THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stanley Crouch, Part 2
Title: “The Professor of Connection”
VTR: March 4, 1998
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest again today is Stanley Crouch, whose new Pantheon book of essays titled Always in Pursuit demonstrates full well just why a recent New Yorker profile called him “the professor of connection.”
Well, Professor, let’s go back to what we were talking about at the very end of our first program together. You were talking about Martin Luther King. And what are the connections that you make between King and what’s happened to us since his untimely death?
CROUCH: Well, I think that the Balkanizing that has taken place since the arriving of Black Power in 1966, which, in Always in Pursuit I talk about as I talk about in all of the books, because that’s been one of my central themes, is that that was the moment that we started going down the path of what later became, I called, “identity politics.” That is that my group is, you know, my group is my group, and your group is your group, and you know that. See, King’s conception was a conception that was based upon realizing the often maudlin propaganda images of the United States. I mean, when you look at movies during World War II, right, there are always somebody walking through there works in the hospital or something and says, “Well, you know, I’m very glad to be a part of a country that doesn’t care what your color, your creed, your this or that.” Now, we know what was actually going on in the United States, right. It was not that. Anywhere near completely like that.
And so, what King was trying to do, it seems to me, is what has been central to the most important role of Negroes in American society, which is bringing the society as close as possible to the majesty of its goals, to the majesty of its description of itself.
HEFFNER: The better angels?
CROUCH: I mean, who, if you actually look at, what, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, those are two extraordinary documents. You know. Probably the two most extraordinary documents, you know, clearly since the Magna Carta, which we know is actually the father of our system hidden in the background because we don’t like to admit to that too much. But we had this vision, right, this vision of treating individuals fairly, treating individuals fairly. And King’s struggle was to bring as many people as possible together to make it as possible as we could make it for individuals to be taken as individuals, not as representatives of a category, a skin color, a religion, a this or a that. And so I think that what we need right now… And we will get back to it. What we need now is a return to that vision. You know? Which did not, in King’s time, deny racism by any shot at all. I mean, he was very clear on that. But the point was we fight this in order to make it possible for the individual to emerge.
HEFFNER: Stanley, what will bring us back to that? Now, when we began our first program, and I was talking about, I asked you the puzzler: What would you do if you could start all over again and create — I didn’t even say “recreate” — Stanley Crouch? You talked about your mother’s advice. Well, let’s go back to such fundamentals. What will take us back to an understanding that, yes, there’s a history that’s spotted, unclear, dark in many ways; but there is a heritage of greatness of ideals that we ought to embrace? What’s going to take us back to that understanding that there is a difference between the black spots in the history and the brightness of our heritage as exemplified by King, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and so on? What’s going to do it?
CROUCH: Well, you see, it’s happening anyway.
HEFFNER: Tell me about that.
CROUCH: Well, see, this is the thing that’s so fascinating about it. In one of the pieces that Always in Pursuit I point out that perhaps the three most popular Americans are, at this particular time, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Colin Powell. Now, that’s almost indisputable. Everybody likes the three of those people more than they like anybody else. Now, a poll was taken some ten, twelve years ago, as I also point out in the book, in which families were asked, “If you did not have your own father as the head of the household or as the co-head of the household, who would you choose?” And more than 70 percent of the people said, “Bill Cosby.” Now, that is revolutionary in terms of what the way things used to be.
Now, what I’m saying is that Americans — Americans, now — have, they live in a way very, very different, it’s very different from the way they tend to be categorized and described by academics and by some politicians. That is: How many black households were filled during the Superbowl with black people screaming for Elway? We can’t even imagine how many. You know. How many times has Michael Jordan gone off to, you know, to make two points, and, you know, and all these white households, these people are cheering for Michael Jordan? As I point out in the essay called “Blues for Tomorrow,” today, if a white girl in the suburbs were to put a picture of Michael Jordan up on her bedroom wall, the odds are very good that she would not hear the kind of racist ranting that she might well have heard if a parallel-type girl in 1960 had put up a picture of Willie Mays. Now, that, to me, is the way it is. In sporting events, in social situations, in, you know, in the lines of people around the block to see “Titanic,” them talking to each other and this and that, you know, “I want to see it,” “I’ve been waiting to see it,” “This is the seventh time I saw it,” “I saw it two times,” “I want to come back,” “I want to bring this…” Now, these lines are full of everybody in America. Here you got the black kids, you got the white kids, you got the Asian, so-called Asian kids, you got the this, you got… Everybody’s in the line to see “Titanic.” Right. And they’re not hostile to each other; they’re talking to each other.
