As the dolorous news of the passing away of one of the giant figures of the African American canon reached me, I recalled the vibrant conversation I had with Stanley Crouch during my Senior Fulbright tenure at the University of Washington, Seattle in 2004. I am sharing with friends of Stanley Crouch and of Re-Markings the entire Interview as humble tribute to a dear friend who taught us all the ways of conquering fear to keep our dignity as a human being intact.
Are modified in the guts of the living.
One of America's most provocative and iconoclastic social critics, Stanley Crouch was born in Los Angeles, California on December 14, 1945. Encouraged by his mother, Crouch began writing at the age of eight. He attended East Los Angeles and Southwest junior colleges but has no degrees. From 1965 to 1967, he worked as an actor and a playwright under the direction of Jayne Cortez in both Studio Watts and the Watts Repertory Theatre Company. From 1968 to 1975, he taught at the Claremont Colleges, first as poet-in-residence at Pitzer, then as the first full-time faculty member of the Black Studies Center, and finally in a joint appointment to the BSC and the English Department of Pomona College. While in Claremont, Crouch wrote and directed ten plays. In the fall of 1975, Crouch moved to New York City and was soon writing for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News. His writing has also appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The Amsterdam News, The New Republic, The Partisan Review, The Reading Room, and The New Yorker. He has served as Artistic Consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987 and is a founder of the jazz department known as Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 1996, making history, Jazz at Lincoln Center became a full constituent, the first time a major art center has given the music permanent status equal to the symphony orchestra, the ballet, the opera.
His collection of essays and reviews, Notes of a Hanging Judge, was nominated for an award in criticism by the National Book Critics Circle and was selected by the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook as the best book of essays published in 1990. Crouch has since appeared on a number of talk shows--Nightline, Night Watch, The Tony Brown Show, Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose, and others. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers' Award, the Jean Stein Award, and a MacArthur Foundation grant. His collection of essays, The All-American Skin Game, was nominated in 1996 for an award in criticism by The National Book Critics Circle. In the spring of 1996, he appeared as a commentator on 60 Minutes. The summer of that same year, he guest-hosted the Charlie Rose Show. Always In Pursuit, a book of essays, was published in 1998. His first novel, Don't The Moon Look Lonesome, appeared in 2000. In 2003, with Playthell Benjamin, he wrote Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk. A new book of essays on identity, The Artificial White Man, appeared in the fall of 2004. He has just finished his second novel, Dead Man Blues for Saber Tooth. A third novel, Two Head On A Pillow, is near completion. In addition to writing an editorial column twice a week for the New York Daily News, Crouch is currently writing the scripts for an eight-hour television miniseries. He is also busy completing Kansas City Lightning, a biography of Charlie Parker which he has long been researching.
Stanley Crouch enjoys delighting and enraging his readers with his two-fisted observations on every controversial aspect of American polity, society and culture be it the excesses of black nationalism, feminism, the gay rights movement, or American social policy. Stanley Crouch has been hailed by The New Yorker as "one of America's most outspoken and controversial critics... an independent thinker, unconstrained by affiliation with any camp, creed, or organization.” The online literary magazine salon.com calls him "the bull in the black intelligentsia china shop.” He is undoubtedly one of the most important commentators on African American culture and its relationship with mainstream American society. An ardent proponent of the integrationist view of American life, Crouch is quick to oppose any definition of African American culture that segregates it from the mainstream. In his view even “affirmative action” is problematic because it re-segregates African Americans by giving them preferential treatment.
Ghosh: What makes you so fond of "slaying the dragons of convention"?
Crouch: It’s not a matter of finding myself “fond;” it’s about trying to clear the way so that we can see what we are talking about beyond the cliches that almost always mask the forms of life.
Ghosh: How do you react to unkind reviews of your work?
Crouch: Usually with laughter. Sometimes I sense a competition with me, or with what the reviewer seems to believe is undue attention of the sort that leaves him or her roaring down there in the hole of the unacknowledged. One professor from the Midwest even admitted that to me after we had downed a few rounds. He agreed with me on almost everything, then explained that he had taken his position in his review because he thought it might bring him some attention. But when true ideas that make me contemplate what I have said are laid down, I feel grateful because, as Emerson said somewhere, a serious man has to be willing to change his mind. I guess that’s the difference between such a man and an ideologue. I aim to be the serious man, not the ideologue. But then...one never knows.
Ghosh: For almost a century now, every black intellectual or writer seems to be preoccupied with the idea of crisis of leadership in the African American community, be it W.E.B. DuBois, Harold Cruse or Cornell West. What is your view? After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X there is obviously a vacuum with no one to provide leadership to the masses desperately in need of new directions. Do you, in the 21st century, visualize the possibility of the emergence of anyone who would selflessly bear the burden of such leadership?
