Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T.


In Turning South Again the distinguished and award-winning essayist, poet, and scholar of African American literature Houston A. Baker, Jr. offers a revisionist account of the struggle for black modernism in the United States. With a take on the work of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute surprisingly different from that in his earlier book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker combines historical considerations with psychoanalysis, personal memoir, and whiteness studies to argue that the ...

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Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T.

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In Turning South Again the distinguished and award-winning essayist, poet, and scholar of African American literature Houston A. Baker, Jr. offers a revisionist account of the struggle for black modernism in the United States. With a take on the work of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute surprisingly different from that in his earlier book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker combines historical considerations with psychoanalysis, personal memoir, and whiteness studies to argue that the American South and its regulating institutions—particularly that of incarceration—have always been at the center of the African American experience.
From the holds of slave ships to the peonage of Reconstruction to the contemporary prison system, incarceration has largely defined black life in the United States. Even Washington’s school at Tuskegee, Baker explains, housed and regulated black bodies no longer directly controlled by slave owners. He further implicates Washington by claiming that in enacting his ideas about racial “uplift,” Washington engaged in “mulatto modernism,” a compromised attempt at full citizenship. Combining autobiographical prose, literary criticism, psychoanalytic writing, and, occasionally, blues lyrics and poetry, Baker meditates on the consequences of mulatto modernism for the project of black modernism, which he defines as the achievement of mobile, life-enhancing participation in the public sphere and economic solvency for the majority of African Americans. By including a section about growing up in the South, as well as his recent return to assume a professorship at Duke, Baker contributes further to one of the book’s central concerns: a call to centralize the South in American cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A book by Baker tends to be something of an event in the field—the field being not only African American literature but also cultural studies impinging on Americana. His books have an impact, cause discussion, and provoke debates. This one, however, seems to me unusually well motivated. Personal matters have moved Baker to outdo himself in the sharpness of his observations, the power of his insights, and the vigor of his language.”—Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University

“Baker offers an original blend of self-reflection, cultural inquiry, social critique, and close textual analysis of a classic book in African American history and literature. This is the most revealing study of Up From Slavery that I’ve ever seen and the most personal and self-revealing piece of writing that Baker has ever published.”—William L. Andrews, author of To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822326953
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/18/2001
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.83 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.37 (d)

Meet the Author

Houston A. Baker Jr. is the Susan Fox and George D. Beischer Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and editor of the journal American Literature. In addition to being the author of numerous books of literary criticism—including Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy and Modernism and Harlem Renaissance—and collections of poetry, Baker is the recipient of many awards and distinctions, including eleven honorary doctorates.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Modernism's Performative
Masquerade: Mr. Washington, Tuskegee,
and Black-South Mobility

It seems to me there is rarely such a combination of mental and physical delight in any effort as that which comes to a public speaker when he feels that he has a great audience completely within his control.


This capacity to switch enacted roles when obliged to do so could have been predicted; everyone apparently can do it. For in learning to perform our parts in real life we guide our own productions by not too consciously maintaining an incipient familiarity with the routine of those to whom we will address ourselves. And when we come to be able properly to manage a real routine we are able to do this in part because of "anticipatory socialization," having already been schooled in the reality that is just coming to be real for us.

ERVING GOFFMAN, The Representation of Self in Everyday Life

sweep ... to carry or trail along in a stately manner, as a flowing garment ... to row, or to propel (a vessel), with sweeps or large oars ... to pass a broom or brush over the surface of (something) so as to clear it of any small loose or adhering particles



The discussion that follows had its origin in what can only be called re-vision. First, there was the recall of my own youth in Louisville, Kentucky — a turning back to earlier days that is part and parcel of a memoir I am presently writing. Second, there was the hauntingrecurrence of two scenes from Afro-American literature that would not leave me alone. Since I have written about both scenes earlier in my career, their refusal to stay at rest combined with memoir to create a captivating regress: past personal life, past literary scenes, past literary criticism. One of the literary scenes that kept recurring is found in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man. It involves the unforgettable character Jim Trueblood. Describing his dilemma when faced with the incestuous abuse of his daughter, Trueblood says that he was in a "tight spot" and his task was to "move without moving" (46). The second scene is found in the exposition of Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery. Washington reports his anxieties upon receiving an invitation to deliver one of the opening addresses to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in September of 1895:

I knew ... this was the first time in the entire history of the Negro that a member of my race had been asked to speak from the same platform with white Southern men and women on any important National occasion. I was asked now to speak to an audience composed of the wealth and culture of the white South, the representatives of my former masters. I knew, too, that while the greater part of my audience would be composed of Southern people, yet there would be present a large number of Northern whites, as well as a great many men and women of my own race. (130)

On the morning he travels to deliver his speech, Washington says he "felt a good deal as I suppose a man feels when he is on his way to the gallows" (131). While journeying, he encounters a Tuskegee white farmer who says: "Washington, you have spoken before the Northern white people, the Negroes in the South; but in Atlanta, tomorrow, you will have before you the Northern whites, the Southern whites, and the Negroes all together. I am afraid that you have got into a tight place" (142).

    "Tight places" are constituted by the necessity to articulate from a position that combines specters of abjection (slavery), multiple subjects and signifiers (Trueblood's narrative is produced for a rich, northern, white philanthropist), representational obligations of race in America (to speak "Negro"), and patent sex and gender implications (the role of the Law as the Phallus).

    Though I had written about both Ellison and Washington, my memoiristic encounters with my own Louisville, Kentucky, youth obviously triggered something peculiarly southern as I sought a language of recovery for my past. Certainly, I have worked to make the language of my memoir more than a simple lyrical metaphysics of memory intended "for colored only." And surely I want my language of memory to transcend chest-thumping "end-of-racism" triumphalism intended for white readers alone. Somehow my own desires in the language for memory kept calling up those two scenes from Washington and Ellison.

