Stanley Crouch: Visible Man Outspoken: When it comes to his views on race and culture in American society, the irreverent and controversial critic pulls no punches.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Stanley Crouch, as always, is running late. "Come back in 30 minutes," he booms out over the intercom from his third-floor Greenwich Village apartment. His disembodied voice is deep and musical, evoking visions of James Earl Jones delivering a sultry Barry White song, one that might be titled, given Mr. Crouch's passion for jazz and blues, something like: "I've Got the Come Back in 30 Minutes Blues."

Thirty minutes later, as promised, the body that goes with the voice appears at the doorway to his apartment. It matches perfectly the voice. He is a big man. Overweight, actually. But 50-year-old Stanley Crouch, impeccably dressed, carries the extra bulk gracefully. He looks like a man who's fast on his feet, a talent that's probably served him well over the years. He also looks powerful; the kind of guy you wouldn't want to take a swing at you, particularly given his reputation for engaging in, shall we say, physical contact.

But it is Stanley Crouch's written punches -- the ones he refuses to pull, no matter whom he's taking on -- that attract the most attention.

For more than two decades, Mr. Crouch, a bona fide intellectual and perhaps the best jazz critic in America, also has been turning out essays and columns that reflect his irreverent and controversial views on race and culture in American society.

To get an idea of just how controversial -- some say outrageous -- his views are, here's an introduction to the World According to Stanley Crouch:

On Louis Farrakhan and his Million Man March speech: "A cult lunatic who we'd be done with if he'd spent 15 more minutes talking on numerology."

On former NAACP director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.: "He's a con man and a fraud, a sleazy guy. And the fact that's he's hooked himself up with Louis Farrakhan means he's an absolute opportunist and, above all else, a totalitarian."

On Afrocentrism: "A hustle. Lately I've come to believe these people are ashamed of slavery, fundamentally. And so they want some fantasy past that they can point to and say, 'We weren't always like this.' But no group of people more perfectly proves out the Democratic ideal than Negro Americans. What they had done by 1900, after being off the plantation for only 35 years, that's unequaled. So to be concerned about Africa is a joke to me."

On novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison: "I wish she was a great writer. She's not. That's because her work has been perforated by ideology so that it doesn't hold water. She's a writer producing bottles of bathtub corn liquor."

On gangsta rap: "The basic problem is that it celebrates a barbaric, anti-social, ruthless way of living and tries to pretend that it's just reporting from the streets."

On filmmaker Spike Lee: "A middle-class would-be street Negro."

On his use of the word Negro and refusal to say African-American: "I use Negro, black American, Afro-American. And I might throw brown American in eventually. I don't use African-American because I have friends who are from Africa. But I do use Afro-American because that means it's derived but it's not direct."

Stanley Crouch, it seems fair to say, takes no prisoners in his critical skirmishes with the culture as he sees it.

All of the above opinions are delivered in Mr. Crouch's unique conversational style, one that draws heavily on two things: the jazz-like technique of free association where one improvisation leads to another; and the deployment of the vast reserves of knowledge, both wide-ranging and deep, he has stored in his intellectual arsenal. It is a method of conversing that involves taking many detours from the main thought and, consequently, many hours to complete; a style that ultimately leaves the listener, but not the speaker, in a state of exhaustion.

A typical Crouchian answer to a question might begin with a quote from Ralph Ellison, then detour to Found Art, John Ford's westerns, Faulkner, the Bible, James Joyce's "Ulysses" and, almost always, some reference to jazz or the blues.

His style of writing is similar to his style of speaking: It, too, draws on his diverse background as poet, playwright, actor, professor, jazz drummer and, not least of all, as the son of Emma Bea Crouch, who worked six days a week cleaning houses in Los Angeles to support her family.

It was his mother who taught young Stanley to read and spell before his first day of school. He was 12 when he first met his father -- a drug-addicted criminal who was in and out of prison when his son was growing up. But Emma Bea proved more than the equivalent of mother and father. She was also a teacher to her children and instilled in her son the idea that a man should think his own thoughts, free and clear of whatever anybody else was thinking.

"Perhaps her most important instruction was that I should always go in my own direction and make sure I never jumped off a cliff just because everybody else did," he writes in the introduction to a recently published collection of his essays, "The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race." The book follows his 'D award-winning 1990 essay collection, "Notes of a Hanging Judge," a title that is a clue to how Stanley Crouch sees his role as a cultural critic.

His mother's advice seems to have worked well. Her son is in demand as a guest on radio and television talk shows, and his opinion writing has earned him regular columns in the New Republic and the New York Daily News as well as a $296,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. It has also earned him a reputation as -- depending on where you stand on the complex issues of race and class in America -- either an independent thinker who shuns ideology of any kind or a neoconservative, retro-assimilationist Uncle Tom.