Crouch: The greatest crisis that has ever faced the black community is the present disengagement from the world of education that we see embraced by more and more of the lower class, the under class, and even the middle class. The defining of discipline, study, eloquence, punctuality, and taste as “white” or “inauthentic” goes beyond anything that has ever endangered the lives of black Americans. As Mayor Bloomberg of New York has observed, in our knowledge-based economy, such people are locking themselves into permanent second class citizenship. Most of this self-destructive idea about authenticity can be traced to the constant bombardment of black youth with images of supposed authenticity that arise from the criminal world in which money, however one acquires it, is all; women are no more than bitches and hos; grotesquely oversized jewelry is proof of how well one is doing; and hedonism in expensive surroundings is the order of the day. This began in the late sixties when Fanon’s fellah, from fellaheen, was turned into “the street brother” by the black American middle class, which finally had its biker, its rebel who had no respect for “white” middle class values. This street brother has had a number of manifestations--the Black Panther, the street hustler, the rastafarian, and, with Tupac Shakur, the pure thug. In this poisonous iconography, there is no room for a Frederick Douglass, a Bessie Coleman, a Thurgood Marshall, the Tuskegee Airmen, Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, Ben Carson, Wynton Marlis or any of the black people, male and female, who have risen from somewhere down below. Their efforts to master a craft have brought them inarguable distinction. They are not just models of behavior but models of possibility. The sky is the limit. Consequently, the opposite view, this redefinition of black authenticity all the way downward, is the most dangerous thing I have ever seen embraced by black people, or excused because of the money it makes for a handful of polluters. In short, the crudest and most irresponsible vision of materialism fused to a very naive sense of how far one can go in the world of the illiterate and skilless. Dangerous combination. Dangerous combination.
Ghosh: Amiri Baraka had to part with his Poet Laureateship for his post- 9/11 poetic utterance. How do you look at such injustice in the land of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"?
Crouch: What injustice? That’s too simple a reading. It implies that some undeserving black man has been silenced by the white folks. That’s garbage. First thing, I believe that anything LeRoi Jones wrote and whatever controversy it caused should not have led to his dismissal as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey. He should have remained as proof of how stupid those who chose him were. Jones is and has been an irresponsible propagandist who has written very, very little of aesthetic value for nearly forty years. He was a major talent when he was downtown in New York’s East Village, married to a Jewish woman, and the father of their two kids. Then he wrote with style and originality, sometimes a bit obscurely but always with the depth and fire of someone who was moving to join the immortals. When he left his wife and declared his “blackness,” his work fell apart and was transformed into nothing more than diatribes and death threats which we were supposed to think of as revolutionary. How were those who chose him to be Poet Laureate not aware of this?
Ghosh: But people do see him as an icon of black power aesthetics.
Crouch: His work, either as a black nationalist and anti-Semite or as a Stalinist, is an insult to the very idea of artistry. It is sloppy, crude in execution and thought. If he belonged to any group other than third-rate propagandists, he would be an embarrassment. But since he belongs in the ranks of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, we can understand him as one of those given to big lies and brutal ideas about the handling of the opposition. Jones is basically a pathetic and cowardly little man who could have been major but decided to become minor after he wrote The System of Dante’s Hell and has remained so ever since. Had he ever been in possession of serious political power--if we are to believe his writing--he would have murdered white people, Jews especially, police officers, Negroes he considered recalcitrant, corporate executives, the entire House of Representatives and Senate, and all who were, as Mao called them, “the running dogs of capitalism.” He’s a totalitarian demagogue, make no mistake about it. But in the interest of how silly people can be in high places, he should have remained the Poet Laureate so that people would have had to question how, exactly, did he get the position? What were his qualifications? Which examples of his work did the committee find so superior to all other poets in New Jersey that they chose him instead of one of them? How much did his very appointment have to do with racial politics as opposed to art (which, by the way, can definitely be political and still maintain the complex mysteries of our humanity). All of those questions might have been answered if he had been allowed to remain in place, and we might all be the better for what would have been exposed.
Ghosh: How do you respond to the increasingly hostile relationship between Jews and the African Americans in America ?
Crouch: The irrationality that comes of identifying with the Third World as if it has anything to do with black America--automatically. While not dismissing the long tradition of high-minded Christians, it seems to me that, in the modern era, Jews have proven themselves, over and over and over, to consistently be the best white friends that Negro Americans have. They contributed the most dollars to the Civil Rights Movement. Their children outnumbered those of any other white people among the Civil Rights workers. They have long been raising the kinds of relativity arguments that underlay black studies and all of the other nouveau academic disciplines. On the other hand, there are still slaves being sold in Africa by Arabs, many of whom look upon black people as inferior. One need only look at the abolition movement documented on iabolish.com to see what is going on and to understand through interviews what the Arab attitudes toward black people have been and far too frequently are right now. Of course, we are not talking about genetic determination, we are talking about cultural attitudes that can be seen, as Playthell Benjamin pointed out to me, in the first story in the famous 1001 Nights. All of the bestial descriptions of black men and all of the sexual paranoia are right there. If Sir Richard Burton’s translation is accurate--and we have no reason at this point to think that it is not--then we might have the first moment in which the classic racists attitudes toward black people emerged with all fear focused on sex and the slaves to black tools women could become. Ooo wee. Ooo wee. Or should I say, “Ooo, wee wee”? For that reason, Africans are often shocked to see people like Louis Farrakan acting as though they have some deep kinship with the Arabs. Education, of course, will change everything for the better among all people, but it is important to realize where you are and how things actually work.
