Hybridity in the Center: an interview with Houston A. Baker, Jr.
Berube: It's ironic to me that you have, at this point, something like twenty titles to your credit - three books of poetry, eight books of criticism, eight or nine collections of essays, more than I can keep up with myself, and the one sentence that gets circulated more than any other of yours is a thing you said, probably over the phone ...
Baker: [laughing] right ...
Berube: to Joseph Berger of the New York Times about...
Baker: hoagies and pizzas! [Laughter.]
Berube: Hoagies and pizzas, right. What did you really say? Or if you did say that, what do we do about the circulation of these sound bites that take on lives of their own years after anyone knows where in the world they originated?
Baker: It was an astonishing moment. The phone rang - this is called being un-media-and-press-sophisticated - and the person said, "This is Joseph Berger. I'm from the New York Times, and I want to talk to you about the academy, you know, about what's going on in literary studies." I said, sure, fine. I've forgotten what the triggering question was, but I started with economics and availability - that in this canon matter, one has to start with publishers, distribution of resources, and so forth. My mother was at the house at the time, and an hour and a half later, both my wife and my mother said, "Who were you talking to?" I mean, I had inflected this. I had talked about the profession; I talked about graduate school, the European university versus the American university ... and then in the homology that came out, the first two terms were his own terms. I never mentioned the names of those authors at all. He made those up. And when the Los Angeles Times ran a criticism of his article as part of the media coverage of canon revision, curriculum revision, canon formation, and so forth, he demanded from the L.A. Times that they write a retraction or apology. So the editor of the L.A. Times Book Review called him up, or wrote to him, and said, Professor Baker says that he never mentioned Pearl Buck or whatever, you know, and Berger said, he's right, he didn't. So the Times said, well, you don't get a retraction, then. [Laughter.] I mean, are you kidding me? And this was at the end of a series of questions about standards and taste and axiology, and I had talked, prior to that, about people when they get up in the morning, how they dress ... if you consider the continuum of decisions that we make in the realm of taste and axiology, you know, you could consider cuisine as much a part of this as books. That was the larger context of all this.
Berube: Myself, I figured it was an oblique commentary on your own career, you know, Penn and Yale, Philadelphia and New Haven, hoagies and pizzas ...
Baker: Yes! I like that! [Laughter.]
Berube: In 1989, you published Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, a book you edited with Patricia Redmond, which presented the papers delivered here at the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture in 1987, at a conference that was the Center's inaugural event. In the introduction to the book, you write that "our retreat was not aimed at social change; nor was it open to the public. We came together as a select community of specialists with a specific disciplinary aim." Now, that's just that one conference; I know it doesn't represent your position on the role of African-American literary criticism in toto. But what do you think is the social role of African-American literary criticism, or has it been asked to play a "social role" too long?
Baker: Well, I think that one of the reasons that I wanted that statement there, and to use the significance of that statement as a kind of guiding frame in putting the retreat together, was that the role of African-American literary criticism, it seems to me, has been so omnibus in the academy for so very long. The beginnings, in the late '60s, of Black Studies and Afro-American Studies were, in one respect, largely historical: The demand was for black history - give us history, give us black art history. I think by the time we get into the '70s, and particularly with the coming of the reconstructionists, the Yale group with Stepto and Gates and others, we're at a watershed, an incredible moment of Afro-American literary criticism. And to be asked, as a critic/scholar/teacher of Afro-American literary criticism, to articulate in the same moment of your work, pedagogically or as a scholar, social remedies for black teenage pregnancy, and to give the lowdown on Jesse Jackson's candidacy for the U.S. presidency ... and while you're doing that, why don't you give us a word on Somalia, and how we might do this, and what do you think of the death of Mickey Leland going to Ethiopia, you know, and incidentally, what are you doing Sunday, because we're having a rally for rent control, and we really think you ought to be actively involved - this is an unfair burden for scholars of Afro-American literary criticism. It's not that one can't opt to do these things; it's not that people don't do these things quite well. You and I were talking earlier about Cornel West, and his movement over a range of activities, but, I mean, Cornel West is totally sui generis in this world. You've only got one Cornel West, and probably if he keeps doing it past a certain point there will be no Cornel Wests - so that I think what we wanted to sort out, or to bring the sluice gate down on and not let these things enter, was a variety of possible social activist agendas, and to say, what can we give? One of the aims of this book was for "the field," really narrowly defined in a scholarly sense, of people who were already at work, but also for graduate students who were coming through. We wanted people to be able to pick up the book and see what collaboration and exchange sounded like among scholars who were already there. So in one sense, it was a kind of declaration of achieved scholarly discourse, ongoing among us, but also an exemplum of what we wanted to see as a kind of future moment of that discourse.
Berube: You wrote in Afro-American Poetics (1987) that in your early years as a scholar you shared the Black Aesthetic goal of forming a group of "articulate spokespeople to and for the masses," which is, now, the burden that people like Spike Lee and John Singleton are being asked to bear. Do you see that goal as something that's still realizable today? Or what is the social arena for people who want to represent African-American cultural expression, spirit work, and so forth?
