- Turning Southward: Sons Journeying Home
If we are all seemingly drawn towards “home,” then our ties, our bonds with the domestic, are continually crossed and configured by the insistence of being in transit, under way, without the guarantee of ever arriving.Iain Chambers, “Off the Map: A Mediterranean Journey”
In May 2008, the Brookings Institute issued a report titled “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965–2000.” William H. Frey, who authored the report, bullet-pointed his findings:
• The South scored net gains of black migrants from all three of the other regions of the U.S. during the late 1990s, reversing a 35-year trend. . . .
• Among migrants from the Northeast, Midwest, and West regions, blacks were more likely than whites to select destinations in the South. . . .
• College-educated individuals lead the new migration into the South.
According to Frey, this “full-scale reversal of blacks ‘Great Migration’ north during the early part of the twentieth century, [End Page 902] reflects the South’s economic growth and modernization, its improved race relations, and the long-standing cultural and kinship ties it holds for black families.”
Generally speaking, Houston Baker can be counted among those recent returnees, who constitute what Frey terms the “brain gain” of the South, and his return has stimulated a range of restless writings centered on family, kinship, race, and region. In the first of his books about the South, Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T. (2001), Baker confessed: “I am, perhaps now really only analytically and for the first time, in the South, and the South is hauntingly, in me” (78). In his latest collection, I Don’t Hate the South: Reflections on Faulkner, Family, and the South (2007), Baker continues to explore his vexed relation and belated reunion with the place of his birth, to wrestle with the “genealogical anxiety and Oedipal angst” it conjures up for him (186).
Perhaps Baker’s physical return to the South was inevitable, just a matter of time, for he qualifies as the archetypal wanderer, the “wayfaring stranger” of that old spiritual, “travelling through this world of woe.” And the state of the world that Baker surveys is nothing if not woeful, although he has made for himself a distinguished career. Born and bred in Louisville, Kentucky, Baker moved “north” to Washington, D.C. for undergraduate study at Howard; went “west” for graduate study at UCLA, then moved all around the country to take successive professorships: to New Haven (Yale), then Charlottesville (the University of Virginia), then Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania), then Durham (Duke). Moving deeper still into the South, he is currently in Nashville at Vanderbilt, the home of the infamous Southern Agrarians, who took the title of their manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930) from “Dixie,” that anthem of the confederacy, and who staked their unabashedly reactionary project on a critique of modernity and a defense of segregation and the racial status quo.
If only at a glance, Baker obligingly confronts this controversial chapter of Vanderbilt’s history in I Don’t Hate the South, published soon after he touched down in Nashville. Summoning the ghost of Robert Penn Warren, one of the twelve Southern Agrarians, Baker titles one of the book’s chapters, “If you see Robert Penn Warren Ask Him: Who Does Speak for the Negro?” Baker riffs here on Warren’s collection of essays Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), taking his stand against Warren’s notion of “the Negro,” phantasm and obsession of the “white American imaginary” (I Don’t Hate 125).
Baker’s repudiation of “the Negro,” as patronizing idea and racist ideology, finds complement and echo in Sterling Brown’s A Negro Looks at the South, a compilation of published and [End Page 903] unpublished essays, sketches, and reportage Brown penned throughout the 1940s. Steering clear of “the Negro” in this posthumous collection, Brown, as...