A symposium: new Souths.
Fracture of the black body enables a sustainable southern mind.--Houston A. Baker.Jr., Turning South Again (p. 93)
THE USUAL DIFFICULTIES WHICH ATTEND "THE RETURN HOME" for an adult long departed from his or her birthplace are both convoluted and magnified for an African American whose home is located in the American South. While homecoming would seem the stuff of the Southern literary imagination if Thomas Wolfe is metaphorically placed at the center of its solar system, so many Southern characters, especially if they are black, are desperately trying to escape the hearth of "home." Richard Wright's Big Boy in "Big Boy Leaves Home" barely slips through the lynch mob's noose after a Southern pastoral scene gives way to a tableau of Southern horror, a young Richard in Black Boy is involuntarily subject to the economic and familial vagaries of black itinerant life, and Ralph Ellison's narrator in Invisible Man is permanently exiled to the North (as Paul Laurence Dunbar's protagonist had been in The Sport of the Gods half a century earlier).
So "my southern home" remains a particularly vexed phrase and an anxious space for black sons and daughters of the South. The difficulties for black Southerners are only magnified by their existence in the parallel universe of the North, a region where the social divides of race, class, and gender, while amply present, still manifest themselves differently. A Negro boy from Louisville, Kentucky, returns as a grown man to the region (in his case, North Carolina, but, he reminds us, it could just as easily be "Richmond, Raleigh, Greenville, New Orleans, Tuscaloosa, or Tugaloo"). But his return is not temporary; he is not simply "back for a visit." Houston A. Baker, Jr. explores the pleasures and perils of this odyssey in his two new memoirs, Turning South Again: Rethinking Modernism/Re-reading Booker T. and Critical Memory: Public Spheres, African American Writing, and Black Fathers and Sons in America. "Turning South again" for Baker (and for black Southerners in general) I take to mean the decision to return to the South permanently and, more importantly, to reenter its physical landscape, without the protection afforded by either a Northern domestic refuge or a round-trip airline ticket. Writing about his Louisville childhood from his North Carolina home, Baker escorts his readers into this "right place" of Southern place and Southern memory. "Tight places," he reminds us, "are constituted by the necessity to articulate from a position that combines specters of abjection (slavery), multiple subjects and signifiers ... representation obligations of race in America ... and patent sex and gender implications" (TSA, p. 15). Baker takes readers through a metaphoric museum of black Southern experience during Jim Crow as one might imagine a docent leading a tour group. In doing so, he lifts the curtains to reveal its quotidian horrors, even behind a stable, striving middle-class facade: his arrival in the world in a freezing cold room, without an attending physician, at the colored hospital; the terrifying urban legend of Blue Man who stalked young black men in Louisville's Chicasaw Park; and the white orthodontist who recommends lip-thinning exercises for a young Houston instead of the corrective devices needed for his teeth. The correlation between "turning south" and "tight places" brings to mind the rhetorical valence of Baker's rifle. How might the "turn south" itself be a new trope, a new figure of speech that "turns" successful and prosperous black migrants to the North back into their Southern doubles as fully constituted subjects? In sharp juxtaposition to what his audience might "like"--say "a rollicking, jestful fireside recollection of 'Colored people"--Baker instead, out of a sense of "social urgency," offers complementary memoirs in which he forays into the dangerous Southern landscapes of his youth in order to place them in a broader historical continuum of black modernism in the U.S., a continuum whose most recent nodal point is the prison-industrial-complex (TSA, p. 10).
Written for the Averitt Lectures on history and literature at Georgia Southern University, Critical Memory is the first cousin of Turning South Again, a text which more closely conforms to the genre of personal memoir. While I consider these texts in tandem because they chronicle the dangerous psychic endeavor of attempting to be "black" and "southern" simultaneously, in another sense, I lament the partition of Baker's ideas into two separate texts as the complementarity of the trope of "turning south" in one text resonates so loudly with the theory of critical memory in the other. Physical reentry, as I mentioned earlier, is Baker's starting point. Baker muses that "[a]s W.E.B. Du Bois might have stated it: 'It is a peculiar burden, this incumbency of a black man's calling the South home'" (TSA, p. 16). But even Baker recognizes that incumbency in the latent marks of region on his psyche and persona, what he cites as the "inescapable fact of a tightly spaced 'southernness"' (TSA, p. 15). As he notes, "I have long sought to erase ["southernness"] from my speech, my bearing, and my memory. But it has never really been possible. For in face-to-face encounters anywhere below the Mason-Dixon, I quickly discover I have not left the South, nor has the South left me. The vowels of my 'educated black man' speech desert me almost instantly, and the slow-motion roll and drawl of Kentucky syllables drip softly from my tongue. On such southern occasions, I feel ironic pride that I can still pull off the correct local pronunciation of my hometown" (TSA, pp. 15-16). So I ask again: what does it mean for a black Southerner to "turn south again"? Baker opens Turning South Again with something of a manifesto, his declaration that the turn "represents a black southern mind navigating oceans and landfalls of memory, ineradicable dilemmas of black modernism, protocols of black male subject formation." Memory. Modernism. Subject formation. While the first two modalities remain in operation, the exigencies of subject formation predominate because a bodily return to Southern landscapes requires a visceral engagement with the simple, yet totalizing discursive equation that "southern = white." Even in contradistinction to the demographic realities of the region as historically bi-racial and contemporarily multiracial, this equation operates as a remnant of the postbellum politics of race and social space. Indeed, Baker gestures to this identificatory crossroads: "Where the South and black southern being are concerned, I believe such rehashing forms the crux of a psychodrama of framing, performance, signification, and, ultimately, being for the black American" (TSA, p. 18). That "black southern being"--whether "freedman," "colored," "Negro," "black," or "African-American"--maintained at best a tenuous hold on regional identification. In Baker's childhood, to be black in the South was strictly to be a "Negro."
In the wake of nearly three centuries of highly choreographed and often rigid patterns of interracial social interactions during the era of chattel slavery in the U.S., newly freed slaves, propertyless masters and yeomen were forced to renegotiate rapidly the manner in which they occupied the often-devastated physical landscape that supported their homes (even as a Northern army "occupied" many of those same spaces). In other words, the fragility of nominal racial equality often was tested over the physical grounds of land. Consider just three examples: freed people's demands for "forty acres and mule"; the fragmentation of the former plantation slave quarter as cabins were dismantled and rebuilt in less ordered configurations; or the tragic case of the Port Royal experiment in which newly freed slaves successfully settled lands on the Georgia Sea. Islands only to have them confiscated by white elites later in Reconstruction. This contest over control of land was all the more significant because of the embedded relation between property ownership, citizenship, and race and gender status in the colonies and later the new Republic.
In the decades between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the new century, the discursive power of that equation of racial identity with region ultimately provided a language for national reconciliation. As David W. Blight argues in his compelling new history, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the reunion of region, of North and South, was achieved at the expense of a reunion between black and white; "the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race." (1) Blight continues that "the sectional reunion after so horrible a civil war was political triumph by the late nineteenth century, but it could not have been achieved without the resubjugation of many of those people whom the war had freed from centuries of bondage" (p. 3). With this equation, the antebellum realities of social relations and demographics can be forgotten; the four million slaves who had been an intrinsic part of the Southern landscape (indeed defined what might be characterized as a regional tableau) were seemingly excised with the massive destruction and fragmentation of that landscape after the War. So I want to emphasize that Blight's notion of resubjugation of newly freed slaves also occurred at a discursive level, as the former slaves of the South became simply "Negroes" whose plight was a "problem" or "question," their condition a blight on a landscape otherwise in regeneration.
Baker's enterprise remains focused on the racial calculus of the South; a kind of social, cultural, and ideological mathematics that requires the "fracture" of black bodies (which strongly recalls the fractional abstract of the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution) in order to constitute fully the identities of whites who live in the South, or as Baker states succinctly, to "enable a sustainable southern mind." To rewrite the equivalence of "southern = white" by offering a new differential equation, Baker calls for a reconception of the field of Southern studies, a new version of which is "long past due" (TSA, p. 9). His version of "black turn-of-the-new-millennium southern scholarship" would "[search] revisionarily the geography, economics, race relations, demographics of the United States," not only for attention to the American South as a region, but also for a "new--and expansive--American cultural studies." This scholarship excites Baker precisely because of the possibility "that we might articulate and comprehend new scholarly, activist possibilities for projecting a liberating black modernism" (TSA, pp. 9-10). This "liberating black modernism," also dubbed "United States Black Modernism," requires mobility, "a black public-sphere mobility and fullness of United States black citizenship rights of locomotion, promotion, suffrage, occupational choice and compensation that yield what can only be designated a black-majority, politically participatory, bodily secure GOOD LIFE" (TSA, p. 83). This form of modernism can only be achieved with the development of a "black critical memory," a memory generated by literacy that "not only hurts and outrages but also produces critique, strategic collaboration, intervention, and public-sphere institutions" (CM, p. 19). For Baker, Richard Wright remains the finest literary cultivator of critical memory, his "stolen literacy ... his radically secular and critical structure of feeling gained from reading and writing produced a desperate hunger for politically engaged, in-depth, honest black talk as a weapon against southern ethics of living Jim Crow and a northern sociology and politics of black ghetto impoverishment" (CM, pp. 7-8).
Baker's embrace of a new brand of Southern/American studies in which "geography, economics, race relations, and demographics" could illuminate the critique of forms of cultural and literary production would move the field into the exciting orbit of the multi- and interdisciplinary studies of the Atlantic world, in which the compelling work of thinkers like Paul Gilroy, Joseph Roach, and Joan Dayan are already constellated. Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Dayan's Haiti, History and the Gods (1995), and Roach's Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1997) among other works resonate powerfully for their respective historical, geographical, and theoretical range. Indeed, Dayan's and Roach's work can more specifically be situated as at the vanguard of this new branch of work on the "South," both in its local focus on Haiti and New Orleans, respectively, and on the region as a crucial node in what Roach calls the "circum-Atlantic world." In this latter sense, I think Baker's imperative to set "the Americas on a more even southern keel" (with its implicit reference to the transoceanic nature of the enterprise of black diaspora and memory) is already happening (p. 11).
