Harold Cruse and Afrocentric Theory

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/18/2009

Harold Cruse ia arguably one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. Among African American intellectuals he is almost in a class by himself, centered in his own cultural history, steeped in the traditions of activism, and committed to social, economic, and cultural justice. His insights into the dilemmas of African Americans in this country are so fluid as to be one with the best interests of the African American community. Perhaps in our history no social critic, and that is what he called himself, could ever be more organic to the conditions of the people than Cruse.

I believe his contribution rests in several places and at several levels of inquiry. Cruse is concerned with culture, politics, education, and economics. By virtue of his concern with the African American community exercising its own volition in terms of culture and economics he is a cultural nationalist. The plea he made in Rebellion or Revolution (Cruse, 1969, p. 48-67)for a radical cultural theory indicates that he was a forerunner of the Afrocentric idea. He sees these issues from the standpoint of African American history and investigates the various dimensions of the issues from the standpoint of political maturity and cultural consciousness. When one reads his works, the principal ones, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and Rebellion or Revolution, his concept of the crisis in the African American community is clear. For Cruse, the fundamental question facing the community is a cultural one, not simply one of singing and dancing, but one concerned with the sum total of our behaviors, artistic, social, and communal. Whose culture, he asks, do we uphold, the Afro-American or the Anglo American? (Cruse, 1969, p. 48). Only the recent Afrocentrists have answered the question in the manner Harold Cruse would appreciate because the Afrocentrists believe that the cultural crisis is an avenue for weakness in the community. If we are able to resolve the cultural question we will be able to confront all other issues such as economic unity, political redemption, that is, the choice for ourselves, and social maturity and protocols. In this sense culture becomes genetic to the intellectual and political achievements of people who accept and give agency.

Afrocentricity is about African people being agents and actors(Asante, 1988; Asante, 1987; and Asante 1991). And in Cruse's construction of the problems of our community he saw that we had either denied, lost, or given away our agency in order to become different from who we are. Some did not support African American culture because in their minds it was separatist; they wanted to demonstrate that they were Americans, meaning that they supported Anglo American culture. This confusion Cruse recognized before others and sought to explore ways to neutralize this destructive attitude.

The message of Harold Cruse is especially important at this time because this is pre-eminently the age of "no race" and "interrace" and "fluid cultures." We are profoundly affected by this postmodern appeal to forget culture. I am unaware that this mode of thinking has captured the imaginations of any other group to the extent that it has afflicted our intellectuals. For example, I do not know of this attitude among the Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Italian Americans, or French Americans. This seems to be a peculiarly African American problem enhanced by the lack of a strong sense of cultural identity promulgated by Africans who have lost their sense of cultural ground.

I am convinced that the Enslavement was more effective as a maker of slaves, mental slaves, than we could imagine. As other cultures recognize the value of their own and in some cases, like the French, continue to legislate ways to preserve the culture, many African American intellectual still suffers from cultural dualism, a split personality, and leans toward the worship of an iconic whiteness. I can think of no example of people of other cultures urging the abandoning of their culture or refusing to practice their culture. This is obviously a behavior of those who feel inferior or have been made to speak as if their culture is inferior because of their own cultural condition. I can see that if the begining of African American history is slavery then it is difficult for many intellectuals to accept this history and therefore they would rather seek to attach themselves to the culture of others. Herein is a problem in Cruse's construction of the cultural options, whose culture do we uphold, the Afro American or the Anglo American? He did not have the options of either African or Native American included in his list.

Because Cruse is a strict African Americanist he does not view the relationship of Africa or the Caribbean to the African American as important. Therefore, the powerful cultural analysis of Cruse is outstanding in its reach but it is incomplete. This is his biggest hurdle and one that makes it impossible for him to understand the response of the African American Negro intellectuals of the l950s and l960s. Cruse had deliberately separated Africa from African Americans and in so doing believed that he was following Du Bois' notion that the African American was truly an American product (See Du Bois, 1903). But Du Bois was wrong and Cruse's support of him was to compound the problem of culture and further conceal the source of the lack of cultural will. I regret that Harold Cruse did not see this mistake because he is one of my heroes. Yet he thought that the ocean was an insurmountable barrier between the African and African American. Since we had been de-tribalized, he thought we could not search for Africa and indeed he believed we would never find it because of the complications of the Americanization of the Negro. But the Negro was to be a transitory person, an artificial creation, an inauthentic African, one without groundedness and thus only a passing phase in the evolution of cultural change. The cycle would be completed only with the return to centeredness in our own cultural grounding, which is not some esoteric back to Africanity idea, but the genuine operation of our psycho-cultural center from our own reality, experience, and perspective.