Ghosh: Would you then endorse the Israeli standpoint?
Crouch: One can be critical of Israel, even harshly so, but that does not mean that the irrational and murderous tactics of Hamas and Islamic Jahid should be embraced. Personally, I believe if King’s non-violent tactics had been used by the Palestinians, they would have had a homeland long ago, primarily because the Jewish sense of moral order could not have withstood the images of more and more non-violent men, women, and children being dragged off to flood the jails, then the camps that would have come when the jails could take no more. Would the Palistinians have been satisfied with what they got? Who knows? But they would have had a sovereign state and sovereign states do not risk wars in order to allow terrorists freedom of movement. They crush any whose irrational acts could lead to war.
Ghosh: In what light do you see the recent controversy created by the Essie Mae Washington-Williams declaration ?
Crouch: Not much, except that she waited until the checks stopped coming in from Strom Thurmond before she was overwhelmed by the need for “closure” and just had to announce that she was his half-white daughter.
Ghosh: What are your earliest recollections of your creativity?
Crouch: I could draw well when I was a kid, I tried to write my own music after a few piano lessons, and I fell in love with writing very early on because it could hold experience in place.
Ghosh: Who do you consider your literary mentors?
Crouch: Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Saul Bellow. But I must also say Leon Forrest because, as far as I’m concerned, he eventually out-Ellisoned Ellison when he crossed the bridge into Divine Days, which is too long but is a great accomplishment even so. Where Forrest truly went beyond those two writers and almost all contemporary American writers, black or white, was in his rendering of romance between men and women. He understood the sensual but he also came to recognize all of the other aspects of a couple, from joking to fighting, something we don’t really have much of in American fiction, which almost always focuses whatever attention it gives on young love, nostalgia, and the disappointments of old age. Mature love doesn’t get much attention, but then maturity doesn’t get much attention either. That’s why the opportunities open to the writer of American fiction are so exciting. There is still so much frontier work to do. Melville towers over the other American writers of the nineteenth century but we learn next to nothing about men and women from him, which I consider a great flaw. I am only now moving in on Henry James whom I hated as a young man because he seemed all atmosphere to me then, which was absolutely wrong.
Fitzgerald is a giant but one of his most remarkable accomplishments has never been mentioned or understood, as far as I know. His Great Gatsby is a marvelous example of the use of the blues and a very instructive example of how to make use of popular materials. In his case, the lyrics of “Beale Street Blues” contain almost all of the themes of the novel. That is why, in chapter eight, he mentions the song. He, in fact, is the first American writer to really make use of blues as a foundation for motific development. He writes, “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of “The Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust." That actually constitutes what I call a compound allusion by referring to James Bland’s “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” and Yeats’s “Song of the Wandering Aengus,” which contains the spirit of Gatsby, what will destroy him:
And kiss her lips and take her hands.
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Faulkner is to American fiction of the twentieth century what Melville was to his, the greatest innovator and the most impressive adventurer. Hemingway taught everyone the poetic resources of prose fiction, which is why he is so important. In that respect, I don’t know that anyone has gone beyond “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which is superior to all of his novels, if you ask me. It’s not a short story; it’s a miracle, perhaps the greatest long poem written by an American. It is fiction and poetry so perfectly aligned that one knows by the end that he or she has been in the hands of genius.
Ghosh: What attracted you to the works of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray?
Crouch: The freedom from cliches that I saw in their writing and the range of what they thought about the world.
Ghosh: How is it that most African American writers evade mentioning the influence of Richard Wright on their works? Are the reasons political?
Crouch: I have no idea. Wright was very important. His entire Black Boy or American Hunger as he wanted it titled, is a major American autobiography in the tradition of Frederick Douglass. In fact, I know that Ralph Ellison read the entire book in manuscript, not the truncated version that the publishers released. I know this because the old master told me so. Ellison surely had that book in mind as the foundation upon which he built Invisible Man. So many of Wright’s themes and experiences are lifted into a very original world of fiction by Ellison that the reading of them together is quite an experience. I do not think that Wright had the same level of eloquence we experience when reading Ellison, but he surely had equal fire and a very deep understanding of the fear that so many Negroes trembled inside of but could not easily escape, as though that fear was close to what Faulkner called “an iron cold” in The Wild Palms.
I don’t know that anyone has ever done a better job of expressing the nuances of fear and the feeling of being hated in a world that consistently denies the depth and power of your wounds. In a certain way, he anticipates the writing that came of experiencing the Nazi death camps on the one hand, while reaching back to the gruesome clarity of Isaac Babel. That is a very hard area to inhabit because deep suffering can so easily slide into sentimentality or overstatement. But Wright had precision when it came to describing the physical pain that defined an ugly social truth. Whether you like the overall effect of a given work, when his characters are struck or tortured, he makes you feel it as part of universal information about pain that we so often attempt to avoid for fear of losing the morale of confidence in civilization. Wright makes it clear that civilization is never complete as long as it accepts the disgusting treatment of a certain group for irrational reasons. The sheer brutality of racism that Wright expresses with so much observation and so much fire and sorrow is a major contribution. Ellison might have edged him in eloquence but he knew who Richard Wright was. That is why the descriptions of physical pain in Invisible Man are so vivid. Both James Baldwin and Toni Morrison were fundamentally influenced by Wright’s feeling as opposed to his style. Baldwin invented a new version of English by bringing together the sound of Henry James with the rhythms of black church rhetoric and song as well as the rhythmic reaches of blues and jazz. It was a major victory. Even though he decayed into a propagandist, his contribution when he was on his own special beat can never be condescended to or sneered at.