While the memoir as a genre is understandably gothic in nature with the ghosts and shadows of past events flitting and looming across one's psychic (and ultimately textual) landscapes, Baker's texts are especially haunted; his attempts to produce the memoir, he recounts, "obviously triggered something peculiarly southern as I sought a language of recovery for my past" (p. 15). In accord with the demands of "critical memory," he endeavored "to make the language of nay memoir more than a simple lyrical metaphysics of memory intended 'for colored only.' And surely I want my language of memory to transcend chest-thumping 'end-of-racism' triumphalism intended for white readers alone" (TSA, p. 15). Turning South Again is littered with the apparatus of racial slavery and its aftermath: holds of slave ships, plantation quarters, chain gangs on rolling iron cages, prison farms, and contemporary super prisons as Baker wrestles with the ghosts of his father and of Booker T. Washington. Critical Memory is consumed by the ghosts of literary forefathers: notably Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and their characters' encounters with the Southern racial grotesque (whether spit in the soup pot or the "likable" bell boy).
At its most basic, both memoirs offer sustained readings of the work of these forefathers in order to investigate the limits of memory. While Baker acknowledges the state of being haunted by myriad images and tropes from Wright, Ellison, and Washington, he uses the occasion to return to the major texts that have been at the core of his own critical practice, particularly Ellison's Invisible Man (in his Blues Ideology' in African-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory ) and Washington's Up From Slavery' (in his Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance ). During these critical encounters with literary poltergeists, he deploys a range of theoretical approaches (from W. J. Cash on the psychic inner life of the Southern society to Walter Benjamin on the flaneur as well as Michel Foucault and Paul Gilroy). Baker's own reading practice enacts his model of critical memory, a memory actualized by the power of literacy.
Remembering his parents, Baker muses that "[l]ike Richard Wright, my father and mother understood that literacy is the first servant of a critical memory. She taught us the joy of words from Chaucer to Langston Hughes, reciting verses in lyrical bursts of self-confident smartness that gave us a model of creative address to life. He shaped a financial scheme whereby my brothers and I were rewarded with a dime for every book we checked out of the colored library and read" (CM, p. 19). In a critical landscape within African-American Studies which remains focused on the vernacular and signifying practices (Baker's own Blues Ideology and Henry Louis Gates's Signifying Monkey immediately come to mind), Baker reinscribes literacy as the "prophylaxis against civil and social death" (TSA, p. 5). The "blessing" of literacy, what Baker calls "memorial and performative writing," stands as a "rite of black revisionary survival par excellence" (TSA, pp. 4-5). So the work of critical memory, like the work of literacy, is to fight the tide of historical revisionism and nostalgia about race in the United States that is propelled by "a rich, white American minority, joined too often in its rhetoric and crimes against humanity by cadres of black neoconservative and centrist footsoldiers" (CM, p. 20).
Baker implores his readers to remember that "the difference critical memory can make depends in large measure on the honesty of black intellectuals who are not seeking to be liked. The profit to be gained from honest, memorial labors of activist black intellectuals are, I think, benefits of a good life for all" (CM, p. 20). Baker revisits the revenants of Wright, Ellison, and Washington from this political and discursive litmus test. While Wright serves as the standard-bearer for critical memory, both Ellison and Washington are found wanting; their vision of black progress or, in Baker's terms, "black modernity," results in a "mulatto modernism" characterized by its bourgeois tendencies, "middle-class individualism, vestimentary and hygienic impeccability, oratorical and double-conscious 'race pride,' and protonationalism" (TSA, p. 33). Ellison's comparative silence at the cusp of the revolutionary Civil Rights Movement and during the anxious times of the McCarthy era are discerned through Baker's focus on critical memory. The "Imminence" of the Civil Rights struggle makes no appearance in Invisible Man. "The grassroots resistance and organization--the utter determination for 'freedom now' ... invisible" (CM, p. 25). While "Ellison believed morality, equality', and responsibility were affirmative notions, .... blacks, at the very moment of Invisible Man's receipt of literary awards on startling occasions, were transforming affirmative notions into decisively affirmative actions--converting the shadow to the act of black liberation" (CM, p. 27). Washington receives similar critical inspection. His "black male public performance" as Negro leader results in a retrograde modernism for the black masses, what Baker labels an "Imperialist plantation." All of Washington's "public performances merely affirmed the 'rightness' of the Old and New South's claims for regional, philosophical difference from a dandified, industrial North. Washington fashioned himself as one of America's best champions of infinite deferral ('all deliberate speed') of black citizenship and southern public sphere rights for the black masses" (TSA, p. 64),
Although Ellison and Washington are critiqued by Baker for the failure of their critical memories, ultimately, I was more persuaded by Baker's notion of "likability" (he uses no less than six variants of "like" in Critical Memory.) as critical memory's counterpoint. As he reminds us, "[w]here black men and women are concerned, there has always been a correlation between the narrator's, speaker's, or storyteller's 'likableness' and the credibility assigned by whites to his or her tale" (CM, p. 6). The subjection and subjugation of a black discursive mood in which the only speech acts accepted by the dominant culture are those most palatable and least controversial seems highly resonant in our contemporary culture. Black bodies, black speech, and black movement remain highly instrumental to the production and dispersal of U.S. cultural production--consider two examples: Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, lean, muscled commercial pitchmen who may well be our country's most visible and valuable (if judged by their compensation). Jordan's and Woods's silence on a range of political, social, and racial matters suggests, as Baker insists, "that what makes black public figures in the United States likable to arbiters of power and taste is precisely their failures of black critical memory" (p. 24). As a native son of North Carolina, Jordan quietly refused to publicly endorse black Democratic contender Harvey Gantt over Republican conservative Jesse Helms in his historic but ultimately failed bids for the U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina in 1992 and 1996. In specific reference to his burden as Nike spokesman, Jordan demurred claiming that Republicans wore sneakers too, but his silence resonated loudly. As Baker notes, there may indeed be hidden perils to the 1990s advertising campaign to "be like Mike." Is "being like Mike" and remaining on the "good side" of global corporate interests the contemporary analog to "being like Booker T.," staying on the "good side" of power and authority ill the South? And how tragic for Jordan personally given his father's terrible and untimely demise by drowning in an isolated Carolina creek, a saturated Southern space that can only be read fully and intelligently within a framework that would foreground this notion of "critical memory." Woods continues to negotiate the cultural land mines of race and sport. In the process of winning the elite Masters golf championship for the first time in 1997, he deflected the buffoonish comments made by white golfer Fuzzy Zoeller (Zoeller joked that the menu at the Masters Champions dinner was being altered to fried chicken and collard greens in honor of its first black winner) by downplaying his blackness. Instead in his comments, he embraced a new, multi-racial identity--cablinasian (Caucasian, black, Indian, Asian) even as he conquered Augusta National country club, itself a former Georgia plantation, which had only just admitted its first black member. Indeed, a much more nuanced reading of the strange career of O.J. Simpson can be made within the framework of critical memory. As the precursor to both Jordan and Woods in the world of sport and commercial endorsement, Simpson's arrest, trial, acquittal, and ultimate civic judgment in the death of his estranged wife and companion provided the cultural setting in which to discern the long-term viability of the affable character. What happens instead when affability--O.J, embraced as token of a white elite--accedes to abhorrence--O.J, reviled and ostracized by that same elite?
Even black figures outside of the world of popular culture may be better discerned against the backdrop of likability and the cultural limits to discursive freedom. General Colin Powell, first black U.S. Secretary of State, straddles a dangerous ideological precipice between the demands of critical memory and the exigencies of ideological and political compromise as the powerful black man in government. His sometimes deafening silences since President Bush entered the White House in 2001, especially in contrast to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, whose eagerness as spokeswoman for the administration's increasingly conservative positions only earn her more airtime and press coverage, seem instructive. Indeed Rice, herself a child of segregated Alabama, and childhood friend of the girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by white supremacists, continually denies the need for critical memory, whether with regard to affirmative action or the illegitimacy of the chattel slavery reparations movement. As Baker makes abundantly clear, "[b]lack affability is grotesquely profitable for selective likable blacks. But the desire of such blacks to be liked leaves awful facts of America untold, unheard, unanalyzed. And when such facts remain unarticulated, the process of clearance--exclusion or removal of blacks from rights, spaces, and privileges of American citizenship---goes forward with unchecked vigor" (CM, p. 7).
But throughout both texts, the almost involuntary demands of memory threaten to overwhelm Baker: he is surprised "that there seem so many triggers that set me talking about my southern home, even to bored or indulgent strangers on airplanes. Somewhere, somehow it must all have left an indelible and shaping ambivalence because, often despite myself, I display a badge of honor in regard to tight places of youth, tight places that were my testing ground, that are my legacy" (TSA, p. 18). Dragged back into the powerful currents of memory, "I write revisionarily, as 'one would turn to exorcism.' Eternal returns and full circles, negotiating postmodern roadblocks, feared assaults on body and consciousness, high-tech handcuffs and tracking systems in the blue of our country's prison-industrial complex. I often stay awake at night. Ghosdy emanations of southern economies of violence against the black body toss and turn me. I have nightmares populated by post-suited apologists for millions of African bodies displaced and disappeared by a Euro-American consumer revolution and transatlantic trade" (TSA, p. 9). From the pestilent charnel holds of slavers to plantation huts to chain gangs to the modern penitentiary., Baker's sight is filled by tableaux full of bound, chained, and otherwise incarcerated black bodies.
But these bodies conjured out of Baker's sleeplessness are almost exclusively male, and with the exception of his own mother and the journalist-activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, no other women emanate from his visions. Even the memory faculty is gendered: "[t]he special smell of jasmine and early-evening humidity powers up southern memory for me as
megadoses of creatine do an athlete's muscles" (TSA, p. 17). While Baker is clearly straightforward with his readers (both texts' subtitles reveal his primary focus--"black fathers and sons" and "Booker T."), the absence of either anonymous female bodies or notable women makes me wonder about the ultimate expansiveness of his argument about region and memory. What might that same "turn south" feel like for a black woman? What tropes might she deploy to describe her "tight place"? Deborah Gray White, in Ar'n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, her path-breaking history, emphasizes the precarious situation of powerlessness and invisibility. in which black women found themselves: "the reality, of slave life gives us reason to suspect that we do black women a disservice when we rob them of a history, that placed them at the side of their men in their races' struggle for freedom." (2) To build on Baker's evocative thesis, I think black women might actually find their reentry a "tighter place," their invisibility reinforced when erased from the quarter and half decks of slave ships, from plantation residence, quarter, and field, and, most urgently, from the penitentiary.