But this is the crux of the cultural problem. We are African people and when we landed in America we were Africans-Mandinka, Ibo, Yoruba, Asante, Fante, Ibibio, Congo, Angola, Wolof, Ijo, and so forth, not African Americans. We were never made European, though some came fairly close to being so made. We were Africans who retained much of Africa even through the slavery institution and we also were deeply affected by Europe in America, but we remained Africans. Wood may remain in water for ten years but it will never become a crocodile, goes an old saying in Africa. In respect to the cultural question, Cruse's project would have been stronger had he seen that the real issue was the lack of Afrocentricity in the African. Although we could not escape our inherent Africanity in the way we talked, walked, danced, or made music, we did not often consciously choose to be Afrocentric. Therein is the difficulty with our journey in this country.

Cruse's lament is that we have not achieved what we should have achieved culturally given what he sees as our genius in many areas of art. However, he argues the necessity for a new type of culturalist with specific characteristics. I have drawn from his analysis three factors which the culturalist should possess: (1) a commitment to cultural agency, (2) the lack of economic or moral fear, and (3) the willingness to pursue the objective of freedom.

What Cruse understood in this regard was that only artists or just plain humans who were capable of supporting these ideas could be depended upon for cultural liberation.

The African American community, male and female, continues to be marginalized in the context of culture and economic. What is the role of the artists in such a situation? It means that artists should not place their own personal ambition in front of the masses of African American people. The debate about individual freedom and community responsibility has often deteriorated into a lament about the inability of our artists to understand that culture is the centerpiece of communal rehabilitation. To indulge oneself in non-committed art is certainly within the freedom of the individual artist but whether it is often socially non-redemptive.

I believe that some people stand between Cruse's Afro and Anglo, not knowing who they are or wanting to be someone other than who they are. And you cannot produce good or great art if you are confused about identity because art emerges from the soul of the creator and the best creator is the person who knows precisely who he or she is at the moment of creation. This is self-conscious art, the highest form of creating the new and making the innovative. The enslaved Africans could produce the Spirituals because they recognized the existential reality of their situation. They were not confused about their identity and knew precisely who they were and who the whites were. In order to produce out of the myths and culture of the people,one had to be in situations where identity had been overcome.

In the past racial integration was advanced as a philosophy of social relations at the expense of cultural nationalism. But some of us believed that at the bottom of all issues was the question of culture which flows inexorably toward human progress despite the waves of integration, economic progress, and social panaceas introduced to make the Negro American.

During the last few years and because of the depth and breadth of the Afrocentric revolution African Americans have begun to re-examine the tenets of an integration meant to make it possible for whites and blacks to sit next to each other. Actually the cultural issue has been on the minds of African American parents who have sent their children to historically black colleges and universities in record numbers during the past two decades. Many of them believed tha racial integration had become an end in itself and had robbed the African American community of economic, social, and political power. When one does not appreciate one's own culture or when one prefers the culture of others to one's own this is an attack on cultural nationalism. Like all ideologies cultural nationalism carries with it the seeds of its own problems, but to advance integrationism as a more effective ideology is to live with the danger of the destruction of one's culture, particularly where white culture is intent on creating a situation of dominance. When middle class African Americans fled the inner cities for the suburbs during the l960s and 1970s they took with them various skills, talents, and professions but most of all they took away from the inner city communities the spirit of success, the role models, and the class integration of the African American community. Devoid of these skills and the examples of success brought by the middle class many of these communities lapsed into what Cornel West calls nihilistic behaviors. They were, in fact, nihilistic camps, with hope cast out and despair settled in.

The future of the heterogeneous United States is not one giant amalgamation of cultures but rather a multiplicity of cultures without hierarchy resting on certain political and social pillars that support racial and cultural equality and respect. This multiplicity of cultural centers revolving around respect and equality is the future.

But for this to work effectively it means that the African American community must have a mature attitude toward culture. Harold Cruse's concern about this is my concern. He saw a state of cultural malaise where the popular culture did not enrich the race and where artists had degenerated into peddlers of the most vacuous nonsense to gain fame and money.

Of course this is not a universal indictment of the contemporary artists. In music and dance there are many conscious artists creating moments of victory rather than dwelling on pain and suffering. Kariamu Welsh-Asante, the Afrocentric choreographer of Temple University, is a self conscious creator of images and movements that are organic to the African American community. The Welsh-Asante Umfundalai technique which is based on the authentic dance movements from a dozen different African and African American communities is a clear indication of what is possible if an artist concentrates on using African agency for the execution of a particular concept. Thus, dances such as "Anthem," "Herero Women," "Women Gathering," and "Ibos' Landing" reflect the power of cultural substance employed to enrich life's experiences. No wonder audiences of Africans and Europeans have been struck by the genuine creativity of the Umfundalai dances.

