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Hybridity in the Center: An Interview with Houston A. Baker, Jr

By Berube, Michael | African American Review, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Hybridity in the Center: An Interview with Houston A. Baker, Jr


Berube, Michael, African American Review


The following interview was conducted in the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, February 29 and March 1, 1992.

Berube: It's ironic to me that you have, at this point, something like twenty titles to your credit - three books of poetry, eight books of criticism, eight or nine collections of essays, more than I can keep up with myself, and the one sentence that gets circulated more than any other of yours is a thing you said, probably over the phone ...

Baker: [laughing] right ...

Berube: to Joseph Berger of the New York Times about...

Baker: hoagies and pizzas! [Laughter.]

Berube: Hoagies and pizzas, right. What did you really say? Or if you did say that, what do we do about the circulation of these sound bites that take on lives of their own years after anyone knows where in the world they originated?

Baker: It was an astonishing moment. The phone rang - this is called being un-media-and-press-sophisticated - and the person said, "This is Joseph Berger. I'm from the New York Times, and I want to talk to you about the academy, you know, about what's going on in literary studies." I said, sure, fine. I've forgotten what the triggering question was, but I started with economics and availability - that in this canon matter, one has to start with publishers, distribution of resources, and so forth. My mother was at the house at the time, and an hour and a half later, both my wife and my mother said, "Who were you talking to?" I mean, I had inflected this. I had talked about the profession; I talked about graduate school, the European university versus the American university ... and then in the homology that came out, the first two terms were his own terms. I never mentioned the names of those authors at all. He made those up. And when the Los Angeles Times ran a criticism of his article as part of the media coverage of canon revision, curriculum revision, canon formation, and so forth, he demanded from the L.A. Times that they write a retraction or apology. So the editor of the L.A. Times Book Review called him up, or wrote to him, and said, Professor Baker says that he never mentioned Pearl Buck or whatever, you know, and Berger said, he's right, he didn't. So the Times said, well, you don't get a retraction, then. [Laughter.] I mean, are you kidding me? And this was at the end of a series of questions about standards and taste and axiology, and I had talked, prior to that, about people when they get up in the morning, how they dress ... if you consider the continuum of decisions that we make in the realm of taste and axiology, you know, you could consider cuisine as much a part of this as books. That was the larger context of all this.

Berube: Myself, I figured it was an oblique commentary on your own career, you know, Penn and Yale, Philadelphia and New Haven, hoagies and pizzas ...

Baker: Yes! I like that! [Laughter.]

Berube: In 1989, you published Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, a book you edited with Patricia Redmond, which presented the papers delivered here at the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture in 1987, at a conference that was the Center's inaugural event. In the introduction to the book, you write that "our retreat was not aimed at social change; nor was it open to the public. We came together as a select community of specialists with a specific disciplinary aim." Now, that's just that one conference; I know it doesn't represent your position on the role of African-American literary criticism in toto. But what do you think is the social role of African-American literary criticism, or has it been asked to play a "social role" too long?

Baker: Well, I think that one of the reasons that I wanted that statement there, and to use the significance of that statement as a kind of guiding frame in putting the retreat together, was that the role of African-American literary criticism, it seems to me, has been so omnibus in the academy for so very long.

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