Baker: I think that that goal is not even conceivable today. [Laughter.] It was of a specific era when the passage between the social and academic worlds (just to do these off as separate categories heuristically for a moment) was much more porous. You could literally almost see it as students from black urban areas evacuated those grounds at 4:00 on Friday and went back wherever, New York or D.C. or so forth. So you had that porousness, and you also had the theoretical cast of a statement like that. I mean, it was hypothetical, you threw it out: This is the way we're going to change the academy, so that whatever we do is relevant not only to a scholarly discourse in formation but also to the community of, let us say, Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the case of the Oberlin Black Studies Program. So, for that reason, we have to move activities of the Program into Yellow Springs, establish a service station, establish a black bookstore, employ people - or the Yale model we're gonna have internships where you go out, make contact with a community organization, carry the work of Afro-American Studies out to them, and take the insights of the community and bring them back in. So it was idealized, hypothetically possible, seemed like a worthwhile goal given the porousness that existed at that time. I think that the quick realization - with maybe even the law-and-order landslide of Richard Nixon in 1972 - was that resources, fiscal ones, were not going to be available to continue to theorize, in an idealistic vein, this sort of connection. You knew that you had five years to tenure in the academy, and you thought, well God, I can't keep going, commuting to meetings, I've gotta write this book. I can't do high schools for students from urban areas during the summer, because I've gotta do my book, gotta get tenure.
Berube: That's often castigated as professionalism, but you lose your professional location and you lose one of the places you get to speak.
Baker: That's exactly right, and for the first time that speaking was going on, right? At those sites.
Berube: Well, here I have a followup about what you might call the "academicization" of what was Black Studies. I'm thinking of your fulcrum text, The Journey Back (1980), in which you open the introduction by noting that your colleagues at the time were treating the Black Aesthetic as something of the past, a forgotten era of deluded cultural nationalism, and there's this very interesting passage: "I find such assertions unsettling," you wrote, "since they come from men and women situated at institutions that fifteen years ago would not have dreamed of admitting many of those who spoke for our rights and defended our dignity during the '60s and early |70s." Later in the book, though, you suggest also that the academy "bought off" the elite black intellectuals of the mid to late '70s, thus helping to vitiate the legacy of the Black Power movement. Here's another quote: "Articulate young blacks who might have played significant roles in the black community have been effectively removed. . . . To draw off the young, to place them in institutions that alienate them from their culture, has a devastating impact on any nation." So I'm not sure, between these two quotes, whether the presence of powerful, articulate African Americans in the academy is cause for rejoicing or dismay.
Baker: Sure, sure.
Berube: So 12 years later - these words are 12 years old, probably 15 for you - what do you think have been the best and the worst results of academic professionalization, that is, black academic professionalism?
Baker: I think that the worst effect is the ahistoricism - I mean almost a vacuum - that one encounters with stunning, almost Kurtzian surprise from people who are well-placed, you know ... I'm not talking here about 18-to-22-year-olds, I'm talking about 35-year-olds, better still, within the first three years of Ph.D. accreditation, so 30, say. And you say a litany of names, which is literally a litany to you, and you get this vacancy. Or you hear someone lay out a project that they're gonna do on, say, the mapping, the symbolic geographies of slavery, and you don't hear a single Afro-American scholar's name. I mean, you hear names of anthropologists and semioticians and so forth. That seems to me to be the worst effect of professionalization. To me, the best effects have been in some ways the most unanticipatable effects: When Afro-American or Black Studies got started, I think many of us envisioned ourselves in fatigues for the rest of our lives. [Laughter.] You know, a kind of Cuban revolution thing, or Daniel Ortega and Sandinistas on all occasions. To have found the kind of hunger for what we were doing in the academy, and to find people saying, yes, of course the work of Black Studies, Afro-American Studies, Afro-Americanists is important for Women's Studies, Asian Americans. . .
Berube: even "Americans" . . .
Baker: even "Americans"! You travel someplace and somebody's saying, oh, well, certainly what you guys have is what we are aspiring toward. Totally unanticipatable. And that "now" that is multiethnic and multiracial is altogether gratifying, because not only did we envision ourselves in fatigues, but I think we envisioned ourselves as exclusively black, whatever that may mean. And to find that one is in an arena that is multiethnic, multiracial, and international now is quite stunning. Now, I don't . . . this has a vague odor of triumphalism about it, and I don't want it to have that kind of odor at all - what I mean is that there is true astonishment that you've got a proliferation, you've got extraordinary scholars, you've got undergraduate and graduate students interested in working in the field and doing, again, work that was unanticipatable. All of these boundaries that have collapsed or become porous within the last 25 years - the collaborations that couldn't have been envisioned - and that this is a colossal interest . . . I mean, after a meeting with a highly placed administrator of the university, he sort of gestured to me - there were a number of us at this meeting - and said can you stay, do you have a minute to stay afterward, and I said, sure. And from the old, the strict school days that I grew up in, I thought, God, what have I done now, you know? But his question to me was, "Do you know . . . Hammer?" [Laughter.] And I said, "You mean MC Hammer?" And he said, "Well, I think he's dropped the 'MC.'" [Laughter.] And it turns out that someone who is very close to him in the university is very interested in Hammer and his work now, so that there may be the possibility of educational advancement in this, you know, called "development initiatives" or something, but I mean, who could have anticipated such a moment?
Berube: That reminds me of your article in Technoculture, where you write that when a bunch of Columbia-graduate white boys known as Third Bass attack Hammer for not being black enough or strong enough . . . that's the moment of hybridity.
Berube: But one of the reasons you get the complaint that this narrative is all just so much professionalism is that there's this brutal contradiction, throughout the |80s and |90s, that this earned moment of "triumphalism," if you want to call it that, resides along-side the Reagan/Bush era in which most African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans and Africans took it on the chin.
Baker: Right on.
Berube: So Cornel West speaks of this postmodern crisis of the black intellectual, which, if anything, is worse than the crisis Harold Cruse spoke of 25 years ago.
Baker: What can we do?
Berube: I mean, there is that contradiction between the success, in this part of the nation-state, of what was 20 years ago an insurgency, and a retrenchment on a number of other fronts outside this place. That's one of the things that tends to isolate the university.
