by Jim Patterson
Houston Baker was once a young scholar of British literature aiming to write the ultimate biography of Oscar Wilde. But that was not his fate.
“I got to Yale at the time of the rebellion – the Black Panthers, the May Day (Vietnam War protest) – and a group of students … came up and said, ‘Did anyone tell you that you look exactly like Malcolm X?’ I had big black glasses at the time and short hair.”
The students said they needed Baker for “the revolution.”
“And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve never had a revolution before. Sure, let’s see what this looks like.”
Baker, a new distinguished university professor at Vanderbilt, is telling the story in typically self-effacing fashion. His continuing love of Victorian literature made the early 1970s career shift bittersweet, but his subsequent work has propelled him to the status of one of the most influential African American academics of his time.
Baker has written compelling critiques of the legacy of Booker T. Washington, rap music, the Harlem Renaissance, black conservatives, the South and many other topics. He also was the leading dissident voice inside Duke University regarding that administration’s handling of rape accusations against members of its lacrosse team.
“He is one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals in America today in any field of the humanities,” said Jay Clayton, chair of the English department. “He is prolific and writes to an audience far broader than academic specialties. He writes on Southern literature and is going to be a bold addition to Michael Kreyling and our other Southernists’ splendid strengths in Southern literature.”
Baker will continue to be an outspoken voice on racial issues, with one of two imminent books a blistering call-out of black celebrities and intellectuals who heap scorn on poor African Americans for their lack of economic progress.
“Condemnation of the black majority … is always a popular stance in the United States of America and earns you good money and a lot of time on television talk shows,” Baker said. “People want to hear that it’s not structural but it may be biological – there may be a culture of poverty that comes down the line from slavery, and so black parents don’t take care of their children.
“When one investigates the actual structural conditions of the lives of the black majority, it’s rather difficult to see why people aren’t instead bringing ringing condemnations on the nature of housing that is provided for them, the nature of the education, which is completely bankrupt, and the nature of the services that are rendered to black majority communities, which is just appalling and abysmal in so many instances.
“And also the condemnation of affirmative action by the neo-conservative black public intellectuals like Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter – who by any standard and just account are where they are precisely because of affirmative action – is ironic. It’s very tired now,” he said.
Baker credits affirmative action for some of the opportunities that came his way early in his career. He has taught at Yale, the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke. He directed The Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at Penn and edited the journal American Literature at Duke. He is a past president of the Modern Language Association.
Baker first visited Nashville in 1961, when his brother John – a Fisk University student – invited him to the homecoming game against Howard University. “They beat Howard really soundly,” he remembers.
“In subsequent years, one of the wonderful members of the English department faculty, Teresa Goddu, has invited me down on several occasions to Vanderbilt to give talks. … So I became aware of the various interdisciplinary centers, the vision of the English department for its future, the distinctively young and energetic cast and greater cosmopolitanism of the English department,” he said.
“My sense of Vanderbilt under this current leadership team is that it’s going to make phenomenal strides in student development and what the distinctive graduate of Vanderbilt will look like. … It’s just a very exciting place at this moment to be.”