My concern with the subtleties of the black woman's "turn south" is, not surprisingly in this consideration of a memoir, personal. My own mother, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, just made a permanent move back to her place of birth after leaving in 1958 for graduate school (although my parents are divorced, my father had ultimately relocated back several years before her). Like many other first-generation college graduates of her age, she traveled north on what I call a "third wave" of the Great Migration, the phenomenon in which upwardly-mobile transplants of the 1950s and 1960s who arrived in their new Northern homes were able to stand on the shoulders of older, usually working-class relatives who had made the more arduous journey in the earlier part of the century. Having made a personal home for our family with my father in Chicago and a major professional name for herself as a physician, she, like Baker, could no longer ignore the ceaseless call to return to Louisiana on a more permanent basis, especially as my grandfather's health began to decline. As a frequent visitor to New Orleans during all the years of residence in Chicago, she still found herself unprepared for the permanence of return, and the durability of the past. And like Baker, she also lives, writes (poetry in her case), and sings (sacred music) "as a black southerner who happily and compulsively cannot stop writing ... or being black ... or shrug off or sever the fibrous southern tenacity of [her] youth" (TSA, p. 10). Critical Memory and Turning South Again continue to resound for those of us who understand the difference between writing about the South and living in the South and writing about it. I am sending my mother both of Baker's memoirs to add to her reading table; perhaps I will ask her to send him both her latest CD and book of poetry.
ADAM GUSSOW University of Mississippi The juke comes to silence. Glasses motionless, Even skittery girls listen, And boasting men take seats. Black Jake vamps his guitar once more, Appreciates the quiet, Then releases train rhythm That rocks the low-ceiled roof, Takes the freeze from bodies worked all week, Creates a trembling web over chaos. His words contrast the driving chords: Are of muddy waters and lovers gone-by, Best friends' treachery and hungy nights' journeying. His French-harp whoop, guitar whoosh, voiced hollers refuse catastrophe the win! Swooping, rushing, chugging up steep grades, He pulls the juke along. Knows success in the brightness of their eyes: A syncopating community on high, Rocking. --"Flying Home," Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues Journeys Home (1985)
ANYBODY WHO HAS SPENT EVEN A FEW MINUTES in the presence of Houston A. Baker, Jr., knows him to be an ebullient soul, a man who takes more than his share of pleasure in life. The World Don't Owe Me Nothing is the tide of a recent autobiography by Mississippi-born bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards, but Baker on a good day--and I made his acquaintance several years ago at the MLA meeting in Chicago, on what must have been a very good day--gives every indication of having the world in an upended jug, so graciously intent is he on filling your glass to the brim, and everybody else's, and the stopper be damned. (3) Baker's is, by any measure, a large and vital spirit. Large and vital spirits, besieged by ghosts that demand reckoning, sometimes take up residence in desolate subterranean crypts, discounting the back door in which the sun, woefully overdue but on time and in time nonetheless, happens to be shining. Both Turning South Again and Critical Memory are haunted books: born under a bad sign, as Albert King might say. They address a very real problem--the historical, existential burden of black masculinity on American terrain--with passion, eloquence, and critical acumen--but gesture only haft-heartedly, with brittle conviction, towards possible and emergent solutions. The gospel impulse (as Craig Werner has termed it) is severely muted here; it may be true, as singer Dottie Peoples cries on a recent CD, that "God can, and God will," but Baker's two slim and potent recent volumes evince a man who is convinced, on the basis of all available evidence, that God hasn't and God won't, at least where African Americans are concerned. "
What Baker calls "critical memory" is the proposed antidote, delivering us from accumulated centuries of race-based social evil, and Baker's own vivid enactments of that black intellectual project range widely. Reanimate and commemorate the slave-shipped, prison-farmed, lynched, electric-chaired black dead; critique the modern prison-industrial complex as slavery by another name; inveigh against the profitable Tommism of black male precursors and contemporaries Booker T. Washington, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, James Alan McPherson, Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, and Al Young; mourn the way in which the black past presses on the black present as a sense of diminished possibility that unites black fathers and black sons--including Baker's own father and son--in a deadly array of psychosocial challenges: Baker does all these things with a vengeance, which is to say with a polemical brilliance that sometimes veers towards immoderate dismissals and what might be called a mourner's
understandable resistance to the blues' stubborn insistence that comic redemption, too, is a part of the larger tragicomic picture. Indisputably warranted as these two extended acts of critical memory are, I'm not convinced that they're capable of delivering the redemptive liberation that Baker, a poet who knows how blues-hollers "refuse catastrophe the win," yearns for them to deliver. They are necessary stages in the cycle of death and rebirth that conditions the life of any honest and feelingful American intellectual who meditates on race, as a minor-key blues such as "The Thrill is Gone" is a necessary, stage in the cycle of love's ups and downs. But they're not file end of the story--although they are deep and piercing blues laments, unforgettable as that and ignored at your peril.
If my remarks above seem more ad hominem than is proper in this sort of forum, then Baker's autobiographical turn in the volumes under consideration justifies such an approach. When Baker cries, "[N]ow, in the present, black male death is everywhere, everywhere around us" (TSA, p. 33), he means us to take his totalizing lament as a report on the condition of abjection into which both his own patriarchal line of descent and the manhood of an entire race has been cast by what he calls "a carceral network that has continuously held the black-South body in a state of 'suspended rights'" (TSA, p. 93). That his Louisville, Kentucky, boyhood in the 1950s was relatively privileged by black standards in no way exempted the men of his family from the pressures of that carceral network, which included an ever-present, hallucinatory threat of lynching; if anything, "privilege" exacerbated the double-consciousness suffered by an always potentially niggerizable elite who yearned for transcendence through the sons. "My uncle," he explains in Critical Memory,
--like my father--died too early. In some ways, I believe it was the agony, illness, turmoil, and still-barricaded roads that beset their sons that took their lives. My cousin Ashby, at age thirty-three, awakened one night with fever, shortness of breath, pain. The doctors said it was a mysterious virus; they could find no way of treating it. Ashby died within a month. My Uncle Gordon--as though in holy communion with his son--died of the same "mysterious virus" within months. Our cousin Butch was examined by a Coast Guard surgeon on a Monday prior to shipping out on assignment. The surgeon pronounced Butch completely fit. The following Wednesday, as he was walking up the gangplank to his command, Butch died of a heart attack at age thirty. Uncle Vance lost his laugh. Age lines crept under his eyes. He became dour. (p. 47)
The dourness of Baker's uncle is, at many points in these two volumes, Baker's own. Overwhelmed by what seems to him a death-dealing disciplinary encirclement wrought on black bodies in the present moment, tracing that encirclement back through centuries of prison farms, plantations, and slave ships, he has relinquished bluesman Black Jake's determination to "[take] the freeze from bodies worked all week" with the help of a blues-magical healing spell, preferring instead to inventory those beleaguered bodies and freeze us, his audience, to a long-overdue scene of recognition and reckoning, a Southern gothic gone national:
Once inside plantation protocols and economies, the black situation was one of disciplined immobility and servile labor, whether in heavily surveilled and administered plantation fields or in strictly governed plantation domestic "house" service.... "Penal" plantation protocols were the telos of the black body's journey through Atlantic incarceration to "life upon these shores." Peasantry is a euphemism with respect to the black-South body confined to Yazoo Delta or black "country district" agrarian arrangements of white profits. Prisoner is a vastly more accurate lexical item for what the OED designates as "plantation Negro." (p. 88) Almost any given Afro-American historical configuration of people and events defined as 'modernism' is, I believe, almost immediately historically discredited by continuous, fully documentable white American protocols of enslavement, criminalization, and punishment--the unceasing derogation of the black-South body. (p. 90) [I]n our day-to-day United States life, we scarcely ever reflect that Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma--all southern territories of the actual present-are sites of mass black- and brown-body incarceration ... and extermination. (p. 94; Baker's ellipsis)
Baker's Foucauldian turn is certainly justified by the dismal histories he is conjuring with here, histories--particularly those of the post-Reconstruction period--that have been conclusively archived during the past decade. Alongside Oshinsky and Ayers, he might easily have cited studies by Milfred Fierce, Leon Litwack, Neal McMillen, Grace Elizabeth Hale, Clyde Woods, and Philip Dray--or, for that matter, Angela Davis's 1997 speech, "The Prison Industrial Complex," released as a CD-ROM by that title. (4) Yet Baker's insistence on foregrounding and totalizing black abjection represents a significant revision of the views put forward in his considerably more sanguine Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984). His interest there, in his memorable formulation, lay in providing "suggestive accounts of moments in Afro-American discourse when personae, protagonists, autobiographical narrators, or literary critics successfully negotiate an obdurate 'economics of slavery' and achieve a resonant, improvisational expressive dignity." (5) Sixteen years later, in his view, the economics of slavery has been transformed from an obdurate challenge into a smothering web of oppressions; resonant, improvisational expressive dignity" has all but vanished from the landscape. "Black men die early and often," Baker insists in a characterisitically brooding passage, "because almost nothing ever alters in America with respect to race" (CM, p. 50).
Well, yes and no. Far too many faces at the bottom of the American "well remain black, certainly: a national scandal deserving of immediate and considered collective action. But the symbolic economy of race and the lived rituals that enact it have changed in significant ways, ways directly attributable--in an irony that Baker's unrepentantly activist spirit should applaud--to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The state of Mississippi, for example, serves Baker in both texts as a lyricized instrument of black Southern abjection:
... I would like to conclude with lines from a famous Parchman Farm prison song: "It ain't but one thing I done wrong / I stayed in Mississippi just a day too long." The United States at large is always already in Mississippi, and Mississippi--for better or worse for black modernism--is always in the United States. (TSA, p. 98) Alabama made me so upset, Tennessee would not let me rest, But everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam! --Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddam" (qtd. in CM, p. 1)
But what is it that everybody knows about Mississippi in the year 2002? This past October 1, as a recently-hired faculty member, I stood in front of the Lyceum on the fortieth anniversary of the riot that accompanied James Meredith's shrewd and successful attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi--an act, in retrospect, of supremely resonant improvisational expressive dignity. Meredith was an honored guest at the so-called "Open Doors" ceremony; he sat quietly on the dais, listening to Chancellor Robert Khayat sing his praises and listening, too, as the Reverend Leroy Wadlington, head of Oxford's Second Baptist Church, alternately praised Chancellor Khayat's progressive administration, held Meredith up as an heroic exemplar, and, in a brazen demonstration of black critical memory in action, irritably reminded the assembled interracial crowd of a near-riot in 1982 when a black member of the university marching band refused to play "Dixie." Wadlington had the phallus, so to speak, and he swung it with the full complicity of the Ole Miss administration. Forty years ago, such a scene--the worst nightmare of Mississippi segregationists--would have been unimaginable. Yet as Meredith basked placidly in the interracial praise song, greybearded chin resting on his hand, it suddenly occurred to me that we were being treated to a modem-day transformation of those Lost Cause commemorations that began to blossom, forty years after Surrender, across the Southern landscape. Meredith was our greying general with a signal difference: the Lost Cause of the Confederacy has been supplanted by the Triumphant Cause of Civil Rights, and the old black man is sitting where the old white man used to sit.
