an era of separatist thinking that undermined the inclusive, trans-racial vision of America represented by the civil rights movement, asserts Crouch.
In the essay, “Civil Rights Blues,” in his book, Crouch observes that, “Black nationalists seemed to get their manner from films showing off the decadent pageantry of popular potboilers set in Rome or Pompeii, depicting bush despots surrounded by the humble and gruff, the servants and the palace guard. Nationalists loved drums and dancing, and martial arts displays, all of which revealed their being caught in the party scenes of the celluloid fantasies they seemed to abhor.”
In contrast, what made the Southern civil rights movement so revolutionary, he says “was a set of variations on epic themes of the labor movement and Gandhi with the inflections and syncopations of black Bible Belt oratory.”
“Notes of a Hanging Judge"--an Oxford University Press collection of Crouch’s essays and reviews written primarily for the Village Voice between 1979 and 1989--is linked in tone and substance to the work of conservative, black journalist George A. Schuyler during the 1940s.
Likening the two, Time magazine wrote that Crouch is a “scold posing as a voice of intellectual integrity.” Too often, Time continued, he allows his valuable insights into the “self-victimization that has come to dominate the black, women’s and homosexual liberation movements to degenerate into viperish personal attacks.”
But unlike Schuyler, Crouch--who is 45, was born in Los Angeles, is a graduate of “no college,” a one-time actor and director with the Watts Repertory Theatre and former speech writer and college instructor--says he is no conservative: “I’m neither in the right wing, nor the left wing. I’m in the free wing.”
A giant of American literature and one of Crouch’s mentors, Ralph Ellison, says that “behind his dissenter’s rhetoric and hangman’s mask, Stanley Crouch is actually a benign and eloquent provocateur, and whether one agrees with his conclusions or not he provokes us to a conscious re-evaluation of any unthinking assumptions we might hold regarding American society. . . . “
In short, says Charles Johnson, another admirer, a novelist and literary critic, Crouch says everything “we think about and talk about among ourselves,” but fear to say in public. “He is unerringly accurate and uncompromising in his assessment of what he feels are intellectual and artistic errors in the work of his contemporaries.”
After his improvised keynote speech for the National Forum Foundation’s “Second Thoughts About Race in America” conference, Crouch joins the conferees for a hotel dining room lunch.
Over filet of sole, the hyperactive Crouch plays with his knife and checks his reflection on its stainless steel surface.
Why, he is asked, is his book only descriptive and implicit when addressing institutionalized racism in America--the pervasive denial of discrimination among whites that fuels so much negative black behavior--but brutally explicit and prescriptive when dealing with the black community’s ills?
Later, far from the luncheon clatter, he gives a response in a telephone call from the Ragdale Foundation, a writer’s retreat outside Chicago where he is completing his next book, a biography of jazz artist Charlie Parker.
The faults of white America have been discussed by blacks ad infinitum, he says: “Sentimentality is one of the things that most oppressed groups have to battle with. We have to battle with our own group sentimentality about our condition as much as we have to battle with any external stereotypes. . . .”
The concept of “self-help” is not foreign to African-Americans, he continues. If black people begin to “engage their own fates,” as they have done in the past and move from what has become a form of mass “mental illness” within the group (namely, blaming white people for everything), whites would be more supportive of issues high on the black agenda.
But the black agenda must be viewed as inseparable from the American agenda, he maintains.
“The Negro,” writes Crouch--who uses that term, black and African-American interchangeably, he says, depending on the rhythm of a phrase--is at the “moral” center of American life “because the history of the African-American has been consistently interwoven with the issues that determine the fight to realize the Constitution.”
Black nationalists, he reasserts, “who confused identity with pretentious name changing, costumes, and rituals that turned ethnicity into a hysterically nostalgic social club,” separated the black agenda from the nation’s.
Further, they help to set the stage for all the other counterculture movements that have Balkanized American society.
Explaining that literary critics have failed to note the thematic organization and development in his book--he compares it to Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen"--Crouch, intellectually and stylistically eclectic, lays out the important elements of each chapter.
But he sounds neither like a jazz artist nor operatic devotee. Instead, in his “I know I’m bad” voice, he reminds one of a Contour singing the 1962 rhythm and blues classic “Do You Love Me.”
His version goes:
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
See how I can write, write, write
Watch me work, hey!
In the introduction, “I want to get past the complaint level and deal with engagement. And engagement is inspired by recognition of previous successful engagement.” He notes the monumental changes that have taken place in this century: the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.
“The feminist movement is one of the most important things that has taken place in human history,” he says. “Women have redefined themselves on a scale that has no precedent in the history of the world. That doesn’t mean that women are in the catbird seat. But it damn sure means women aren’t in the position they were when I was a little boy.”
His essay on the Rev. Jesse Jackson “sets up the grand overture,” states Crouch. Among other things, the chapter deals with the positive way “a lot of white people respond to black people and the way the press is constantly running behind the caboose with cliches and missing all these monumental changes” in white attitudes and behavior toward African-Americans.
The chapter also addresses the “complex, tragic elements of American politics. On the one hand, there are people who might be personally screwed up but who can do remarkable things"--Jackson among them, with all his personal and public faults.
“You can’t,” Crouch says, “separate Jackson from an ex-Klansman like Hugo Black who went on the Supreme Court and became one of the most liberal judges in the history of the court. Or Lyndon Johnson who was a segregationist and got monumental civil rights legislation through. Or Sherman who helped win the Civil War but thought the Indians should be exterminated and wasn’t that thrilled about black people either. Lincoln, who was a manic depressive and Grant who was an alcoholic and Jefferson who had slaves and so on.”
