Being Stanley Crouch is about as bruising a vocation as there is in what passes for–or remains of–polite literary society. One can’t bring up the books and columns Crouch writes without careering into the jargon and aesthetics of street brawling. Unavoidably with Crouch, the notion of “brawling” gets framed in both literal and figurative terms. This past July, after Crouch assaulted the novelist and critic Dale Peck at a fashionable restaurant in New York’s West Village, Crouch’s former employer the Village Voice placed this “pimp slap” in the context of previous scuffles in public places, including one in the offices of the Voice that cost him his job many years ago. Sparring with Harry Allen, an African-American colleague, over the respective merits of hip-hop and jazz, Crouch put Allen in a chokehold. (Crouch, in case you haven’t heard by now, believes hip-hop is a pestilence infecting and slowly killing everything it touches. “Scum of the earth” is among the nicer things he’s said about “gangsta” rappers.) The more recent “pimp slap” was provoked by Peck’s vitriolic pan of Crouch’s novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, published some four years earlier in The New Republic. The skirmish gave the tabloid gossips a chew toy that lost its entertainment value after a day, if that long. In the grand cosmic scheme, it was just another thirty-second advertisement for Stanley Crouch’s notoriety, a vainglorious diversion from his ongoing mission to set America’s head straight on matters of race and culture.
For those of us who prefer those aspects of Crouch’s public persona that let him be urbane, trenchant and illuminating–as when, say, he’s a principal talking head for Ken Burns’s recent PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson–all this shoving and slapping around is an unseemly, egregious waste of his time and ours. Also, it’s redundant. When Crouch is incensed about something, his lush, ripe prose morphs into a bludgeon, attacking with such quick, unrelenting force that its target is initially too dazed to strike back in kind. You’d think that would be enough to cut an intimidating figure on the cultural scene, and most times it is. But when you add to this gadfly’s cluttered portfolio his mission to advance the increasingly quixotic cause of jazz music through his consultant’s gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center (and you could stuff yards of column space itemizing the critical tussles involving Crouch on jazz aesthetics), you’re tempted to believe that it’s easier to haul a baby grand piano on your back from the Bronx to Brooklyn than it is to hold the full-time job of being Stanley Crouch.
You also can’t help but conclude that the strain of that full-time job brought about the mild stroke Crouch suffered late last year–from which he’s recovered nicely enough to pick up where he left off at his New York Daily News columnist’s post: blasting holes in liberal and black-nationalist orthodoxies, ganging up on hip-hop and so on. How long (oh, baby, how long) can he keep hammering his way through the zeitgeist’s soft spots before he drops from exhaustion? Just talking about the extracurricular pugilism can wear you out, and its novelty, as Norman Mailer could attest, wears thin with age. These days one senses that even Crouch’s longtime critics, the black cultural nationalists and hip-hop cognoscenti, have worn themselves out shouting “Sellout!” “Tom!” “Neocon!” and other epithets at Crouch’s bearish frame. Maybe it’s because the taunts either slide off his back or make him stronger. Or maybe his critics have finally noticed that, unlike other African-Americans tarred with the neoconservative brush, Crouch, like Mailer, isn’t to be understood too quickly. Or, for that matter, classified too glibly.
Whatever the case, it’s past time for Crouch and his audience, pro and con, to broaden the parameters of their dialogue. Which is why The Artificial White Man is a sight for sore eyes. This is Crouch’s best, most expansive collection of essays since his first, Notes of a Hanging Judge, published in 1990. The two collections in between, The All-American Skin Game, or, the Decoy of Race (1995) and Always in Pursuit (1998), had their respective high points (in Skin Game, the inquiries into the O.J. Simpson trial, The Bell Curve and Mr. Sammler’s Planet; in Pursuit, the re-examination of Go Down, Moses, the messianic urge to link John Ford’s vision with Duke Ellington’s). But for the most part, the pieces in those books stretched out riffs Crouch had already played to better effect in Hanging Judge, which will probably last longer than any of his other books because it now reads less like an inventory of hot-button provocations than the autobiography of a restless mind coming to terms with the consequences of breaking free from dogma and consensual hypocrisy.
The title of the new collection dares Crouch’s baser critics to interpret it as self-description. But it’s the subtitle, “Essays on Authenticity,” that nails down the book’s true purpose and brings into sharpest focus what Crouch, beneath the bluster, has really been up to all this time: investigating and challenging any and all notions of what is “authentic” in American life. And for “authentic” one could substitute “hip” or “bullshit-free” or whatever hip-hop euphemism enjoys the greatest currency at the moment. Media hoodoo and image politics may have helped Crouch become a celebrity. But he has never yielded in his distaste for superficiality. If you get him far enough away from the spotlight, it’s even possible to hear Crouch call himself on his own bullshit. (When Hanging Judge‘s blunt candor is turned inward, it’s easy to see why even some who disagree violently with his opinions find it hard to stay mad at him for very long.)
So woe to those who think they’ve got Crouch figured out before they dive into Artificial White Man. Consider, for instance, his appreciation of John Singleton’s Baby Boy. Those who have Crouch nailed down as a spoilsport when it comes to contemporary black pop culture doubtless believe he would have led the big, loud chorus of critics’ boos that greeted Singleton’s 2001 movie about coming of age amid sex and violence in South Central LA. Instead, Crouch praises the movie for not submitting to what he’s long perceived as the “new minstrelsy” of hip-hop music videos, “where gold teeth, drop-down pants and tasteless jewelry abound.” “Singleton,” writes Crouch, “is after more than props. He questions the mores of his characters and shows young black men caught in ritual behavior that is about arrested development on one hand and bitter rage at their limitations on another…. At one point, with a tragic depth one would find exceptional in any American film, a character prays that he and his buddy be shown the way but, if they cannot be given a direction, the young man asks God to ‘forgive us for being lost.'”
