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May 5, 2001
URHAM, N.C. - In the pecking order of the professoriat, Houston A. Baker Jr. ranks somewhere near the top. An expert in African-American studies, he helped found the discipline 30 years ago and now has an endowed chair at Duke University.
Among black scholars, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West may have bigger public profiles, but Mr. Baker's academic influence is arguably just as great. He is a former president of the Modern Language Association, the author of several hotly debated books and the editor of American Literature, that field's leading journal. He is also, at 58, a disarmingly friendly scholar with a mischievous wit, a full-time assistant, a plush office and the ear of deans and administrators.
And yet, as Mr. Baker sees it, in some ways he has more in common with the black inmates in America's jails than he does with his white colleagues down the hall. In his new book, "Turning South Again: Rethinking Modernism/Rereading Booker T." (Duke University Press), he elaborates his view that to be a black American - no matter how successful or well off - amounts to a kind of prison sentence.
From slavery through segregation, he points out, blacks were physically confined, first held against their will on plantations and then relegated to black communities. Today, he argues, the confinement of blacks continues. Only now, instead of slave quarters and the backs of buses, they inhabit jails and public housing projects.
Or else, he writes, more insidiously, blacks are psychologically constrained, trapped in anxiety-ridden relationships with white culture. "American 'history,' " he concludes, "thus reads out, in black-majority vocabularies, as enslavement, incarceration, imprisonment."
"It's not that white academics don't work extraordinarily hard," said Mr. Baker, impeccably turned out in a gray wool suit and tie. "But what they have that I lack is a sense of leisure, an absence of endangerment, a look of being unconcerned that at any moment they could die."
His is an exceedingly pessimistic view of American social progress where race is concerned. And it is getting a public airing at a time when judges are rolling back affirmative action measures, policymakers are trading accusations over the number of black men in jail, and black-studies scholars are debating whether race should be studied at all. (In one controversial new book, "Against Race," Paul Gilroy, a black British scholar at Yale, proposes abandoning the concept of race altogether.)
But if Mr. Baker's book arouses strong reactions, that would be only business as usual for a scholar who, as Michael B´rub´, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, put it, "comes up with provocative, even extravagant kinds of claims."
At the height of the culture wars in 1988, for example, Mr. Baker told The New York Times that choosing between Pearl S. Buck and Virginia Woolf was "no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza." That remark was endlessly recycled by right-wing pundits as proof of lax standards on the left.
More often, however, his severest critics have been his own colleagues in black studies. When in "Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature" (1984), he proposed analyzing the blues with French post-structuralist theory, he was accused of being a race traitor.
"I cannot fathom why a black critic would trust that the master would provide him or her with tools with which he or she can seek independence," wrote Joyce A. Joyce, at the time a black-studies scholar at the University of Maryland at College Park.
When in "Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing" (1991), he seemed to put a positive spin on the incest depicted in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," one black feminist accused him of insensitivity to rape.
Then there was the controversy over Mr. Baker's "Black Studies, Rap and the Academy" (1993). Much of the book was devoted to a defense of rap as an authentically black and potentially subversive art form. But he came down hard on Mr. Gates for testifying on behalf of 2 Live Crew, a rap group charged with violating Florida's obscenity laws with their album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," which Mr. Baker considered a"sexist mediocrity." Mr. Baker was then accused of letting professional rivalry get the best of him.
"It is hard to believe that he would want to associate himself with a book so intellectually weak, so ugly linguistically and so obviously animated, to no good reason, by rank jealousy of a fellow academic," wrote the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in a famously critical review of the book in 1993.
But such furious dissent is one measure of his impact. Scholars consider his rebarbative, theory-laden prose a must-read. Even his critics acknowledge that he, as much as anyone, has helped bring African-American studies into being and develop as a field.
Moreover, some suggest that high-pitched battles are par for the course in a discipline where there is pressure to speak and write on behalf of an entire race but broad disagreement about what that entails.
"The claim to speak for a constituency is a burden that both energizes and hamstrings black intellectuals," said Mr. B´rub´. "Imagine Lionel Trilling having to defend Lenny Bruce just because he's Jewish."
Ann duCille, a professor of black studies at Wesleyan University, agreed. "For African-American scholars, politics is an important part of the process," she said. "The question 'What does our work mean for the people?' haunts us all."
Mr. Baker, for one, is working on a manuscript about neo-conservative black intellectuals, including Stephen Carter and Shelby Steele, who have both criticized affirmative action. "There is no affiliation of a Carter or a Steele with the black majority," he said.
And he makes no bones about his concern that Harvard's African-American studies department, which shares an endowment of nearly $40 million with the university's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research and is stocked with high- profile academics, has lost its political and scholarly edge. As evidence, he cites a book of biographical sketches of 100 important black Americans edited by Mr. Gates and Mr. West, both at Harvard , in addition to the news that Mr. West is recording a spoken-word album.
"What Gates and company have wrought at Harvard is extraordinary by any measure," Mr. Baker said. Nevertheless, he added, "the product that is most visible, whether it is C-Span panels, rap albums or this coffee table book of black history, is unfortunate." (Mr. Gates declined to comment. Mr. West did not respond to messages left at his office.)
Mr. Baker didn't start as an activist- scholar. A native of Louisville, Ky., he earned his Ph.D. in Victorian literature at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1968 he joined the English department at Yale, determined to write the definitive biography of Oscar Wilde. Then the black power movement intervened.
As Mr. Baker tells the story, enhanced by dramatic pauses, voices and gestures: "There was that day when three black students came to my office and said, 'When are you going to teach the black literature course?' I said: 'Surely, you have the wrong Baker. I don't do that.' They said: 'Let's repeat the question. When are you going to teach the black literature course?' "
Six months later Mr. Baker was teaching the Yale English department's first course in African-American literature, and Black Panthers were hanging out in his apartment. Soon he was invited by the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill to compile one of the first anthologies of African-American literature.
"I grew my hair really long, my wife was making dashikis and we were reading everything," Mr. Baker recalled.
By the time he left Yale in 1970, its program in African-American studies was widely regarded as the nation's best. He went on to teach at the University of Virginia and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where he founded the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture.
While they were living in Philadelphia, Mr. Baker, his wife and their 10-year-old son were robbed and brutally attacked in their home by two black men. His wife, Charlotte Pierce-Baker, now a research professor in African-American studies at Duke, was raped. Eventually she wrote a book about the ordeal, "Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape" (1998). Although Mr. Baker has not written about it specifically, the experience "has affected everything," he said.
The move south three years ago gave him the title of his new book and inspired his anxious reflections on black confinement. Yet when he talks about Duke's "stunning record" on black undergraduate enrollment (10 percent, among the best of selective private institutions in the country), he could be a recruiter from the admissions office.
But Mr. Baker doesn't linger on the positive. He relates a recent incident in which his son, now 30 and a mental health worker at a hospital in Atlanta, was stopped while driving at the speed limit by a policeman who held a semiautomatic weapon in his face. After a search of his car, his son was allowed to go on without a citation.
A case of racial profiling? Or mistaken identity? For Mr. Baker, these questions are beside the point. "Imagine my white colleagues," he said. "I can only hope that their children never end up at the end of a semiautomatic weapon."