Baker: Well, I think the answer from this site, the Center, in Philadelphia, and from a kind of personal attempt to work out the possibilities of effectiveness in this time, since it's the only one we have, has to do with matters of education - which is to say the Center's work with high schools, with secondary teachers. It doesn't reach immediately. It's not your nineteenth-century William Booth, you know, marching around through the East End, and I don't think it pretends to be that, but it does enter at a level of competent knowledge transfer that can be effective if you've got the right models and you've got people who are working assiduously at it.
We now are the site for a program called "Innovative Study in Teaching and the Humanities" here, which is actually run by, conceived by, and directed by my wife, Dr. Charlotte Pierce Baker: And the meetings are here. We've co-sponsored and collaborated with the founding conference. She's working with 22 teachers from public and private schools with various populations, and has Penn scholars from the English department involved in the collaboration with these teachers. We both are interested in the sign - you know, that slot of occupancy called multiculturalism now and what the implications are for pedagogy, for canons and what we read and how we do the job of expressive cultural learning transmission, teaching, so forth. So that's one thing. I think the other, from a professional standpoint, is implicit in what we were talking about earlier: What automatically signifies the possibility of cultural capital might not be what would be most effective with respect to cultural manifestations of black populations, mass populations in the country. That is, you might get a lot more cultural capital by writing a long article on Charles Johnson or Gloria Naylor than you would by taking the expertise of your professionalism to a listening position or a listening post or a viewing post vis-a-vis new black independent filmmakers or hip-hop culture in the United States. But I think people ought to be encouraged to go to those viewing or listening posts and to take up these cultural forms, cultural processes of creation and transmission and distribution, and consider them in terms of the work they do with literary expressive culture, pedagogy, teaching, and so forth. Ideally, there would be again that kind of looping effect that you would have, because you would be listening to the constituency, moving it through a kind of alembic of the professional site of higher education in the academy, in collaboration with high school teachers who deal with that constituency saying, "You know, I think this might be an interesting mix to try. Why don't you think about Kate Chopin, Queen Latifah, Alice Walker, and so forth?"
Berube: Twenty years ago, it's almost as if the ink on your degree was just drying when all of a sudden you did an anthology for McGraw-Hill, Black Literature in America (1971). It happens to be alive and well today . . . there're only seven of those anthologies left in print from that era, say, 1965 to 1975, when something like thirty were produced . . . but what was that like, walking right out of Victorian literature into compiling one of the archives?
Baker: Amazingly scary. You didn't know what image you were to assume, or how - or better still, you didn't know how to dress the part, speak the part, or act the part, you could only have a kind of imagination of what you should have looked like to hold the part. And I figured I should have looked like Arna Bon-temps in order to be that. [Laughter.]
Berube: And his anthologies were being revised by 1970.
Baker: That's right - but I mean physically, you know, I should have had the New Orleans and Louisiana flavor of sophistication and urbanity to be able to sit back even at whatever it was, in my 20s, and talk learnedly and anec-dotally about Langston Hughes and other people, in order to bear the weight of doing this anthology for McGraw-Hill. And as everything spun out during those days, the late |60s, I think many of us had a kind of time-lapse photography experience of academics, expressive cultural study, politics, and other things. There was no time for slow germination.
I'm extraordinarily grateful for that period of time, because, I mean, I found myself marching with a group of people down to [former Yale president] Kingman Brewster's office and saying, we want, demand, must see the president. And the president, being smart in some ways, not pleasing the alumni in others, said, "Oh, my friends are here. Let them come in and we'll talk." So I thought that's what you did as an academic, you know, you got a problem, you just marshal a constituency and go and see the president and say, excuse me, sir, we have a problem of under-representation here, we don't have enough money, we don't have enough students, we don't have a black drama workshop, we don't have black literature, you know, could you please instantly, immediately begin to move on this? That kind of quick, time-lapse moment when all these things were coming at you and a lot of the traditional protocols were suspended . . .
Berube: or changed forever . . .
Baker: or changed forever, yeah, was very instructive to me. And the anthology is truly one of the hardest things that I've ever done in this profession. I had no idea what I was getting into, no idea.
Berube: Well, in retrospect, there haven't been any comprehensive anthologies since 1975.
Baker: There haven't been.
Berube: I know there are a couple in progress, but . . .
Baker: No, it's absolutely true. And that was truly, save for my wife Charlotte, a one-person enterprise. There were no graduate assistants, there were no collaborators . . .
Berube: no period editors . . .
Baker: no period editors, and it was a moment in which the mechanics of rubber cement entered my life. And that's been very useful. [Laughter.] Cut-and-paste, Xerox, cut-and-paste.
Berube: So you're saying we should all be forced to do an anthology in the first two or three years, just to get used to using our time well.
Baker: I think that's right. [Laughter.] Yeah it was an extraordinary period, and in doing that anthology - and I frequently bring this to the attention of my classes, graduate and undergraduate - you didn't have biography! I mean, biographical entries! You could not find things on people like Lorraine Hansberry, you know, and you would say, my God, but she's an award winner, whatever, where's the stuff on her? Even Ralph Ellison! You couldn't find biographical information on people. So just tracking down when somebody was born, and that's why I mentioned Arna Bontemps, because Bontemps would say, "Yeah, well [scratching his chin], you got an inexact bibliographical entry for James Weldon Johnson,' cause what you don't have here is 'Saint Peter Relates' and some other poems." When Black Literature in America came out, that imformation wasn't available, so it was having a person like Bontemps on the case that made it. But a lot of it was just luck. I mean, I sent the proposal off, and McGraw-Hill said, "Now, you know we want to send it to some expert, why don't you give us a name?" And I said well, J. Saunders Redding is the person. I'd learned of J. Saunders Redding through Addison Gayle. So they sent it off to Redding, and he took time. He wrote back, four or five pages: You need to look at these people, you need to do this, that, and the other. So there was that kind of profit in the exchange.
