The Omni-American

Published May 1, 1998

Books & Culture

Among the many brilliant black essayists now at work, Stanley Crouch is one of the most unpredictable, one of the most reliably outspoken, and one of the most wide-ranging. Crouch’s third collection of essays, Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, 1995-1997 (Pantheon Books, 321 pp.; $25), is characteristically eclectic, encompassing subjects as various as Duke Ellington (Crouch commands an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz), William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Richard Wright, John Ford, World War II, the death of Ron Brown, the O. J. Simpson trial, and “Our American Condition.” At a time when many reports from black Americans are grim indeed, Crouch holds fast to his “tragic optimism.” He ends the introduction to this new collection with a single line, all caps: “VICTORY IS ASSURED.”

The New Yorker magazine describes you as being “an independent thinker unconstrained by any affiliation with any camp, creed, or organization.” To what would you attribute this independent streak?

I would attribute it to the fact that I want to be able to use anything of value from whomever or wherever it comes. I don’t care whether it’s from a religious person or from a nonbeliever, whether it’s from someone on the Left or somebody on the Right, someone in the middle or someone who swings back and forth. I don’t particularly care, because I think that a country as complex as ours with a population of more than 250 million cannot be concerned with category at the expense of the quality of the idea. I’m interested in getting the best that we can get.

What has it been like to be an independent thinker? I guess you get shot at from both sides, don’t you?

I’m a battler. When people ask me how I got like this, I can say, “Well I bought High Noon.” I was about seven when it came out, and it had a very deep impact on me, that all these nice people are not going to step up and do what they should do. You could, therefore, run. Your friends are telling you to run, your wife is telling you to run. Or you could stand up and fight.

Now, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to come out like High Noon. You may go down in the dust. But I would rather go down in the dust and know that I had tried to stand up for something worth fighting for.

We need to recognize our human commonality within the extraordinary variety of America. We need to celebrate the ability of the American people to stand up and reject the worst aspects of the nation’s past and the worst aspects of its present. We have done this many times. I’d rather go down fighting for that than run into some huddle of people who share the cowardice that allows evil, totalitarianism, and simplemindedness to hold sway.

What I’m looking for is what I’ve recently come to call an “unsentimental patriotism.” It is a patriotism that recognizes that we’ve had these grand combinations throughout American history–that people have seen beyond surfaces, beyond religions, beyond political parties, beyond class. Those white people who were rejecting the sale of slaves at ports in the seventeenth century had no idea that there would someday be the most cataclysmic war fought on American soil over that issue. But they did know that slavery was wrong, and they acted on that conviction.

Is your point that we need to redefine ourselves in a way that says all aspects of being an American need to be appreciated?

Not all aspects. The best! There’s no reason why you, as a white guy, should believe that you are somehow excluded from the best things you see in Negro American culture or Jewish-American culture, or whatever we want to call these various peoples. Nor should they believe that they should shut themselves off from each other or from you.

My mother was born in 1917. My father was born around the same time. He was a criminal who spent most of his time in institutions. And they both loved Duke Ellington, they both loved certain kinds of Negro American humor. So they were Negroes, right out of Negro American culture. But they also liked Fred Astaire, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Eleanor Roosevelt, F.D.R., Cesar Romero, Valentino, Andy Quinn–all of it.

From a variety of political perspectives, from Cornel West to Spike Lee to Glenn Loury, there is deep pessimism about race in this country. But I sense from your book that you’re a bit more optimistic about race in America.

I’m much more optimistic than a lot of other people, but my optimism is what I always refer to as “tragic optimism.” It’s an optimism that accepts the horror of life, the horror of the past, the horror of the present. Love is as true a fact as hate is; that’s just the way it is.

I’m not convinced that the pessimists are talking about things the way they really see them. They may be saying what they think people want to hear. As I point out in Always in Pursuit, probably the three most popular Americans right now are Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Colin Powell. When was that true before–that the most popular Americans across the board are black? And what do they represent? Does Michael Jordan represent something inferior, something fraudulent? No, he does not. He functions in an objective arena where you either score or you don’t score.