One shrewd, indomitable crusader in 1962 has become twelve percent of the current student body at Ole Miss; two of the last three student body presidents were young black men. In 1999, the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir's first CD, Send Up the Praise, was nominated for a Grammy Award; my friend Andy Beaird, business manager of Living Blues magazine, happens to be one of two white male Mississippians in the otherwise all-black ensemble, both of them welcomed aboard by a black musical director less concerned with the color of their skin than the content of their musical character. When Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, stood at the podium as dusk fell on the "Open Doors" commemoration, she exercised critical memory in a salutary way, reminding her youthful audience that, were she to have been extended the inconceivable honor of speaking on the campus in 1963--the year her husband was gunned down by Byron de la Beckwith in his own driveway--she would have reflexively eyed the trees that surrounded us, on the lookout for snipers. "I don't need to do that now," she said. James Meredith, reclining comfortably in a chair to her left--no black male death herd--nodded in agreement. Later, after I left, the assembled crowd held aloft several thousand candles, the lighting of which had fanned outward from Meridith's candle, the symbolic central source. This is Mississippi circa 2002. So much for Ross Barnett and "heritage." Some things, in America do alter with
respect to race, Baker's bluesy pronouncement notwithstanding, and both black critical memory and interracial activism have played a continuing role in achieving and sustaining those alterations. Symbols count in the South, and no amount of residual Confederate flagwaving or trenchant analysis of the "carceral network that has continuously held the black-South body in a state of 'suspended rights'" can deny the Civil Rights soldiers at the University of Mississippi--and black student body presidents, and student gospel singers black and white--their time in the sun.
We are living in an age, I would argue, when old certainties grounded in the traumatizing legacy of the South's segregated past are being overturned, undone, worried, in ways that might serve to counter Baker's pessimism, merited as it may seem to be. A useful way of understanding Baker's two-volume project, in fact, is to view it as of a piece with a recent outpouring of scholarly work on lynching (including the Without Sanctuary exhibition in New York and Atlanta and the "Lynching and Racial Violence in America" conference at Emory University) and what Kathleen Brogan has termed "cultural haunting," the way in which ghosts function as agents of ritual commemoration for beleaguered ethnic groups lingering in the vicinity of the living, demanding full accounting and full attention. (6) Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) was an early harbinger of current interest in this latter theme, which has precipitated studies as diverse at Sharon Patricia Holland's Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity (2000), Ann Goodwyn Jones's and Susan V. Donaldson's (eds.) Haunted Bodies (1997), and Patricia Yaeger's Dirt and Desire (2000). Precisely because the color-line (and the violent psychopathologies that uphold it) has begun to recede in importance along so many axes--as evidenced by the accelerating rate of interracial marriage; the thematizing and normalizing of biracialism in literary and popular culture; the wholesale embrace by white American youth of black (Michael Jordan) and multi-racial (Tiger Woods) athletes as commodified heroic exemplars; and, not least, the rise of black public intellectuals to positions of significant power within a white-majority academic world eager to hear what they have to say--we seem now to have entered a period when the long-suppressed ghosts of Jim Crow feel emboldened to emerge and confront us with their harsh, agonized cries. (7) This is a good thing. Only justice, as Alice Walker once wrote, can remove a curse, and both justice and healing demand that these ghosts, most of them Southern-born, be attended to. After years of scholarly neglect, lynching has suddenly become a focus of extraordinary, interest; the overwhelming public response to the Without Sanctuary exhibition suggests that both black and white Americans, in this supposedly fractious post-Civil Rights and post-OJ age, are prepared to confront, shoulder to shoulder, both the evil spirits that inflamed earlier generations of white Southerners and the spiritual and bodily abjection those white Southerners inflicted on their fellow black citizens. In the Prologue to Turning South Again, Baker insists that "a new southern studies is long past due" (p. 9), and the project he envisions is grounded, brilliantly, in the fractured, haunted reconstruction of one Louisville black boy's lynching-limned horizons with which his book opens, an ode to the so-called "Blue Man":
The very first Blue Man I remember was not Elmore James or Big Bill Broonzy but a vividly reported monster who was said to live somewhere in the vicinity of Louisville's Chicasaw Park--perhaps a dank cave clawed out of steep embankments dropping to the Ohio River. The Blue Man was grotesque, of uncertain origin, and his story was chilling. He was stealth)', yet ferocious, ranged and vicious in pursuit of young black men.... [T]he Blue Man would not be "disappeared" by parental flat. He endured, tumesced, became ever more horrific in the storied assaults he launched on black flesh.... [A]s I now realize, the Blue Man was a pure product of black southern boyhood rumor, a sinister function in a continuous narrative that was always enhancing itself. The narrative was a grab bag containing snatches of colorful adult conversation, grim details of an Illinois black teenager mutilated and killed in Money Mississippi, flashes from the Negro newspaper (the Louisville Defender) about police beatings and tavern brawls in black communities. There was enough tense, vaguely understood fear and anxiety in the air we breathed and enveloping territories we negotiated to provide tons and tons of narrative stuff to enlarge the Blue Man's existence. (pp. 2-3) [S]uch imaginative recitals as the Blue Man were our mythicohistorical archive of black incarceration in the Americas, a monitory chest of bones drifting from fathomless Atlantic depths, a figurative emblem for levitations of mutilated black bodies from burial grounds in piney woods turpentine camps, weeping corpses of cut-down virile black bodies felled by Trusty Shooters at Parchman Farm. Our Blue Man was racial memory mythically codified for childhood warning, self-definition, and defense. Blue Man was the oral-cultural and symbolically narrated realization of our black male place in confining spaces, framed by shape-shifting and ever threatening apparatuses designed to harm the black body. (p. 6)
Baker updates Richard Wright's evocation of the "white death" in Black Boy with stunning alacrity here, fusing Southern-gothic surrealism with poeticized postructuralism, but above all bearing witness with an analytical exactitude that perfectly counterposes individual anxiety and collective menace, recollected emotion and engaged intellect. Such writing, as Baker himself insists, is a kind of anxiety-formation, a stay against psychic ruin, a blues chant uttered by black-magical men. "[M]emorial and performative writing is our rite of black revisionary survival par excellence.... Writing was our black defense against and revision of ancient terrors, mistaken identities, dread losses. We paragraphed ourselves with bravado into Jim-Dandy-to-the-Rescue dapperness of spirit to carry us through white Louisville's mean downtown streets unimpeded by youthful visions of snaggle-tooth, slow-drawling Blue Men biting off our heads.... We, black males in formation, wrote blues" (pp. 5, 7). Baker never explicitly names that black male cohort of revisionist blues writers; it would be interesting to know whom he has in mind. He does, however, take pains to distinguish his own critical/memorial project from the autobiographical musings of Henry Louis Gates, whom he signifies on without naming. "What follows, therefore, is not a rollicking, jesfful fireside recollection of 'Colored people'.... What follows is a revision of my scholarly self and opinions that is, at least in part, a function of my shudder at the utter terribleness of our new millennium" (p. 10).
Baker's shuddering assertion of millennial "terribleness" begs to be read with a doubled critical gaze: it's both a justified response to a familiar grim litany of contemporary impingements on the lives and liberties of black Americans--percentages of men in prison and on parole, numbers of children living in poverty, diminished life expectancy rates--and the understandably heightened, perhaps slightly intemperate response of one who, having survived a Jim Crow childhood, is actively struggling to exorcise its long-dormant ghosts, ghosts that condition his view of the African-American present. Even as I make this assertion, I'm leery of trivializing Baker's visionary gloom as merely personal. Where Turning South Again mourns the early deaths of black fathers, uncles, cousins, Critical Memory fears justifiably for the safety of Baker's son, a son pressured by accumulated oppressive histories and modern public curtailments on black male life. "I know, today, that the old gospel song does not apply to my own son's life. He cannot sing: It is well, it is well, it is well with my soul!" (p. 50). Echoing Du Bois's "Of the Passing of the First-Born," Baker's melancholy here is moving, impossible to critique. Yet the blues dialectic's insistence on what Larry Neal has called "toughness of spirit" in the face of daunting odds forces us to ask why Baker has so narrowed file field in which black male agency might play. The old gospel song applied to somebody in the bad old days of slavery and lynch-law, after all; it delivered useable soul-force, made a way out of no way. "[T]he idea of going to jail didn't scare him at all," insists the narrator of Albert Murray's Train Whistle Guitar (1974), speaking of bluesman Luzanna Cholly in 1920s Alabama,
and the idea of getting lynch-mobbed didn't faze him either. All I can remember him ever saying about that was: If they shoot at me they sure better not miss me they sure better get me that first time. Whitefolks used to say he was a crazy nigger, but what they really meant or should have meant was that he was confusing to them. Because if they knew him well enough to call him crazy they also had to know enough about him to realize that he wasn't foolhardy, or even careless, not even what they wanted to mean when they used to call somebody biggity. Somehow or other it was as if they respected him precisely because he didn't seem to care anything about them one way or the other. They certainly respected the fact that he wasn't going to take any foolishness off them. (8)
Baker knows the importance of such morale-sustaining blues-bravado; his poetry testifies gloriously to it, but these recent books show him disinclined to allow "Jim-Dandy-to-the-rescue dapperness of spirit"--so crucial to his own youthful survival--to counterbalance his visionary jeremiad on America as black male killing field, a site of unremitting, all-but-includable abjection.
