Houston A. Baker Jr.

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Houston A. Baker Jr.
Born (1943-03-22) March 22, 1943 (age 74)
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
Occupation Writer, academic
Nationality American
Subject English
African American studies

Houston Alfred Baker Jr. (born March 22, 1943) is an American scholar specializing in African-American literature and currently serving as a professor at Vanderbilt University in the English department.[1]

Baker served as president of the Modern Language Association, editor of the journal American Literature, and has authored several books, including The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, and Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing.[2][3] Baker was included in the 2006 textbook Fifty Key Literary Theorists, by Richard J. Lane.[3]

Early life[edit]

Baker was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, a city he later described as "racist" and "stultifying".[4] The racism and violence he says he experienced as a youth would later prompt him to conclude "I had been discriminated against and called 'Nigger' enough to think that what America needed was a good Black Revolution."[4] He recently revised such a summary judgment in his book combining memoir and critique titled I Don't Hate the South (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Academic career[edit]

Baker's academic career initially progressed along traditional lines. He earned a B.A. in English literature from Howard University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Victorian literature from the UCLA. He began teaching at Yale University and intended to write a biography of Oscar Wilde.[2] In 1970 he joined the University of Virginia's Center for Advanced Studies, and from 1974 to 1977 he directed the University of Pennsylvania's Afro-American Studies Program.[3]

From 1977 to 1999, Baker was a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Starting in 1982, he was the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations, and in 1987 he also founded the university's Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture, serving as the Center's director until 1999.[3][5]

From 1999 to 2006, Baker was the Susan Fox and George D. Beischer Professor of English and editor of American Literature at Duke University. In 2006, he became a Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University.[5]

Literary scholarship[edit]

Baker's work in African American literary studies has been called "groundbreaking" for his ability to connect theory about the texts with the historical conditions of the beginning of the African American community, namely, both their uprooting from Africa and their ability to maintain their African heritage through an emphasis on spirituality and on autobiography, which allowed them to "reinforce and reinvent self-worth in the midst of their debasement".[3] His work in the 1970s focused on locating and mapping the origins of the "black aesthetic", such as found in the Black Arts Movement and the attendant development of anthologies, journals and monographs about African-American literature.[3]

Baker's breakthrough work was 1980's The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, in which he critiques earlier discussions of the black aesthetic and calls for an interdisciplinary approach that would focus on the context of the literary works, which he claims are always "in motion".[3] Baker argues that the attempts to forge a black aesthetic in the 1960s were not simply descriptive, but actively creative and thus based on—and distorted by—the writers' idealism.[3] Baker offers history as a corrective, arguing that the black community has always created art forms in the face of oppression and that black artists need to "journey back" in order to "re-affirm the richness and complexity" of black aesthetic history and to recuperate lost aesthetic forms.[3]

Baker used this approach in his 1987 study, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, in which he takes black critics to task for accepting the common notion that the Harlem Renaissance was a failure and then shows how notions of modernism based on European and Angloamerican texts are "inappropriate for understanding Afro-American modernism".[3] He argues that by examining the literature of the Harlem Renaissance in conversation with contemporaneous developments in African American music, art and philosophy, we can identify the development of "new modes of production" that lead to a rebirth; Baker calls these modes "blues geographies".[3] Baker points to Booker T. Washington's 1895 Exposition address as the beginning of African American modernist concerns, in that Washington both adopted and subverted a minstrel mask, thus creating a post-slavery African American trope that is both useful and restrictive.[3] In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker had also argued for the importance of oral culture in the black aesthetic tradition, an idea he develops in his work on African American feminists in the essay "There Is No More Beautiful Way: Theory and the Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing", which stresses the connection between oral culture and autobiography.[3]

Baker's 1984 Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory had also developed his ideas about blues geographies and about orality, but had joined these ideas with developments in post-structuralism, borrowing from the work of Hegel and Derrida to argue that blues music is a "matrix", a code that acts as the foundation for African American artistic production insofar as blues music synthesizes numerous types of early African American oral genres; he develops this notion of "blues geography" through his reading of key works by Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Morrison.[3]

