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Stanley Crouch, Our Black American Mencken

[clock] 14-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1998

Black Boy, Richard Wright’s 1945 account of how (despite the long odds) he became a writer, is now widely regarded as an American classic. Like most black autobiographies, it is the story of escape, whether it be from the shackles of slavery—as was the case with Frederick Douglass—or the limitations of grinding poverty and white racism. Wright is an instance of the latter writ large, for his childhood experiences in the South were simultaneously horrific and soul-shriveling. The wonder is that he did not end up as yet another statistic in the long, sad chronicle of black men systematically reduced to victimhood. No doubt the reasons Wright avoided his probable fate are many, but certainly one has to do with his discovery of H.L. Mencken, the iconoclastic writer who hammered away at American stupidity from the pages of the Baltimore Sun. Black Boy has no shortage of gripping moments, but none of them packs the same power as the scene in which he hands the following [forged] note to a librarian at the Memphis Public Library: “Dear Madam: Witt you please let this nigger boy—I used the word “nigger” to make the librarian feel that I could not possibly be the author of the note—have some books by H.L. Mencken?” At the time, “public,” in the Jim Crow South, was synonymous with white; and Wright had to be as wily as Odysseus just to get the intellectual food he craved out the door.

What he discovered as he read Mencken was this: words cannot only be weapons in the fight for social justice, but also that Mencken can be one of the models in a writer’s lifelong search to discover his or her own authentic voice. Native Son stands as an eloquent, still shocking testament to the “voice” that Wright found as he read his way, first through Mencken and then through a wide range of literary naturalists (Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is a conspicuous example). Indeed, once able to get his hands on books, Wright virtually read his way through the library. That, of course, is what all writers worth the name do, but it is fair to say that Wright made himself something of an anomaly in the black community as a consequence. He championed the cause of black literature at a time when it badly needed champions, but in the process, he felt increasingly like the “outsider” he would ruminate about during his self-exile in Paris. If Marxism ultimately turned out to be a “god that failed”—as a number of writers concluded after finding themselves at odds with the rigidities of Communist Party discipline and the shameful implications of the Stalin-Hitler pact—it was a double whammy from which Wright never recovered. We remember him today for two books, and two books alone. H.L. Mencken was, I would argue, a presiding spirit in both.

Because Wright made his debt to Mencken so memorable, we tend to forget that other black writers also found the Baltimore Bard fascinating. Let George Samuel Schuyler, a man who modeled his satiric invectives on Mencken, stand as Exhibit A. The year was 1926, and the Harlem Renaissance was in full flower. What Alain Locke had described as the “new Negro” included the likes of Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, Zora Neal Hurston, and Claude McKay. By any reckoning they were an impressive bunch, even if ordinary Harlemites were not particularly aware of the poetry, fiction, and plays that these pioneering figures produced. By contrast, black middle-class readers knew that something was happening under their very noses, but worried about its consequences. What is served, many wondered, by depicting the black masses as colorful but unsavory? And perhaps more important to them, how would the white world respond? Not surprisingly, they preferred the comfort of good public relations to the specter of disturbing truths.

Enter George Samuel Schuyler and his 1926 essay “The Negro-Art Hokum.” Printed in The Nation magazine, it subjected the provincialism of the Harlem Renaissance to his withering scorn. The “Aframerican” (Schuyler’s term) was nothing more or less than “a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon”; moreover, it was both ridiculous and dangerous to argue otherwise. Why so? Because, for Schuyler, if one leaves color aside, “your American Negro is just plain American”:

As for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans— such as there is—it is identical in land with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans: that is, it shows more or less evidence of European influence.

Small wonder that the Langston Hughes who insisted that he had known rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of blood in human veins” would regard Schuyler as something of a race traitor. Hughes’ famous manifesto-response, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” begins on this which-side-are-you-on note:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”: meaning subconsciously, “I want to be like a white poet”: meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. . . . But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America— this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

Nearly 75 years later, the matters that so divided George Samuel Schuyler and Langston Hughes are still being solemnly debated. In large measure Hughes’ position seems to have won the day, although elements of the “hokum” that Schuyler first exposed are still with us, now packaged under the guise of Afrocentrism. If Mencken was a model of what a fiercely independent, hard-hitting intellectual should be in the mid-20’s, that essential spirit is more needed now than ever.