So I’m saying that there’s… And, television, interestingly, in shows like, it began, it seems to me, with Hill Street Blues, strongest, began to recognize, began to tell this American tale of many different kinds of people in ethnic groups. It wasn’t like the, you know, World War II, you’ve got the kid from Brooklyn, the kid from Georgia, you know what I mean, like, it was one person who represented us. You’ve got all of these different types. And that’s the way people actually live. But if you read our books, you know, our fiction, the white people write as though there aren’t any black people in the world. Right? The black people often write as though, well, only relationship you can have to white people is if they’re going to mess over you, etcetera. Right? The idea of rising to certain success, even redefining the arena that you’re in, these things that everybody accepts out in the world, you know, I’m not talking, I mean, of course, your Aryan types out there, that they don’t accept it, but I think that the country at large feels very, very different from the way it’s described. And what I’m trying to do in my work is try to get closer to the real feeling of America and the recognition that Americans have of their relationships one to the other.
HEFFNER: And so I’m fascinated by the fact that you’re putting quite so much emphasis upon media. You really do think that in our media world that’s one of the means by which we are bringing ourselves together.
CROUCH: Well, I mean, look, if you look, I mean, it does seem quality is irrelevant in this, in terms of what I’m talking about right now. You will see, in any talk show, everybody in the United, every ethnic group in the United States is sitting there looking at whatever horrific thing these people are revealing about themselves. And going “Oooooh, ha, ha, ha,” whatever it is. When the host turns, takes the mike out, you know, every kind of person, you know, looks every kind of way, comes up to the microphone and says, “I think you all need to be.” The people who are brought out there are from every group.
Now, this same thing is happening in athletics. The same things happens in these simple-minded shows on MTV. You see all of these different kinds of kids. Now, whether or not you or I care about Marilyn Manson or whether or not Biggie Smalls was a major figure who was cut down, you know, as his great artistic career was on the way up is irrelevant. The fact that these kids are relating to each other as individuals in these situations trying to discuss something about what the meaning of being an American is, even though they don’t say that, is what’s very, very important to me.
HEFFNER: Okay. Let me switch gears. Let me ask you why there are those who say, “Stanley Crouch? Stanley Crouch is a friend of the arch-conservatives in this country.”
CROUCH: Well, that’s because they can’t read.
HEFFNER: You mean they don’t read Always in Pursuit, or they don’t read your columns.
CROUCH: Well, I think that they, see, what I find is this: If you treat everybody the same, that is, if you attack Patrick Buchanan on the one hand, and Louis Farrakhan on the other, if you attack the conservatives who say, “I hate Affirmative Action,” but, even in face of well-documented proof of racist hiring practices and so on, that they have no solution whatsoever that they propose, you know, if you talk about the bad effects that you think the worst of black studies have had on the country, if you talk about the smugness that you encounter from a lot of the so-called conservatives, if you celebrate a guy like John Sayles, who I think is probably the most important American filmmaker living right now in terms of his obsession with Americana across ethnic lines, as opposed to somebody like Spike Lee, if you say that Denzel Washington is an extraordinary actor, if you, all of these different kinds of things, and people kind of, if you’re interested in America and in the human complexity of our society, then for some reason you’re seen as working for the white folks, because your central position is not that they’re never going to treat us right, they’re never going to ask, and the best thing we can do is attack them, or walk around in perpetual gloom waiting for the axe to fall.
HEFFNER: But, Stanley, in all fairness, it’s not just “Crouch is working for the white man”; it’s that “He’s working for the conservative white man.” That’s the criticism.