Ghosh: In what light do you, as journalist, novelist and critic, see the relationship between art and politics?
Crouch: In journalism, you are supposedly talking about objective facts, which means that your politics will arrive on the basis of what you make of the situation or the event. Complete freedom is the point of the novel, so you can write about anything in any way. Lawrence Sterne, Herman Melville, and James Joyce shouted that out at the top of their literary lungs. I agree with them. Criticism is about presenting and assessing the order of a work to an audience in clear terms. Then your job is done. I prefer criticism that addresses the writerly qualities of an author because so much of it is, otherwise, some eloquent or ineloquent blather. My intention is to tell the reader HOW something is done and WHAT I make of it. In other words, I would rather keep the barn door closed so that the farm animals can be closely examined before opening that very door and letting them run wild.
Ghosh: Do you also subscribe to the idea that Black art should be confined only to the experiences of the Black community ? What do you think of a novel like To Kill a Mocking Bird written by a white writer who is also a woman?
Crouch: Such a question has nothing to do with art and doesn’t deserve an answer. But in our muddled time, one needs to take on the question. All segregation needs to be broken down, especially in the world of literature, which is so, so far behind what is happening in the best of our television and film dramas, where people across racial lines are being better depicted, given more striking human characteristics. Most writers today don’t have the nerve to write what they know about people outside of their ethnic groups. But something is rising up out there from people like Joyce Carol Oates, who is the boldest and most adventurous of the established writers. She has yet to take on the challenge of imagining a brilliant black man or woman from the inside but, have no fear, she will. That level of human interest is what makes her a heroine of the craft and of our moment. After all, Faulkner threw down the gauntlet more than sixty years ago with Go Down, Moses, which made it clear that the task of the American writer was to make sense of how black, white, Indian, and Asian worked with and against each other to create this country. That is still the ultimate accomplishment.
Ghosh: Was your adverse reaction to Toni Morrison and her work motivated by any gender bias?
Crouch: I don’t have anything at all against Toni Morrison the person and actually respect what she did and tried to do when she was an editor at Random House. Publishing Leon Forrest is her greatest contribution to literature. Her talent is big but her mind seems rather small to me. Or her mind is narrowed by ideology. I still think her best book was her first, The Bluest Eye. Perhaps the question should actually be: has her work been so well received and so celebrated because of favoritism toward her sex? In short, could it be that people just want a black woman to be up there with Faulkner and the rest and will stop at nothing until they get one?
Ghosh: Who are your favorite contemporary African American women writers?
Crouch: I like Andrea Lee, Danzy Senna and Dana Johnson, not one of whom seems to have been taken in by any limited ideas about black people. Beyond them, I don’t have any because they don’t seem to be interested in the hundreds of thousands of black women who live complex lives and who think complex thoughts, all the while laying down as much soul as Aretha Franklin. Other than Lee, Senna and Johnson, I know of no one who seems to think that the human territory of the American novel could be expanded if someone were to take on the idea of sophisticated three-dimensional black women who arrive on the page as something more than deracinated salt pork in the greens of cliched attitudes about sophisticated black people. For instance, the idea that, in the process of becoming sophisticated, black lose some of their “authenticity.” There are so, so many contrary examples but so few characters make my case with the power of art.
Ghosh: What is your opinion of the emerging Hip Hop culture?
Crouch: I don’t have any opinions about so called “hip hop culture” because it seems to me that a culture is much, much more than perhaps fifty slang words or usages, a few dance steps, some strange hairdos, bad taste in clothes, horrible choices of absurdly oversized jewelry, and a fairly confused set of naive ideas about something as complex as African heritage.
Ghosh: To what causes do you attribute the widening gulf within the African American community on economic lines?
Crouch: Mostly the lack of intellectual engagement on the part of those down below. If they do not understand how important it is to develop skills--serious abilities in everything from the high sciences to the trades--they are doomed. I don’t ignore the fluctuations of the market or the remaking of the work place that is being wrought by technology, but I do think that unless you are intellectually armed, you will become one of the hill of casualties destined to rot in terms of your lack of a career, no matter how long you live.
Ghosh: Do you personally believe that literary prizes are often motivated by extra-literary politics?