For better or worse, Schuyler became an oddity (he embraced Senator Joseph McCarthy during the years when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was persecuting the likes of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright) and ended up as a curious footnote in the history of black American letters. When most black writers staked out positions on the Left, he was an ultraconservative Republican who fired off his Menckenesque screeds for William Loeb’s Manchester, New Hampshire Union Leader. Put a slightly different way, if Richard Wright learned about the power that well-chosen words could pack, Schuyler learned to distrust majority opinions erected on sand. He meant to shake things up, and in “The Negro-Art Hokum,” he did precisely that.

What Hughes had insisted on in 1926—namely, that one must be a Negro who happens to be a writer, rather than a writer who happens to be a Negro—continues to resurface, first as an aesthetic wing of the Black Power Movement in the late 1960’s, and then as the insistence that only Afrocentric standards can be applied when judging the works of African Americans. Europe—or as the shorthand would have it, the West—is often seen as an impediment, if not a hegemonic conspiracy; thus, black authenticity became a function of pan-African solidarity. Other equally restrictive litmus tests (views on affirmative action, for example) quickly followed. Those black writers with wider, more humane visions were quickly marginalized as Uncle Toms (here one thinks immediately of Ralph Ellison and the ways that his principled stands on behalf of universalism got him into hot water) and the parochial notes first sounded during the Harlem Renaissance would be repeated, this time with raised fists and increasingly militant rhetoric.

As things turned out, George Schuyler became a close friend of Mencken, but the same thing cannot be said about other black intellectuals. They “liked alike,” in roughly the same way that Harold Rosenberg once quipped that the New York Jewish intellectuals were a “herd of independent minds.” One can, of course, tick off the few notable exceptions—Ralph Ellison, Harold Cruse, Albert Murray, and perhaps the most Menckenesque of the bunch, Stanley Crouch. The surface similarities between Mencken and Crouch are obvious enough: Both wrote (or now write) opinion columns for large urban newspapers (Mencken in The Baltimore Sun; Crouch in The New York Daily News); both were (or are) men of large girth and larger appetites (Mencken for hardshell crabs washed down by beer; Crouch for sumptuous Italian cuisine and bottles of first-rate wine); both wrote about famous trials (in Mencken’s case, the Scopes affair; in Crouch’s, the O.J. Simpson circus); and most important of all, both were (or are) public intellectuals of the irreverent, debunking sort.

True enough, their respective styles are quite dissimilar. Mencken comes at his targets in a take-no-prisoners, full-throttle assault while Crouch continues to experiment with the subtle nuances of jazz both as a central argument about American democracy and as a structural technique which oftentimes produces sentences of great complexity and power. Crouch seems far the hipper of the two, although that may be because much of Mencken now strikes us as not only as dated, but also as dead. Still, what I am meaning to celebrate by coupling an important white writer with a handful of his black counterparts is an independence of mind and a freshness of idiom. Their differences, whether expressed in Schuyler’s curmudgeonly prose or Crouch’s efforts to turn Duke Ellington’s music into words, speak to a continuing tradition of seeing the best of American culture as an interconnected tapestry. Mencken was merciless about the follies of the Bible Belt, much of the American South, and virtually anything that struck him as downright dumb. He did not, as they say, suffer fools gladly. The same thing can be said of those black writers who shared his belief that the first duty of an intellectual is to speak the truth—and to do so in fresh, uncompromising terms.

Which brings me to Stanley Crouch, an ex-jazz drummer at long last allowed to play solo. His collections of essays have made a singular contribution to our deeper understanding of the problems that come with the territory of late-20th-century life. Perhaps no subject paralyzes Americans more than does race. Perceptions about all manner of things, from affirmative action policies and to recent court decisions, divide sharply at the racial fault line. There is no shortage of heated opinion and angry rhetoric on both sides, but precious little that speaks with clear sense and intellectual conviction. Stanley Crouch can be rightly described as a man who calls ‘em as he sees them, and who clearly enjoys giving shoddy thinking the waxing it deserves. He came to wide public attention with the 1990 publication of Notes of a Hanging Judge, a collection of picked-up pieces that be-bopped its way through the minefields of race, sexism, and sexual orientation. That he threw off sharp opinions with the delight of a wet puppy saturating a living-room rug was part of the book’s appeal: that he wrote rings around most of the competition was another. In the lingo of jazz men, Crouch’s intricately designed sentences are riffs, variations on whatever theme is his ostensible subject. It’s a high risk enterprise, especially when certain passages seem about to careen out of control. But Crouch is wide enough, ambitious enough, to remind us of the Whitman who once boasted, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

The beat went on in his second collection, The All-American Skin Game (1995), and it continues with his latest book, Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, 1995—1997 (1998). Indeed, it is worth comparing what Schuyler had to say about “hokum” in 1926 with Crouch’s “Do the Afrocentric Hustle,” a demolition job which makes it clear that, in e.e. cummings’ famous phrase, that there was some shit he “will not eat.” Afrocentrism is, according to Crouch, “another example of how quickly we will submit to visions that are at odds with the heroic imperative of shaping our society beyond the fragmentation of special interests.”

