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  mask as form does not exist as a static object. rather it takes effect as a center

for ritual and can only be definedlike formfrom the perspective

of action, motion seen rather than "thing" observed.



 Books by Houston Baker, Jr.


Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader  / Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s  /  Black Studies, Rap and the Academy 

Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance  /  Workings of the Sprit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing 

  Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature

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Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

By Houston A. Baker

Reviews & Excerpts

Commentary by Rudolph Lewis




Mr. Baker perceives the Harlem Renaissance as a crucial moment in a movement, predating the 1920s, when Afro-Americans embraced the task of self-determination and in so doing gave forth a distinctive form of expression that still echoes in a broad spectrum of 20th-century Afro-American arts. . . . . Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance may well become Afro-America's 'studying manual'.

Tonya Bolden Davis, New York Times Book Review

Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance is a stunningly original book. opposing the view of earlier critics, such as Nathan Huggins, that the Harlem Renaissance was a failure. professor Baker redefines modernism and establishes a case for a distinctly Afro-American version of that movement. . . . Rejecting the limitations of a traditionalist approach to modernism, Baker proposes the concepts of 'mastery of form' and 'deformation of mastery' as more suitable strategies for the interpretation of Afro-American discourse.

Faith Pullin, Times Higher Education Supplement

A truly brilliant work. in it, Houston baker has found his voice, his own blue-black critical voice, a voice free of other white, Western critical voices and their language of post-structural jargon(s). It is entirely appropriate that black music, and soundings, are Baker's central, and repeated and unifying metaphors, for this book's true subject is in what voice shall the black critic 'speak'.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornell University

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Defining Form

For the present, I shall use the term "form" to signal a symbolizing fluidity. I intend by the term a family of concepts or a momentary and changing same array of images, figures, assumptions, and presuppositions that a group of people (even one as extensive and populous as a nation) holds to be a valued repository of spirit. And the form most apt for carrying forward such notions is a mask.

It is difficult to convey notions of form and mask in the exact ways that I would like, for the mask as form does not exist as a static object. rather it takes effect as a center for ritual and can only be definedlike formfrom the perspective of action, motion seen rather than "thing" observed. I shall make an attempt to convey the notion of mask as form, however, by summoning a familiar imagistic array, a long-standing group of concepts and assumptions that serves as a spiritual repository for a quintessential American ritual. The form, array, mask that I have in mind is the minstrel mask.

That mask is a space of habitation not only for repressed spirits of sexuality, ludic play, id satisfaction, castration anxiety, and a mirror stage of development, but also for that deep-seated denial of the indisputable humanity of inhabitants of and descendants from the continent of Africa. And it is, first and foremost, the mastery of the minstrel mask by blacks that constitutes a primary move in Afro-American discursive modernism.

The spirit of denial in the minstrel mask is nowhere more defining of a national spirit than in the united states. the mask, for generations on end, has been so persuasively captivating, so effectively engaging in its seeming authenticity, that an astute intellectual like Constance Rourke can actually take it as an adequate and accurate sign of a 'tradition" of "negro literature' predating the 'cult" of Afro-American expressivity she found so wearying in the 1940s. (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance)

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The Roots of American Culture and Other Essays (1942)

By Constance Rourke

"Traditions for a Negro Literature"

Early blackface minstrelsy revealed indeed the natural appropriations of the Negro from the life about him: but the persistent stress was primitive, the effect exotic, and strange with the swaying figures and black faces of the minstrels lighted by guttering gas flames or candlelight on small country stages or even in the larger theaters. Within this large and various pattern lay a fresh context of comedy, plain in the intricate, grotesque dancing as the minstrels "walked jaw-bone" or accomplished the deep complications of the "dubble trubble" or the "grapevine twist." A bold comic quality appeared which had not developed elsewhere in American humor, that of nonsense.

With all his comic wild excesses the backwoodsman never overflowed into pure nonsense; the Yankee did not display it. Perhaps the negro did not invent the nonsensical narratives told in song on the minstrel stage, but the touch is akin to that of Negro fables in song; and nonsense in minstrelsy shows a sharp distinction from other humor of the day.

A little old man was ridin' by,

His horse was tryin' to kick  fly,

He lifted his leg towards de south

An' sent it bang in its own mouth

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The note of triumph, dominant in all early American humor, appeared in these reflected creations of the Negro, but not as triumph over circumstance. Rather this was an unreasonably headlong triumph launching into the realm of the preposterous.

Constance Rourke, The Roots of American Culture and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1942), pp.269-270.