Crouch: Who knows? Not always, even if they sometimes are. It always depends on who’s doing the judging. When I figured out that Thomas Mann wrote The Beloved Returns in order to examine what might have been in the German personality that made it so vulnerable to totalitarianism, it remade my sense of the extra-literary. Then it seemed to me that all of Joseph and His Brothers was, essentially, a protest against anti-Semitism ordered through an astounding orchestration of historical fact and the legend of Joseph. Through Mann I realized the artist can make a very complex set of statements about life and all of its meanings while consciously stepping on the bugs of bigotry that cover the floor as they rise from down below. To have written that book while the Nazis were choking themselves on the intellectual and spiritual carrion of xenophobia was no less than a marshalling of the forces of the novel not so much for good as for the cleansing of the human palate or pumping the stomach. The artist cannot always tell you what is good to eat, but he or she should have a good idea of what constitutes poison. By concentrating on the foundation of dreams and the meaning of forgiveness, which is one of the highest aspects of civilization, Mann made a hero of himself through the expression of a very deep integrity. Of course, when one thinks of the horrific images of Negroes in Mann’s work, it is easy to see how far from the Joyce of “The Dead” he was. His vision of human life and human value seemed to have stopped at the surface of skin. But part of the maturity that is demanded of Negroes who would be free of simple-minded is that the fact that he who makes a great contribution might have no place for you in his vision of society, but that does not diminish the dimensions of the gift. The example I always give is that no amount of information about William Shockley’s racist attitudes toward black people is going to make fewer Negroes use transistors, the invention of which with two other men led to Shockley receiving the Nobel Prize. That’s how it is.
Ghosh: Your Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome is an attempt to move beyond narrow racial ideologies. Charles Johnson calls it "a novel that we need as we enter the 21st century, a stern and rich and correcting vision that will help us, one and all, to create a more humane America." To what extent have you been influenced by his concept of the philosophical novel that tends to move beyond narrow complaint to broad celebration?
Crouch: For all of my enormous respect for Charles Johnson’s gifts, he has never been an influence on me. Those who have influenced me are Ellison, Melville, Mann, Balzac, Flaubert, Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Leon Forrest, and, to some extent, James Baldwin. For formal adventure and thematic variation, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome grows out of the omni-directional styles of Moby Dick, but also calls upon so many other things to get it wherever it goes. The Iliad and the Odyssey were basic thematic chords, as was Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles,” and Shakespeare’s Henry V. The main character, Carla, is a 38 year old jazz singer from South Dakota when we meet her. Blonde and big in the butt, she is both Odysseus and Penelope, the wanderer and the defender of the home. As we learn who she is and where she has been and what she is facing, certain phrases are returned to, over and over, in variation, given new contexts and meanings while pulling along the previous references. The two words “let go” are examples, which mean one thing in the church, another when Carla is riding in a limousine with her wealthy Irish boyfriend, and yet another when Kelvin Thomson, the drunken writer, is threatened by a black thug in the “Johnny Too Bad” chapter. “Johnny Too Bad” takes its name from a song about knuckleheads that I heard Taj Mahal sing. Hemingway’s famous “nada,” or nothing, from “A Clean Well-lighted Place,” is often toyed with because I don’t agree with him. So nada often appears in the narrative or the speech of a character as nothing or zero, oblivion.
Ghosh: Is music a powerful influence in your novel ?
Crouch: Many of the variations are based on fundamental American sources, from the blues to Tin Pan Alley to cartoons and the dialogue in movies. Even the great Updike complained in his New Yorker review of my naming all of the tunes that Carla sings because he didn’t take the time to realize that when a singer chooses a song, the words let you know what a singer wants to tell you. So, if you know the lyrics to the songs, which I’m sure that Updike does, you can tell just by the title on the page what emotional states are being expressed. That should be especially obvious in the songs Carla sings at the beginning of the second half of the book. Or one can do something else altogether, as I chose to when Carla was on the bandstand and Maxwell was out in the audience listening to her. On the high bandstand, which is like a low baloney, she is actually serenading him. At that point in the book, I use the lyrics in extensions and compressions to create a passage in which what the singer feels about her life with her man is communicated through the variations on the words of the songs. Right there the question of time as it functions in jazz is looked at through improvisations on the lyrics of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” The overriding goal is what Albert Murray observed in Stomping the Blues, which is that jazz musicians approached those songs as though they were folk materials that were in need of being lifted into the world of art by the realigning of the melodies, the harmonies, and the rhythms. Then there is the blues. A good number of the novel’s extended monologues, like the nature of the blues itself, take the reader to a place almost the opposite, or the exact opposite, of where the previous words seemed to lead. In blues, this usually arrives in the last stanza. The deepest feeling of the irate Jewish woman shouting into the public phone at the end of the chapter called “My Kind of Town.” is not revealed until the very end of her monologue.
Ghosh: Is your novel directed at a black audience ?
Crouch: No. I was interested in suggesting, to the best of my ability, the intellectual and cultural width and depth of black America, from the folk arena of poetic intellect all the way up to the world in which plenty of books have been read by Negroes who remember them and make something of their own from them. This is what Carla encounters in her travels and her adventures as she seeks a home for her talent and comes to live in terms of the men she meets and fall for, in Chicago and New York. Throughout the book, all kinds of different black people from across the classes talk about what’s on their minds and what they feel and what they want. It’s a big, big cast, but the world into which Carla finds herself is not small and is not held down by stereotypes. This is equally true of the kinds of white people she meets. That is the point: you got to get next to it to truly know what it is.
Ghosh: Does your novel shed light on man-woman relationships?