Now a white suburban girl may very well have a poster of Michael Jordan up in her room. I was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1988 with Jesse Jackson as part of the press group following his campaign. Jackson was about two hours late to speak in this big barn. He got there, and I don’t know if there were any black people there, but there were at least a couple of thousand white people. And you know, the white women were holding up their kids saying, “That’s Jesse Jackson!” You had white people who were videotaping this moment. I also saw in Kenosha an older white woman, a woman over sixty, walking through the airport wearing a hooded sweatshirt that said in red, black, and green letters: Black to the Future. That’s America! That’s us.

One of your most effective rhetorical tools is what you call the “flip test.” Can you explain to our readers how the flip test works?

The flip test is my version of “if it’s good enough for the goose, it’s good enough for the gander.” I say in Always in Pursuit that some white kids from the South felt very uncomfortable on their campus because people were always accusing them of being “trailer trash,” as the term goes. Therefore they felt that they needed a separate student union so that they could celebrate their own trailer trash background, and they wanted courses in being trailer trash or the history of trailer trash, taught by people who are trailer trash.

Now, how would a college president be likely to respond to their demands? He might throw them a bone, say something about tolerance, but after that, zero. So, unlike other groups who have successfully made the same argument, these people from Appalachia would be summarily kicked out of the president’s office. That’s the flip test. It’s a way to unmask double standards. Take the O. J. Simpson trial. If we could figure out a thought experiment that turned the trial around so that the proportions were the exact opposite, then the flip test would illuminate a certain bias.

How so?

If someone like Woody Allen were on trial for a double murder, and we came to learn that the guy who found a major piece of evidence was a raving anti-Semite, it would make a big difference. The jury would just ignore the rest of the evidence because they would say, If the prosecution put this guy on the stand and he’s lying, and we discover through the trial that he is a raving anti-Semite, we don’t trust any part of the prosecution’s case, including the scientific evidence. Not guilty. Period.

Now, everybody I’ve talked to who is a professional in the field of law has told me that. The very fact that the mass media never, ever made that clear to the American public shows me a kind of racist hysteria unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime. People were saying that the jury was supposed to ignore that evidence and go with this other evidence, but 99 percent of juries don’t do that, whatever their racial composition.

Tell us about Albert Murray. It’s clear that he’s been a major influence on your life and writing, but he is probably not showing up on many required-reading lists. Why should his work be better known?

Murray is one of the major American thinkers of the last quarter-century. He’s an aesthetic theorist who wrote the first poetics of jazz, Stomping the Blues. He wrote an indispensable book called The Omni-Americans, which is available now in paperback, and which all kids in junior high and high school across the country should be required to read. It shows the richness of an American culture in which black and white are inextricably interconnected. He’s written an exceptional travelogue/ memoir, South to a Very Old Place, and a compelling book on literary theory, The Blue Devils of Nada.

What attracted you to Murray?

Both he and Ralph Ellison unequivocally reject the black separatist idea. But Murray also was able to zero in on things that came out of Negro American culture without making them exclusive. When he talks about jazz in Stomping the Blues, he doesn’t get into any of that white-guys-cannot-play-jazz nonsense. And the way he sees jazz is representative of the way he sees art and culture generally. It’s a vision that has an enormous capacity to energize others.

Murray’s view of America is in fact a traditional Negro American view. It’s only because what has happened since the Black Power movement that people have a very distorted idea about the way that Negroes looked at the world before that. For instance, when I was growing up, the one place where an interracial couple could be assured of being able to live and not being harassed was in a Negro community. People would say, If that woman wants to be with that man, or that man wants to be with that woman, that’s their business. There weren’t people out there harassing them like they might be harassed in some white community. I’m not sure that it’s like that in the black community today. And if it’s not, then something very vital has been, at least temporarily, removed from the humanistic perspective of Negro American life.

You may be the first person ever to compare the U.S. Constitution to the blues. What do you mean by that?