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*Note also the passages on "nonsense" in the 3rd chapter of Rourke's American Humor, Rourke, Ch 03: "

And a far bolder comic quality appeared which had hardly developed elsewhere in the American comic display-that of nonsense. . . . Strangely enough, with all his wild excess the backwoodsman never overflowed into pure nonsense. Perhaps the Negro did not invent the nonsensical narratives which appeared in his dialect, but the touch is akin to that in many of the Negro fables in song. Certainly nonsense in minstrelsy shows a sharp distinction from other humor of the day. The minstrel mode went off to a bold and careless tangent. . . . 

The sudden extreme of nonsense was new, and the tragic undertone was new. . . . A minstrel song, Foster's "Oh, Susannah!" became a rallying-cry for the new empire, a song of meeting and parting turned to nonsense, a fiddler's tune with a Negro beat and a touch of smothered pathos in the melody. Fragments of familiar reels and breakdowns, of boatmen's dances and boatmen's songs, were often caught within the minstrel pattern: much of the pioneer experience was embedded there. No doubt the appeal of minstrelsy came from these draughts upon a common reminiscence, stirring some essential wish or remembrance.

Minstrelsy kept its Negro backgrounds until after the Civil War: then, if the Negro was set free, in a fashion his white impersonators were also liberated. Along with later blackface acting came a strong infusion of Irish melodies and an Irish brogue. German songs were sometimes sung on the minstrel stage; and much later the Jew occasionally emerged in blackface. Again in fantasy the American types seemed to be joining in a single semblance. But Negro music and Negro nonsense still prevailed; through years the old pattern was kept. The young American Narcissus had looked at himself in the narrow rocky pools of New England and by the waters of the Mississippi; he also gazed long at a darker image. --Rourke, Ch 03

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Workings of the Minstrel Mask

The minstrel mask is a governing object in a ritual of non-sense. The brand of non-sense to which minstrelsy gives force is best described, I think, by Susan Stewart's observations on "ready made systems" of nonsense. She writes

At times nonsense will effect a traversal that depends upon the availability of a given, or ready-made, system from common snense. the common-sense system provides the closed form within which nonsense effects its rearrangements or substitution of elements. One such use of the play of rearrangements within closed fields is the mnemonic device.

Here a structure is used to incorporate all the elements of what is desired to be remembered. For example, there is the mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), "Roy G. Biv," which appears in Ulysses, and another mnemonic for the same elements, "Read Over Your Greek Books in Vacation."

The mnemonic is knowledge centered in itself; it has no meaning outside of its use. it is purely "a device," for it does not "count" on its own.

Susan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertexuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 186-187

By misappropriating elements from everyday black use, from the vernacularthe commonplace and commonly sensible in Afro-American lifeand fashioning them into a comic array, a mask of selective memory, white America fashioned a device that only "counts" in relationship to the Afro-American systems of sense from which it is appropriated.

The intensity of the minstrel ritual, its frantic replaying to packed and jovial houses, is a function of the "real" Afro-Americans just beyond the theater's doors, beyond the guttering lights of the mind's eye. The device is designed to remind white consciousness that black men and women are mis-speakers bereft of humanitycarefree devils strumming and humming all dayunless, in a gaslight misidentification, they are violent devils fit for lynching, a final exorcism that will leave whites alone. (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 21)

Which all returns us  to the "mastery of form." For it was in fact the minstrel mask as mnemonic ritual object that constituted the form that any Afro-American who desired to be articulateto speak at allhad to master during the age of Booker T. Washington.

I have suggested that the sound emanating from the mask reverberates through a white American discursive universe as the sound of the Negro. if it is true that myth is the detritus of ritual, then the most clearly identifiable atavistic remains of minstrelsy are narratives or stories of ignorant and pathetically comic brutes who speak nonsense syllables. . . .

These sounds are implicit in in the haughty eyeball-rollers of Gatsby and gather strength in the murmurings of Faulkner's Clytie and Dilsey. they are ritually renewed by Amos and Andy and appear today with mythic and mnemonic force in television's Mr. T, George Jefferson, and tiny Arnold. Obviously, an Afro-American spokesperson who wished to engage in a masterful and empowering play within the minstrel spirit house needed the uncanny ability to manipulate bizarre phonic legacies. For he or she had the task of transforming the mask and its sounds into negotiable discursive currency. In effect, the task was the production of a manual of black speaking, a book of speaking back and black. (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 21-24)

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Thirty-two years after the Emancipation Proclamation [1865], Booker T. Washington changed the minstrel joke by stepping inside the white world's nonsense syllables with oratorical mastery.  Up from Slavery  [1901] offers a record and representation of Afro-America's mastery of form. early in the text we discover that Washington understands the constraints that define Afro-American sound:

As the great day [of emancipation] drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. it was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the "freedom" in those songs referred to the next world. Now, they gradually threw off the mask; and were not afraid to let it be known that the 'freedom" in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world. [p. 39, my emphasis]

Playing behind a pious mask is as central to the narrator's characterization of black quarters as the renaming that he describes: "in some way a feeling got among the coloured people that it was far from proper for them to bear the surnames of their former owners, and a great many of them took other surnames" (p. 41).

