2003-Houston A. Baker

Hubbell Committee Report

The Hubbell Medal committee for 2003 comprised Rafael Pérez-Torres (Chair), Richard Millington, Cheryl A. Wall, Joel Myerson, and Viet Nguyen.   It selected Houston A. Baker as this year’s winner of the American Literature Section’s award for lifetime achievement in American Literary Studies.

Citation for Houston A. Baker, Hubbell Award, 2003

It is my singular pleasure and honor to present the Jay B. Hubbell Award to my friend, mentor and colleague Houston A. Baker. As you know, the Hubbell Award recognizes those exceptional scholars who have made a striking contribution to the study of American literature over the course of their careers. In this instance, the award will have to suffice for a man whose contributions to American literary studies could encompass two, and most likely three careers.

Houston Baker has since 1999 been the Susan Fox Beischer and George D. Beischer Arts and Sciences Professor of English and a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles, I am proud to say, though I think a few years before I joined the faculty there. He has taught, in addition to Duke, at Yale, the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania. It was at Penn where I had the good fortune to claim Houston as a colleague and to watch this man in action, which is a mighty sight indeed. Those of us who know him recognize Houston as a man of energy, charisma and charm in addition to being a scholar of intellect, passion and innovation.

Though he does not remember this, I had the pleasure of meeting Houston, all too briefly, some years before I arrived at Penn. I was a graduate student at the time, and Houston was the keynote speaker at a conference in Chicago. He presented a piece from what would become Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy, and I watched rapt as an entire audience was transfixed by Houston’s inspirational performance. He moved the audience with his insights into the nuances of rap’s rise, roiling the crowd with his reinterpretation of the Sugar Hill Gang. The audience went from swaying to rolling to popping, and Houston evoked not just a response to his call but–in truth–a testimony to the power and importance of black popular culture in academic study.

I remember thinking to myself, “Boy, if that is what academics do, I want to be an academic.” And Houston has shown that, yes, academics can do precisely what he demonstrated that day in Chicago. Academics can inspire, instruct and engage, all the while breaking new ground by expanding the field of serious scholarly study. More importantly, they can explain why this expansion is necessary in broadening and enriching our understanding of what America means and what it means when we call ourselves “American.”

Houston Baker has been a pioneer in bringing to the fore the importance of African American culture and literature as an integral (in fact, inseparable) component of the U.S. literary landscape. He has, to coin his writing, situated himself at the crossing sign. In so doing, he has produced masterful scholarly work, work that paints for us a richer, more inclusive and vibrant picture of our national culture. It is no exaggeration to say that his contributions have helped to transform the very way we experience American literature.

While one cannot overstate the credit Houston deserves for bringing the study of African American literature into the institution, we should remember that–as with many scholars who work in fields that only slowly gain institutional inclusion–Houston began his career not as a specialist in African American literature but rather in another field of minority discourse: British Victorian literature. In the early 1970’s he made a significant and brave decision to shift his career and pursue the study of African American literatures and cultures.

For over three decades, Houston has been as prolific as he has been influential. As author, editor and co-author of an exceptional number of books and articles, his career has been fruitful and protean. His contributions include such important monographs as Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture (1972), Singers of the Daybreak: Studies of Black American Literature (1974), The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism (1980), Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984), Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987),Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing (1991) and Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy (1993).

In addition to these groundbreaking studies, Houston has been a foundational figure in the study of U.S. multicultural literature, serving as editor of Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Researchers of American Literature(1982). In all, his scholarship represents the leading edge of African American, multicultural and American literary studies. His has been a formidable contribution in broadening the parameters of U.S. literature and we are indebted to him for deepening our understanding of its strengths, nuances and vast influences.

Beyond his scholarly contributions, Houston has served on numerous committees, boards and commissions. Perhaps we might think of his institutional and administrative work as the second of his three careers. None of us needs be reminded that he has been a transformative figure within the Modern Language Association. Recall that his important edited volume, Three American Literatures, grew out of the work of the MLA Commission on Minority Groups and the Study of Language and Literature. And, of course, Houston made history when he became the first African American president of the MLA.

In addition to his extensive and foundational scholarship in African American and multicultural literary studies and his exemplary administrative and institutional service, Houston continues to shape the general field of American literary criticism through his current service as editor ofAmerican Literature . This and his other various editorial positions–perhaps forming the third of his careers–have allowed him the opportunity to shape the contemporary study of American literature, indeed of professional literary study as a whole.

All the while he continues to be a scholar whose intensity, insight and productivity is admirable, even enviable. His most recent books include Critical Memory: Public Spheres, Afro-Americans and Black Father and Sons in America (2001), Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T . (2001), and Remembering Race: Martin Luther King and the Betrayal of the Black Intellectuals (2002). The man cannot stop writing. And for this, we are all grateful.