Crouch: Yes, above all else--if there is an “above all else” in an epic--I wanted to get at an intimacy between a man and a woman that is largely foreign to American novels, no matter where the author comes from and no matter what he or she happens to be in ethnic or religious terms. As Carla matures, she has many different kinds of relationships with men, all of them pointing her toward Maxwell, the man she has to fight for against those black people who would break them up on ideological grounds. One example of that intimacy is the range of feeling, from sex itself, to embarrassingly coy and private sex talk, to the romantic afterglow. There are also some fresh things about the meaning of love and how it influences the use of male power, which Cecelia articulates in the novel. Cecelia’s thought then moves on to affect a dream of Carla’s that contains a joke about fellatio which is also a send up of irrational feminist theory. That is an example of how people’s lives, as I understand them, are so interconnected, or the conclusions that they come to are the result of such interconnected experience in the perspective of the individual, that we never quite know when a thought or a feeling arrives, where it will go or what it will connect to in the sensibility of the character. I guess what we have is a discursive sense of experience and thought that is held in place by the themes, the motives, the rhythms, and so on.
Ghosh: Would you place Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome in the category of novels reflecting contemporary realism ? Or would you like to see it as a novel taking the reader into the fictional zone of romantic idealism and perhaps euphorically beyond the color line?
Crouch: Well, I actually don’t see the novel as a realistic novel; it is actually very avant garde, if you ask me, but not in a way that often points at itself. Even so, James Alan McPherson sees in my use of “riffs” as he calls my motifs, a new narrative technique. So go argue with him. There are other things, too. So many forms are used and so many different styles of the language leap frog over one another that I could never, even if someone else had written it, be so far removed from the demands of understanding theme, variation, and recapitulation as to describe this novel as no more than a reflection of contemporary realism. What it attempts to do is give us an epic vision of our nation and an epic vision of ethnicity. The love story is built upon the beginnings of Western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey. It makes its way by using the tensions of racial conflict and the antidote of racial harmony, which can only arrive in a world of individuals. That is my central interest, that cultures never produce anything other than individuals.
Ghosh: How did you find the journey from journalism to fiction writing ?
Ghosh: F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized the Jazz Age with his magnum opus The Great Gatsby. However, it was a portrayal that highlighted the negative aspects of the jazz era. Your statement : "One of the central intellectual shortcomings of American life is the fact that so little has been done with the flexible profundity of jazz metaphor" seems to lament the marginal importance assigned to the aesthetic value of jazz . As popular spokesperson for jazz, what is your agenda for giving the musical form its rightful due?
Crouch: That has yet to arrive because of the sophistication of the art form and because of the rise of rock and of rap, neither of which demands much musical sophistication nor asks that of the listener. Most of jazz is based on the thrills of very sophisticated group improvisation. The fact of improvisation, of playing, creates an obstacle because it is no simple thing. It is also not something that is impossible to appreciate either. Once upon a time in America, people knew that there was such a thing as playing, as bringing form to the present, swinging and playing with a good, personal sound. We are now surrounded by versions of the special effect, which can be good for film when it does not overpower the human quality. In jazz, we get another kind of special effect. Louis Armstrong introduced us to that. The human imagination in the moment, the ability of the player to bring melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, and timbral form to the moment within a mobile context of fellow improvisors--THAT’S the special effect. It is also the expression of adult emotion, jazz is. Popular music dominates the sound space and it is, primarily, the vessel of adolescent feeling, of sentimental obsessions, of trite ideas about rebelling against one’s parents, teachers, and so on. It’s all about frustration or fun that comes at no cost greater than zipping down your pants or dropping our drawers. Because such things come at no cost, or should come at no cost, the vision remains adolescent. In our youth we suffer from the illusion that good arrives from nowhere and it’s just that adults stand in the way. I don’t think that the young should be deprived of their illusions, but I also don’t think that they should be allowed to define the passion of an era. They don’t know enough about all of what goes into life--child rearing, jobs, battling with one’s ambitions and one’s limitations and all of what makes life both uplifting and seemingly unbearable. The impact has not been good. This pop feeling of life has worn down the world and reasserted in film, the power and the shortcomings of slapstick in which one waits for explosive exclamation points that drive the narrative, or make up for the lack of one. This is why special effects are so important in contemporary film, which far more often than not reduces the human being to a cartoon version of good or evil. All of these things make it difficult for jazz to rise into an appreciated audible position. But it will rise. It is an art. Arts do that. They rise.
Ghosh: What inspired you to write a biography of Charlie Parker?