A liberating manipulation of masks and a revolutionary renaming are not features commonly ascribed to the efforts of Booker T. Washington.

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Like Billy Kersands stretching the minstrel face to a successful black excess, or Bert Williams and George Walker converting nonsense sounds and awkwardly demeaning minstrel steps into pure kinesthetics and masterful black artistry, so Washington takes up types and tones of nonsense to earn a national reputation and its corollary benefits for the Afro-American masses. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Chapter 4.

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Washington v. Dunbar

To designate Washington rather than, say, Paul Lawrence Dunbar as the quintessential herald of modernism in black expressive culture is not willful revisionism. For I am interested in a mastery of form that renders it more than a strategy adopted for the aesthetic satisfaction of the individual artist. . . . Washington is 'modern' in my view, then, because he earnestly projected the flourishing of a southern, black Eden at Tuskegee—a New World garden to nurture hands, heads, and hearts of a younger generation of agrarian black folk in the 'country districts'. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Chapter 5.

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Deformation of MasteryAfrican Mask

The deformation of mastery refuses a master's nonsense. It returns—often transmuting 'standard' syllables—to the common sense of the tribe. Its relationship to masks is radically different from that of the mastery of form. The spirit house occupying the deformer is not minstrelsy, but the sound and space of an African ancestral past. For the Afro-American spokesperson, the most engaging repository for deformation's sounding work is the fluid and multiform mask of African ancestry. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the most articulate adherent of African sound was W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Souls of Black Folk announces in its very title that an 'other world' nonsense will not be countenanced. A nation, a FOLK manifold in spirit (note plurality of 'soul' captured by its s), will be the subject of the black spokesperson's narrative. Afro-American songs appropriately called 'spirituals' provide sound for a ritual that begins with the title. The whole of Souls moves in fact toward the moment in chapter fourteen when the text becomes a sounding score—when the phaneric narrator [go(ue)rilla] reveals that he knows the score where lordship and deformity are concerned.

"The governing metaphor of Souls is the 'Veil'. The Veil signifies a barrier of American racial segregation that keeps Afro-Americans always behind a color line—disoriented—prey to divided aims, dire economic circumstances, haphazard educational opportunities, and frustrated intellectual ambitions. In the penultimate vision of Souls that occurs in chapter fourteen, this Veil is rent. . . . The Duboisean voice ceaselessly invokes ancestral spirits and ancient formulas that move toward an act of cultural triumph. In fact, I defines the Afro-American spiritual as synonymous with the African mask here because Du Bois's narrator seems so patently self conscious in the repeated use of 'Sorrow Songs' or spirituals as masterful repositories of an African cultural spirit.  (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Chapter 7)

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Editorial Commentary

Afro-American modernism was inaugurated in terms of artistic development: the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. The major artistic representation of the Negro took the form (in speech and body motion) on stage in black-face minstrelsy or in literature as  in the character Topsy in Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, appearing first in the 1840s and 1850s. Minstrelsy negates the Negro or erases his humanity in terms of nonsense.

In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Baker asserts that Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery and Charles Chestnutt's Conjure Woman represent Afro-American mastery of minstrelsy or the minstrel mask, that is, they stand the form on its head (in a sense, they step inside of the nonsense) and make use of the form for purposes for which it was never intended, that is, to serve the greater interest of the Negro people. In their expert hands nonsense gains focus, purpose, and direction.

Maybe Baker is unfair in his characterization of Booker T. Washington, as a black black-faced minstrel. But it seems quite clear that Washington and Chestnutt were both aware of minstrelsy and that both made use of (alluded to) it in their literary productions. It's also clear that Dunbar was uneasy in his productions of dialect verse and preferred to write in standard English. Even so, "When Malindy Sings" is one of the finest English poems ever written.


In reading Ronald W. Walters' White Nationalism, Black Interests  and Houston A. Baker's Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), one cannot but wonder whether there are parallels between the post-Reconstruction era of the 19th century (viewed by Walters) and the turn of the century Washington-DuBois-Alain Locke era (viewed by Baker), and the more recent Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that we now find ourselves.

In the former era, the Negro redefined himself, began to speak for himself on a national basis and entered that era, Baker calls it Afro-American "modernism," which he believes were more fully spoken in Alain Locke's The New Negro. In 2006, , the post-modern era, the Negro as African-American is again trying to lay (prepare) the field for a new generation to move the nation forward to fulfill its promise to all of its citizens, especially for those who carry most the burdens of the nation's misdeeds.