One result of this disinclination, as it plays out across both books, is a series of stringent revisionary critiques of his black intellectual forebears and coevals. Baker takes these men to task for either directly contributing to the South's emergent carceral network (Booker T. Washington as the architect of an overadministered "retrograde and imperialist plantation" at Tuskegee) or producing feel-good fictions that substitute apolitical minstrelsy for activist political engagement (Ralph Ellison and his "imitators, converts, disciples, avatars, and wanna-bees," including Murray, James Alan McPherson, Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, Al Young, and others). Baker's long essay on Washington, which forms the centerpiece of Turning South Again, is a radical revision of the generous assessment he offered in Long Black Song (1972). "In the final analysis ...," he wrote then, "we cannot write off as a myopic organization man the former slave who served as America's 'black leader' for twenty years, built a thriving educational instutition in the heart of a racist South, and aided thousands in the struggle for dignity. Washington's achievements would be considered great in any age or any country, and in late nineteenth-century America they were just short of miraculous." (9) Baker's reassessment of Washington is precipitated by nocturnal meditations on his own father, a kindred Southern institution-builder whose body haunts Baker from the grave at which it prematurely arrived and whose legacy he is inclined to view no longer as comic/heroic--a man who was "able to ... strive, laugh at life's little ironies, and survive" (pp. 30-31)--but as mute testimony to the "horror and death [that] were occasioned by being merely black and in the South" (p. 30). Rereading Washington through the lenses of psychoanalysis, social psychology, and performance studies, Baker offers an indispensable portrait of the Wizard of Tuskegee as cross-dressing performance artist who worked the most brutally constricted of social spaces and was all but undone by inner doubts:
The lean, muscular, oratorically performing body of the black-South mulatto, clad in the Great White Father's clothes, is nearly hysterical with anxiety before each public occasion. Will the white audience see and bear modernity or read, in the very color and black "manliness" of his occupancy of the dais, possible contamination and failure? (p. 56)
If Washington devoted his life at Tuskegee and the years that preceded his arrival to a series of obsessive collective purification rituals involving soap, water, toothbrush, toothpaste, and brooms--a neurotic attempt to "overcome the stigma of the black-South's mass body" (p. 56)--then the "beast" of black sexuality as imaged in the white mind ended up reclaiming him, according to Baker, when unconfirmed rumors of syphilis swirled around his deathbed in 1915.
What unites Booker Taliafero Washington with Ralph Waldo Ellison and Ellison's heirs, in Baker's sharply worded view, is a "stunning" failure to deploy critical memory in the service of black public-sphere activism, a failure that expresses itself as political accommodationism and a well-rewarded "likability" in the eyes of white cultural guardians. At the heart of Baker's extended reading of Invisible Man is a seemingly compelling argument about the way in which Ellison's celebrated novel caricatures, misleadingly frames, or simply ignores the very real currents of black political activism swirling through America in the early 1950s:
Ellison's stylistic risks and almost breathtaking leaps of story line are venturesome indeed. They warrant admission to PEN. Moreover, his novel's insights can dramatically inform and expose subtleties of race for American whites. But where in Invisible Man is the actual black future? Where is the future's effective public-sphere activism? Where is the free-improvisational, unbossed, and unbought autonomy that constitutes black agency? Where is the courage of nine black boys and girls braving white mobs to attend formerly segregated precincts of an Arkansas public school? Where are the white Americans, the Jewish Americans who gave up the comfort and security of the American racial status quo in order to help bring about a rights revolution in this land? Where are they, where are they in Invisible Man? They do not exist--even in potential--in Ellison's novel.... Invisible Man is ultimately--at far too many narrative moments--a novel of American local color in its comically basest minstrel manifestation. (CM, pp. 33-35)
Baker's claims about Invisible Man proceed with unassailable logic from his premise, which is that Ellison should have represented, or prophesied, "effective public-sphere activism," which is to say the actual black future wrought by the Civil Rights movement. Is this a fair demand? More importantly, is the charge of political quietism even valid? It is true that Invisible Man casts radical doubt on the efficaciousness of revolutionary leadership, black and white; to that extent the novel quite rightly frustrates Baker, a child of the black nationalist Sixties. Yet what is surprising is Baker's refusal to acknowledge the way in which Invisible Man, even as it admittedly "pays little studied attention to the intimate horrors of racism in the United States," labors mightily to exert critical memory in the service of covert preparation for future--and implicitly political--action. Looked at from a slightly different angle than Baker chooses to critique it, in fact, Ellison's 1952 novel is startlingly prophetic. The sort of shrewd contrarian individualism that motivated ex-Air Force enlistee James Meredith to ally himself with Medgar Evers, choose history's most favorable pressure point, and break the back of segregation at Ole Miss in 1962, then in later decades (and in sequence) campaign for Senator Jesse Helms, define himself in terms of his Choctaw rather than African-American heritage, reinvent himself as a used car dealer, and finally return in a blaze of glory for the "Open Doors" commemoration is, it might be argued, precisely the skeptical and uncontainable spirit that Ellison's protagonist cultivates in a kind of proto-political epiphany:
If a sharecropper could attend college by working during the summers as a waiter and factory, hand or as a musician and then graduate to become a doctor, why couldn't all those things be done at one and the same time? And wasn't that old slave a scientist--or at least called one, recognized as one--even when he stood with hat in hand, bowing and scraping in senile and obscene servility? My God, what possibilities existed! And that spiral businness, that progress goo! Who knew all the secrets; hadn't I changed my name and never been challenged even once? And that lie that success was a rising upward. What a crummy lie they kept us dominated by. Not only could you travel upward toward success but you could travel downward as well; up and down, in retreat as well as advance, crabways and crossways and around in a circle, meeting your old selves coming and perhaps all at the same time. How could I have missed it for so long? Hadn't I grown up around gambler-politicians, bootlegger-judges, and sheriffs who were burglars; yes, and Klansmen who were preachers and members of humanitarian societies?
In Critical Memory, Baker insists that Ellison "missed ... completely the black spirit of his times" (p. 35). I'm not so sure; it seems possible that we're just now, in 2003, beginning to take the full measure of Ellison's prophecies. Nor am I sure, after reading Ellison's short story about lynching, "A Party Down at the Square," that Baker is right about Ellison's refusal to confront "the intimate horrors of racism" with "studied attention." What is clear is that Ellison made a deliberate choice at a certain point in his career, as did Albert Murray and James Alan McPherson, to stress the comic rather than the tragic pole of the blues dialectic, to dwell not on the blues-inducing facts of black abjection but on the toughness-of-spirit response, and that this choice makes the texts of all three writers grating to the point of unreadability for Baker, immured as he is--and justifiably, vitally, productively--in a space of mourning. To dismiss these authors and others as producing "musing, philosophical, entertaining, all-American, blackface minstrel romps ... for money" (p. 38), as Baker does, is both excessive and understandable: a temporary loss of perspective that bespeaks his visionary absorption in the project at hand. "Ghostly emanations of southern economies of violence against the black body toss and turn me," he writes in Turning South Again--the voice of a seer possessed, destabilized, undone, Yet as his own willingness to reverse his past judgments might lead us to view his current critical dislikes as subject to future modification, so I critique his haunted pronouncements about the "utter terribleness of our new millennium" only at the risk of myself being forced later to admit the truth of his prophetic cry. Who knows, really, but that Baker speaks for all of us on a lower frequency we've only just begun to apprehend?
RICHE RICHARDSON University of California, Davis I had got to know Up from Slavery when I was a child. My father had read me a story from the book, and I believe that I then read more of the book on my own. My father, born poor, and in spite of his ambition always poor, liked stories of self-help and of men rising from poverty. He suffered in Trinidad, and I would have known that Up from Slavery had racial implications and could be related to the way things were on our own island. But I was too young to do anything with that kind of information. I received the Booker T. Washington story my father read me almost as a fairy story, and in the part of my consciousness where it lodged it was stripped of both race and historical time. I began to think of writing about the South. --V. S. Naipaul, A Turn in the South (1989) (10)
HOUSTON A. BAKER, JR., HAS BEEN A FIGURE to be reckoned with both in and beyond the American academy at least from the time that we witnessed his outpouring of work as a critic at the vanguard of the project of African-American literary theory and, criticism in the 1980s. Masterful and indefatigable in his work as an essayist, teacher, poet, public lecturer, and activist, Baker fits the definition of a world-class scholar. His extensive body of work has been concentrated primarily in the field of African-American literary studies, and various aspects of his intellectual oeuvre have often been occasion for heated debate. All of this, for better or worse, has often made him an object of keen interest on professional circuits, and sometimes in the mainstream media. Offhand, I recall how deeply moved I was as I listened to him read, on a Nightline segment in March 2000, the poetry that attempted to give voice to the intensely painful effects on himself and other loved ones of the trauma of rape experienced by his wife. (11) Forsaking all of my normal expressive reserve, I commented summarily to a friend via e-mail the next day on the courage, honesty, and sensitivity in his reading and reflections by remarking that "Houston Baker is a hell of a man!"
Taken together, Critical Memory, which makes available the four essays that were originally delivered in the Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Lectures at Georgia Southern University in 1997, and Turning South Again, which reconsiders black modernism and the legacy of Booker T. Washington, may incorporate Baker's best work yet as an essayist, in terms of their craft as well as in facets of their content. (12) What I aim to accomplish as my commentary unfolds here is an overview and critical engagement of some of the key aspects of these two works, which are not only worth taking up on their own terms but also merit engagement as companion pieces. In weighing these volumes, my top priority will be to offer something in the way of a critical assessment of and response to the new directions that he is proposing for studies of the South. I am remarking primarily as a scholar whose work has focused on African-American literature, cultural studies, and the South in the United States. Inevitably, my perspectives have also been shaped in part by my status as an intellectual who is black and Southern.
Why the South? Why Now?
Among the various issues that Baker's volumes foreground, it is most significant that both Critical Memory and Turning South Again, through strategies that are methodologically distinct (and that I will say more about later), outline an argument for a centering of the South in contemporary American cultural studies and for the inauguration of a "new southern studies." The urge for such a turn is for the most part more implicit in the former work and more explicit in the latter. On the other hand, while both volumes situate the call for a reinvestment in the South as an interpretive framework for American cultural studies within a larger discussion of the black male social condition in the United States in history as well as in the present cultural moment, Critical Memory. offers the more sustained discussion in this regard. As Baker points out in Turning South Again, "a new Southern studies is long past due" (p. 9). He goes on to remark that "Searching revisionarily the geography, economics, race relations, and demographics of the United States at our turn-of-the-millennium moment is vital work, not only for an energetic new southern studies, but also for a new--and expansive--American cultural studies" (p. 10). In his view, "Setting the Americas on a more even southern keel is a premiere scholarly task of the present"(p. 11). Baker's proposition to give the South centrality in the field of American cultural studies has also been echoed and extended in the recent publication of a special issue of American Literature--a journal that he now edits--on the theme "Violence, the Body, and the South."
