Harold Cruse, a leading intellectual in the second half of the 20th Century, was born in 1916 in Petersburg, Virginia. His father, a railroad porter, divorced his mother and took Cruse to New York at a young age. While in school he worked nights at a YMCA theatre. His interest in performing arts was developed by an aunt who took him to vaudeville shows.
With the outbreak of World War II, Cruse entered the Army, which took him to Italy and North Africa. At the end of the war in 1945, Cruse returned to the United States and briefly attended the City College of New York. He also spent some time affiliated with the Communist Party but soon left it, feeling that the Party placed too many restrictions on his life.
In the 1950s Cruse tried his hand at playwriting, and opened a theatre with the poet Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones). As part of a group of African American intellectuals, Cruse visited Cuba and was able to observe a nation that had recently undertaken a Communist revolution. His observations would shape his writings in the near future.
Cruse’s magnum opus, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, was published in 1967. It was a compilation of 28 essays, which called for black autonomy and criticized many leading African American and Jewish intellectuals who were prominent at that time. Significantly, Cruse did not align himself with any one of the various black intellectual movements of the time period. He was especially critical of the Communists with whom he had previously been aligned, but he also challenged many black nationalist thinkers.
Crisis of the Negro Intellectual garnered considerable critical acclaim and notoriety. As a consequence of this attention, Cruse was offered a teaching job at the University of Michigan. In 1968 he began teaching African American studies there. Cruse eventually became a full professor of history, although he never obtained a college degree.
In 1970 Cruse founded the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. He retired in the mid-1980s as a professor emeritus, but continued publishing. In 1987 he authored Plural but Equal, a book that condemned the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954. Cruse died in 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, of congestive heart failure.