In other words, some people like what Stanley Crouch is saying, and some people hate it. Few, however, are indifferent.

Co-conspirators

"I admire Stanley and his work very much," says Shelby Steele, author of the controversial 1990 collection of essays "The Content of Our Character." Both he and Mr. Crouch put forth the argument that black Americans have acted as co-conspirators in creating some of their own problems.

"Stanley has this combination of bravery and irreverence that is essential in a cultural critic," Mr. Steele says. "And he should get credit for that. Because there just isn't anyone else working today who takes on icons directly the way Stanley does. But people make the mistake when reading Stanley of thinking, 'Oh, I have to agree 100 percent with him.' That's not the point. The point of a cultural critic is to challenge. And Stanley does that."

More outraged than challenged by Stanley Crouch's views is Ronald Walters, who heads the political science department at Howard University. Calling Mr. Crouch's views "identical to a number of orthodox black conservatives like Shelby Steele, Tom Sowell and Walter Williams," Mr. Walters says the constituency for such ideas in the black community is "very, very small."

The real constituency for such ideas, he says, comes from the media, which gives such extraordinary attention to those expressing these views.

"People like Stanley Crouch really are the mouthpiece for the majority of whites' attitude about race," Mr. Walters says. "The views about race in the white community have become quite conservative. And it is far more efficient to have a black person out there saying those things than having a white person saying them."

Stanley Crouch scoffs at such a suggestion. "What I am," he says, "is a radical pragmatist."

He defines that phrase in the introduction to his new book, writing: "I affirm whatever I think has the best chance of working, of being both inspirational and unsentimental, of resonating across the categories of false division and beyond the decoy of race."

Race, he argues, "is the big decoy in society. Because it causes us to assume that we know things that we don't know. What somebody thinks. What they know. How they would act under certain circumstances. What their politics may or may not be. What their artistic tastes are. What kind of food they like.

"Now, all white Southerners have suffered what I once wanted to call 'the burden of the accent.' That's when some white Northerner heard the accent and thought, 'Oh, I know what you are and I know what you think.' So we can't assume we know who somebody is when we go by all these little surface things. Because all these things are based on using the category to give us an easy answer."

And easy answers, his admirers say, are not what interest or engage the mind of Stanley Crouch.

"I know if I talk to Stanley I'm going to get a mind that's seriously trying to understand whatever cultural phenomenon is placing itself in front of him," says Charles Johnson, a prize-winning novelist and Mr. Crouch's longtime friend. "I'm not going to get a cliche, and I'm not going to get somebody else's perceived idea. Stanley has an intellectual independence. And I think that's crucial."

Crime and punishment

Stanley Crouch is sitting in his office -- or as he calls it, the "war room" -- talking about the effect of crime on poor, black communities. A jovial man who's easy to talk to, he is swiveling back and forth in a desk chair that he has placed directly in front of a blowing floor fan, which, in turn, is placed in front of an open window. From time to time he stops to take a swig of bottled water and occasionally, in a move reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, mops his brow with a large, white handkerchief.

And speaking of Louis Armstrong, here's a quote from that great musician, sung and delivered by the very musical Stanley Crouch. "Bop bi da, dop did da, dop di bop a do di di di bop bi bop bi bop bi da." Pause. "That's Louis Armstrong on George Gershwin's 'It Ain't Necessarily So.' "

From there it's directly on to the subject of crime in the poorer black communities. "The lower-class black community is overwhelmingly oppressed by street crime -- engendered by the drug trade, primarily, " he says. "And when you have that kind of rampant crime what happens is you get a crippling of the spirit and the reduction of individual liberty. If you're 60 years old and you have insomnia, you ought to be able to get up and walk outside of your house."

Which brings up the matter of crime and punishment, a subject that sets into motion a long Crouchian rap about the difficulties of getting street criminals to give up their lifestyles:

"Rehabilitation is an interesting idea, but I actually believe there is something better than rehabilitation. And that's total intimidation. Harsh means. See, people like having people being afraid of them. That's hard to give up. People don't give it up easily. If it were left to me, you'd have a very different crime problem in five years."

He swivels and swigs and something in his eyes tells you to fasten your seat belt before he goes on with his idea of how to treat criminals.

"See, I don't believe in prisons. First thing is, they cost too much money. No, my stuff is Spartan. POW-style camps, barracks, dogs, hard labor every day. And, when possible, assigned to do that hard labor in the community out of which the criminal comes -- so that when the kid who saw this guy with a bunch of dripping gold chains and diamond rings a few months ago when he was selling crack and was impressed by him, now that kid sees him out there from morning to night cleaning up behind horses and cleaning out lots covered with weeds and broken bottles and dog crap. See, that would, as they say today, send a message. I really believe you can achieve civilized behavior in either of two ways: by intimidation or by self-interest."

