On the evening of February 21, 2012, Professor Houston A. Baker of Vanderbilt University delivered an emotionally gripping and intellectually stimulating lecture, “Blues Poems, Black Memoir,” at the University of Virginia (UVA). His visit was the first public event associated with the Arts-In-Action project, Black Fire: A Multimedia Initiative Documenting the Struggle for Racial Equality and Social Justice at the University of Virginia. Professor Marlon B. Ross of the English Department and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies introduced Baker. The transcript of Ross’ introduction, as well as the audio of the entire lecture, can be found below. Included in Baker’s lecture are reflections on his experiences as a professor of Black Studies and English at UVA. As some readers are well aware, Baker taught at the University from 1970 to 1974. One of his closest colleagues was Joseph R. Washington, who served as the director of the African American Studies Program during the same period. Enjoy!
*Marlon Ross Introduction
Good evening everyone. It is my pleasure and a distinct honor to introduce Houston A. Baker, Jr. Distinguished University Professor and Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Scholar, poet, public intellectual, Mr. Baker is one of the most influential and prolific critics writing today, having particularly contributed powerfully, provocatively, and sometimes controversially, to the fields of American, African American, and southern studies.
No matter where you travel,
You still be Black,
You carry all your history
On your own damn back.
Your momma raised you proper
Your daddy caused you pain
You understand Beethoven,
But you still love Trane.
This is a poem from Baker’s 1979 poetry volume entitled No Matter Where You Travel, You Still be Black. Written early in his career, this poem communicates a deep value that travels across Mr. Baker’s many books, articles, and essays. From his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to college in Washington, D.C. to graduate school in Los Angeles, to teaching stints in New Haven, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, and Durham, to his presidency of the Modern Language Association, in lectures as a scholar, cultural critic, and public intellectual across the country and around the world, wherever he has traveled, Mr. Baker has carried our history on his back, a burden, an obligation, and a proud charge. He has more profoundly carried this history into his cultural analysis as he has constantly worked to redefine the relation between our collective past and the difficulties and potentialities of our current cultural situation. Mr. Baker’s work can be seen as an ongoing meditation on the befuddling but invigorating question of what it means to “still be Black” across the “changing same” of American racial history.
Mr. Baker’s work calls on us not to forego understanding Beethoven, reminding us that what is too facilely called “Western civilization” is as much heterogeneous and self-riddled as it is hegemonic and coercive. The larger motive of his cultural theory, though, is aimed at understanding the fertile culture that produces the genius of and love for a John Coltrane, within and despite the ongoing distortions of racial disfranchisement, exclusion, and degradation. At ease with Beethoven and Coltrane, Baker has favored the theory of a black cultural matrix, in which forms, techniques, and ideas coalesce into an indigenous or vernacular tradition while remaining opportunistically open to influence and radical revision. Trained as an expert in Victorian literature at UCLA, Baker has resisted becoming a captive of the kind of training that defines expertise as beholding to narrow disciplinary habit. Thus, confronted with the intellectual explosion arising from the Black Arts Movement (or BAM) as a young instructor at Yale, in his first monograph, Long Black Song (1972), he sets about adapting insights from BAM to recover a black literary tradition. “The central question of the discussion that follows,” he wrote, “is whether a way of life known as black American culture is distinct and separate from a way of life known as white culture” (1). We can hear in the newly-minted professor’s voice the intonations of the black nationalist agenda, but when we attend closely, we begin to hear how Baker exploits his broad knowledge of “Western” forms, techniques, and themes ironically to argue for a distinct black American literary tradition.