Crouch: His life contained all of the troubles of enormous individuality working for and against a convention. His imagination was innovative. He was a drug addict and, therefore, foreshadowed the coming of the big position drugs would have in American life. His intelligence was monumental but he was not a well educated man, yet he created an extremely sophisticated style on every level--melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic. His abilities did move jazz forward; they only helped create another way of expressing oneself. He was not more “advanced” than the players who came before him, but Parker was a colossus and he shook his world inside of those little clubs and those invisible jam sessions that existed largely below the aesthetic sight lines of America. In a sense, his music and the whole “bebop revolution” took the art into what would become, by the sixties, the kind of cult situation that arrives with an avant garde that has no large academic following. We cannot imagine Picasso and the others having made it through purely on the basis of people looking at their work. There were big battles and big arguments. Entire schools of aesthetic evaluation had to emerge in order for Picasso and those who formed his movement away from traditional versions of individuality to rise. Jazz has never had that. There have never been artists and thinkers on the level of Apollinaire who have come forward to champion it, who have grasped its unique qualities and have valued them. For every Ralph Ellison and Gunther Schuller you have, literally, dozens upon dozens of writers who have no understanding of aesthetics at all. It was far worse during the forties except that jazz musicians had a much, much higher quality of popular music upon which to base their variations, which does not exist for a jazz musician today. So Parker, with his heroin habit, his saxophone, his great intellect, the racism of his moment, and his very limited options was largely a man alone, no matter how celebrated he was in his circle. He did the best that he could, struggling with his habit, his saxophone, himself, and the world in which he found himself. The battle had heroic and tragic proportions and that blistering magic that the great improvisor always symbolizes. So who could avoid it? I am 400 pages in and have been working off and on over 20 years on this project. I am closing in now. It should come out in the next three years. Let us hope that neither the effort nor the wait has been in vain.
Ghosh: What made you give up your preoccupations as a playwright?
Crouch: I didn’t have the wherewithal to struggle inside of that world, too. I had chosen my arenas. But I have written the libretto for Wynton Marsalis’s “The Fiddler’s Tale,” which is available on record. I am also writing the libretto for an opera he and I are doing. Screenplays are in the works. I remain busy. You never know, I may return to the stage someday.
Ghosh: In Notes of a Hanging Judge you have taken special initiative to demolish reputations of several contemporary African American icons which many thought of as an ungenerous act towards the community. Your comments, please.
Crouch: I don’t consider that a serious question. My intention was not to “demolish” anyone’s reputation. The book was not dominated by that supposed “special initiative.” I had standards that were made very clear in every case. In Notes of a Hanging Judge, there were celebrations of people like the Senegalese filmmaker Ousman Sembene, for example; there were extended celebrations of the painter Bob Thompson, and the writers Charles Johnson and Albert Murray, who were then largely unknown. There were also essays about the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and its destruction by black nationalism, Louis Farrakan, Maynard Jackson’s Atlanta, Georgia and the extensions of the era of Reconstruction, and so on. Beyond that, my task was to get the birdshit off of the windshield and it didn’t matter to me the color of the birds whose droppings were limiting our view. I defined my generation as one as “lost” and misled by black nationalism, which lead to the politics of self-pity and what became known as “identity politics.” I wasn’t with that, and I’m still not.
Ghosh: As a journalist, how do you rate Spike Lee movies like Malcolm X and Bamboozled ? What led you to refer to Spike Lee as "a nappy-headed Napoleon"?
Crouch: I have had a number of things to say about Spike Lee whom I initially did not like because his ideas were racist and his films were crude in thought and execution. Over the years he has evolved into a filmmaker who has gone on to do battle with the very limitations that he once championed. I thought Malcolm X was a big mess and it did not fail because it did not get any attention. Spike got more free publicity for that than just about any film until the recent The Passion of Christ. Unlike Mel Gibson, he found that there was not an audience that wanted to see it. He Got Game went nowhere because the black female audience was outraged at Denzell Washington’s character having a white girlfriend. Women even stood up and shouted at the screen across the nation. That must have been illuminating. Summer of Sam was his most ambitious film but it was not taken for what it was because the critics were not ready for Spike Lee to try and create across the racial divide. By then, he had painted himself into a corner and they were determined not to let him out. Bamboozled was a strong satire but it stopped short of attacking rap for being the most powerful minstrel update of our time. I think Spike lost his nerve at the last minute and did not go the distance he should have. That would have taken a special kind of nerve. I think he’s building up his nerve reserve right now, wherever he is. His development has never been less than frustrating, enraging, or interesting. He’s not a real intellectual so he has to feel his way along. Life has to teach him, which it is. He wanted to be some sort of a race leader at the beginning of his career, which is why he once wrote of seeing himself as a “black nationalist with a camera.” But has had to settle for being a guy who’s learned that the human dimensions of the world will not stop being what they are in order to fit your politics. That has been a hard lesson for him because he is, essentially, a naive man, an innocent. That is his tragedy; his triumph is that he now understands that he is not a race leader and that the villains come in all colors, classes, religions, and political systems. That’s a major victory and may someday result in major art.
Ghosh: You say that "the challenge staring down at any writer who uses color conflict in our American context is how close he or she can get to the standards set by writers such as Homer and Shakespeare, two champions who were never unwilling to narrate a fight, blow by blow, nuance by nuance." Both Homer and Shakespeare were perhaps aware of the fact that what "pleases many and pleases long are the just representations of general nature." Do you think it is easy for a writer of color to overcome the pressure of double consciousness to appropriate the standards set by the models you refer to ?