In Turning South Again, Baker draws on W. J. Cash's classic study The Mind of the South, which is a text that Baker regards as also having captured America's mind through the insights that it offers. Through the notion of "state's fights" espoused in Federalist no. 10 and Malcolm X's assertion that the South in America is anywhere below the Canadian border, Baker illustrates how intimately the South is woven into the fabric of the nation, pointing to the salience of contemporary politicians with Southern birth origins and attachments in the national arena such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Newt Gingrich. As Baker reveals, the South has functioned historically as a ready reserve from which ideologies have been dispersed into the national context. To understand the historical operations of the South in this regard is to engage important existential questions about the nation, which is set forth by Baker as something of a Southern diaspora in terms of its ideological modus operandi. Even more specifically, Baker takes pains to outline ways in which the South has fundamentally shaped the formation of black subjectivity in the United States, including the possibilities for the construction of black masculinity. He reasons that "being framed for the black subject is being indexed by--and sometimes in--the South" (p. 18) and advocates a "new black modernism" that could help to redress the black modernist derailments that he associates with Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee project. The inescapability of the South for Baker as an individual and the historical location of masses of blacks in the South are just two factors that underscore for him the utility and indispensability of the South as an interpretive lens within contemporary scholarship. The former factor is richly reinforced by his use of personal narrative to address the politics of growing up as a black male in the South.
In the past few years, thematic turns toward the South have occurred in areas ranging from queer studies, as we have seen in volumes such as John Howard's Men Like That and Carlos L. Dews and Carolyn Leste Law's Out in the South: A Southern Queer History, to rap, in terms of the profusion of contemporary artists who are invested in "representin' the South" and who are developing what has by now become the veritable genre of Southern rap, which has also emerged in part due to the pioneering work of major Southern-based rap producers such as Master P and the brother team Ronald and Brian Williams. We stand to learn much from a more careful engagement of the South during this present era in which the region has continued, as Baker points out, to shape the national arena so substantially. Over the past decade or so especially, the South has also increasingly played a role in shaping cultural flows in global contexts. For instance, the development of a global economy though the labor exploits of foreign industries in the South is among matters of concern within the contemporary movement against globalization. It is significant, too, that some of the strategies of protest in this movement--one of the largest of the present era--have been drawn from those established during the Southern-based Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, we have witnessed the increasing ethnic diversification of the South in recent years, as evidenced in the burgeoning of Mexican, Latino, and Indian populations. Therefore, while Baker's call should prompt us to pay closer attention to the cultural politics that are concentrated in the South or dispersed throughout the United States from the South, I want to underscore the importance of also extending our frame of reference beyond the national one that he explicitly foregrounds, and into global contexts. That he is helping to expand the terrain for discussions of the South in the United States at this juncture becomes all the more significant if we consider that the analytical trajectory that he is proposing is a breakthrough that even something like the critical regional studies of the 1990s, which rarely factored the South into its discussions and formulations of region as a concept, for the most part failed to channel or nourish, and perhaps in some ways even obstructed.
Of course implicit in Baker's invocation of a "new southern studies" is a critique of and eulogy for what he hopes we will soon come to recast and regard as a Southern studies that is "old," "obsolete," or (as he and Dana Nelson frame "southern literature" and "southern architecture" in their special issue introduction) "outmoded." In hastily pounding the proverbial last nail into the coffin, he risks of course the danger of burying something that is still alive, including the more conventional studies of the South. They should, if nothing else, be credited with having kept the South on the radar when it might not have otherwise constituted course materials or research in the American academy. On the other hand, Baker's proposition provides an important occasion for discussion within and between various conventional fields that have focused on the South. I believe myself that a new and revitalized Southern studies offers great possibilities for expanding epistemological frameworks of established fields such as Southern history and Southern literature. For one inevitable way in which this new field will be advanced will be by drawing on the best of what these areas have had to offer, and for some purposes, perhaps even the worst. At the same time, it is clear, as Baker's analysis in Turning South Again well suggests, that conventional notions of Southern literature steeped in narrow notions of what the genre should encompass are entrapping and do not sufficiently encourage methodological innovation or creativity. Several years ago, I was certainly frustrated, and left with what can only be described as the disappointment someone might feel upon being told that she hasn't been invited to a party that she hopes to attend, when I was informed that my work on figures such as Spike Lee and Charles Fuller in my cultural studies-oriented project on the South was unsuitable for submission to a critical volume on "southern literature" because these men are not Southern and because I am also dealing with film in relation to them. None of this dissuaded me from, well, taking my stand, but the moment was highly instructive. In terms of what counts as a credible object of study where the South is concerned, the archive must expand. This is what an interdisciplinary field such as a "new southern studies" is very capable of facilitating, particularly to the extent that it incorporates cultural studies, along with critical perspectives from contemporary studies of gender, sexuality, the environment, and so forth. The paradigm shift that Baker is currently advocating is one that those scholars attempting to deploy innovative, experimental, and unconventional methodologies in focusing on or engaging with the South in their work are already enacting and can only further encourage.
Even as Baker is proposing to center "the South" in what he is calling "American cultural studies," a term that begs for more clarification and definition in his platform, we must not lose sight of some of the possible reasons that the South has been historically marginal or displaced in a discursive realm highlighting "America" as a term of study. (13) It is true to some extent that ideological fallout from what Larry J. Griffin and Don H. Doyle refer to as the "problem South" has even shaped in many ways the possibilities for the South's epistemological accessibility and engagement in academia. (14) Here I mean to invoke the South's status as one of the most historically enduring ideological wellsprings in the United States, and its persisting status as "America's 'abjected, regional Other'" (p. 236), to borrow the words of Baker and Nelson's introduction. (15) There are longstanding and culturally ingrained biases that we must reckon with in considering the possibilities for a mainstreaming of any Southern studies within the American academy, "new" or not. The status of the field of Southern literary studies in relation to American literary studies more broadly provides proof as apt as any of the long-standing marginal status of the South as a discursive entity. For if, as Charles Watson has argued, dramatists have for a long time been "the stepchildren of Southern literature," it also seems true that Southern literature itself has often functioned as something of a stepchild in relation to American literature, or better yet, as a street urchin who is fed politely when it knocks at the door of the broader American literary establishment, but who is rarely invited in to kick back at the dinner table. (16) I witnessed such resistances first hand when a student registered a lengthy diatribe in a teaching evaluation alleging that I had turned an "Introduction to Fiction" course into one about "racial issues in the black South" instead of actually "teaching literature." I am presuming that this radical metamorphosis and redirection of the course was perceived in light of my incorporation of discussion of historical masculine and feminine formations such as the Southern belle and the Southern gentleman into the lectures that I delivered on William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily." The evaluation was also likely a response to my invocation of the historical myth of the black rapist in the South in a lecture on the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. (17)
While Baker's agenda indeed offers rich possibilities for helping us to move beyond the problematic disarticulations of the South from America within academic discourse, its potential for actualization will be bound in large measure to our willingness to acknowledge and challenge the exclusionary negotiations of the South that have persisted across a range of academic disciplines, even into the current millennial era. Of course it will also be continually important to understand the South's workings as an ideological formation in all the ways in which many of us have come to think the concept of America itself, and in the midst of our citations of "the South," to remember its utter provisionality and to avoid reinvesting it with anything like authenticity or geographical essentialism.
America's "Black" and Southern Soul
It seems useful to consider these volumes in light of what I want to offer as a sketchy critical frame to supplement, expand, and further historicize the concerns that they outline on their own terms. In this regard, the first model that I want to highlight is Anna Julia Cooper. For her relation of the South and a black female subjectivity that is indispensable and, indeed, central to the engagement of the question of the status of the black subject in the United States, as outlined in the classic A Voice from the South (1892), has some important implications for the subject at hand. The second model that I wish to point to, and echo Baker in mentioning in relation to the vexed issue of black Southern identification is W.E.B. Du Bois. However, my own fascination with Du Bois lies in the typically obscured Southern specificity with which he invests what he outlines as the "Negro problem" in the United States beginning on the first pages of The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The black Southerner serves as the basis for and provides the opening for Du Bois's broader formulation of the notion of the racial other in America. By extension, it is important to recognize that the black Southerner occupies the center in his very constitution of the "American Negro" within his body of essays.
There are certainly others in African-American intellectual history who could be invoked here in terms of having provided groundwork for a cultural studies-oriented discourse on region, nation, and race that is emergent in the present era. However, in light of my space limitations and the several other issues to which I will soon need to shift my focus, I want to turn to a brief mention of a few scholars who have in more recent times helped to further the possibilities for the emergence of such a critical agenda. One of the significant examples to whom I can point in this regard is Toni Morrison. I am thinking specifically of her elaboration of how a black other, albeit disavowed, has functioned as the ghost in the machine of American literary narration, an argument that has been outlined most extensively in her path-breaking book of critical essays entitled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. (18) She clarifies the line of analysis that she aims to pursue by indicating an interest in examining "how the image of reined-in, bound, suppressed, and repressed darkness became objectified in American literature as an Africanist presence" and in showing "how the duties of that persona--duties of exorcism and reification and mirroring--are on demand and display throughout much of the literature of the country and helped to form the distinguishing characteristics of a proto-American literature." (19) Her point is that a black presence has been fundamental in constituting (even the most revered) texts of the American literary tradition. The methodology that Baker deploys in outlining an account of the interplay of the South and America, particularly in Turning South Again, resonates on many levels with the logic of this argument. While Baker does not explicitly link his reading of the South's relationship to black identity and America as a national context to Morrison's discourse, we might develop a deeper understanding of what is at stake in his project by thus framing his study, if only provisionally. For instance, we might imagine Baker's study as a logical extension of a project like hers. In doing so, it becomes even clearer that he has offered tools for identifying and bespeaking with more specificity the subjectivity that stands in as America's quintessential other by clarifying its geographical inflections.