CROUCH: Well, but, no, but what I’m saying is that the thing is that, see, the first thing is I love the United States. See, that’s supposed to be a conservative position. See, I don’t believe that loving the United States is a conservative position. I cannnot give that over to so-called conservatives. The position I have taken, very specifically, as I said in the introduction to The All-American Skin Game, was that I consider myself a radical pragmatist. I don’t care where the idea comes from; I’m concerned less with whether or not it’s coming from the right, the left, or the middle of the path. I’m less concerned with whether or not the cow comes from the right, the left, or the middle of the pasture, than I am with whether or not the milk is sweet. So if somebody like Angela Davis, who, by definition, as a Communist, is naive, were to think of, were to propose something to something as essential as something that might work in rebuilding the American public schools, I’d say, “Go with that.” You know. If Patrick Buchanan had an idea that seemed like it actually would work, I’d say, “Go with that.” If Louis Farrakhan, in those incoherent, racist, you know, stammerings and declarations of his, were actually in the middle of that to come up with something that made absolute sense in terms of this problem, I’d say, “Okay, take that.” If, as I’ve said before, the Unabomber, in those anarchic ramblings of his that they found, if there was a ten-page meditation on the problems in the public schools that I thought would work, I’d say, “Okay, ignore everything else; take that.” Because I think that the only way we are ever going to solve our problems it to deal like the military does. We know traditionally that the Air Force is not supposed to like the Army, the Army’s not supposed to like the Marines, the Marines are not supposed to like the Navy, and, you know, in the Hollywood movies we’ve seen them all have brawls in the ’40s and think they ran into each other in the bathroom. They didn’t have brawls at Normandy. They didn’t have brawls at Normandy. They knew what the issue was: getting into France and destroying the Third Reich.
Now, what I’m saying is we need every level of intelligent thought from every perspective brought to our complex of problems. We cannot assume automatically because somebody is a Republican or because somebody’s a Democrat or because somebody’s a purported leftist or because somebody’s an independent or whatever, that they may not, under any circumstances, have something important to say if they’re absolutely committed to trying to deal with what we are doing. And that’s what all of my books are about. You know. And people find that a conservative position. It seems rather radical to me, but that’s why I call myself a radical pragmatist. I don’t, some kind of way people, they don’t get it.
HEFFNER: You know, it’s funny. You’re talking about open-mindedness, if you don’t mind my using that phrase.
CROUCH: Please do.
HEFFNER: That is what you’re talking about, and I’ve been through so much, I’m so much older than you, that I ask myself the question…
CROUCH: That’s what you think.
HEFFNER: No, that’s what I know. That’s what I can measure in terms of birthdates. But, Stanley, that kind of balance, that kind of rationality, that kind of open-mindedness, that kind of reasonableness and reasoning, where do we find it in our country today? I find it when I read you, granted. But where do we find it, by and large?
CROUCH: Well, I think, like I said…
HEFFNER: Excuse me. I want to find out where your optimism comes from besides from looking inside your own soul and besides from remembering what your mother taught you. Where does it come from?
CROUCH: Well, like I said, you know, in many ways it does, in fact, come from the media. In fact, Ralph Ellison and I used to talk about this often. Ellison was fascinated, right, about the fact that so many of the restrictions that he had grown up taking for granted as man born in 1914, right, were being pulverized in advertisement, right, in this, and that he said, “Look,” he said, you know, he said, “Look, these guys may not have any kind of high-mindedness,” right, “but they feel that they have to put these Asian kids in their commercials. They feel they have to do this. They have to do that.” He said, “So what happens is,” he said, “Believe me, I’ve seen this long enough to know how this works.” He said, “When you repeatedly give out a certain image to people, they begin to believe that that is who they are. And eventually they become comfortable with that idea of themselves.” And so, so, you know, so as in one of the essays I point out in Always in Pursuit, which is working on Ellison’s idea, I say, “Look, as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan become these symbols of excellence, right, they’re projected out here not because these guys are trying to promote integration; they’re trying to sell products. And through surveys they have determined that these guys like these are appealing. Right? They’re not sitting back there saying, ‘What can we do for the Negro? What can we do to stop this Balkanization in the country?’ They say, ‘Who out there do people like?’ That’s what they’re doing.”
