Friday, June 15, 2012

Houston Baker, Jr.--Turning South Again (2001)

Generally, Baker’s text is a reconsideration of the South from the perspective of an African American academic: “a black southern mind navigating oceans and landfalls of memory, ineradicable dilemmas of black modernism, protocols of black male subject formation” (2).  By focusing on the ideas of Booker T. Washington specifically in relation to the ideas of black modernism, Baker performs a highly critical analysis of the effects of Washington’s ideas, particularly those which resulted in the stasis and ultimate immobilization of blacks in America.  Starting with chattel slavery, though the convict-leasing program, sharecropping, and the penal system today, Baker contends that the story of blacks in America is one of immobilization, one which needs access to modernity in order to escape.  Through discussions of traditional images of modernity—in particular, Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s description of the flaneur figure—Baker highlights how the mobility characteristic of these images were not available to blacks in America.
For my purposes, Baker’s occasional discussions of physical appearance in the literature he discusses is quite enlightening.  For example, he points to “The all-American caricature of the “Yankee” schoolmarm paints her as a crabbed, aged, old maid fiddling with books, cats, and outcasts.  W. J. Cash captures this stereotype when he writes in The Mind of the South as follows: ‘Generally horsefaced, bespectacled, and spare of frame, she was, of course, no proper intellectual, but at best a comic character, at worst a dangerous fool, playing with explosive forces which she did not understand’ (140).  Contrary to stereotype and caricature, however, the ‘Yankee’ womanhood that made its way South after the War was often young, literate, predominantly white, and in the age range of twenty to thirty years old” (45).  More importantly, he points out, “Nothing is more threatening to the southern real than the critical, informed, articulate, healthy black-mass body, en proper personne” (76).  In this way, the non-conforming body (particularly, the black female body) poses a threat by its very existence to the status quo.

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