Black novelists, poets and playwrights can reinterpret the whole body of American culture, says critic Harold Cruse, but these writers are "hung-up with writing about the black family."
Cruse, author of "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual," and professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, spoke Saturday at a Howard University symposium on race, culture and politics in the 1960s.
"Why has the black writer failed to deal with the black middle class?" he asked in an interview following the symposium. "There are some exceptions, but by and large the black middle class has been ignored. Most black writers come from the middle class but don't write about it. Playwrights like to write about the family. But no one writes about the problems a successful black middle class family encounters.
"It't time for blacks to write about black marriage. An institution is up for grabs - for a number of reasons - and we aren't writing about it."
For his part Cruse is writing a new two-volume study of black intellectual history, which he said will use the Carter election as a point of departure.
The 1970s, Cruse said, have been marked by a lack of cultural criticism by blacks. "In the '60s, blacks wrote more poetry, novels, and plays than they had in a long while," he explained. "Blacks were forced to emphasize their cultural expression. This (the '70s) is a period of critical consolidation, but the criticism isn't forthcoming.
"I have learned to understand that our problems require a long process of grappling. We're not a society that deals with social theorizing. We like action. So the problems go on and on. We don't try to understand them until they've become crisis situations."
Earlier, at the Howard symposium, Cruse said the mass media was the chief arbiter of culture in the United States. "I like to pose a question to my classes at Michigan to imagine a world where no telephones, televisions, or radio existed," he said. "We haven't recognized the central role these things play in shaping our cultural taste. And they should be dealt with politically."
Significantly, he told the symposium, the mass media emerged at about the same time as the rennaisance of a cultural movement in Harlem in the 1920s. "This meant that the Harlem Rennaisance didn't have the opportunity to develop naturally," he contended.
Yesterday's panels on black culture/counterculture/mass culture and perspective for the 1980s were marked by clashes between Marxists and anit-Marxists and between those who believed significant social change had taken place in the '60s and those who didn't.
Several panelists noted in the '60s many people went through social and personal changes without the anguish people of previous generations experienced when undergoing change. In the '60s, said David Gross, history professor at the University of Colorado, American life had no cultural center.