He pauses. Swig, swig. Mop, mop. Then he continues:

"But at the same time there's another thing we need in this society. And that is we need to seriously prosecute so-called white-collar crime. Because the cynicism that arrives in the lower class and in the middle class -- across race -- when somebody like Michael Milken can be convicted, get what is essentially a slap on the wrist and leave jail a billionaire, now, that's deep.

"There should be some kind of law where, if you get caught in that, we're just going to take everything. I mean, like that law where they were trying to confiscate everything that drug dealers have."

A knock on the door interrupts his thoughts. It's a neighbor from an upstairs apartment who's stopped by to deliver some mail. And, more to the point, to offer his opinion about the recent New Yorker profile of Stanley Crouch, one that included some rather strong statements, both pro and con, about the man and his work. The ensuing soliloquy delivered by Mr. Crouch's neighbor has all the elements of a New Yorker cartoon:

Upstairs neighbor to Stanley Crouch: "I rather liked the New Yorker profile. Some people were telling me they really tore you to shreds, but I don't think so. We know there are people out there who don't like you."

Ouch!

Such an assessment seems not to bother Stanley Crouch. He is known, of course, for his indifference to criticism. In fact, some say he goes out of his way to get attention of any kind. "A virtually insatiable appetite for controversy; he is happy only in the heat of a battle," is the way the New Yorker puts it.

And speaking of battles, stories of Stanley Crouch's physical engagements have taken on a mythic quality. Indeed, hardly an article goes by that doesn't describe his "brawls" over some point or another.

Several years ago he was fired from his critic's job at the Village Voice when an argument over, among other things, rap music -- which he despises -- ended with Mr. Crouch punching out another Voice critic.

"I have heard about the Village Voice incident and others as well," says Charles Johnson. "But Stanley's an old knife-fighter. If he believes something is true, he will fight to the death. We don't see that often. Many of our intellectuals tend to be timorous or just go along with a trend. That's not Stanley."

But there's a side to Stanley Crouch that many would find quite surprising, says his old friend Tom Piazza, a New Orleans-based fiction writer.

"I think people don't realize that criticisms maybe hurt him more than they like to think. He gives the impression of being an intellectual brawler -- which he is -- but that's because he cares very deeply about ideas and the culture. I've seen Stanley with his wife, his daughter, with his friends. I think people who only know the public battler side of him would be surprised at what a tender character he actually is."

Gloria Nixon-Crouch, a talented sculptor, married Stanley Crouch last New Year's Eve. His first marriage ended many years ago, and his daughter from that marriage, Dawneen, is now a college student in California. Ms. Nixon-Crouch met her husband-to-be at a party in Harlem about three years ago. She still remembers quite vividly her first impressions of him.

"I thought he was charming, absolutely charming. Of course, he was on his very best behavior," she says, laughing. "I thought he was very smart, very sweet, very attentive. All the things I respond to." She says she "more or less shares his view of the world and the culture."

As for living with him, well, it seems he's difficult sometimes. She laughs again. "I guess it's being as smart as he is. He's operating on levels and planes that I have yet to catch up with. Most of the time he's very, very sweet. There are other times when he can be a little difficult."

Difficulties

Of course, his wife may be the only person in America who would use the phrase "a little difficult" to describe Stanley Crouch. Provocateur, abrasive, polarizing, over-the-top; these are some of the words that often follow a mention of Stanley Crouch's name. Derrick Bell, a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law, knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of the Crouchian attack, and "difficult" is not how he describes Mr. Crouch.

In an essay titled "Dumb Bell Blues," Mr. Crouch takes aim at Professor Bell, who five years ago left Harvard Law School because there was no tenured black female on the faculty. Writes Mr. Crouch: "Bell's reputation has been built upon squawking about the supposed inevitability of racism. According him, black Americans will never get a fair chance because the racist tattoo on the white sensibility is irremovable."

Derrick Bell's response? "I'm shocked at some of Mr. Crouch's views on race and the causes of racism. He feels that if people aren't making it, people haven't worked hard enough, and it's their own fault. While you expect some whites to say that, it is unnerving when you hear that from blacks.

"I think that the frequent presence on radio and TV talk shows of black people like Mr. Crouch who hold these views reflects a very strong need in white society -- the need for blacks who are willing in one way or another to say: 'White folks, be comforted. It's not your fault.' My views on race are far more accusatory than comforting for the society."

One well-known white person who is a Stanley Crouch fan -- the respected writer Cynthia Ozick -- offers her response to Derrick Bell's view. "As a white person I don't think Stanley makes white people comfortable. But I'm also Jewish, and as a Jew I'm very, very glad for an African-American who makes me feel comfortable.