I believe that Harold Cruse understood long before the present Afrocentrists the dislocation that occurred because of the forced migration of the African people. The enslavement of African people created, inter alia, a permanent class of revolutionaries against the racist order. Cruse understands this and while he is more acutely impacted by the integrationists than he admits, he is still profoundly convinced that the African American community needs a cultural revolution. But he knows that the only way that such a radical change can occur is with a new philosophy of culture.

Cruse does not believe that the Marxists or today's radical democrats can bring about that type of cultural revolution. They are captured by the ideology of failure and the inability to redefine the relationship of the African American to the American society. Understanding the history of Marxism, Cruse has examined it as inapplicable to the condition of African American culture. Marx relied upon the basic principle of the law of unity and the conflict of opposites to underscore his idea of the dialectical principle of theory and practice. The idea is that capital production creates two classes, the capitalists and the workers. Since the capitalists will try to increase their profit by exploiting labor, labor will revolt with strikes, work stoppages, and other protests. When this occurs in advanced capitalist societies it means that there will be revolution.

The problem is that there has never been a workers' revolution in an advanced capitalist society. All of the previous communist revolutions have been in less advanced capitalist societies. Thus, Cruse understands something that the radical democrats, e.g., Angela Davis, Manning Marable, and Cornel West, have yet to understand and that is that white labor is pro-capital, anti-immigration, and anti-African. Yet the Marxists and their political descendants believe in some radical reconfiguring of the American political landscape where white and black labor will unite against white capital. Cruse knew, as the Afrocentrists contend, that white labor and white capital would unite if given the chance against black economic interests.

It is my contention that the Marxists were in turmoil in this country long before the writings of Cruse, although there are a lot of Marxists who would accuse Cruse of red-baiting. The international crisis of Marxism during the past decade or so is just an indication that it could not have succeeded in the case of African Americans. The de facto radical movement in the United States has always been the African American movement for justice and equality. The Marxists as communists never ascended to the level of posing a political threat to the American government or the established order. In fact, we have no history of a communist movement in the United States where communists put their bodies and lives on the line as African Americans did. What does this mean? Was class not a strong contradiction in the American society or was race the fundamental contradiction for which people were willing to die to resolve? Were there no white workers willing to give up their lives for the class issue?

It is clear to me as it was clear to Harold Cruse that the Marxists have tried to infiltrate the black movement wherever they could because they have no political vanguard against capitalist exploitation. In order to maintain their own revolutionary status and agenda the communists have often tried to insinuate themselves into the African American movement. We see similar inroads happening in South Africa under the government of Nelson Mandela where communists from the former Soviet Union are being used as advisors to the South African government although there is no communist government in Russia at this time.

In the United States race remains the one characteristic which has confounded the Marxists. It is this situation that confounds the radical democrats today as they scurry to find a place to be. Because the Marxists as communists or Trotskyites were unable to lead any type of revolution they became" twin branches on the withering tree of Marxism", according to Cruse.

Harold Cruse had a historical analysis of the failures of Marxism which included the excesses of Trotskyites. Leon Trotsky had brutally suppressed the Kronstadt sailors' revolt in 1921 and was a predictor of Stalin's later bureaucratic murders and ultimately held the seeds of an implosive situation in communism. Given the attempt on Stalin's part to force obedience to a system that was to naturally evolve out of the conflict of classes there could be no space for understanding the dimension of race in a society like the United States where racial brutality had occurred in the most provocative and powerful way. Neither class nor race could be overcome without a new, more radical approach to culture.

The Afrocentrists are the legitimate children of Harold Cruse's appreciation of the role of culture. We seek to assert his notion of a radical cultural theory in every context of African life. But what is the principlal element of this radical theory? It is the fact of agency, that is, the activity of a subjectivity based on one's orientation to culture. What Cruse does not see, I believe, is that it is impossible for this radical theory and practice to emerge from the conditions of mental slavery. The slave must overcome this condition in order to advance to a higher degree of cultural expression. Thus, Frantz Fanon of Martinique, a political psychologist and a supporter of the Algerian Revolution, understood this more clearly than any of the Negritude writers though ostensibly they were concerned with culture. On two occasions, once in 1968 at the University of California, Los Angeles and again in 1985 in Miami at the Negritude Conference organized by Carlos Moore, I heard Leopold Sedar Senghor expound on culture and each time I felt that he did not effectively address the question of cultural encapsulation, that is, the fact that one could never rise above the condition of mental slavery just drylongso.