That’s connected to what I said earlier when I spoke of “tragic optimism.” Our social contract as reflected in the Constitution is based on the idea that power can be abused. That’s the central idea. The Founders weren’t writing a paean to the wonder of the individual. They were saying, essentially, you can’t be an individual if you don’t have something in place that allows you to remove people who abuse power, people who are corrupt.

Now, this is a perspective that you find consistently in the blues. In the blues, as Albert Murray has pointed out, you find the recognition that life is a “low-down dirty shame.” So what are you going to do about it? Are you going to just repeat that over and over? I don’t think so. You battle against that, realizing that life is a tragic proposition. Death is the great democratic force. Everybody gets the same thing: an exit card.

It is precisely through this confrontation with tragedy and death that the blues achieves a certain kind of transcendence–but it is a transcendence that could only arrive through actual recognition of what was wrong. That’s where I also connect the blues and Christian redemption to the Constitution. The whole idea of amendments is that they allow you to redeem yourself, or allow society to redeem itself from ignorant policy, from prejudicial policy, from corrupt policy.

You suggest that jazz is the pre-eminent expression of that which is distinctive about American political culture. How so?

Jazz is a collective form that uses improvisation. You sound best when you help make the other people sound good. A jazz band is a very interesting entity because it is a combination of personal expression and subordination to the need of the group. And in American culture, that would be a metaphor for the way our politics works. The whole point of our system is principled compromise. And that’s what happens in the jazz band. There’s a guy playing, and another guy comes in at a certain angle and the first guy has to figure out how it fits in with what he’s been doing. If you do that, you sound better. If he responds to you, on the most sensitive level, he sounds better. Your individuality is a kind of democratic sensitivity. The more sensitive you are to other people, the more your identity achieves itself. One of the things that jazz represents is a way of countering that adolescent obligation to be rude to other people while asserting one’s identity.

You have written some biting critiques of rap music. Why?

What concerns me is the absolute denigration of young people in these barbaric images: the constant reference to women as sluts, the constant depiction of men being most manly when they are the most obnoxious, most dangerous, most willing to commit violent acts. Rap promotes the idea of a hedonistic vision of life in which all you do is dance, drink beer, smoke reefers, and have sex. There is no recognition of any kind of inner life or reality. Goering or somebody said, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver.” When I hear the word rap I reach for the doorknob.

How do you see the influence of the black church?

I wrote about that in Notes of a Hanging Judge. Historically, the sheer significance was that the church was at the center of things. Just for Negroes to be able to hear, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” gave them courage.

The big problem I have with most organized religion is the way it evades recognition of the pain at the center of trying to live a religious life–which means, finally, a life that’s humane. And this pain and suffering–which isn’t the whole picture, but is an inescapable reality–is covered over with a bunch of cotton candy. When I was a kid, there was always that recognition that there’s a cost in the here and now. The preacher would say, “Sometimes, the people will come to you, and they’ll tell you the wrong thing. And sometimes, it’ll hurt to be by yourself. But you’ve got to be by yourself, ’cause you’ve got to meet the Lord alone. And the Lord looks at you, alone.” That’s what I want to deal with.

As I say in Always in Pursuit, Jesus Christ is probably the greatest tragic hero in the history of literature. He knows that someday he’ll be at his father’s side, but that does not make dying any easier. That’s why he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me.” That’s why he cried out on the cross, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”, which I’ve said before is probably the greatest blues line of all time.

What we’ve lost is what you see in those Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion. That’s been covered over with Jim and Tammy Bakker and this and that. A lot of popular religion is like that poisonous Kool-Aid that Jim Jones gave those people in Guyana. It’s too syrupy. The right stuff is not syrupy. It’s a bitter cup. That’s the way it is.

You can’t tell a woman who’s pregnant that delivery is going to be fun. It’s a magnificent experience, primarily to the husband looking on, but it’s not fun. And through this extraordinary pain comes a beautiful child. That pain is not meaningless. Most of what we’re taught today, one way or another, is that pain is fundamentally meaningless. Somebody cheated you, you were hurt in some way, by those people. But the very miracle of birth itself tells you a completely different story.

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