Tuesday, October 27, 2009


[image by Nadia Wilson]

The final day of the conference on the contemporary African American novel began at 0-dark-hundred, as we used to say, with a very early morning lecture on pedagogical issues offered up by Maryemma Graham, whose talk was itself a model of good teaching technique. That lecture was paired up with a panel later in the morning that furthered the work done in the "post-soul" issue of African American Review. The morning also saw novelist Mat Johnson reading selections from his riotous forthcoming novel Pym.

Professorial supertrio Lovalerie King, Linda Selzer and Shirley Moody put all this together, with considerable help from Penn State's talented grad students and staff. Our visiting scholars were excitedly talking about having more such conferences. Our plans at Penn State are, if all goes well, that we will in future host a repeating conference on African American literature.

Thanks to all our guest speakers -- we look forward to seeing you again soon.


The second day of Penn State's conference on the African American Novel since 1988 began with the first keynote speaker, Houston A. Baker, Jr. Here is the introduction I provided for the address:


An abstract overcoat

Concealing laws

Which (in themselves)

Are abstractions.

The word seeking finitude,

The spirit loving space –

And we spin and spin and spin to catch

The outsider/ourselves.

“Where to begin; where to begin?” so asked Houston A. Baker, Jr., about a third of the way into a talk at the Modern language Association many years ago. I’ve chosen to begin with these words from his 1982 volume Spirit Run because they seem to me a sort of spirit catcher, a mode of traversing space and finitude I think characteristic of his life’s work, and because, characteristically for me, I suspect he has never before heard these words read back to him in an introduction to one of his lectures.

Another place to begin might be Louisville, Kentucky, where his writing life commenced, he reports, with his “inscribing melodramatic vignettes on the back of church programs during Sunday services.” That conjoining of the sacred and the secular, the vernacular and the liturgical, the melodramatic and the analytic has been, in my reading, at the heart of all his work ever since.

Another place to begin might be Howard University, a place that very nearly became a Baker family enterprise at one point, a place he seemed guided to by his life in Louisville. There was the father, who told his sons he had simply found the desire for college, as though sipping it from the air, and whose departure for college Baker describes as “a willed act of resistance to white America’s expectations . . . “ There was Louisville Western Public Branch Library, which set him on his course of study in English at Howard and Graduate school at UCLA.

Baker has written that “No matter where you travel, You still be black.” No matter where you begin in his narrative, you come to the same remarkable list of field-altering books. Following his brief detour into British Literature, Baker published Long Black Song, Singers of Daybreak, The Journey Back, Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature, Afro-American Poetics, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Workings of the Spirit, Black Studies, Rap and the Academy, I Don’t Hate the South and Betrayal. In his academic career he has traveled to the University of Virginia, Yale, The University of Pennsylvania, Duke University and Vanderbilt. His work has garnered the more familiar awards, Guggenheim, Whitney, Rockefeller, but he has also been recognized by his peers in writing, most recently with the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation, an award also presented in recent years to two members of our Penn State Faculty.

Baker begins Black Studies, Rap and the Academy with the impish suggestion that while nobody can ever be certain what is happening at Duke, everyone knows the familiar story of Black Studies. Readers of his poetry will catch that nuance at once. It is the familiar story of Black Studies that everyone knows, and therein lies the problem, the problem that led in the closing years of the twentieth century to the discipline’s “relegation . . . to the briefest possible space in the encyclopedia of postmodern American academics,” as Baker tells us. That this familiar and wholly apocryphal story has proved so appealing to the encyclopedists of American literary studies was all too predictable. But thanks to the efforts of poet/scholars such as Houston A. Baker, Jr., there is an ever elongating print trail we can follow to set the record straight, to make a way out our shocked response to that apocryphal tale of Black Studies’ evolution, “no way.”

This is a new century and new volumes of the encyclopedia are being written as we gather. Houston A. Baker is nothing if not voluminous. Years ago at the Georgetown University conference on Theory, Baker, one of the keynote speakers, approached the podium brandishing a manuscript encyclopedic in girth, if not in subject. Noting the looks on the faces of his audience, Baker flipped through the pages, smiled, and reported what his family had said when looking at his “paper.” “It’s got chapters and everything.”

We are fortunate to hear the next chapter this morning. Please join me in welcoming to Penn State, professor Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Another feature of Day 2 was the presentation of the Stephen Henderson Award to Loretta G. Woodard, the immediate past President of the African American Literature and Culture Society.


Penn State's conference on the African American Novel after 1988 kicked off the evening of October 22 (a date of some significance for this blog) with a reading and book launch by Alice Randall. Randall, perhaps best known for her controversial first novel, Wind Done Gone, presented her newly published volume, Rebel Yell.

Folks looking for continuity here may take note of the fact that Randall attended Georgetown Day School as a child with classmate Elizabeth Alexander, whose reading we featured earlier in the year.

Randall's reading was introduced by fiction writer Charlotte Holmes. It was only later that I learned, from Randall, that our colleague Lovalerie King had been among that select group of first readers who offered comments on the manuscript of the new book.

Monday, October 26, 2009


There were a number of unusual aspects to the recent conference on C.L.R. James held at the University of Ottawa. It was probably the first James conference ever supported by a law firm, and was organized and hosted by the Faculty of Law. The occasion for the conference, titled "Re-imagining Western Civilization: On the 60th Anniversary of the Writing of C.L.R. James's American Civilization," was a book few people knew existed until it was posthumously published decades later.

The conference also honored the long-standing connections James and his political comrades had with activists in Canada. As David Austin outlined in his talk (and you can read more about this in the book he has just edited of James's Montreal lectures), Bobby Hill was a Jamaican college student in Canada when he first wrote to Detroit to make contact with James's group.

Soon there was a James study group in Canada involving many student activists who would go on to play a major role in the political evolution of the West Indies and in the intellectual development of black political philosophy.

This conference brought me back together with other James scholars I've met over the years, such as Selwyn Cudjoe, Kent Worcester, Christian Hogsbjerg, Lindsey Swindall, Frank Rosengarten and others. It also introduced me to many new people, including the wonderfuul conference organizers, Joanne St. Lewis and Ravi Malhotra.

My own contribution was a continuation of my work on the James group's engagements with Melville and the U.S. Government's detention of James in the early 1950s.

There is talk of a book project. Stay tuned . . .