That generation of Redding and Bontemps was quite superior - maybe it's partially the nostalgia that you have because you encountered them young - but I don't know, I think there's something . . . . There's a time when Arnold Rampersad and I were at a conference in the '70s down at the University of North Carolina, and it was a conference having to do with the production of biographies of black artists and intellectuals, and the people there included Blyden Jackson, I think Saunders was there, and Thurman O'Daniel Benjamin Quarles - that generation of folks. And at one point, Arnold sort of nudged me, and leaned over and whispered, "You know, Houston, we will never look like that." And you know, it was true, the kind of tempering of those scholars by way of precisely the kinds of things you mentioned earlier: a Modern Language Association that didn't want black people in it; a national university structure that wouldn't allow a Darwin Turner, who was one of the youngest-ever Ph.D.s from the University of Chicago, to teach in it, and considered it impertinent that one would even write and inquire if there should be a job available. Darwin told me about doing this on what he called "a lark" but it may have been just youthful naivete - of writing to a state university, I can't remember which - but you know, they were dithyrambic, seeing the record, wanted him to come. And then he wrote back and said, you will want to know that I'm a Negro, you know, and they wrote back that this was impertinence par excellence, we of course do not have positions for Negroes. We're talking the late |50s, here.
Berube: It seems to me that the people who now belatedly champion "universalist" criteria of critical value would have a stronger case if they could point to the brilliant white critics of the |40s and |50s who stand out today as the great critics of African-American literature.
Baker: Uh huh.
Berube: Eight years ago, when you published Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984), you announced your "conversion" to poststructuralism, and your move away from the cultural anthropology that was your model in The Journey Back. You were immediately - say, within the hour - attacked for abandoning the cultural specificity of Afro-American literature, and selling out to trendy French poststructuralists. What do you have to say now about your attempt, in that book, to bridge poststructuralism and the blues vernacular?
Baker: I've had fun moments, and the most fun was the anthology. Probably the second most fun moment was Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, because the wires were literally humming at that time with various opinions about what Afro-American literature was, what the criticism should look like, the relationship of critics to scholars to artists. And, of course, Afro-American women had entered into the discourse in brillianty forceful ways, both creatively and critically at that point. And the international discussions and debates about poststructuralism and poststructuralist modes of criticism were clanging around everywhere. So the project that I set for myself, partially because I had seen someone writing about the necessity to pull together, or the importance and possible profit of pulling together, various strains of what you'd been trying to do into the present, and possibly the future - all of those things were there, and I thought, well, the project here is to try to listen to these voices, to try to present a statement that has the freshness about it of a language reworked, a terminology-that-is-in-every-way-familiar defamiliarized in a way that will provide openings for scholars and undergraduates and so forth - and, quite frankly, a way of unifying what was already a quite substantial body of material that had come before the notion of "booking it," as it were, was concerned. What will be the way of providing unity for this material that makes a statement that's theoretically adept and usable for people? And the serendipity of that was being at the National Humanities Center where I met Mark Taylor. I had read some poststructuralist thinkers before I got there, but Mark was there and working on his book called Erring, and we became friends and conversationalists. He was important for a kind of literal reconceptualization, you know, taking concepts that are there and renewing them, doing new things with them in a rhetoric that had currency - and because it had a different history to it, as it were, or a richer and fuller history to it, carried more signification than falling back, let's say, to a positionality of the |70s, or stopping precisely where you were and saying, well, OK, look, there's a divide here, I'm not going to have any of this, I will have some of that.
Berube: I wonder about that, because it struck me long after the fact that you were given a kind of grief you got for picking up Foucault, Derrida, and Hayden White in Blues, Ideology that you did not get for picking up Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner in The Journey Back.
Baker: That's right.
Berube: And the attitude was not that "black critics shouldn't borrow," but that OK, syncretism is a part of the culture, but not that metahistorical and poststructuralist stuff. How, in the end, do you meet that claim? Is it just a question of buying American [laughter], or what do you think was at stake?
Baker: Well, I think what was at stake for a lot of people was the connection of specifically French theory with a kind of careerist professionalization. I mean, people made the link. And they said, all right, if the next generation is going to look like this, then we have failed, because this stuff is clearly alien to our tradition and they are acting just like young white scholars, and we understand that they're taking it on the chin from clear-thinking, clearly-expressing people in the media and in the academy itself, and why should our coming black scholars ape this stuff which white scholars are already being attacked for, when we don't understand the white scholars, and they're just lost, this is a lost generation. And I think that that response was probably equivalent to the kind of moral panic that surrounds any emergence of the anomalous on the scene.
Berube: One of the things I noticed about Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s was the extent to which autobiography dominates the book, not just in your essay and Skip Gates's but also in Richard Yarborough's and William Andrews's, and it seems to me that it dominates both as a genre and a critical mode. And either in that book or in Workings of the Spirit (1991), you claim that autobiography is foundationally and fundamentally the Afro-American theoretical act par excellence. What do you mean by that?
