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An All-American Iconoclast


ISSUE:  Summer 1996
The Ail-American Skin Game, or The Decay of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990–1994, by Stanley Crouch. Pantheon. $24.00.

The Million Man March in Washington D. C. propelled Louis Farrakhan into the front ranks of the leadership of the Afro-American community. With Farrakhan comes not only the message of self-help and individual responsibility but also the baggage of Afrocentrism, separatism, and anti-Semitism. In the effort to lure the black underclass in support of this latest messenger of black nationalism, many in the mainstream of the Afro-American leadership have remained silent in response to Farrakhan and his acolytes in the effort to mobilize the black community behind his political agenda. But it isn’t only Farrakhan who is preaching separatism in the black community. Academics such as Leonard Jeffries and Tony Martin are similarly teaching bigotry under the guise of Afrocentricism and have become celebrities on college campuses, where many black students applaud their attacks on Jews and Western culture in general. One voice that has not remained silent is that of Stanley Crouch. A contributing editor to The New Republic, a jazz critic for The Village Voice, and along with Wynton Marsalis, the artistic consultant to jazz at Lincoln Center, Crouch has been outspoken in his condemnation of the “hustle” perpetrated by Afrocentrists and black militants such as Farrakhan.

The book under review is the author’s second collection of essays. The first, the prize-winning Notes of a Hanging Judge (Oxford 1990), created a stir when he wrote critically of Afro-American icons such as Toni Morrison and Spike Lee. Now Crouch shifts his focus on the defense of American pluralism and the Western tradition. In bringing together his fugitive pieces which have appeared in periodicals and in the book review sections of The New York Times and The Washington Post between 1990 and 1994, Crouch argues that the Afro-American experience is, in fact, viscerally connected to American tradition and culture. He scolds those who contend that in order to be an “authentic” Afro-American one cannot identify with the ideals of the country at large. He denies that Afro-Americans are part of another tradition and criticizes those who would define Afro-Americans as a community uninformed by African cultural principles which, if thoroughly absorbed, would supply the best defense against an irrevocably hostile white world. He also denies the Marxist analysis of the Afro-American experience which views blacks as a proletariat not just victimized by class but also racially excluded from getting a grip on the means of production.

In rejecting those who would alienate the Afro-American community from the cultural matrix of American society, Crouch affirms that “everything truly important to me is the result of American democracy and the European ideas that were expanded in order to adjust to the intricacies of human experiences . . .within the United States.” Crouch admits that this is not a popular position among some Afro-Americans because the idea of a black American asserting his African birthright denied him by virtue of slavery has become an expression of allegiance to the overall community. In confronting the proponents of Afrocentrism, Crouch observes that they fail to realize that their argument is not with the culture that emanated from the Western tradition nor with the moral standards of the Enlightenment that ultimately created the arguments against slavery, rather

it is a debate with the colonial vision of non-Europeans that has long been under moral and intellectual attack from within Western democracies themselves. Yet none of the Afrocentric arguments—all of which are rooted in nationalism, pluralism and cultural relativity—are original to Africa; they all have their origins in the Western tradition of critical discourse. . . . Afrocentrism is absolutely Western, no matter the name changes and costumes of its advocates.

Crouch goes on to argue that the attraction of Afrocentrism and the Nation of Islam are responses to communal humiliation. The loss of pride and dignity among millions of Afro-Americans has led to a desire to destroy every element of the structure that has engendered these feelings of inferiority and oppression. The great tragedy of slavery, the colonial exploitation of Africa, the high proportion of young blacks who find themselves incarcerated in our prisons as well as the European denial of the moral superiority of African culture and civilization, beginning with Egypt, are all grist for a black nationalism which advocates a racial isolationist policy.

Similarly, Crouch attributes much of the growing anti-Semitism associated with Afrocentrism and black nationalism to “oppression envy.” According to Crouch, whether we cite as examples the appearance of Nation of Islam spokesmen at Kean College or at Howard University, the willingness of black students to invite anti-Semitic speakers to the campus reflects their desire to be ethnic students first or to become their own versions of what they think Jews are. Crouch insists that this reflects envy on the part of those “who don’t have the great tales encoded with the level of insights into the human soul that beget the high understanding of our strengths and of our weaknesses . . .that comes from the Judeo-Christian heritage.” Yet despite the travails of recent Jewish history, Jews have persevered and have managed to maintain the integrity of their culture despite losing almost half their population in the death camps. This lesson has not gone unnoticed among black nationalists. It is worth noting that in recent years a bizarre competition of victimology has arisen between the two groups. The “African Holocaust” has become part of the language of black nationalism and many of their spokesmen have come close to denying the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Crouch notes in regard to black anti-Semitism,

. . . the xenophobia that cuts at the flesh and souls of Jews is not one that comes of being unfamiliar. It is protean xenophobia: if you hate books, you can hate Jews; if you hate business, you can hate Jews, if you hate the law, you can hate Jews. . . . Because the Jew is both Moses and Jesus, we might be talking about a remarkable tale of Oedipal impulse.

Crouch, however, does not believe that the demagogues and anti-Semites within the black community will persevere. Nor does he believe that the African-American community will sink down into “a babel of alienation” between one group and another. Rather he has confidence that as more people share in the rewards of the system, the common humanity that we all share together will neutralize the irrationality that besets the black community at this time in the nation’s history.

The essays in this provocative book also include sections on jazz. Jazz, for Crouch, serves as a metaphor for his strong faith in democracy. If the founding of America incorporated the pioneer spirit which fostered traits of individualism, self-reliance, and the pragmatic adaptation to the environment, then jazz was its musical counterpart. For Crouch, jazz is more than the Afro-American contribution to American culture, it personifies our culture. The combination of musical virtuosity and cooperation coming together in the jazz ensemble is, for Crouch, the great metaphor of democratic pluralism and the obverse of the disharmony advocated by black nationalists. As Crouch puts it, the Western tradition prides itself on reason and reflection. But to a jazz musician, thought and feeling, reflection and emotion, come together in the act of doing. Jazz musicians hear what is played by their fellow performers and are inspired to inventions of their own that must come together with intimidating speed and clarity. The music of jazz, contends Crouch, proves Thomas Mann’s dictum that,

to come close to art means to come close to life, and if an appreciation of the dignity of man is the moral definition of democracy, then its psychological definition arises out of its determination to reconcile and combine knowledge and art, mind and life, thought and deed.

Crouch’s celebration of jazz is complemented by wonderful essays on such greats as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz aficionados will find these chapters informative and a rewarding reading experience.

Crouch is also a literary critic and the volume contains interesting essays on Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. He also includes chapters on recent motion pictures directed by black filmmakers and one which celebrates the work of Quentin Tarantino. As eclectic as Crouch is in regard to his knowledge of contemporary culture this is not, however, a scholarly book and is often repetitious. But if one is interested in a critic who is provocative, imaginative, and whose confrontational style will remind you of Norman Mailer, then read this book. Crouch is currently very popular among neo-Conservatives as well as others who reject racial militancy, and it is fair to say that his book will only enhance his reputation as an outstanding critic and defender of a pluralistic society.

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