Who's Afraid of the Big Black Man?

11.10.2004 | Harry Siegel | Cultural Affairs | 4 Comments
harryhed.jpgFrom the Weekly Standard.

The Artificial White Man, Essays on Authenticity by Stanley Crouch, Basic, 244 pp., $24

It’s easy to dismiss Stanley Crouch, and he’s got only himself to blame. Once upon a time, Crouch was a young lion, the anointed heir to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray and a brilliant columnist for the Village Voice. More recently, along with Wynton Marsalis, he’s been a key force behind the controversially conservative series of jazz programs at Lincoln Center.

But his column in the Daily News, which too often reads as though it has been hastily dictated, his rather unfairly panned novel called Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, and his propensity for literally slapping down other thinkers, most recently Dale Peck, have all tarred his reputation. Coasting along as a minor celebrity and professional crank, Crouch has made himself easy to ignore, which is a shame, because when he bothers he’s amongst our finest critics.

All these Crouches—the iconoclast and the blowhard, the visionary and the hack—are on display in The Artificial White Man, a series of essays on books and films loosely grouped around the idea of cultural miscegenation as the catalyst of the American experiment. “Integration,” argues Crouch, “may be the most important theme in literature. That is all writers have ever talked about: how two things quite different or quite seemingly different can be brought together.”

But in place of the more complex question of how people and cultures engage one another, Crouch argues, a post-Watergate era of close examination has eroded our traditional institutions, and our popular culture now “defines authenticity from the bottom up,” embracing “the neo-Sambo” motif of hip-hop videos that reduce blacks to the manic-depressive ravings of the unhinged adolescent, a token counter to bourgeois, “white” values.

Crouch rips into those in whose work “Hemingway’s dictum of writing about what you know has become an excuse for avoiding risks.” The title essay takes on David Shields’s Black Planet, a truly depressing and well-received paean to the noble savages of the NBA, especially Gary Payton. Shields’s “plantation of dreams” is fantastically sterile—he fantasizes about taking his wife as a black man would, is pleased to suggest that his daughter raises “more hell than usual when she’s wearing her Sonics outfit,” and so on. But where Irving Howe argued in World of Our Fathers that Jewish vulgarity helped strip away the pretensions of suburban life, Shields sees blacks as nothing more than the reductive fantasy of the ghetto fabulous, a vicarious antidote to his own empty whiteness. Shields’s Jewishness, which he glosses over as merely a sort of whiteness, is entirely hollowed out, and he attempts to fill that void with his vapid negrophilia.

This, then, is the artificial white man, without cultural, ethnic, or religious values of his own, eager instead to celebrate and subsist on an imagined primitive and vital “life-force.” When Shields expresses disappointment after Dennis Rodman fails to make a freak of himself in a particular game, Crouch asks, “Is anarchic behavior the best response to the weight that civilization imposes on us all? Is this the most we have to offer? Don’t ask Shields.”

In this essay, and in his nuanced appreciations of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Crouch is at his finest. But too often he comes unhinged, sounding weirdly like the thuggish rappers he lambastes, as when he accuses unnamed critics of, among other things, “punking out,” “hiding under the bed,” and “walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully yellow by liquefied fear”—and that’s all in one sentence.

In his acknowledgments, Crouch thanks Chrisona Schmidt, “perhaps the Western world’s fastest copy editor,” which might not be the praise it seems given the volume’s numerous typos, from “Juan Luis Borges” in the first paragraph to the disruptive repetition of paragraphs in Crouch’s seventy-two-page ode to Quentin Tarantino, which is by far the volume’s lengthiest and windiest essay.

Such quibbles aside, though, Crouch’s concern with cultural exchange is such that he finds in Tarantino’s junk culture mix of cheerfully sadistic violence, movie and popular references, gutter language, and interracial relations a genius that is certainly not there.

As he has it in his twice-repeated coda, ours is “a popular culture that defines itself by borrowing, extending, appropriating, and defiling. Above all, no one understands better than [Tarantino] the many miscegenations that make our modern world the unprecedented things that it is.” This is a fine observation about the nature of our modern times, but it takes Crouch away from the other axis of the book, that “with the fall of the high, the energy from below has been elevated in our reimaginings of traditions. A purity has been projected onto the bottom.” Fellow iconoclast Armond White is more astute on Tarantino’s culpability on this second point when he says, plainly, that “QT made sadism hip and sent it ‘round the world.”