In his analysis of Baker's contributions, Richard J. Lane claims that Baker's ability to connect literary theory with vernacular literature and to keep that combination connected to the material conditions of black life in the USA "provides a pedagogical model for [...] new ways of reading literature in general".[3]

Views on race[edit]

Holding "an exceedingly pessimistic view of American social progress where race is concerned," Baker has written many books on African Americans in modern American society. In Turning South Again: Rethinking Modernism/Rereading Booker T, Baker suggests being a black American, even a successful one, amounts to a kind of prison sentence.[2]

Baker also harshly criticized then United States President Barack Obama's widely praised race-centered speech ("A More Perfect Union") stemming from controversial remarks given by his pastor: "Sen. Obama's 'race speech' at the National Constitution Center, draped in American flags, was reminiscent of the Parthenon concluding scene of Robert Altman's Nashville: a bizarre moment of mimicry, aping Martin Luther King Jr., while even further distancing himself from the real, economic, religious and political issues so courageously articulated by King from a Birmingham jail. In brief, Obama's speech was a pandering disaster that threw, once again, his pastor under the bus."[6]

2006 Duke University lacrosse case[edit]

During the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case, Baker published an open letter calling for Duke to dismiss the team and its players. Baker claimed that "white, male, athletic privilege" was responsible for the alleged rape.[7] Baker suggested that the Duke administration was "sweeping things under the rug."[7] More generally, Baker's letter criticized colleges and universities for the "blind-eyeing of male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain."[7]

Duke Provost Peter Lange responded to Baker's letter a few days later, criticizing Baker for prejudging the team based on their race and gender, citing this as a classic tactic of racism.[7]

In 2007, charges against the players were dropped and the state's Attorney General took the extraordinary step of declaring the students innocent.[8] Following the exoneration of the players, one of the parents of a Duke lacrosse player emailed Baker and reported that he responded by writing that she was "quite sadly, mother of a 'farm animal'".[9]

Works[edit]

  • The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T. Duke University Press, 2001.
  • Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Right Era (American Book Award), 2009.
  • "On the Criticism of Black Literature: One View of the Black Aesthetic. 1976.
  • The Trouble with Post-Blackness Columbia University Press, 2015.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Five prominent African American literature scholars to move to Vanderbilt", Vanderbilt News Service, May 25, 2006.
  2. ^ a b c Eakin, Emily. "Black Captive in a White Culture?", The New York Times, May 5, 2001.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Lane, Richard J. Fifty Key Literary Theorists. Routledge Key Guides series, 2006, pp. 3–9.
  4. ^ a b "Houston A. Baker Jr." in Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 6. Gale Research, 1994.
  5. ^ a b Curriculum Vita of Houston A. Baker Jr., Distinguished University Professor, Vanderbilt University, online at vanderbilt.edu, updated June 2013; accessed May 12, 2015.
  6. ^ Baker, Houston A. Jr. (April 29, 2008). "What should Obama do about Rev. Jeremiah Wright?". Salon.com. Retrieved April 29, 2008. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Provost Responds to Faculty Letter Regarding Lacrosse". Duke News & Communications. April 3, 2006. Archived from the original on December 24, 2007. 
  8. ^ "N.C. attorney general: Duke players 'innocent'", CNN Justice, April 11, 2007.
  9. ^ Peter Applebome, "After Duke Prosecution Began to Collapse, Demonizing Continued", New York Times, April 15, 2007.

References[edit]

  • Awkward, Michael. "Houston A. Baker Jr." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. William L. Andres, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, ed. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Hatch, Shari Dorantes and Michael R. Strickland. African-American Writers: A Dictionary. ABC-CLIO, 2000.
  • "Houston A. Baker Jr." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007.
  • "Houston A. Baker Jr." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 6. Gale Research, 1994.
  • "Houston A. Baker Jr." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature. Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.), 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 228-29.
  • "Houston A. Baker Jr." Notable Black American Men Book II, Thomson Gale, 2006.

External links[edit]