    After sleepless nights, I concluded that the alliance among the literary scenes mentioned and my memoir was geographical, gendered, and psychologically overdetermined. In a word, all involved the South, black men, and a certain species of performance anxiety. Furthermore, all were implicated to one extent or another with modernism, with finding a black voice that if it did not transcend the past would at least ameliorate, accommodate, and critique the past in ways confidently articulate with what the majority of black people require (especially racially) for the present and future.

    My present work, therefore, involves re-vision and revisitation (much in the manner of the father's ghost in Hamlet that will not allow the prince to rest), and it begins for me with the inescapable fact of a tightly spaced "southernness" I have long sought to erase from my speech, my bearing, and my memory. But it has never really been possible. For in face-to-face encounters anywhere below the Mason-Dixon, I quickly discover I have not left the South, nor has the South left me. The vowels of my "educated black man" speech desert me almost instantly, and the slow-motion roll and drawl of Kentucky syllables drip softly from my tongue. On such southern occasions, I feel ironic pride that I can still pull off the correct local pronunciation of my hometown "Louisville" which in the native, non-Francophone roll of things is "Lew-vull." In "Lew-vull" I first encountered the South ... although our town's ambivalent boast was always that we were a regional borderland: the "Gateway to the South." Yet we were never reluctant to break into Stephen Foster melodiousness or to throw a respectful salute to gray-haired colonels, especially during Kentucky Derby season at Churchill Downs. "Gateway" meant, of course, very different things to very differently situated people.

    For my older brother and me, it meant we could get out of "the South" and greet freedom simply by crossing the Ohio River. When our father acted on one or another of his peculiar lightings out for the Territory, he would command our mom to pack a picnic lunch, round up the boys, and get ready because we were going to Cincinnati and the zoo, or to an integrated theater where we could experience 3-D movies at first hand, or even stay overnight in a real hotel that would not turn us away at the desk because they did not serve "colored people" Midway the bridge over the river was a sign that read "Welcome to Ohio!" My brother and I would begin to shout and wrestle about in the back seat: "We're free! We're free! We're free!" Of course, on the return trip was a sign that read "Welcome to Kentucky!" And no matter what kind of time we had enjoyed across the river, we knew we were not gateway tricksters, but black southerners after all. As W. E. B. Du Bois might have stated it: "It is a peculiar burden, this incumbency of a black man's calling the South home." Countee Cullen, too, might have spoken of the irony of making a black man southern and bidding him to sing.

    For at my "home" in Lew-vull, black people were shaped in exclusion, beguiled by white illusion, and deemed seriously delusional if they believed the Old South and its ways would ever give birth to brightness. So, today, when I find myself in Richmond, Raleigh, Greenville, New Orleans, Tuscaloosa, or Tugaloo, it only takes the half-hour ride from the airport with my host to set me back fifty years to the certainty, syllables, and immobilizing terror that often informed my Old Kentucky Home. Oh, it is true that sometimes I don't require a human voice at all. The particular song of a southern summer bird will do it, or if I am driving, it can be rounding the bend of a two-lane road and seeing black men butchering a hog suspended from a tree in the front yard of their cinder-block house. The special smell of jasmine and early-evening humidity powers up southern memory for me as megadoses of creatine do an athlete's muscles.

    My head contains furious recall of Cassius Marcellus Clay as a rank amateur boxer (skinny, light-skinned boy who thought he was "pretty") knocking out opponents on the screen of our family's first, seventeen-inch, black-and-white television set on Saturday afternoons. The autobiographical bass rumblings of beer-drinking men on the porch of our store who boasted about how they had bested (or "whupped") some foul "cracker" or another. The aching beauty of the whole tabooed enrollment of young white girls sashaying the corridors of Western Junior High School on the first day of public school integration in Louisville. (O brave new world that hath such people in't! And in straight skirts no less.) My black peers' rhymed/signifying warnings against such beauty and desire: "Lord will I ever? Will I ever?!" And the Lord's reply: "No, Negro. You will never. You will never!" My parents were sort of like the Lord, I guess. Because they didn't think integration matters were all that wondrous either. At least not if integration was going to cause me and a goodly number of my peers to go to Western Junior High School, which was located in the Portland section of town. Portland was river-front, white working-class territory, and my parents considered it more déclassé than dangerous. My father asserted without seeming thought: "Son, those white crackers are poor, and I don't believe they are very smart, and I know they do not like colored folks. Why do you want to be with them?"

    The catalogues of memory are endless, of course. What surprises me nowadays is that there seem so many triggers that set me talking about my southern home, even to bored or indulgent strangers on airplanes. Somewhere, somehow it must all have left an indelible and shaping ambivalence because, often despite myself, I display a badge of honor in regard to tight places of youth, tight places that were my testing ground, that are my legacy. Oh, it is not even remotely akin, I believe, to Quintin Compson's majestic and justifiably famous repetition compulsion: "I don't hate the South! I don't hate the South!" For as surely as I am memorially in the South and it is in me, just as surely do I hate the South. Perhaps though, this is simply because "home" always has for us ... as species ... an opponent composition of aversion-and-attraction, which can take form as a compulsive, microscopic, and deeply ambivalent rehashing of the past. Where the South and black southern being are concerned, I believe such rehashing forms the crux of a psychodrama of framing, performance, signification, and, ultimately being for the black American.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Blue Men, Black Writing, and Southern Revisions 1
Modernism's Performative Masquerade: Mr. Washington, Tuskegee, and Black-South Mobility 13
A Concluding Meditation on Plantations, Ships, and Black Modernism 79
Notes 99
Index 105
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