Houston Baker is a scholar who has stood at the crossroads. He is one of the key figures who has helped bring to the fore–eloquently, insistently–the presence of those voices and ideas that for far too long had been invisible not just to the field of American literary study but to American society as a whole. As Houston so movingly writes in Blues, Ideology, and African-American Literature : “The risk of situating oneself at the crossing sign is, of course, enormous. But the benefits are beyond price. The relinquishing of a self-certainty that strives to annul ‘otherness’ and to masterfully fix its own place is meetly compensated. The reward, the reimbursement for translation at the crossing, is the magnificent appearance of America’s blues people. A vastly more inclusive and adequate national picture emerges with the appearance of these dark, ancestral faces. To lose a master desire, one might say, is to see a different America–singing.”

On behalf of the Hubbell Award Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is my great honor to present the 2003 Jay B. Hubbell Award to a scholar who, truly, has allowed us to envision a different America, a greater America, an America singing. I present the Hubbell Award to my friend, Professor Houston A. Baker.

Rafael Pérez-Torres

Acceptance Speech

I thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. I am deeply grateful to the members of the committee who selected me and my work for this year’s Hubbell Medal. There are many, of course, who have claims far more supportable than my own to “lifetime achievement.” “Lifetime Achievement” is a daunting phrase, indeed. On a humorous note, one might say the very phrase suggests that immediately following this ceremony one will be gently placed upon an ice floe and softly pushed out to sea. I know, of course, this will not happen since we shall all be lusciously busy at the cash bar!

On a serious note, I can say that I am immensely happy and feel extraordinarily grateful that I have had the good fortune to live through nearly four decades of monumental change and salutary growth in what we consider our national literature and its scholarship. Writing in 1929 at the founding of the journal American Literature at Duke University, Professor Jay B. Hubbell proclaimed: “Within the last few years American scholars have awakened to the fact that our literary history supplies a rich and comparatively unworked field.” Surely Professor Hubbell’s was an astute and accurate observation in 1929, and it might well have been employed to describe the state of American Literary Studies forty years later in 1969, when I taught my first course in Afro-American Literature at Yale University.

Indeed, blessed by the good instruction and generous mentoring at Howard University by professors such as John Lovell and Charles Fenderson and in my graduate study at UCLA by the incomparably kind and brilliant offerings of Leon Howard, I felt I knew something about American Literature. But little did I know in 1969 that there were so vastly many “un-worked” acres and that I was simply signing on as one in a mighty Venceremos Brigade that had, in the words of Jimmy cliff, “many rivers to cross before … [we] reached Mount Zion.”

We have not, of course, achieved such an exulted height as 2004 dawns. But surely, there are few today who would argue that what we once knew as “American Literature” has been changed forever by our collective service as: field hands for inclusion, farmers of “bones” (to invoke Edwidge Danticatt) for expanded geographies of study, and in-motion (and sometimes seasonal) laborers for a race/class/gender informed and inflected crop of texts and critiques that, arguably, are far more nourishing for democracy than the fruits of earlier days.

I have worked in a vibrant academy and been well rewarded for doing so. I have taught, written, administered, preached, critiqued, and been a real pain in the neck (even for some of my best friends). My greatest reward — intriguingly enough — remains precisely what first motivated my decision to leave behind what Professor Hubbell calls “the great literatures of the Old World” and take up the acreage yet to be scholastically domesticated of a new American literary economy.

That motivation was a sense of engaged “collectivity.” In African cosmogony, this reads out as “I am because WE are.”

Alas, even as a life-timer I have to take full responsibility for my mistakes, missteps, and sometimes too feisty contestations. “My fault,” as the NBA players are wont to gesture when they miss an easy lay-up.

But it is with the greatest pleasure that I say, this Hubbell Medal of 2003 is indisputably–in my mind–the pure product of our collective working in the long rows of established power. We have produced through our collective labor, hybrids and more sturdy fare for generations yet to come. By “collective” I want, naturally, to signal ALL of you here today. You are here precisely because–and I know this–you are my friends and fellow workers. I have done nothing on my own.

I owe immeasurable debts of gratitude to so many. But, my greatest and eternal thanks on this day, in this place, go (for reasons all of you who are my friends well know) to my wife and BEST friend, Charlotte Pierce-Baker. My wonderful Charlotte — in whom I am blessed — has never been in the least reluctant to awake before some very hard daybreaks … and…in the best spirit of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, to join me “on the muck” … with resolute will, a forgiving heart, and capacious intellectual generosity. Her love, knowledge, sharing … and stern cautions about talking too long on public occasions … have been indispensable. For she has taught me best meanings of “sharing, ” “community,” and “collectivity.”

I thank you all for being here with me on this day. I thank you for making this award possible.

May we continue to journey together as a collective in hope that we can make the world of our newly achieved acreage safe, honorable, and challenging for those beautiful spirits who will follow us.