So you have that ironic thing that always happens in the United States. A group of guys sitting in a room, or a group of guys and women sitting in a room trying to figure out how they’re best going to sell their product conclude that the best thing to do, right, is put Tiger Woods on it, Michael Jordan in it, you want to sell something you put an interracial group of kids in it so that all the kids feel that this is theirs, that they’re not excluded from it. Right? And so you have that kind of thing. And when I used to talk often with Ellison, see, Ellison was always, Ellison was a genius. See, his understanding was that, you see, it’s the way in which the sweep of the society manifests itself that tells you where you actually are. You know. And he said, and, I mean, one of the things he said, he used to say, “So, look, Stanley, you know, if these guys didn’t think that these things worked, they’d stop doing them. Obviously they’re helping sell their product, so they continue to do it.” You know. So what was the thing that Ellison had to say. And then I began to recognize, because I remember years ago when Rodney Allen Rippey, the cute, little black boy, was out there advertising some product, I don’t even remember what it was, a friend of mine was looking at television one day, right, when I was teaching school, 25 years ago at least, and there’s this little, white girl sitting, looking at TV. And there’s beautiful, dark-skinned Rodney Allen Rippey selling whatever he’s selling. And she says, little, blonde girl says, “I just love Rodney Allen Rippey.” Now, this guy and I turn to each other, said, “Boy, now something has seriously shifted in the United States if the advertising people feel that they can put a white girl with blonde hair looking at a TV, looking at this black boy, saying, “I just love Rodney Allen Rippey.” Ellison understood that perfectly. And see, that’s what I mean about trying to move on the basis of the way we actually live. See, because these people who are locked into these ideologies, they have to sell them. Those are commodities. What Derek Bell and a number of other people are selling, those are commodities; those aren’t ideas. You know. They have to sell them. You know. That’s what these, these, these departments of alienation are on these campuses: they’re commodities. They’re selling something. They’re selling something.
So, if you start a department based on perpetual and innate alienation, right, it’s not in your interest to suddenly turn around and look out the window and say, “Well, gee whiz, America’s changed drastically.” What you have to say then is, “Well, yes, it’s changed some, but, I mean, there’s still, that’s minuscule because there’s still so, so many things going wrong.” Now, Orlando Paterson, of Harvard University, who wrote the book about the creation of the idea of freedom, who is a West Indian, has written a book called The Ordeal of Integration, in which he points out that the majority of black people in America actually like the way things are going. He says, “But the ideologues cannot accept that.” He’s not saying that we don’t have to do things about teenage pregnancy, street crime, drugs, etcetera. But that it is not in their interest to address the real changes that have taken place in this country.
HEFFNER: What do you think would have happened if Mrs. Powell had not said “No,” to the general, “You may not run.”
CROUCH: He’d of beat Bill Clinton. Clinton couldn’t have beat him. That would have been impossible. And as I, you know, I think, in one of the essays in Always in Pursuit I point out that, see, Powell may well have been able to use a Republican position on economics to defend Affirmative Action. He may well have been able to get enough statistical information to prove how many of these black businesses and, you know, so-called minority businesses, and this majority businesses that are minority businesses, that is, women businesses, right, because I often say that, you know, women who are the majority have become, they, and will become a minority, which is something that Harry Houdini really would’ve appreciated. But had Powell been able to say, “This many people were brought into the workplace through this, these many businesses, this many businesses were started, this much capital was put into the society as a result of this,” they might have had to back up. And he would’ve won. He’d have beaten Clinton.
HEFFNER: We have about two minutes left. Affirmative Action, directly. Crouch on Affirmative Action.
CROUCH: Well, as I say in Always in Pursuit I’m theoretically opposed to any kind of preferential treatment of any sort for anybody. But I have never, ever heard from the people who rant and rave about Affirmative Action anything that suggests that they have any kind of a solution for any of the extraordinarily well-documented examples of racist hiring practices. And I also go on to say that even though there are people who have hidden behind race and sex and have been opportunists, right, we cannot pretend that their little con jobs are anywhere near as dangerous to the country as racism or sexism, and that what we have to do is sit down and begin to actually address these problems again with everybody concerned, and act as though America at large is in everybody’s interest.
HEFFNER: “Sit down and discuss them.” Who’s going to do that? John Hope Franklin, do you think?
CROUCH: Well, I mean, he’s doing the best he can for who he is. But the thing is, I would’ve had Linda Chavez and a bunch of those other people on that panel for conversation on race. See, that’s what we need. We need all of these different people who are not insane talking together about these things and publicly discussing the differences that, you know, the different ways in which they perceive these problems. You know. That’s what the country needs. It needs a, you know, a discussion on race is not a group of people who are committed to one vision of American life saying that this is a discussion. That’s not a discussion.
HEFFNER: You participate in something that’s a little more balanced?
CROUCH: You mean my household?
CROUCH: Well, see, I lose in my household, because my wife wins most of the time.
HEFFNER: And that’s probably the best note on which to end. And thank you very much, Stanley Crouch, for joining me on The Open Mind.
CROUCH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.