Our job, he says, “is to look at these things with maturity and say what is the upshot of this? The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are two of the most remarkable documents in the history of humankind. The proposition that we have to engage, as women . . . and others did in the wake of our struggle, is expanding American democracy so that those documents extend into every household.”
Leaping to his essay “Aunt Jemima Don’t Like Uncle Ben,” Crouch claims that “whites within the media who felt betrayed or affronted by the anti-white, anti-Semitic and violent tendencies of black nationalists during the ‘60s are promoting a gaggle of black female writers who pay lip service,” to feminism while promoting new stereotypes of black men and women.
For this offense, he shakes his hangman’s noose in the direction of Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and Michele Wallace, author of “Black Macho & the Myth of the Superwoman.”
“To say it flat,” Crouch pronounces, “there were a number of white women in relationships with black men who got messed over by these black guys during the civil rights movement and after. They couldn’t write books about how bad these guys had messed over them” without being labeled racists. “A number of these women ended up in the publishing world . . . and they championed people like Alice Walker.”
When they weren’t reading this type of literature, says Crouch, white women took their daughters to see Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” They considered that bit of entertainment a cautionary tale: “Well there, stay away from them. That’s one of them telling you what their men are like.”
In the type of attack “The Nation” characterized as “bilious sneering,” the hanging judge also demands that James Baldwin walk the plank posthumously.
Considered the “intellectual component of the civil rights movement,” Baldwin, Crouch asserts, sanctified the oppressed and elevated victimization in African-American literature.
Baldwin, he says, was a seminal influence on the cultural nationalists who “transformed white America into Big Daddy and the Negro movement into an obnoxious, pouting adolescent demanding the car keys.”
Such an attitude, Crouch says, has dominated African-American letters since Baldwin published “The Fire Next Time” in 1963.
In “Aunt Medea,” Crouch calls the book “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “a blackface holocaust novel,” written to “enter American slavery into the big-time martyr contest.” Morrison “unlike Alice Walker, has real talent,” he allows. But “ ‘Beloved’ reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries.”
If women writers, black or otherwise, want to be taken seriously, he asserts, they must write something of universal excellence; then race and gender become irrelevant.
Shange is sitting at home in Philadelphia, groaning into her phone after hearing about Crouch’s comments. She’s been reading his work for years in the Voice, she says.
“First of all,” she replies, “slavery created victims. In the literature of Baldwin, Gayle Jones, Toni and Alice and I, what we have been determined to do is find strength in what our actualities were.”
If, she says, “a woman has been raped, she can not proceed with her life with strength,” if she can’t acknowledge that she has been “defiled.” But she can, eventually “proceed with the strength garnered from knowing that she has survived that.”
Crouch’s so-called “heroism of the victim is a total misinterpretation. What we have done, if I can put myself in the company of these fine writers he’s mentioned, is face and exactingly explore the nature and capacities that certain experiences have allowed us and then conjure the possibilities before us without any definitive horizons.”
But just when he’s ticked one bunch off, Crouch, the free-winger, has got a piece of his mind for someone else.
In his same critique of Wallace in “Aunt Jemimah Don’t Like Uncle Ben,” Crouch says no reviewer has “dealt with the proposition I raise of how white people could be so manipulated by their guilt feelings.”
Wallace quotes Lillian Hellman’s “Pentimento” in “Black Macho.” From his writers’ retreat, Crouch says, “it’s the quote from Hellman about how, from childhood, black women had been telling her what do. And that she feared and loved them at the same time. I said then, and I’ll tell it on Telstar: I really believe there is a large contingent of white women who want mammies?”
What was that?
“M-a-double m-i-e-s. Mammies. And if the mammies are named Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Gayle Jones, Toni Morrison, that’s what they’re going to get. They want black women to tell them what they want to do.”
After a discussion on blacks and beauty, he observes that one of the saddest things that happened on college campuses occurred when black students began to segregate themselves. Instead of cultivating the genuine admiration that some whites had for blacks, he says, African-Americans “relinquished enormous influence on the direction of American society, because a lot of those white girls wanted to be friends with black girls. A lot of those white guys wanted to be friends with black guys.
“In ‘Aunt Jemima Don’t Like Uncle Ben,’ I say that some people dealt with that on an opportunistic level. Rather than expand human understanding, they played on white females’ intimidation by black women and elevated the image of black brute, then tried to take the steering wheel of feminism,” he says.
Crouch returns to the theme of the powerful black women toward the end of his book in “Aunt Medea,” the essay about Toni Morrison.
Novelist Mary Gordon tells about a dream she had of Morrison. “That dream says it all,” tells Crouch. “She dreams she’s in this ramshackle mansion with all these rats and roaches and turns to Toni and says: ‘What are you going to do?’ And Toni says ‘No problem,’ and flicks her wrist and immediately the house is beautiful.”
“Hoodoo to you, too,” Crouch says with a laugh.
As a social commentator, the reviews of Crouch’s book usually deal with super-literary concerns. Perhaps, when his biography of Parker is published in 1991 or his first novel “First Snow in Kokomo,” hits print as scheduled a year later, he will have to live up to the literary standards he has imposed on others.
As it is, “Notes of A Hanging Judge” has its own golden prose. In the often elegant final essay “Body and Soul,” he writes:
During the day, Rome has the feeling of rot and revelation one experiences when in the private domain of a handsome old woman, where sweat, sex, cologne, rouge, yellowed notes and papers, bottled remedies with indecipherable labels, crumbling flowers, photographs that seem to have been taken in a brownish gray mist, clothes stained with experience but never worn any more, and the smells of countless meals have formed a heavy collective presence in the air.
Its ruins are like the sagging and corded throatline of a beauty once too sensuous to be believed and now too soulful to be perfectly understood.