Along these lines, it also seems important to consider the work of Nahum Dimitri Chandler. By drawing primarily on the model provided in W.E.B. Du Bois, Chandler has given us another methodological strategy for conceptualizing the possibilities for interplay between "subordinate" (i.e., "African") and "supraordinate" (i.e., "white") subject positions. To be more specific, Chandler brings into relief the linkages of the former to the very conditions of possibility for the formation of the latter in the history of the formulation of America as a concept. As he points out, only a full recognition of the orchestrating role of the subordinate subject in this process, a role that has remained obscure, will move us beyond the oversimplifying logic that infers the former to be a mere byproduct of the latter, and beyond the presupposition that the system in which they have interacted was always already in place. This line of thought has been offered in part to provide new and more complex strategies for thinking and recognizing the possibilities for agency in a "subordinate" black subjectivity in America and, I suggest, could also help us to refine our analytical lens in thinking the more specific case of the relationship of the historical interplay of race and region within the American national context. (20)
There is just one additional moment in the profession's recent history that I wish to remark as anticipatory of the trajectory that Baker has proposed. I am speaking here of the forum on black cultural studies that the scholar Mae Gwendolyn Henderson facilitated in the journal Callaloo in 1996. In particular, I wish to focus our attention on Henderson's call for a foregrounding of the South in the formulation of the project of black cultural studies. To put it simply, her urge is that we look not only to Birmingham, England, but also to Birmingham, Alabama. (21) She offers this suggestion as one corrective that can help us to avoid reinscribing file problem of Eurocentrism in cultural studies-oriented projects focusing on black culture, and to clarify, the ways in which black studies helped to establish ground for the field of contemporary black cultural studies. Given the scope of the forum project and its range of argumentation, we can easily infer the applicability of Henderson's essay's individual endorsement of an analysis of file South within black cultural studies to American culture more generally.
What I have attempted to outline here are some additional contexts from which we might gain understanding of the paradigmatic heading that Baker is proposing. I suggest that they might help to expand the dialogue in Southern studies in useful directions. I want now to turn in the following sections to a critical overview of more details of Critical Memory and Turning South Again.
Critical Memory reexamines Richard Wright by pondering his schooling in terms of "the ethics of Jim Crow" of the South and insights that he drew from the political and economic landscape in the North. These experiences, Baker argues, allowed Wright to achieve levels of intellectual and political effectiveness that ultimately made it possible for the author to contribute substantially to the advancement of black modernism. Additionally, Baker points out that such a perspective allowed Wright insights into the complex racial ideology of American culture that has relied on a posture of white innocence and denied the problem of racism. These are points that Baker drives home to suggest the consequences of the absurdity of the black racial condition in the United States. Baker points to ways in which discretion that had been honed from a keen awareness of the imperiled state of black masculinity in the South had momentarily immobilized and silenced Wright even after Wright had fully realized the unimaginably sobering and disgusting fact that Tillie, the white cook in the establishment where he worked as a dishwasher, was spitting in the food. The aspect of this discussion that deals with how Wright struggles to come to voice and speak the truth from the space of the kitchen is also fascinating to the extent that it revises a trope often attached to black female identity. Furthermore, Baker draws on Wright, who was once told by an employer, "Get out, nigger, I don't like your looks," to clarify "the inseparability of race, clearance, and liking, as well as nuances of American financing and promotion of black intellectuals," concluding that only blacks who are "likable" are tolerable within such a schema and that likability has everything to do with suspensions and disavowals of "critical memory"(p. 7). Baker develops the definition of this apparatus at several junctures in his volume, but provides the most pointed insights in remarking that "I believe critical memory compels the black intellectual such as Wright to keep before his eyes (and the eyes of the United States) a history that is embarrassing, macabre, and always bizarre with respect to race. The clarity bestowed by black critical memory is painful. It is terrible lucidity, casting dark light on a deeply troubling racial idea" (p. 10).
In this volume, Ralph Ellison serves as the most immediate example of an intellectual who failed to actualize an artistic and political project of the magnitude of Wright's. As the argument goes, Ellison's epic work, Invisible Man, not only fails to anticipate the viable black public sphere in the South that was to consolidate in the aftermath of the novel's release and that was to be epitomized in the Civil Rights Movement, but also serves as a more general reflection of Ellison's strategy of cautious hibernation (which the novel's protagonist aptly mirrors) during the McCarthy era. Baker attaches a similar but even more extreme political evasiveness to a range of authors in the contemporary literary establishment to whom he refers as "America's Nouveau Blackface Race Transcendentalists." They include Ernest J. Gaines, Charles Johnson, Albert Murray, and James Alan McPherson, a list that Baker suggests could be lengthened. Curiously enough, in these moments, when aspects of his critical analysis invoke the logic of black authenticity, Baker almost seems to be possessed by a ghost from his past: Joyce Ann Joyce. (22) Notwithstanding the limits in the novel's vision that Baker foregrounds, perhaps we needed to see a more thoroughgoing elaboration of the levels on which the novel actually embeds and performs within its narrative economy aspects of the precise critique that he is leveling against it through a range of characters and symbols.
In sharing his views of the politics of race in the American literary establishment, Baker further develops the theme of fathers and sons that runs through his book, relationships that by his account reached their worst realization in the symbolic displacement of Wright by an Oedipal Ellison in the 1950s. The conceivable contours of father-son interaction are explored thorough Baker's reflections on his relationship with his father, his uncles, and his son, as well as in his discussion of the level of fellowship among black men that he witnessed at the Million Man March organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Critical memory, is a skill that fathers can help to instill in their sons, and Baker's father, like Richard Wright, is cited as a key exemplar of the black subject who knew the value of keeping critical memory and who encouraged its persistence. However, whether he is clarifying the subversive potential of Wright; reflecting on incidents such as the inevitable and less than ideal circumstances of his birth at the "black" Red Cross Hospital in light of the prevailing Jim Crow politics in Louisville, Kentucky, and throughout the South; describing an encounter when he was a child with a racist orthodontist who all but called him a monkey (a man whose recommendations seem to have come straight out of Georges Cuvier's discourse); or pondering black activism in the contemporary public sphere, the ways in which the South has uniquely shaped possibilities for the activation of the mechanism of critical memory among blacks are patently clear in Baker's book. As Baker points out, "Wright refused to erase the lessons or ignore the deep psychological lesions of the preeminent locale of black culture formation in America--namely the South" (p. 70). Drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois's notion of the talented tenth, Baker suggests that the privileged few African Americans bear the onus of responsibility for maintaining critical memory.
Other Southern Diasporas
Baker's Turning South Again primarily advances the theme of return in relation to the South by revisiting the project of black modernism and Booker T. Washington. As in the case of Ellison, Baker reads Booker T. Washington as a figure who impeded this project. Baker begins this volume with a prologue in which he catalogues anecdotes related to the menacing and predatory "Blue Man," the phantom of his childhood imagination as a black boy growing up in the South that was symbolic of the mechanisms that served the purpose of policing black male bodies. This narrative is a foundation on which he begins to develop the theme of black male incarceration that the book treats more broadly. He posits the Blue Man as a key fount of critical memory for black men, and further delineates him as an ironic sort of muse for black male expressivity. Hypothetically, Baker remarks,
Louisville's horrific Blue Man and his ever creatively multiplying variations in our black male imaginary--paralyzing dreams, night terrors, darkly circulating rumor--were our elementary, and initiatory, black southern writing/performance. Storied, theoretical at base, and memorial, the Blue Man was a metonym for the rigors of southern male subject formation. (pp. 5-6)
Significantly, Baker acknowledges ways in which his memories of the South were unleashed in the process of writing a memoir. Indeed, on some levels, we could and should read this book in terms of the valuable and fascinating insights that it offers into aspects of Baker's sense of process as a writer.
For Baker, it is inconceivable to think the historical status of the category black in the United States without according salience to the South. In his words, "there is nothing mythic, spuriously 'authenticating,' thoughtlessly or black-nationalistically essentialist in the assertion that for the Black American majority of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the mind of the South was critical to black personality, cultural, economic, and political formation" (Baker's emphasis, p. 24). Certainly, in one of the worst case scenarios, a heading that stresses the South's centrality, in shaping contours of black being in the United States, as well as the continuing relevance of the South to black identity formations in the American national context, has potential to replay the politics of black (and frequently rural) Southern romanticism to which these remarks allude. This is a problem that scholars such as Hazel Carby have related to the vernacular theory that Baker saliently helped to advance in the 1980s. In the past, invocations of the South as part and parcel of black historicity in the United States in African-American cultural and critical arenas have often entailed the association of black Southern identities with the past in ways that have removed them from a here and now (a here and now usually signified by urban contexts) in the African-American experience. We might say that this insistence on stabilizing the South as an anachronistic if foundational space of African-American identification in the United States in some ways ironically parallels and recasts the Hegelian mapping of Africa as a continent out of time and out of place in the scheme of world history. While Baker's project has potential to move us beyond such conceptual pitfalls, one question that I think we must raise is, what is at stake for black Southern subjectivity as a for itself when it is called on to think more generally questions of African-American being in the United States?
As black Southernness assumes centrality in his reading of black subjectivity, and as he gives salience to the South in interpreting the United States, so he centralizes black masculinity in Turning South Again in his consideration of the status of blacks in the nation, from his elaboration of issues relating to black modernism, to his engagement of some of the most pressing social crises of our current cultural moment, such as the workings of the prison industrial complex. Critical Memory is also oriented along such lines. In these volumes, Baker has offered a rich and important contribution to studies of masculinity, which have most typically excluded region as a term of discussion. We must increasingly account for processes of black masculine formation in the United States--and on their own terms. However, one risk in the aspect of his methodology that foregrounds black masculinity in relation to discussion of larger historical and contemporary issues relating to African-American experience in the United States is the possible reinscription of masculinist formulations of black identity, including those that are situated within the discourses of antiracism that black feminists and queer theorists have most eloquently outlined and critiqued. Even more specifically, I think it is important to raise questions about the level of coherence that Baker's project implicitly ascribes to black masculine models in the United States. For we could argue that region itself has played a role in constituting the range of complex and highly differentiated--and differentially valued--black masculine subject formations. For example, the extent to which Baker's positing of black Southern masculinity as continuous with general black masculine formations in this nation has potential to obscure how black Southern masculinities have continued to be formulated ideologically (i.e., as inferior) even within black culture in the United States.
