Key Theories of Houston A. Baker, JR

Finding common ground between theory and the ‘founding condition of Afro-American intellectual history’, Houston A. Baker, Jr argues that both seek explanations at a ‘metalevel’. Baker comes to this conclusion because of the way in which his intellectual project is always firmly grounded in the history of Afro-American existence, especially an awareness of the uprooting, dispossession and victimization that constituted the African slave trade. Early Afro-Americans maintained their cultural heritage during slavery in ways in which the dispossession of material goods could not touch, leading not just to a privileging of spirituality and spiritual leaders within slave communities, but also the privileging of autobiography as a genre in which Afro-Americans could reinforce and reinvent self-worth in the midst of their debasement. This confluence of theory and intensely personal history is one of the factors that has led to Baker’s groundbreaking work in the field of Afro-American literary studies. Born in 1943, in Louisville, Kentucky, Baker was educated at Howard University and the University of California, Los Angeles; his early work on literary criticism involved writing a thesis on Victorian aesthetics, which he achieved in part through his researches at Edinburgh University in Scotland (1967–1968). At Yale University, where Baker initially worked as an instructor, his interests shifted to Afro-American literary studies. In 1970 Baker became a member of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia, and in 1974 he became the director of the Afro-American Studies Programme at the University of Pennsylvania. Baker was awarded the prestigious post of Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations at the University of Pennsylvania in 1982.

houstona-bakerjrIn his early publications, Baker’s focus was on defining, mapping and performing a critique of the ‘black aesthetic’ in America: major texts from this period include Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature (1972), Singers of Daybreak: Studies in Black American Literature (1974) and the edited collection Reading Black: Essays in the Criticism of African, Caribbean, and Black American Literature (1976). In the introduction to Reading Black, Baker argues that while it is difficult to precisely date the origins of a black aesthetic, it is possible to offer a basic map that includes:

The establishment of LeRoi Jones’ Black Arts Repertoire Theatre School, the founding of new literary and cultural journals, the widescale repudiation of derogatory white creative efforts treating the Black experience, [and] the appearance of invaluable anthologies and critical volumes by Black writers.

Baker also points out that critics have argued for strong links between the emergence of the Black Power Movement and the black aesthetic. It was Baker’s 1980 book, called The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, that initiated even more widespread interest and debate in the black aesthetic in American studies.

In The Journey Back, Baker argues for an interdisciplinary approach to black American literature and culture that analyses the framework that he calls an ‘anthropology of art’. The essential critical move is one of considering context, and this leads to an awareness of the fact that Afro-American art-works are ‘in motion’. Baker’s historical survey also functions as a critique of the early theories of the black aesthetic; in Chapter 5 of The Journey Back he examines the idealistic desire in the 1960s and 1970s to will ‘into being a new art and criticism’ using a conative mode of utterance, which means one that expresses a striving towards a goal, in other words as much the creation of a black aesthetic as the description of what already exists. Baker refers to two texts published in 1968: Baraka and Neal’s anthology Black Fire, An Anthology of Afro-American Writing and Larry Neal’s manifesto ‘The Black Arts Movement’; he argues that both texts develop conative utterances through the use of the ‘afterimage’ defined as ‘visual images that remain after a stimulus has passed’. The stimuli here are black American urban uprisings and the concomitant equation of Black Power with the emergent black aesthetic. Why does Baker critique conative utterances? Because he argues that this is perception guided by volition, desire and idealism, and that the black aesthetic gets distorted by its reading and integration into idealism. This is a crucial point because Baker also argues that white critics create distorted readings of the black aesthetic by predicating their interpretations on the notion of failure. Instead of this idealism, Baker advocates a study of black American culture that acknowledges ‘a rich cultural context’ rather than predicating that richness as always being futural, although he does admit the positive, creative potential of the black aesthetic as a poetic construct. In one of the most dense passages of The Journey Back, Baker describes the existential situation of the Afro-American artist, suggesting that even though historically white America has attempted to quell a black collectivity, nonetheless it has always existed alongside that of a white hegemony in the form of music, poetry, sacred texts and sculpted images. The suggestion is that the black artist is no longer working in a void formed by a largely hostile white hegemony, but instead there is an educated AfroAmerican audience that is an essential part of the creative, productive black collectivity. The ‘journey back’, then, involves re-affirming the richness and complexity of a culture that the hegemonic society attempted to suppress, oppress and deny; the journey back is not a nostalgia trip, but an engagement with forms that could not always be seen or heard, given limitations of interpretive models and/or previously less-well-educated audiences. Such an engagement and reaffirmation would find powerful expression in Baker’s re-examination of the critical reception to the Harlem Renaissance.