Moreover, what their relentless bashing of Western civilization comes to is a recipe for cultural disaster, partly because their claims owe more to self-styled mythmaking than to intellectual substance, and partly because the current delusion is one more pit stop on the road to marginalization and despair. Nor does Crouch let white intellectuals off the hook. They should—indeed, they do—know better, but prefer to fall silent lest they be tagged as “racists.” The result is that hard-won achievements, black and white alike, are turned upside down as anything Eurocentric is cast as villainous and everything Afrocentric is covered in the mantle of sainthood. Granted, Crouch is no friend of black separatism, no matter what form it takes or what justifications it mounts up. With regard to Afrocentrism, however, he means to be open-minded enough to allow new evidence to speak for itself, (“When the records need to be set straight, set them straight”), and then to let the chips fall where they may—so long as we do not forget that

. . . our fate as Americans is, finally, collective, and that we fail our mission as a democratic nation whenever we submit to any sort of segregation that would remake the rules and distort the truth in the interest of creating or satisfying a constituency unwilling to assert the tragic optimism so intrinsic to the blues and to the Constitution.

Crouch has been singing his multi-faceted version of the blues for some time, and always with the same general line of argument. What has changed, however, is the sheer level of his confidence and the multiple literary forms that he has invented or experimented with in the pursuit of a vision that fuses the best elements of America: democracy, jazz, an abiding, optimistic sense that insists we are a work-in-progress.

Many of the shorter pieces from Always in Pursuit first appeared in columns Crouch wrote for The New York Daily News, and the marvel is that they hold up quite well, thank you very much. If the print in Tuesday’s paper ends wrapping fish bones on Wednesday (the fate, alas, of even our best newspaper journalists), Crouch’s ruminations on Michael Jackson, films such as Eddie Murphy’s version of The Nutty Professor, or child-killer Susan Smith interest us long after the occasion that first prompted them. Why so? Because Crouch feels that these disparate items are ultimately connected to a larger cultural pattern: “I see myself becoming increasingly adept at recognizing,” he declares with Whitmanian “modesty,” “at least from my own perspective, the epic nature of our interconnections and our problems as Americans.”

Whatever else Crouch might be, he is hardly a Pollyanna. He realizes, for example, that troubles of every sort keep us “in full pursuit” of the promises handed down with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, just as he is equally conscious of how much bad news one can collect without the bother of looking hard. Still, Crouch remains firm in his resolve that the genius of the blues is to transcend what occasioned the wail in the first place. As he puts it, “Speaking to our common humanity is the case that I stay on.” Always in Pursuit is a record of what he did when on the job.

This impressive collection also contains long, intricately constructed essays on the O.J. Simpson case, the music of Duke Ellington, and the novels-cultural criticism of Albert Murray. The pieces on the O.J. trial are worth the price of admission alone because one could read through the growing stack of books analyzing every aspect of this quintessentially American tragedy without getting a glimmer of what Crouch can unload in a few paragraphs. My hunch is that others will say the same thing about his understanding of why Duke Ellington’s “style”—both as a musician and as a man—is emblematic of the very best in the American possibility.

Crouch takes an obvious pleasure as he sits at the writing desk and muses about America, and that complicated joy is evident in the prose he produces as well as in his life as a “talking head” on television shows such as PBS’s “Charlie Rose.” At a time when our national conversation on race seems hopelessly stalled, Crouch reminds us that, despite the fallout of the O.J. trial or the polarizing debates for-and-against affirmative action, figures such as Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan continue to be admired by blacks and whites alike. He also reminds us of what Ellington called “a complaint with no future”—that is, those who vent today are usually no better off tomorrow. This is counterproductive enough when such displays are orchestrated by the Nation of Islam or militant militia groups, but they are far worse when intellectuals who should know better find elaborate ways to justify the former and merely tsk-tsk at the latter. As George Orwell once pointed out, “It is the first duty of intelligent men to restate the obvious.” As one who passionately believes that the best of America can fix what is worst, Crouch “restates” what remains true about our democracy; but he does this in columns and essays so masterfully insightful that the word “obvious” takes on whole new meanings.


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