Although Crouch’s observations at times miss the mark, his broad argument is both vital and serious. Earlier in the book, he points out the obvious and unspoken—that our literature has become so bloodless that television has far more to say about the meat of America. No matter how easy Crouch makes it to dismiss him, it’s far more difficult to dismiss his ideas.



One would not be surprised to find that I take exception to Harry Siegel's review of my new book, The Artificial White Man. What I find most bothersome is the fact that Siegel seems to have not really read the book, since he claims that "too often" I became "unhinged" and used language more appropriate for a gangster rapper.

Beyond the three essays Siegel's review makes clear that he did read, is this frequently unhinged quality evident in the ones about John Singleton, Michael Jackson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alfred Appel Jr.? Is it true of the summing up essay, "Blues to Go," which proves Davy Crockett a forerunner of gangster rappers; addresses the problem of acceptance and rejection among minority and women writers when faced with bigotry in literary giants; and says new things about the fiction of both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison? I think not, though I fiercely plead guilty to now and again bringing together intellectual language with that of the street when I want to carry home a point with a sidewalk jolt or a concrete snatch of humor.

Perhaps that justifies Siegel's accusing me of being a "hack" while offering no proof. Uh-oh. Now that I've played my blues, I think it's time to go.
12.16.2004 | Stanley Crouch
One would be still less surprised to find that I take exception to Stanley Crouch's letter. Mostly I regret that Crouch -- who I've always found lucid and likeable in our encounters -- ignores my praise of his ideas and instead takes umbrage to my critique of his frankly tired public persona.

In an insightful riff on William Styron's Nat Turner, Crouch references the sly sixties slang "murder-mouthing", and it's just such a voice, with roots in both ivory and project towers, that he's after. But Crouch's own murder-mouthing, accusing unnamed and apparently cowardly foes of "yellowing their underwear" in at least three separate essays, can be as faux-authentic as the "thug-and-slut minstrelsy" he rightfully disdains.

Regarding Crouch's implication that I haven't read the book in full, I wasn't aware that one was expected to address all the essays in a volume in the course of a 900 word review. Those I chose not to mention, though, follow the same pattern as those I did. In discussing such serious talents as Borges and Philip Roth he is insightful and at times brilliant.

But when he attempts to cram pop culture lightweights as Tarantino, Singleton, and Michael Jackson into his thesis, in which integration and miscegenation are the creative forges, and adherence to illusory notions of authenticity the cardinal sin, Crouch indeed becomes unhinged. His assertion that Tarantino's films are anti-violence morality tales about the breakdown of democracy is as absurd and over-thought as it sounds. I haven't seen Baby Boy, but on the basis of Boyz in the Hood and especially Higher Learning, I've no doubt that John Singleton is a fool and a racist, not the deep thinker Crouch somehow dredges out of his films. Had Crouch chosen more worthy subjects -- say Boaz Yakim. The Hughes Brothers (who he praises in passing), and Outkast -- perhaps these essays wouldn't feel so forced.

As to calling Crouch a hack -- in the same sentence I also call him a visionary, and I stand by both judgments -- I refer readers to his Daily News column, of which even his old Voice colleague and long-time admirer Nat Hentoff concedes that "Stanley sounds more like the accommodating Larry King than, let's say, Charlie Parker."

I'll close with the end of my review: "No matter how easy Crouch makes it to dismiss him, it's far more difficult to dismiss his ideas."
12.16.2004 | Harry Siegel
"His assertion that Tarantino's films are anti-violence morality tales about the breakdown of democracy is as absurd and over-thought as it sounds."

I cannot believe you have read the "Blues in More Than One Color" and arrived at this conclusion. This is not what Crouch has said or even how it sounds. Tarantino's more than "lightweight" contribution to our cultural aspirations is he understands best the wonderful opportunity for miscengenation is not a bad thing if we embrace only good elements of different cultures that are indeed within the tapestry of a solid American identity.

Another note, I cannot believe that you have proposed our democracy has broken down when we have not quite achieved a democracy that was ever whole. We are still in pursuit of that "more perfect union". I suggest you look more closely at Tarantino's films and scripts instead of relying on Armond White's "astuteness".
01.11.2005 | Colin Senhouse

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