Crouch: Color is never the problem, comprehensive recognition of humanity is. If some untranslated Third World man or woman has given us more to build on than Homer and Shakespeare, trot them out here and get to work. The point of inspiration is irrelevant. We who use the English language cannot get past Will because he was the greatest master of it and used his craft, as Harold Bloom says, to “invent” the human, to give us an epic understanding of the human heart and mind. Leon Forrest, the first giant in the wake of Ralph Ellison, whose Divine Days went beyond Ellison, already laid it down. Charles Johnson keeps hitting the pitches of his moment over the fence and into the parking lot. Danzy Senna must have shocked the pants off of dullards and lazy types when she wrote Caucasia to give us a brand new version of the once tragic mulatto and introduce us to a wide, wide range of American life as it is lived right now, across the lines of class and color. Watch out. Now the mighty Edward P. Jones is out there lining them up. This is happening all over the world because the world itself demands it of those who wish to treat it with the respect of imagination and accuracy.
Ghosh What about African writers?
Crouch: African writers are having to confront the dragons inside of themselves and their societies and traditions. They have to deal with their backward ideas about women, the corruption of their military dictatorships, and the father of all racism, which is, doubtless, tribalism. I am looking forward to reading Nuruddin Farah’s new novel, Links, because, from what I have read, he is looking the African dragon in the mouth. Good for him and good for us. The writer is, finally, a servant of civilization, unless he or she is given to celebrating the demeaning, torture, imprisonment, and murder of others. We can see it projected in defense of social regimes or in the interest of destroying them, but neither manifestation is the servant of civilization as I understand it.
Ghosh: How do you see civilization in relation to xenophobia?
Crouch: Civilization is always at war with xenophobia, which can arrive in folklore, religion, politics, philosophy, phony science, and the popular arts as well as the high arts. Hitler was the last of the formidable and self-declared tribalists, the great demon of xenophobia. But men like Stalin and Pol Pol were of the same cloth. Those Africans who create their own killing fields must be looked at for what they are. Rwanda is no joke, nor are those kids running around with guns and kidnapping girls in the Congo and Uganda. These girls are transformed into sex slaves there to entertain the men after these guys have done their most recent killing. These are very brutal men, no more, no less. They are not embarrassments or proof of African inferiority. They prove that Africans are human, just as the endlessly bloody Greek myths make clear what human beings have to fight against in order to arrive at a civilized level of understanding.
Ghosh: Can liberal democracy combat xenophobia?
Crouch: The Western respect for the individual that arrives with democratic thought in the late eighteenth century, here and in Europe, is the best thing that has come down the pike so far. At its strongest, it provides alternatives to xenophobia as it arrives in its many forms. Latin Americans have known these things for a long time, even if they have flirted with the narrows of Marxism because it sounds so goddam good on paper. The Chinese who went through the Cultural Revolution know what a monster Mao was and how easily--or cleverly and dangerously--xenophobia can put on the mask of Marxist revolution, dehumanizing and murdering those it defines as opponents, on the basis of class and education. If those who study humankind are right, xenophobia begins as a way of protecting the group, of fearing the unknown because it may well contain threats unto death. Civilization, then, is narrowing the focus of fear so that one does not, for instance, hate Germans at large, one hates Nazis, who have proven what they are for all to see. In our time, of course, we also have to deal with the legacy of St. Paul, which is that a terrible man can transform himself irrevocably. This also happens or there would be no hope for humankind. We can learn. But we can also pretend to learn in order to slip the noose. Or, as Woody Allen says in Crimes and Misdemeanors, we can do terrible things, feel guilty about them for a bit, then forgive ourselves and, as they say, “Get on with our lives.” These are the complexities of our moment, and only the most serious writers will step up to them. That is why I say the writer is the servant of civilization. The hard questions must be asked, the human heart investigated. An endless job. Not one for those given to yellowing their underwear.
Ghosh: An increasing number of African Americans are turning to Buddhism. Is it just a fashion?
Crouch: Who knows? Those who are serious, are serious. Those who are following a trend, are following a trend. I respect Buddhism, or those whom I know who are Buddhists, but I am too big a fan of music to follow it all the way down the line. As far as I know, there is no great Buddhist music. I respect the human struggles that it faces, but I like to pat my foot. I’m a Western man through and through. Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer, Louis Armstrong and Siegfried’s Idyll, Robert Johnson and James Joyce. I like it like that. Our collective fate is that we ramble around and around until the butcher called time cuts us down.
Ghosh: What in your opinion is the future of the Nation of Islam in America?
Crouch: It will go the way all cults go within the context of its time. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, bullshit to bullshit.
Ghosh: As a veteran writer and journalist, what is your advice to the younger generation?
Crouch: My advice to the younger generation is the sort that I got from the examples of Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Leon Forrest: Go out there and find something that you want to talk about and see if you can achieve an original, uncontrived perspective. Don't be afraid to face the human facts about any group or persuasion or cause. Learn from the best writers that the world has to offer. Keep writing until you recognize your own sound, rhythm, and feeling showing up on the page. But always, no matter where you learn it--from the alley to the academy--do as they used to say, "Go for what you know."
Published in Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors
by Nibir K. Ghosh. Chandigarh: Unistar Books, 2005. pp. 98-122.
Copyright Nibir K. Ghosh 2005.