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The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 145-170

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Houston Baker and the South:

More Tight Spots

Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism / Re-reading Booker T. By Houston A. Baker, Jr. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 117 pages. $15.95 paper, $45.95 cloth.
Critical Memory: Public Spheres, African American Writing, and Black Fathers and Sons in America. By Houston A. Baker, Jr. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2001. xv + 75 pages. $24.95.

Riché Richardson has noticed that the title of Houston Baker's recent volume, Turning South Again, echoes that of V. S. Naipaul's book about the South, A Turn in the South.1 If Baker's title is signifying on Naipaul's, the key word in Baker's title is "Again." Whereas Naipaul took a turn in the South as an outsider and observer, Baker's title emphasizes the South as his place of origin. Returning to the South of Durham, North Carolina, as he takes a new position at Duke University, Baker is reminded of his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, where black boys lived in fear of the mythical Blue Man, and the absence of a father left a very young "Junior" terrified through a long dark winter. In Turning South Again Baker uses W. J. Cash's brilliant Mind of the South (1941) to set up his analysis. Although he lists a few names of the many who have corrected and critiqued Cash since 1941, he incorporates few of their critiques into his own use of Cash's ideas. Thus turning South again seems to mean, intellectually as well as personally, a reversion to the past.

There is, however, a remarkable act of reconsideration at the center of the slim book. Booker T. Washington has become, for this new Houston A. Baker, Jr., the very image of, if not horror, disdain. Where once he [End Page 145] defended the southerner, here Baker takes an oppositional position, arguably a northern slant, that accuses Washington of not double consciousness but a split tongue. Washington, in this rendering, becomes a two-faced manipulator, enjoying the pleasures of the urban sophisticate with his rich white donors while keeping his plantation "slaves" at Tuskegee under surveillance as they cast down their buckets where they were, immobilized by low expectations and opportunities. Washington's gender is rendered as uncertain and therefore suspect. Feminized, even cross dressing, he flirts with white men while enforcing strict codes of conduct on the plantation, and indulging his heterosexuality with light skinned women like the white women who have taught him how to "sweep" and "brush" interior spaces.

Baker considers his a psychoanalytic reading. He derives from the early scenes of boyhood and young manhood in Up from Slavery the sources of a sycophantic and manipulative black unmanhood that contrasts sharply with the direct true black manhood of men like W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X. The psychoanalytic frame Baker gives to the volume invites, in turn, a psychoanalytic reading of Turning South Again and Critical Memory as a textual moment in Baker's history as a critic and in the history of African-American critical practice more generally.

Trueblood's Tight Spots

A key figure in Baker's critical lexicon, almost from the start, has been the image of the "tight spot." This image has served for Baker to characterize the continuing condition of black Americans in various venues, from Invisible Man to the Million Man March. Indeed, the cover art of Turning South Again constricts its black male subject—a nattily dressed dark black man from a photograph by southerner Richard Samuel Roberts—into a very tight space: the image is cropped top and bottom, so as to decapitate the man above the lips and dismember him below the waist. What remains is an elegant set of clothing: white starched shirt and bow tie undergirding a dark unsmiling jaw; gray wellcut suit and vest; handkerchief in pocket and pin (representing membership in an order?) in buttonhole; and a black left hand placed over the heart—thumb behind vest&#8212...


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