Locke closed the introduction of  The New Negro with words that seem just as appropriate today:


But whatever the general effect, the present generation will have added the motives of self-expression and spiritual development to the old and still unfinished task of making material headway and progress. No one who understandingly faces the situation with its substantial accomplishment or views the new scene with its still more abundant promise can be entirely without hope."

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Houston Baker—has taught at Yale, the University of Virginia, and the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Duke English Department faculty in 1999. Commencing his career as a scholar of British Victorian literature, he made a career shift to the study and scholarship of Afro-American Literature and Culture during the early 1970s. He is the author of articles, essays, and reviews in Victorian, American, and Afro-American literatures and cultures. He has authored a number of critical and scholarly books and studies of Afro-American literature and culture, including: Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature; Workings of the Sprit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing; Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance; Black Studies, Rap and the Academy.

He has held visiting posts and presented visiting lectures at a number of universities in the United States and abroad. In 1992, he served as President of the Modern Language Association, the most influential learned society in the humanities. He is currently Editor of the journal American Literature, founded at Duke in 1929, and edited a Special Issue entitled "Unsettling Blackness." His current projects include: a study of Afro- Modernism and the legacy of Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute; a memoir in progress; a book devoted to modernism and the responsibilities of black intellectuals in the United States. His most recent books include: Critical Memory (University of Georgia Press) and Turning South Again: Rethinking Modernism/Rereading Booker T. (Duke University), and a volume of poetry titled Passing Over.

posted 23 September 2006 

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Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era

Reviewing Houston A. Baker's Betrayal of Black Intellectuals

Robert J. Norrell. Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington

Illustrated. 508 pp. The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press.

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Bill Moyers and James Cone (Interview)  / A Conversation with James Cone

Michelle Alexander: US Prisons, The New Jim Crow

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              By Lorraine Hansberry

I can hear Rosalee
See the eyes of Willie McGee
My mother told me about
My mother told me about
The dark nights
And dirt roads
And torch lights
And lynch robes

faces of men
Laughing white
Faces of men
Dead in the night
sorrow night
and a
sorrow night


Source: AmericanLynching

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Writer Lorraine Hansberry's sober eulogy of the death of Willie McGee weighed heavy on the hearts and minds of the American Left. On May 8, 1951, a crowd of five hundred lingered outside the courthouse of Laurel, Mississippi, to witness the execution of yet another black man convicted for allegedly raping a white woman. His 1945 lightning trial resulted in a guilty conviction delivered in less than two and a half minutes by an all-white, male jury, setting off a heated five-year legal struggle that drew national headlines. Despite an aggressive appeals defense team who attempted every legal maneuver in the book, the US Supreme Court ultimately chose not to intervene. With the legal lynching of the Martinsville Seven in February, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's conviction in March, followed by the execution of McGee in May, 1951 was a bad year for Left-leaning lawyers (Parrish 1979; Rise 1995). Most discouraging, national news sources like the New York Times and Life magazine red-baited the "Save Willie McGee" campaign and—as Life reported—its "imported" lawyers (Popham 1951a; Life 1951). Few felt McGee's passing with as heavy a heart as his chief counsel, thirty-one-year-old Bella Abzug.

Before Abzug became a representative in Congress and a leader in the peace and women's movements, she confronted the Southern political and legal system at the height of the early Cold War. Retained in 1948 by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC)—a New York-headquartered Popular Front legal defense organization—the novice labor lawyer honed her civil rights . . .

Source: https://Litigation-Essentials.LexisNexis

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The Eyes of Willie McGee

 A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South

By Alex Heard

An iconic criminal case—a black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945—exposes the roiling tensions of the early civil rights era in this provocative study. McGee's prosecution garnered international protests—he was championed by the Communist Party and defended by a young lawyer named Bella Abzug (later a New York City congresswoman and cofounder of the National Women's Political Caucus), while luminaries from William Faulkner to Albert Einstein spoke out for him—but journalist Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon) finds the saga rife with enigmas. The case against McGee, hinging on a possibly coerced confession, was weak and the legal proceedings marred by racial bias and intimidation. (During one of his trials, his lawyers fled for their lives without delivering summations.) But Heard contends that McGee's story—that he and the victim, Willette Hawkins, were having an affair—is equally shaky. The author's extensive research delves into the documentation of the case, the public debate surrounding it, and the recollections of McGee and Hawkins's family members. Heard finds no easy answers, but his nuanced, evocative portrait of the passions enveloping McGee's case is plenty revealing.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . .

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The White Masters of the World

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By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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