Baker: I'm starting with theory not at the same scientific plane as T. S. Kuhn and not at the same expressive-cultural plane as, let's say, French poststructuralist theory, but I'm thinking of "theory" in combination, and perhaps in a kind of hybrid combination of those two, as simply an explanatory mode or moment that helps you get a handle on the world - if that's what we agree upon as a definition of "theory," an explanatory mode, a model, that's going to help you negotiate tangible, immediate situations, to wake up the next morning and say, well, I guess it's worth it, let me go on living 'til the sun falls on this day, and then we'll see about that, you know, for tomorrow. Where Afro-American experience is concerned, the first step is to figure out who, in that utterance the me is in "let me go on living today," who the I is who's doing the speaking. And to the extent that the immediate, tangible world to be negotiated is doing absolutely everything it can to stop you - like those barriers on giant highways that they build through potentially developable sites for townhouses and call 'em "Fox Chase" and things like that, where they put up these huge, cork-like barriers on the highway to block everything out . . . I mean, think of the immediate, tangible situation as one in which those cork-like barriers were put in kind of monadic units around black people: The social, legal, economic systems of those cultures were putting these blockades in front of black people and saying, you know, "Really, there's no need for you to think pronomially." [Laughter.] Really, don't trouble yourself, Cato. What's in a name? It's just so that we can call you. [Laughter.] That's all don't meditate it beyond that. I mean, what you have to grab is quite existentially something to hang your clothes on, to endow with a voicebox, to say, well, I've gotta explain me, that "Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods moment" you alluded to during breakfast . . . you know, here's the photograph but I don't see me. Now, that's not a function of a representation of Janie's not being there in somebody else's picture, but of Janie's saying, "I have no theory." And somebody else says, "Well, kick it off, Janie, with this: You black, girl!" [Laughter.] She says, "Yeah? Well, OK, I got it," you know, the Whoopi Goldberg moment, "let me explain it my way" - "tell her she's in trouble" . . . did you see Ghost?
Baker: "Stop bothering me! Let me do it my way!" And Patrick Swayze says, "Tell her she's really in danger," and then she says, "I'll do it my way! [Pause.] Janie, you in a danger, girl!" [Laughter.] This is the thing: Janie, you're black. And she says wow, OK, that's the hook, I can take it from there, and build the rest of this. So that's what I mean by autobiography as the foundational act.
Berube: You say later on - this is in Workings of the Spirit also - that "theorists follow, always, a purely personal line." Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) treats your father in some detail; Workings is dedicated in many ways to your mother. But you write in Workings that your advocacy of this new "personalism" (my word) does not "plump down squarely for a return to journeys of sensitive souls among the masterpieces." Why not? What's the difference between this kind of theoretical autobiography and good old-fashioned liberal humanist individualism?
Baker: Well, I'm certainly not opposed to liberal humanist individualism; what I had in mind was the [Joel] Spingarn moment of a kind of high decadence, when you assumed an alternative universe of precious masterpieces. You assume a universe of these things; then what you want to do is to develop a soul that will resonate in harmony with them. So the Spingarn moment is an extension of Pater, and the pre-Raphaelite l'art pour l'art moment, and the sort of twentieth-century master station of decadence. So what you have, then, is pretty much a solipsistic kind of world where you get your soul in harmony with the masterpieces, but, as Pater puts it, there is this wall around the individual through which hardly any communication breaks, so you always want to be present where voices converge, but they really converge not individualistically/ humanistically, but really solipsistically for you, you see, for you to burn with a hard and gemlike flame that constitutes success in life. But it's this empirical "flame" that is in many ways the worst version, I think, of Romanticism - I mean, the mirror and the lamp, but the lamp here is not even visible to anyone else. So you are burning in convergence, telescopically, philosophically with the masterpieces - and, of course, that assumption of a world of masterpieces (master'spieces, where you're back to the Skip Gates essay) is overdetermined in that kind of vision.
Berube: Well, that reminds me of Gerald Graff and Allan Bloom on the Oprah Winfrey Show, about three or four years ago. Allan Bloom was just about to sandbag Graff by quoting the end of "Of the Training of Black Men" from Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk
Baker: oh yeah, yeah, yeah, "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not," right.
Berube: And for Bloom, this passage is an example of Du Bois's getting his soul in touch with a series of masterpieces that dwell "above the Veil." So it's possible, even on this model, to rehabilitate that passage from 1903, as another journey of sensitive souls, in this case Du Bois's.
Baker: I've written about Du Bois in Long Black Song (1974) as a person mightily influenced by the aesthetics of decadence. In Du Bois's quotes in The Souls of Black Folk, the ones that come before the bar from the "sorrow songs" at the beginning of each chapter, you'll find Swinburne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other nineteenth-century people who had associations with the movement or were key players in what I'd call the pre-Raphaelite, art-for-art's-sake decadence-at-the-end-of-the-century movement. Because that was around. I mean, that was probably what Du Bois was getting with Banett Wendell at Harvard, these folks were the classics of the moment anyway, so that I think Du Bois was influenced by them. But the positionality of "dwelling above the Veil" with Shakespeare and Balzac and those ladies coming across the gilded halls and so forth, which neither Bloom nor others who quote that passage want to point out, is one of an idealistic refuge won by one Negro, Du Bois, because he was a genius, at the turn of the century, from the kind of world that Du Bois had spent that whole chapter telling us exists within the veil or just below the veil! And he's saying, this is a desperate measure for me to make this move, because what I have to do here is to sort of give a boast, almost Anglo-Saxon, in your own language, that I am human! I mean, it's the Shylock of decadence, here: Look at my mind and do you not see Shakespeare, right?
Berube: Right, but I remember Gerry Graff's response at the time was that Du Bois was reading these works ideologically a way that Bloom wasn't. And I immediately thought, "But no, he's not!" [Laughter.]