Harold Cruse does not even venture down this road but he raises the question of a radical social and cultural theory. Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas, Alioune Diop, and Senghor attempt to address it with Negritude but this is ultimately an artistic movement, perhaps, even only an artistic statement that we have a culture, that our culture is rich, and that we declare our cultural maturity. As an assertion and indeed a demonstration in the works of the poets and essayists this is a positive advance but it could not deal with the confrontation of Cruse's cultural malaise.

The theory which Cruse prophesied would have to have five aspects: (1) psychological orientations, (2) emotional commitments, (3) political implications, (4) collective textual revision, and (5) socio-economic redefinitions. Aiming to redefine the cultural landscape used by African Americans the new theory would be oriented toward African motifs, designs, concepts, languages, and styles. In this psychological orientation it would take on dimensions of personality and spirituality that would direct any thrust into personal or collective transformation. As an emotional commitment it would mean that the African American would be saturated in historical knowledge so as to understand the nuances and intricacies of the culture and not merely participate without some emotional attachment to the knowledge. Only with this kind of emotional orientation could self-interested political actions be possible. Otherwise the African American person could conceivably become anti-African American in political situations. The collective textual revision that would take place in this case would change the ethos and image of African Americans as beggars after the culture of others and would promote and project us as agents, actors, artists, in our own right who operate in keeping with our cultural and ethical standards. Implications for socio-economic achievement should be self-evident in such case. Those who are transformed into agents would also seek to make agents out of others through economic activity centered in the interest of liberation. What Cruse calls into being is a radical theory, not merely an assertion of culture, and in this instance those who have obliged him the most are the Afrocentrists.

Such a radical theory heavily invested in the historical legacy of African people would pose a threat to the keepers of the mental plantation and create the conditions for a different people, a truly self-actualizing African in America. The idea of the reconfiguring of a nation must begin with the myths of that nation. And in the case of the cultural nationalist it is necessary to establish the nature of the new myths in order that the old myths disappear. The Afrocentrists have gone about this work in ways that Harold Cruse would appreciate given what he has written about the nature of culture. Tackling the fundamental root of racial ideology from the standpoint of its mythical origins has allowed us to grapple with the essential points of a Graeco-Germanic idea promoted by the Aryanists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Only by insisting that this mythology is invalid and should not be imposed on the world as if it is universal do we unlock the gates to freedom and liberation. People cannot be free if they are never given the opportunity to glance at that possibility and the fact of the matter is that whenever we have sought economic and political freedom without a historical window we have never been ale to effectively secure it. The Afrocentrist accepts history as the basis, not the end, for rational action in regard to liberation because we must know what the steps have been that brought us to this place before we can dismantle them.

The myth of white superiority permeates all American institutions and is at the root of the problem of intercultural and interracial harmony in the American society. According to Theophile Obenga the dogma that reason originated with the Greeks and that Europeans are responsible for rational thought undergirds the myth of white suremacy and superiority (Obenga, 1995, pp. 1-25). The myth is the problem but the dogma itself is wrong because rational thought did not start with the Greeks in either the form of mathematics, geometry, or philosophy (Diop, 1976; Ben-Jochannon, 1990; James, 1956; Asante, 1996). Nevertheless, the dogma has not only affected Europeans but everyone else because of the wide dissemination of that ideology. And Marxism could not deal with that ideology because it concentrated solely on class and was blinded to the problem in the world. The Cubans, for example, had the idea very early on in their articultation of the communist philosophy that class was the central contradiction but as it turns out, even in Cuba itself, race was much more difficult to resolve than class and the class issue caused the government to miss the essential characteristic of the American response to Cuba as a racial response rather than a political response (Moore, 1991). Furthermore the character of international Marxism with its European analogues was set to establish itself, as it has tried in South Africa under Mandela, as a new front for the promotion of the racial ideology of rational thought emanating from Europe.. Only those political thinkers who are historically-aware and self-conscious operators can ever break away from the clutches of Europe. This is what Cruse complained about in Rebellion or Revolution. I believe it was what he was writing about in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual as well. His project was monumental and his name must be placed alongside the great social critics of the twentieth century because in some respects he took the work of Carter G. Woodson to a new level by posing a different order of question about culture as practiced by the African American middle class. Appreciating the strong analytical powers of Marxism did not blind him to its faults and its failures. Thus, Harold Cruse makes the journey toward liberation easier for having reinvigorated cultural nationalism after his Marxist adventure had led him to the cul-de-sac of culture. We can now stand near him and look in the same direction with the added instrument of a radical theory of African agency as expressed in Afrocentricity.


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