Baker’s corpus is a microcosm of the theoretical and cultural trends in humanities scholarship from the early 1970s to the present, and this should not be surprising as he has been often on the frontline of these trends, helping to shape the theoretical direction and cultural outlook of literary study over the last forty years. Like the blues masters who serve as intellectual models for his cultural theory, Baker values topicality – finding insight in the particular circumstance of the moment to shed light on the changing fortunes of the race as it moves from place to place and time to time. As a result his criticism is always a program of self-critique, self-revision, and improvisational rethinking. In his 1980 book, The Journey Back, for instance, he steps away from the separatist impulse of BAM. Rather than a self-rebuttal, though, we find a reorientation of black literature in light of structuralist linguistics and symbolic anthropology. “I am seeking a way – beyond verbal fiat,” he wrote, “to substantiate a particular point of view on black American culture and art” (xii). This allows him to extend black literary tradition to 18th-century writers, such as Phillis Wheatley, that his BAM impulses had previously encouraged him to dismiss. Despite constant rethinking and renewal of his theoretical approaches, there is a strong cohesion to Baker’s intellectual project, to elucidate the distinctive coherence of African American cultural expression as grounded in the historical and material conditions of collective African American experience. In his highly influential 1984 book, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, he advances this project through “a vernacular theory,” as he puts post-structuralism to use while warning against reducing black cultural expression to that theory. In his 1991 book, Workings of the Spirit, we find Baker correcting himself again by expanding and nuancing his critical landscape to account for black feminist theory and gender studies.
It would be a mistake to see Baker’s blues grounding of black culture as nostalgically backward-looking, for he has also called attention to the prescient modernity of black culture in its constant refashioning of itself in negotiating and resisting racial subordination. In books like his 1987 Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker has helped to spur a growing focus on the radical modernity of African American identity, the central role that it plays in U.S. and global movements of the avant garde. Not necessarily courting controversy, but also not shy to step into it, Mr. Baker has sought to shed light where there has been more smoke than heat. His 1993 book, Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy simultaneously defended African American Studies programs and rap music when both were under assault in dominant media, and when some black leaders were seeking to create social authority by scapegoating black studies and rap music as somehow alien to the academy and thus to U.S. progressive culture. In his 2009 book, Betrayal, winner of the American Book Award, Baker attacked some of the country’s most visible black public intellectuals for promoting an individualist ethos that betrays the collective, progressive values of the Civil Rights movement. In some of his recent publications, Baker has blended memoir, psychoanalysis, and performance studies to understand how we are still very much haunted by Jim Crow. Lending weight to the new southern studies, his 2001 book Turning South Again and the 2007 provocatively titled I Don’t Hate the South have spotlighted Jim Crow ghosts like Booker T. Washington and William Faulkner in autobiographical retrospection that engages his own and many other African Americans’ remigration southward.
Houston Baker’s has been a career of wringing high literacy out of “tight places” (Turning South 15) of racial conscription. Speaking of his youth in Louisville, Kentucky, he posits literacy itself as survival strategy that produces cultural creativity. “Language was our peer group’s improvisational fluidity of revision and defense,” he writes, “our sometimes hortatory, always colorfully sublimating, projectional interlocution. Writing was our global explanation and prediction of what could happen to our black bodies under conditions of southern maleness. It was our theory” (6). [end quote] While charting the distinctiveness of black cultural expression from its blues roots, Professor Baker has always graciously invited us along on this intellectual journey, provoking, cajoling, teasing, and instructing us on the way. As he says in a poem from his 1985 collection Blues Journeys Home:
I will make no attempt to distance you.
Had you been there while I was growing up, or
Even in the thin/worn time of their decline,
I would have introduced you.
Allowed you to share the fine goodness of ancestral
As he has welcomed us “to share the fine goodness of ancestral caring” in texts that enliven, enlighten, impassion, and critique our common culture, let us now welcome him with the caring attention his work so well deserves.
Professor Marlon Ross has taught at the University of Virginia since 2001. Some of his works include Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era. New York University Press, 2004; The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women’s Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1989; “Beyond the Closet as Raceless Paradigm.” In Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Duke University Press, 2005. 161-189; “Callaloo, Everyone?” Callaloo Volume 30.1 (Winter 2007). Special Issue: “Reading Callaloo / Eating Callaloo”: The First of Four Special 30th Anniversary Issues. Shona N. Jackson and Karina L. Céspedes, guest eds. 87-94; “An Anatomy of the Straight Black Sissy.” FORECASST (Forum for European Contributions in African American Studies). Special issue on Blackness and Sexualities. Michelle M. Wright and Antje Schuhmann, eds. Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2007.