Baker: No, he's not, no, he's not. He's saying, "I'm precisely like you," you know? I think it's an act interesting to consider, to mine now, on this Sunday morning. I mean, that passage. You think about it, and you can see, obviously, Du Bois signifying on one of his sets of ideal readers, a white, cultivated set of readers, saying, look, fellas, you know - and it would be "fellas" - I can read you, I can read your culture, and so forth. Any multiply inflected individual for the century that's unfolding before us should be able to do this. Now, if I can read up here, across the veil and everything, why the hell, if you're all supposed to be educated, can't you understand what I have said for most of this chapter? [Laughter.] Why would you try to take me up and quote me as somebody who's sold out to white folks and so forth?
Berube: Speaking of Du Bois and Shakespeare and humanists, more generally, let me ask something else about the field of racial/cultural politics these days. One position says that all this reading and interpretation is not culturally specific, that there is this ideal realm above the veil, that culture is a source of transcendent, universal values accessible to us all, in principle. The other position, paraphrasing Hurston, says you got to go there to know there, and an extreme version of this position claims, in fact, that you got to come from there to know there [laughter], and if you go there you're just another colonizing, exoticizing tourist. What's your position on these debates, as an African-American ex-British Victorianist decadent neo-humanist?
Baker: Yeah, and Philadelphia inhabitant. I've watched the arguments unfold now with great fascination in some instances and just downright, I think, commonsensical anger in other instances. My founding premise would be that it was black urbanity going, "immigrating," as I put it now, to college campuses and using concepts of moral panic and policing and surveillance and so forth . . . it was that moment of black urban youth going to traditionally all-white campuses and universities that changed things for the three decades that have been my decades of moving through undergraduate and graduate school into this profession. Now, my first MLA convention, there were about three black people, you know, and we didn't speak to one another, 'cause we didn't want to segregate ourselves, you understand [laughter]; we wanted to be liberal humanist universalists.
Berube: And besides, Bloom would criticize you. Hey, look at these three guys in the back . . .
Baker: yeah, they're grouping together by ethnicity, right. I wonder if they read Shakespeare. [Laughter.] So that was in 1968. Now, the palpable, measurable, indisputable gains at both an individual level and at a disciplinary, interdisciplinary, an academic/ institutional/ structural level that have resulted from that moment of the 1960s when black urbanity came to university campuses in America are just not deniable; you just can't erase them, they're there. Individuals have profited by them. We've learned, in combination with Women's Studies, Theory capital T, Asian-American, Gay and Lesbian, Chicano, Latino, and so forth Studies - we have learned entirely new things about viewing the academy, reading, talking about expressive culture. A hell of a lot of people have been beneficiaries of this moment, and it seems to me that what people have often learned is the resonances of their own set of possibilities, and those resonances couldn't be set in motion by what was formerly the hegemonic operation of things. You only saw white men in the classroom. I mean, it's as simple as that. You only read white men authors from America and Britain and that was it, it was the be-all, it was the end-all. We knew that was what civilization pretty much looked like, you know, with some few exceptions; Virginia Woolf, you know, somehow could write like a man, and she deserves a place . . .
Berube: but was influenced by Joyce . . .
Baker: influenced by Joyce, very much so, very much so. Rachel Blau du Plessis has spoken very eloquently on this in an essay about T. S. Eliot. She was sitting in a classroom at Bryn Mawr and, she says, I thought these questions that were arising to my consciousness were the id, you know, and I've gotta suppress them: What about women? I'm Jewish - shouldn't I think about this, sir? And the men saying, "Now, now, dear, whenever these emotional things rise to consciousness, we must keep them down." So I think, right, it's transcultural, but in one sense, one doesn't make a large claim of a universalist cast for anything that is "transcendent." You know, if you're Jewish, and someone is talking really evilly about Jews, you have a right to get mad, or to say: "Excuse me, sir, why the hell are we reading this? Just look over there. There are black students on campus who say this is racist, and so they're refusing. Hence, I think as a woman I have a right to say that the misogyny in this T.S. Eliot text stinks." So some of this, it seems to me, doesn't have to do with more than a commonsensical kind of day-to-day quotidian interaction with the realm of values, when it gets in there and you begin saying to people, yeah, well, I think literature should reflect me, OK? To which an answer I've heard recently is, "Yes, but it doesn't have to look exactly like you," and you say, well then, what kind of me would that be, that it wouldn't be reflecting what I would recognize as like me?
This is a game that appeals to the universalist - to say, well, now we have, on campus, African-American women, Asian-American; choose the slot you want to fill - the Proppian function, as it were. Universalists say, "I have this African-American woman, and she's one of the best Renaissance students I've ever had! Knowledge is, then, not ethnically restrictive." But what precisely are they claiming? What is this all about? I don't think that saying, "I have given a student access to the academy, and she has chosen to do Shakespeare!" magnifies either Shakespeare or the student. It simply says, OK, the educational process is continuing with manifold options. But what is not controvertible is the fact that black students are on goddamn campuses for specifically traceable historical, political, adversarial reasons that the you speaking (who says, "I have this student who's doing this") even now would like to deny in the name of some trans-something. . . "Well, the academy is always going through changes, you know, and our recent history has been one of such change, but fundamentally not different from those changes of the past." It's not true! We are dealing with a historically specific paradigm shift that occurred in the 1960s in the academy! I mean, we've proliferated; the contested and contesting energies have not only proliferated but magnified; and they've magnified partly in response to, or as a function of, the narrowing of resources, the kind of offensive that we're facing right now. This makes it ironic that you get - though, as Cornel West says, I resonate in sympathy with the brothers point - Gerald Jaynes saying that Afro-American Studies departments are for blacks only, and that there's discrimination in such a state of affairs. But that discrimination of blackness wouldn't exist for a microsecond beyond the point that Philosophy and History and Physics and Chemistry and Engineering said, OK, here's the entire program, here's the funding nationally, and we can show you by statistics, charts, and tables how 12 years from now all of our programs are going to be fully staffed with black faculty members. I mean, the moment that actually happens, the territoriality, the protectionism, the use by university administrations of Afro-American Studies as the only possible site for the acquisition of black faculty members would disappear. [Dropping his voice:] "Well, you guys have to have it there, you know. No, don't hire any white people."