If it’s possible for a commercial filmmaker to grow and reach for such depth and complexity, Crouch figures there’s no excuse whatsoever for writers of books not to make similar leaps of conscience and consciousness. That’s why the two most withering essays in Artificial White Man, “Segregated Fiction Blues” and the title essay, go medieval on authors who either evade or misuse America’s cultural and ethnic complexity.
And, so we’re clear, just because the volume on Crouch’s customary rhetorical dynamics may be turned down a little in Artificial White Man, that doesn’t mean the man always remembers to keep the restraints at hand:
Writers may well have gone to integrated colleges with all manner of people, some of whom have remained their friends over the years. They may live in neighborhoods populated with various kinds of Americans…. These writers may make it their business to associate themselves with at least one version of those organizations bent on chopping down more trees in the poison forest of ethnic, sexual, religious and class bigotry. Some of their best friends might be–you name it. But when they sit down to write about this big country, they punk out….
That is now the norm: punking out. Hiding under the bed. Walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully yellow by liquefied fear….
At which point, the reader will be tempted to shout, “Awww, man! Why’d you have to go there? You were doing fine up till then.” This isn’t the last time the stained-yellow underwear comes up, and it’s at such points and others strewn throughout the book that one’s threshold for Crouch’s freewheeling attack gets pressed to the breaking point. Still, when Crouch is focused on the task at hand, especially in the title essay’s slow-hand evisceration of David Shields’s Black Planet, it is fearsomely thrilling to behold.
To Crouch, Shields’s highly subjective account of the 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics season constitutes one of the bad things that happen when good writers grasp for authenticity or, as Crouch sees it, the notion of “being–or not being–what [Shields] calls ‘cool.'” Reading Shields confess his fascination, from his relatively secure, petit-bourgeois white standpoint, with flamboyant, often belligerent and wealthy black basketball superstars like Gary Payton, Crouch finds that Shields is avoiding, far more than confronting, his own bullshit.
As far as Shields is concerned, Crouch writes:
The black American’s greatest refinements are expressed not in medicine, science, education, the arts and technology, but in shorts, tennis shoes and a sleeveless jersey, “talking trash” on the polished hardwood of a basketball court, sort of a flattened bush where primordial updates are available to the eye. Shields attacks this tendency in himself and others to reduce black men to athletic flesh held in place by the meat hooks of Caucasian projections. But, like a blacksmith addicted to making the same form over and over, he continues to forge new meat hooks and hoist these men into place.
You probably have to read both the “Artificial White Man” essay and “Blues in More Than One Color: The Films of Quentin Tarantino” more than once to figure out why Crouch thinks Tarantino is a lot “cooler”–more authentic?–in his engagement with the black psyche than Shields. The Tarantino essay does cover a lot of real estate. (It’s a raw, rambling and altogether remarkable virtuoso solo that started out, Crouch writes, as a letter responding to Daniel Mendelsohn’s dismissal of Tarantino’s Kill Bill in The New York Review of Books.) It might help to skip ahead to the part of the essay that deals with Tarantino’s overlooked Jackie Brown (1997), which gets its most thorough and incisive appreciation in these pages. Crouch correctly sees that what had been hyped and is still seen in some quarters as Tarantino’s homage to the “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s was in fact a sly, humane subversion of those knockabout thrillers. Crouch’s swaggering belligerence may sell tickets to the chattering classes. But critics should always be judged finally on what and how they love. And in the Tarantino essay and his appreciations elsewhere in the book of Jorge Luis Borges, Danzy Senna, Saul Bellow and ZZ Packer, his enthusiastic passion feels so genuine that it further diminishes the things and trends he despises.
Then again, Crouch might not always be as intractable as he seems toward his targets. After all, he’s considerably softened the acerbic disdain he expressed toward Spike Lee in Hanging Judge. (In Always in Pursuit, he said nice things about Lee’s Bamboozled and He Got Game.) As for Toni Morrison, another culture hero roughed up in Hanging Judge, Crouch’s misgivings toward her work are compressed in Artificial White Man into the following inquiry:
For some time, I have wondered why Toni Morrison makes so little of the black female expression that she knows in person. Oprah Winfrey and Leontyne Price are supposedly two of her best friends. Each woman soared from humble beginnings to conquer areas of life that have been touched by few people of any color in America. What they have lived and know and must talk about goes far, far beyond the fictionalized gossip that forms the basis for a lot of fiction. But Morrison prefers to keep her characters down on the farm, and we are still waiting for the hot mama who has high thoughts.
As long as the brother is being prescriptive, let’s flip a suggestion of our own back to him. Why doesn’t he get out of his study more often and do some of the on-the-scene reporting that gave Hanging Judge its brighter moments? Imagine what would happen if the probing subjectivity that informed such Hanging Judge essays as “Atlanta Reconstructed,” his sensitive reading of the city’s mood in the midst of its 1979-1981 child murders, and “Body and Soul,” his incomparable meditation on classics and culture during the 1983 Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, were brought to the Michael Jackson trial in Los Angeles. Crouch has been writing about Jackson’s physical and cultural transformations since the 1980s. There’s yet another essay about the King of Pop in Artificial White Man; this one focuses on his noisy financial set-to with the Sony Music executives Jackson accused of racism. If this were a more heroic era in journalism (say, the 1960s), a magazine editor would have put Crouch on a plane for the left coast weeks ago and let his sensibility roam wild and free amid the day-to-day absurdities within and beyond the courtroom where Jackson’s trial takes its jagged course. If Mailer could bear witness to a moon shot, why can’t Crouch do something similar with a moonwalker’s most perilous high-wire act?