Wednesday, June 8, 2011


My first contact with cultural critic Stanley Crouch took the form of a phone call I received in 1982. He was at The Village Voice then, was reviewing my novel Oxherding Tale, and wanted to speak with me about it. As we talked, I immediately felt I was conversing with a kindred spirit, a very original thinker who had read the most accomplished works of fiction, American and foreign, and was as troubled as I was (and as many were, though many kept silent about it) by the way uncritical, prefabricated political ideologies of one sort or another had replaced depth of thought and meaning, breadth of vision, originality and invention, and technical mastery in works by some black writers (No, I'll mention no names) heavily promoted (again for political reasons) in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I discovered he was a cultural fighter in the class of heavyweights, one not afraid to point out that "The Emperor or Empress isn't wearing any clothes." In this country, we almost never speak honestly about race. As a Buddhist, I view that subject as residing at the white-hot center of Samsara as a lived illusion. And Crouch, being a black American writer and critic, recognized instantly when another black writer---the opportunists and race hustlers---was pulling wool over the eyes of white readers unfamiliar with black American history and culture; or exploiting fashionable trends; or simply lying for personal profit. 
He understood that neither black nationalism nor the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s had a monopoly on black thought in America, indeed, that this separatist, one-dimensional strain of thought was not even dominant among black Americans, although some naive white readers predictably found it to be thrilling. (And many today who are teachers K-12 and in colleges, white and black, prefer to give their students exclusively a diet of such self-pitying material devoted to the idea of victimization.) My own parents and kinfolk, for example, would have listened politely to it, then excused themselves and gone back to the real business of life, i.e., working to create a better future for their children, to honor their own mothers and fathers, to work at their own self improvement in mind, body and spirit, and take advantage of the very tangible opportunities America offered in the post-Civil Rights period, just as African immigrants do today, the ones who say of alienated, bitter, native-born black people that "Where they see walls, we see windows; where they see obstacles, we see opportunities."

Crouch wrote a spot-on, two-page review of Oxherding Tale that led directly to it being leased for a paperback edition by Grove Press.  And so began a spirited, long-distance dialogue, between Seattle and New York City, a friendship of mutual support and collegiality that continues to this day. Along with my literary agents, he was my guest in November, 1990 at the National Book Award ceremony when Middle Passage received that prize, and his description of that night has been read by many people.

Like his mentor, the very distinguished author Albert Murray, like Jerald Walker and James Alan McPherson, Crouch has a heroic vision of black American life and history. To be perfectly honest, it's impossible not to have such a vision if one has studied the way black men and women since the 17th century have overcome simply preposterous obstacles during centuries of slavery (when they were demonized as soulless and less than human) and decades of racial segregation (when that dehumanization continued) in a struggle taken up by each generation of black people until it led to the election of the first black president in 2008. He has no stomach for a "tragic" vision of black life, or one that whines and wallows in pathos and victimization, for those conceptualizations only invoke pity. And close on the heels of pity comes contempt (for black people or anyone seen as unable to pull their own weight). As Crouch has said often, "I'm not on the left wing or the right wing. I'm on the free wing."

He understands---as every generation did before the late 1960s---that black Americans, relentlessly disenfranchised and denied for so long in this nation, became creative grand masters of the art of "making a way out of no way," the agents that forced the United States to live up to the ideals in its sacred, secular documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), resulting in a more fully realized practice of democracy and freedom, which every oppressed group discriminated against in this country---women, Asians, Hispanics, people of the Jewish persuasion, gays and the trans-gendered---has benefited from for the last fifty years. Crouch, bless him, understood that this was a noble, ennobling, and quintessentially American struggle that liberated everyone from the cage of color; he refused to let us forget that (for we can be a willfully forgetful nation), and he inspired many of us to never back down to bullies, ideologues, bigots, opportunists, and fools when the truth (and the well-being of our children and loved ones) is at stake.

That very old understanding of black life became muddied in the late 1970s and early '80s. It took a cosmopolitan and courageous author like Stanley Crouch to clear the toxic air and, as one of my best friends puts it, "get the room right." But as he always reminds me, our job is not yet done. The infantilization of American culture continues every day. Our job as writers is to relentlessly address this, and with our gloves off, if need be. In fact, we have more work to do in this regard in the decade after 9/11 than we had in the early 1980s. When future historians write about our conflicted, often confused period of American literature and culture, the name Stanley Crouch will stand out boldly as that of a writer who recognized go-nihaara (Sanskrit for bullshit) whenever he saw it, and called it by its proper name. 

No comments:

Post a Comment