It's Baldwin who says that in America - and I won't get his eloquent phrasing just right - you have to travel pretty far among sinners (because it doesn't matter) or saints (because they've transcended) to discover race as something that's not an issue in America. And I really think it is the sinner's-or-saint's response that you have; that is to say, those who are always quickest to forgive the founding slippages, mistakes, practices, as opposed to adherence to the ideals of the country, are the ones who envision themselves as saints and transcendent, you know; all the rest of us are as sinners who are just ignorant, unreachable, and just don't get it. But I think, in either kind of typology, what you scandalously run away from, and ask other people not to put forward, is history. It's history! And to the extent that we stand under the burden of history, transnationally, globally, it's almost comic to find people who would have pulled out the whole Widener Library historical section [at Harvard] and poured it over your head in the 1960s saying, "You know, but we need to forgive the past; we need to think about our common heritage, what is our legacy here." And you say, "But wait a minute, sir, when my father came out of the Wharton School in 1938 [which Houston A. Baker, Sr., did indeed do], he couldn't get no job, you know, 'cause people were saying he would disunite the offices of the insurance company called Prudential if he went into it."
Berube: That reminds me, while we're talking about family matters, that I also want to ask about Workings of the Spirit. Could you tell us about the boundary you crossed to get to this book, and could you tell us a little bit about the book?
Baker: Sure. I began, I suppose, the process of getting to Workings of the Spirit as it currently exists when it began to dawn on me that I had no choice, either as a man or as an expressive-cultural critic, reader, of Afro-American culture, but to take up the texts of Afro-American women - to sort of put my ear to that sounding-post.
Berube: You say that at the end of Afro-American Poetics, that such a critic has no choice. Why not?
Baker: Well, because comprehensiveness always seems to me to be an admirable goal, although it's a case of the principle being honored in the breach, of course. But I think it's a disservice to your students, and to the world in which you exist and hope to make some kind of difference, to say, "Well, I can shut off all of these currents, because the work that I'm doing is so vastly important that I don't need to look at these kinds of new things that are happening. They're nouvelle, so why look at them?" The creativity of Afro-American women writers was internationally on the scene, and there had been acrimonious debate about it.
Berube: I take it you mean that at some point one's silence itself becomes audible.
Baker: Exactly, exactly. And even if no one asks you, or calls you, or you don't hear a voice, you're not called to preach . . .
Berube: the "well, nobody asked me" response . . .
Baker: yeah, you say, hmm, I may have some responsibility in this domain, and after you get to be a certain age, you have to make up your own responsibilities. You really are - except in much of American society, I think - as a man, expected to grow up. But here I was, with this around, and there were specific personal events in my life, which I reference in the book itself. The tragedy of a friend of mine who was raped, and the world that that produced for me as a friend to this person, coming to an entirely different consciousness of the way the world operates with respect to women on a minutely, hourly, daily basis, was amazing. So there was that, in combination with the realization that I was going to have to listen to the textuality of Afro-American women in order to keep a professional comprehensiveness or attempt at comprehensiveness.
Berube: Is what you're saying that you could never occupy that subject position, but you were right next to it?
Baker: Yeah. I think that the attempt, for all of us, is always to discover a kind of comfort level vis-a-vis subjectivity or a subject position. And it's always complicated by what I talk about a bit in Workings of the Spirit - the phenomenology of inside and outside, which people seem to desire a kind of clarity on, and there just is none. People say that autobiography is a combination of the subjective and the objective, the inside and the outside world, but, of course, we don't know where any of this begins and ends. [Laughter.] So when people say, "You are Michael Berube," and you say, "I am; well what sort of thing might that be?" And you sample 20 people, get 20 different answers, and you try to incorporate these into an "inside vision" - where you hear your father's and mother's voices, you know, saying, "This is your inside, Michael." You can never understand entirely what it means even to put your subjectivity next to another subject position, because you say, to what extent am I always already inflected by the multiplicity of this thing called subjectivity, as we read it out from a particular space, whether it's in the academy or whether it's in terms of ethnic space, or racial-cultural space?
Berube: A lot of the work you do in the first chapter after the introduction on "inside" and "outside" depends on reading Gaston Bachelard via Derrida. Why?
Baker: Well, the reason in just a straight-up phrase is that when I said I was using a phenomenological approach, somebody said, well give us your source, and I said Bachelard, and the person began laughing. And I thought, OK, there's more to this, maybe I should look further into this. Another worthy question was, how can you read phenomenologically post-Derrida? The section that tries to do what phenomenology urges us to do - that is, start again and meditate this - was written in response to these clear questions. Now, it's fair to say that my publisher was not altogether happy about this: Do you really need this first chapter? Do you really need this kind of complexity? Isn't this going to limit access to the book? I think the answer to that is, probably it has, does. I couldn't say then that it will.
Berube: I should say that, before you go into that section about Bachelard and Derrida, you write something like, "This thread picks back up again after these two sections - for those of you interested in the engine room, this is what it looks like."