"But my admiration for Stanley is not based on black, white, Jew. It is the admiration for someone who thinks like a human being. He understands connection. That's what he stands for."

Inseparable agendas

What lies at the core of Stanley Crouch's way of looking at race and culture is this: a belief that the black agenda must be viewed as inseparable from the American agenda.

"That's the basic thing I'm trying to get at," he says. "See, we do know there is an Afro-American culture which is impossible without American culture. And American culture, as we understand it, is impossible without the Negro-American component."

He didn't always think this way, however. He came of age during the civil rights movement and was caught up in the black nationalist movement after the Watts riots of 1965.

It was during this period, he says now, that black Americans began to separate their agenda from that of white Americans. "I think that beginning with the black power movement, there was a shift in the discussion. And the shift was away from identification with the culture at large and the ideals of the culture at large to focus, instead, primarily on one's own group."

By 1970, however, Stanley Crouch had largely separated himself from black nationalism. Instead he found himself increasingly drawn to the thinking of Albert Murray and the late Ralph Ellison, two revered black writers whose fiction and nonfiction advanced a pluralistic vision of America as opposed to one of cultural separation.

He credits his ensuing friendship with the two older men as the shaping influence in his life; particularly Albert Murray, about whom he writes, "I have known Albert Murray for about twenty-five years and maintain an independent study with him that has had the largest single impact on my development. This great man is my mentor and far more my father than the fellow whose blood runs in my veins."

Stanley Crouch was 25 years old when he first met Albert Murray, then in his early 50s. Mr. Murray, now 79, recalls his first meeting and first impressions of Stanley this way:

"Well, he was brought up to see me by Larry Neal, the poet. If somebody impressed Larry very much, he would think they should meet me. When I look back at it, he only found two people he thought would impress me. One was Stanley Crouch and the other was Charles Fuller, who wrote 'A Soldier's Story.' I figured since Larry edited people that carefully, you had to pay attention when he brought somebody by.

"I thought Stanley was very, very smart and that he had a genuine interest in serious writing. The way I remember it, we never talked about black power but I had some awareness he was involved with that sort of thing. I thought he was too smart to be wasted on that kind of stuff. He always approached me as a literary person. We talked about books and what he was reading. He got a new insight on how to read Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Malraux. You don't hear any other Negro writer citing Mann, which Stanley does a lot."

Mr. Murray is well aware of the father-son aspect of his relationship with Stanley Crouch, including the kind of emotional hide-and-seek that sons often play with fathers.

"Part of being a father figure to him," Mr. Murray says, "means he kept a number of things from me, things that he would keep from a father. When he had that altercation at the Village Voice, it was probably six weeks or two months before I heard about it. After he got fired I would call him down there, and they would never tell me that he was fired -- they'd just say, 'He's not in.' "

They remain close, Mr. Murray says, and an interesting development has taken place. "Now Stanley's become like Larry Neal. If he meets someone he likes and thinks is smart, he'll want to bring them to me to see how impressed I will be with them."

One of the people brought around by Mr. Crouch was his close friend, musician Wynton Marsalis. Soon, Albert Murray had another protege.

Or as Albert Murray puts it: "If Stanley is my self-elected son, then Wynton is my self-elected grandson."

As for Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man," a true American classic -- well, ask not what Stanley Crouch thinks of Ellison but what Ellison thought of Stanley Crouch: "He makes the most of his Americanness," Ellison told the New York Times shortly before he died in 1994. "He's irreverent. He questions the views of both liberals and conservatives and that's what critics should do."

Which is what Stanley Crouch, a very visible man, is doing right now. In the fifth hour of an interview, swiveling back and forth in his chair, eating soup from a plastic bowl, he's thinking. Still. Which leads to an observation: In the end, what Stanley Crouch seems to like best is not so much talking or writing but thinking.

It's what he's about: thinking.

Finally, the Thinker speaks: "See, one of the things I think is that as long as white people are so paternalistic about Negroes that they treat them like children -- spoiled children -- and let them do things they wouldn't let them do if they were white, then we may have a deepening of some of our problems.

"For instance, I was teaching at one campus and they said, 'Well, what do you think we ought [to] do with the problem of black students who want self-segregation and this and that, blah, blah, blah.' And I said, 'Look, the easiest way to do it is to pretend everybody's white. If you pretend everybody's white, then you treat everybody equally. So if you see somebody doing something dumb, then all you have to do is ask yourself, 'If the white kids were doing this, what would I do?'

"That is, no white kids could start a student organization in which only white kids could join. That could not be done. No white kids could have a table they could declare only white kids could sit at. No white kids could have a dormitory that only white kids could live in. Nobody would accept that."

Swig, Swig. Mop, mop. Stanley Crouch is off and running again.

Listen in

To hear an excerpt of Stanley Crouch reading from "The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6118. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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