Baker develops his key line of argumentation in Turning South Again by highlighting ways in which Booker T. Washington furthered politics of containment regarding black identity through Tuskegee's emphasis on agrarian labor practices that were veritable holdovers from slavery, and that were, during an age of industrialization, decidedly countermodern. The vision of racial uplift offered within what he refers to as Booker T. Washington's "mulatto modernism" limited the possibilities for black mobility in the United States, as well as the development of a viable public sphere in the South, even if such a strategy advanced Washington as an individual. As Baker points out,
Washington, literally and publicly, worked within the framing mind of the South to produce not a utopia of black modernism at Tuskegee, but a retrograde and imperialist plantation. This plantation was brokerage ground for Booker T.'s own personal power, wealth, and influence over national 'Negro affairs.' (p. 64)
The psychoanalytic overtones in Baker's delineation of critical memory as a phenomenon, including his elaboration of the ways in which Richard Wright, by making use of this mechanism, was able to draw on object lessons offered by the South to apprehend the complexity of race politics in the United States, come to a head in Turning South Again in Baker's invocation of works such as Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger and Joan Riviere's "Womanliness as Masquerade." These studies are invoked to discuss Booker T. Washington's interactions with white feminine models, his scripting of the black body in the South, and his public performances as a black male as shaped by models of white masculinity such as the eponymous General Samuel Armstrong. Baker effectively draws on the work of Michel Foucault to clarify further issues relating to aspects of black imprisonment and containment in the United States, from the slave ship (a site whose materiality he argues Paul Gilroy failed to treat sufficiently in The Black Atlantic), to the Tuskegee project of Booker T. Washington, as well as the contemporary rates of black male incarceration. These are sites that Baker--borrowing the words of Ralph Ellison's Jim Trueblood--describes as "tight spaces," which is a concept that takes form as a motif in the book. Other critical frameworks that ground Baker's analysis are drawn from performance studies and whiteness studies. Baker's study also has critical overtones that are unmistakably philosophical.
I have made use of two epigraphs from V. S. Naipaul's A Turn in the South to emphasize additional contexts for which a critical agenda focusing on the South seems relevant. Certainly, beyond their shared titular resonances, Baker's Turning South Again and Naipaul's text share common ground where they take up the poet James Applewhite, the former in an epigraph and the latter throughout a chapter on Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Naipaul's description of the strong psychological impact of Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery on him as a child growing up in Trinidad which is significantly a work that was passed on to him from his father--has fascinating implications for the analytical trajectory that Baker is pursuing in his study, and particularly in light of the notable contribution that Naipaul has made to the discourses of colonialism in delineating the notion of mimic men. Naipaul has given us some useful raw material for a consideration of some of the levels on which the processes of black masculine formation in the Caribbean and the United States have at times worked together. In making these observations, I also mean to reiterate the importance of complementing--thin a field such as a new American cultural studies--a consideration of the South in relation to America as a national context with an examination of dispersals of "the South" into global contexts, including the African diaspora.
Baker's idea that the South has produced black subjects who are uniquely conditioned and poised to do deconstructive work on America gains more validity if we consider various ways in which black Southerners have often been placed in the position of cheering for the region's opposing team, owing to their knack for readily recognizing the side on which their bread is buttered. The most obvious example in this regard relates to black slaves in the South who readily fought with or otherwise supported the Union. We might say that the biblical command to "love your enemy" has assumed new meaning for black Southerners in such instances. These issues come to life most concretely for me as I recall my grandfather's excitement as he talked about "How Sherman caaame through Georgia]" I have realized in my adult years that this story was less a recounting of history learned in school, and more reflective of what had been passed down to my grandfather in the oral lore of his community. Similarly, I'll never forget the hurt and disappointment that I sensed in him one day during my preteen years when a neighbor back home from Detroit for a visit--who had been one of the many boys on the block he had watched grow up and had helped to nurture in various ways--proudly categorized himself as "an Alabama fan" as they talked on our front porch. My grandfather, who generally loved football, saw his own refusal to cheer on the widely popular Alabama Crimson Tide football team at the University of Alabama, along with its legendary and much loved coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, as a small act of political resistance. I read beyond my grandfather's calm and polite exterior to see file look of confusion on his face as he attempted to process what registered for him as a strange and obviously new day in Alabama where black folks were concerned. For ff he was a person who lived out the entirety of his life in the South, I suppose that something akin to the "critical memory" that Baker describes had restrained him from ever becoming truly of it.
Overall, Baker has done a superb and compelling job in treating the issues that are at stake for him. These are two books to which we will likely feel the impulse to return again and again for years to come. We may even find ourselves returning to them in a way strangely reminiscent of how the South, in its lack of reconciliation with the soul of America, has so restlessly beckoned us. Whatever we may think about them, it is clear that neither Turning South Again nor Critical Memory is a work that we can afford to ignore.
(1) Rate and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 2.
(2) NewYork: Norton, 1985. pp. 13-25.
(3) I should confess, by way of full disclosure, that Baker's outsized generosity led him to donate a blurb to the back cover of my own recently published blues book. Whatever criticism I tender here risks the charge of flagrant ingratitude, and is offered in the belief that Baker's latest works, in light of his extraordinary and continuing contributions to the field, merit critique as well as celebration.
(4) Milfred C. Fierce, Slavery Revisited: Blacks and the Southern Convict Lease System, 186%1933 (New York: Africana Studies Research Center, Brooklyn College, 1994); Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Pantheon, 1998); Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey': Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University, of Illinois Press, 1990); Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South (New York: Pantheon, 1998); Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (London: Verso, 1998) ; Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New York: Random House, 2002); Angela Davis, "The Prison Industrial Complex," a lecture recorded at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 5 May 1997, compact disc (AK Press, 2000).
(5) Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 13.
(6) Kathleen Brogan, Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998).
(7) The O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 (which revealed an apparently startling divide in racial attitudes between black and white Americans) and the Year 2000 Census (in which respondents could, for the first time, self-identify as members of more than one race) seem to bookend much of the discursive flurry around biracialism. See, for example: Elizabeth Atkins Bowman, "Black Like Who?," Black Issues Book Review, 3 (January-February 2001), 24-27; Gigi Kaeser, Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997); Lisa Funderberg, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity (New York: Hearst, 1995); Marguerite A. Wright, I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-conscious World (Hobeken, New Jersey: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998);Jane Lazarre, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1997); James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (New York: Riverhead, 1996);Judy Scales-Trent, Notes of a White Black Woman: Race, Color, Community (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995); Claudine C. O'Hearn, ed., Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural (New York: Pantheon, 1998); Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Cambridge: Harvard, 1997). Relevant periodicals include Mavin ("the mixed race experience," founded in 1998), Mixed Race magazine, and Interracial Voice. See also HAll Mixed Up: A Salon Special Report on Multiracial America," a week-long series of reports beginning February 14, 2000 (http://dir.salon.com/news/feature/2000/02/14/ mixed_race/index/html). NuSouth Apparel, founded in 1997, "tackles the age old issue of racism between blacks and whites in America by integrating two 'opposing' symbols--the Confederate flag and the African-American colors of liberation" (http://www.hnusouth.com). On the related subject of racial healing, see Aeeshah Ababio-Clottey and Kokomon Clottey, Beyond Pear: Twelve Spiritual Keys to Racial Healing (Tiburon, California: H.J. Kramer, 1998); Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of tire Gospel (1993; rev. ed. Westmont, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000); Harlon L. Dalton, Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites (New York: Doubleday, 1995).
(8) Albert Murray, Train Whistle Guitar (1974; Chicago: Northeastern University Press, 1989), p. 13.
(9) Houston A. Baker, Jr., Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972), p. 94.
(10) V. S. Naipaul, A Turn in the South (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989), pp. 136, 25.
(11) This episode was aired in the months after the scholar Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Baker's wife, had published Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998). In this volume, Pierce-Baker shares the story about her rape, provides a space for other black females to share their narratives about rape, and offers valuable critical frameworks for interpreting the specificity of rape in the lives of black girls and women. Additionally, this volume offers insights into the complex issues related to black female rape by black men.
(12) In this phrasing, I mean to imply the unique and innovative ways in which Baker has stylistically developed and advanced the academic essay as a genre over the years, along with scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Wahneema Lubiano, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, bell hooks, Patricia A. Williams, Nahum Dimitri Chandler, Stuart Hall, and Toni Morrison, among others.
(13) It is not entirely clear whether "American cultural studies" as a term is consonant with the idea of the field of cultural studies as it has been understood and developed over the past few years, or with the looser and more conventional uses of the term "cultural." There are some questions that remain to be answered in more detail. To what meaning of American studies does this term refer in particular, given the ongoing debates concerning what this field encompasses? In his phrasing, is Baker using "American cultural studies" as a synonym for "American studies"? If not, how does he propose to relate American studies and cultural studies? Is "southern studies" as he is attempting to define it necessarily cultural-studies oriented?
(14) Here I primarily make reference to the premise of Griffin and Doyle's edited volume of essays entitled The South as an American Problem (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), p. 1.
(15) Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Dana D. Nelson. "Violence, the Body, and the South," American Literature, 73 (June 2001), 236.
(16) See The History of Southern Drama (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), p. 101.
(17) It is fascinating to me that when I was talking about the South, this student perceived that I was talking about blackness, even though my comments about the region were not isolated to invocations of black identities. Titus, in a most ironic way, this moment confirmed for me a perceived intimacy between the South and black identity, and furthermore, suggested ways in which the South as subject matter may be resisted in some instances precisely because of a curious logic that infers any talk about the South to be talk about blackness. As Anne Jones has suggested to me, even the script of my body as an African American in the classroom teaching this subject matter may have been provocative for this student.
(18) See Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).
(19) Toni Morrison, "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic's edited collection entitled Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), p. 82.
(20) Nahum Dimitri Chandler, "Originary Displacement," boundary, 2, 27.3 (2000), 256-257.
(21) Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, "'Where by the Way is This Train Going?': A Case for Black (Cultural) Studies," Callaloo, 19 (Winter 1996), 64. The other participants in this forum included Wahneema Lubiano and Nahum Dimitri Chandler.
(22) Here I refer to the famous forum in New Literary History in 1987 in which Joyce Ann Joyce questions the relevance of Euro-American theories to African-American literature as she perceived Baker and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to be advocating such approaches. See Joyce Ann Joyce's "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism" New Literary History, 18 (Winter 1987), 335-344. Also see Joyce's "'Who the Cap Fit?': Unconsciousness and Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Henry, Louis Gates, Jr.," New Literary History, 18 (Winter 1987), 371-383. These two essays, along with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s "'What's Love Got to Do with It?': Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom" and Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s "In Dubious Battle" are also anthologized in Winston Napier's landmark edited volume entitled African American Literary Theory: A Reader (New York: New York University, Press, 2000), pp. 290-330.
JUDITH JACKSON FOSSETT
University of Southern California
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|Author:||Fossett, Judith Jackson|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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