Baker: Right, and you can move over those two sections.
Berube: I've read it both ways. It works.
Baker: OK, good. Great. I've had someone say to me, the reason we can't review this work is because it's too hard. Now, that was really about a week and a half before a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer reviewed it, you know, with what I thought was an interesting perspective on the book. It was a complimentary review - that's probably why I thought it was interesting - but it was obvious that the person had read it with some pleasure and profit and had learned some things from the book. But I was concerned to not put myself in a position where people would say, well, look, he took up Hurston and Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara and Ntozake Shange, but he has no historical sense of Afro-American women's writing. Or to simply read it out and have people say, well, fine, these are virtuoso readings, but there's no theoretical frame that's applicable.
Berube: You actually continue to write poetry, as well. Where do you find the time and spirit?
Baker: Well truthfully, I have found a lot less time for poetry over the past 2 years, I suppose, than at any time in the last 12 years. It's one of those things that . . . I mean, poetry, for me, demands not isolated spaces and garrets and cold-water walkups or walking in the Lake District, but at least a space that is separate and apart from the daily course of events, lecturing, politics, MLA Executive Council meetings, and so forth. I have a manuscript in progress, of poetry, that's probably 35 or so poems done - some of these have appeared, most recently four poems appeared in the Xavier Review, as a matter of fact Some of the things I really like from that, but they were written a real while ago, 2 or 3 years ago. There's not as much time now. I envision, in the not-too-distant future, creating the space where I can continue to write poetry, to get back to it, as it were.
Berube: Last question: When I went through Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, I found that in the first two chapters there are really three different people in there who have models of historical change, and they all speak on the subject variously - Foucault, Kuhn, and then, at the end of the second chapter, a quote from Karl Mannheim. The quote is this: "The dominant modes of thought are supplanted by new categories when the social basis of the group of which these thought-forms are characteristic disintegrates or is transformed under the impact of social change." For a number of reasons, this seems to me closest to your own position in that second chapter, "Generational Shifts in Afro-American Literary Criticism."
Berube: And boy, are we undergoing social change now. So viewed from Mannheim's perspective, or from any other viewpoint, where do you see yourself and your colleagues-in-arms going in the next decade or so? What, to take up the title of that book again, do you see as the prospects for African-American literary criticism - and cultural studies - in the 1990s? And the '00s?
Baker: I think that there is going to be, perforce, a coalition that we can only sketch the outlines of right now. It would seem that those outlines would be rather obvious - one might say, they will be ethnic; they will have to do with the mantra of race, class, and gender - but I'm not certain, if I were to move into a forecasting mode, that that's what I would call for. I think there's going to be an extraordinary narrowing - down of available resources for cultural and scholarly production. I take the Pat Buchanan moment not as Falstaff playing around on a bus in Georgia. I take it as a very popular dissensus about what constitutes a thing of value in this society. And when you can play out an ad that's anti-art in the way that Buchanan is doing, and produce instant response that resonates with a great portion of the society; when you can witness, when you can see, the types of bias, of violence and, again, dissensus against even the principles of tolerance, freedom, and justice - and the money, the financial resources, going in that direction - then things have already narrowed down in terms of access to everything that we consider part of the American Dream. You get the most well-off segment of society in the '80s who've profited from the Reagan Era increasing their income by over 2000 percent, while you've got the devastation and decimation of the middle class in this society.
What I see is that the coalition that might look like race/class/gender now is going to carry perforce a whole lot of white middle managers who can't get jobs, and a whole bunch of white women who are looking around now and saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Why am I so poor? I thought the |feminization of poverty' meant only black women, you know? But I don't have a husband, I'm working here day and night, and I can't make ends meet. So why is everybody on television looking so happy, telling me everything is all right?" So I think the coalition, again, for reasons of the economy, of fiscal issues, is not predictable right now. But I think the work that we have to do is going to be at least a grid, cross-hatched in very interesting ways, of things. It's going to be social, and communal, as there's nowhere else for people to turn but to us and to ask questions. I think our constituency is not going to be separated out as simply privileged college-going kids. I think we're going to have to deal with 7 - and 8-year-olds and secondary school students, if we would stay in business. And I think some of those territorialities of the profession, where I, say, have no responsibility for literacy training, are going to have to be taken up squarely as we merge our efforts with an effort like the one here for the National Center for Literacy Research that Dan Wagner of Penn is running. We're going to have to make ourselves party to that kind of work.
Cultural studies is something that I find appealing, in its vocabularies and methodologies and so forth; and cultural studies, to me, in a best United States writing, would be seen now as a theoretical possibility growing out of, let's say, cultural studies in Britain - but cultural studies in action, a kind of praxis. The danger is of becoming - and Richard Ohmann gestures toward this in Critical Studies - Anglophiles and loving cultural studies because it comes from Birmingham or London. So I don't think . . . what's that old poem of Jones's, you know, "we are unsaved and unsaved," and that ends with "daylight can't save them and we own the night." In a sense, cultural studies can't save us, and perhaps we have yet to do a historical, analytical, coalitioned accounting for how we got here, and what these past 25 years have meant to us as we face what is in many ways a completely frightening future. I think people are right to be scared. But I think that they are perhaps wrong to let go of optimism. I mean, fear and optimism, they're two different things. My best hope would be that our look, 10 years from now, would be one where we would have a - not to be glib at all - multicultural, multiply inflected look, you know, black and white, Asian, Chicano . . . working across.
Michael Berube is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a faculty affiliate of the Unit for Criticism and interpretative Theory and the Afro-American Studies and Research Program. He is the author of Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon.
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|Title Annotation:||Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1992|
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