Published in 1987, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance is Baker’s re-evaluation of an intellectual position that argued that the Harlem Renaissance was a failure. Baker asks who exactly made this powerful value judgement and why Afro-American scholars accepted it. In a series of subversive moves, Baker reorients the critical approach to the Harlem Renaissance, first, by arguing for the importance of ‘modern Afro-American sound as a function of a specifically Afro-American discursive practice’, second by reflecting on family history, and the ways in which judgements of success/failure are predicated upon exclusionary forces and different criteria of success, and third by rejecting Eurocentric notions of modernism as inappropriate for understanding Afro-American modernism. Baker’s task is to recode the Harlem Renaissance in terms of ‘a distinctive, family modernity’, the latter phrase being reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblance’, whereby overlapping shared features group together objects that also have individual differences. Butler utilizes two further terms: the ‘discursive constellation’ and ‘blues geographies’; the combination of the two leads him to replace ‘renaissance’ with Afro-American ‘renaissancism’. The discursive constellation of Afro-American literature, music, art, graphic design and intellectual history, facilitates a shift into new modes of production; what Baker calls ‘blues geographies’, a unique assemblage of revival and rebirth. Baker is more specific than this, arguing that two key artistic processes are the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery; locating a founding event for AfroAmerican modernism – Booker T. Washington’s opening address to the Negro exhibit of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition on 18 September 1895 – Baker argues that Washington both adopted (discursively and strategically) the minstrel mask and subverted it at the same time. The mask becomes a trope that is simultaneously imprisoning and facilitating. In the employing of such a contentious trope, however, a uniquely Afro-American modernist anxiety is produced: one that signals a distance from the realm of slavery. Baker suggests that this ‘move up’ from slavery is a mode of cultural negotiation. Turning to his essay ‘There Is No More Beautiful Way: Theory and the Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing’, such a negotiation is tied in with ‘autobiographical inscription’. Rejecting a need for an Afro-American liberal humanism, Baker posits instead a notion of an activist autobiography where there is ‘a personal negotiation of metalevels that foregrounds nuances and resonances of a different story’. Key here is what Baker calls the ‘autobiographical recall of the auditory’, that is to say, a willingness and ability to listen to ‘authentic sources of black expressive sound’. The importance of oral cultural forms is conjoined here to the work of contemporary AfroAmerican feminists who have created a poetics of African American women’s voices. In his Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984), Baker expands upon and refines his notion of orality and blues geographies, developing a theory of an artistic vernacular that is integrated in an economic and socio-political history of Black America. However, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature is less a progression, and more a new beginning for Baker, drawing upon economics and poststructuralism, materiality and semiotics, symbolic and dialectical thought (with emphasis upon Hegel). In a Hegelian move, Baker sublates (incorporates and lifts up into a new perspective) his former symbolic-anthropological orientation to argue that the Afro-American blues is a matrix. What does he mean by this? Thinking about different definitions of ‘matrix’ Baker lists: womb, network, fossil-bearing rock, rocky trace, principal metal in an alloy, a plate for reproducing media. Using Derridean theory, Baker brings all of these definitions together in the concept of the enabling script of Afro-American culture. The blues are a code and a force that radically condition Afro-American cultural significations. Baker lists some key elements of the synthesis known as the blues: ‘work songs, group seculars, field hollers, sacred harmonies, proverbial wisdom, folk philosophy, political commentary, ribald humor, elegiac lament, and much more’. As a force, the blues operates as a foundational play of differences: that is to say, an artistic driving force for dynamic production that respects differences and autonomous artistic expressions; the implications of such a statement are vast, with the potential for a blues matrix being ‘a vernacular [local, idiomatic] trope for American cultural explanation in general’. A national blues geography emerges from Baker’s reading of: the conclusion to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Baruka’s The System of Dante’s Hell and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In more recent work, Baker has focused on a concomitant poetics in his Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing (1991), which includes a photo essay by Elizabeth Alexander and Patricia Redmond.

Once more, there is a Hegelian force identified at work in the mapping of an Afro-American women’s poetic, perhaps best revealed by Baker’s focus on the radical shift in subjectivity in Their Eyes Were Watching God, whereby the protagonist Janie transforms subjectivity via the act of autobiography. As he writes: ‘what Janie has done . . . is transform the quotidian rites of a black woman’s passage through the world into a series of figures or images that are so resonant that they catapult Pheoby [Janie’s friend] into new consciousness.’ This fundamental re-telling of the everyday biographical story – i.e. one which black women from this period and beyond may identify with – sublates or ‘lifts up’ Pheoby so that she grows, changes and has a new sense of dissatisfaction with her lot; the essential point here is that this growth is intersubjective, a shared experience between two women.

Baker’s ‘blues geographies’ – a complex mapping of Afro-American literary, artistic and theoretical culture – incessantly interrogates the black aesthetic in critical and creative ways that rarely lose touch with personal, family history. As such, Baker’s synthesis of high theory and the vernacular, which remains focused upon the economic and social conditions of slavery and modern Afro-American history, also provides a pedagogic model for producing readings of indigenous texts, readings that maintain a sensitivity to the everyday conditions of artistic existence and production. In other words, in interrogating and mapping the black aesthetic, Baker has taught critics new ways of reading literature in general.

Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.

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