Turning South Again

Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T.

Turning South Again

Book Pages: 128 Illustrations: Published: June 2001

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

In Turning South Again the distinguished and award-winning essayist, poet, and scholar of African American literature Houston A. Baker, Jr. offers a revisionist account of the struggle for black modernism in the United States. With a take on the work of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute surprisingly different from that in his earlier book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker combines historical considerations with psychoanalysis, personal memoir, and whiteness studies to argue that the American South and its regulating institutions—particularly that of incarceration—have always been at the center of the African American experience.
From the holds of slave ships to the peonage of Reconstruction to the contemporary prison system, incarceration has largely defined black life in the United States. Even Washington’s school at Tuskegee, Baker explains, housed and regulated black bodies no longer directly controlled by slave owners. He further implicates Washington by claiming that in enacting his ideas about racial “uplift,” Washington engaged in “mulatto modernism,” a compromised attempt at full citizenship. Combining autobiographical prose, literary criticism, psychoanalytic writing, and, occasionally, blues lyrics and poetry, Baker meditates on the consequences of mulatto modernism for the project of black modernism, which he defines as the achievement of mobile, life-enhancing participation in the public sphere and economic solvency for the majority of African Americans. By including a section about growing up in the South, as well as his recent return to assume a professorship at Duke, Baker contributes further to one of the book’s central concerns: a call to centralize the South in American cultural studies.


“A tiny gem, as condensed and complex as Jean Toomer’s Cane or Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.” — Quinn Eli , Philadelphia Inquirer

“[Baker] offers the lyrical, personal, evocative voice of self-reflection (reflecting his ‘other’ career as a poet), but also a startling intellectual ‘outing’ of race ignorance in the United States. Blending cultural theory and social critique, whiteness studies, a new reading of Foucault (which you would not think possible), psychoanalysis, and historical research, he also uses the occasional poem or blues lyric.” — Jeanne Campbell Reesman , American Literary Realism

“Baker lyrically and evocatively explores the painful truths of American racism in this analysis of modernist racial thought since Booker T. Washington’s agenda for uplifting black people. . . . He writes particularly about the South but emphasizes that the lessons he teaches apply through the U.S. A scathing and insightful essay on race issues.” — Vanessa Bush , Booklist

“Houston A. Baker Jr., a provocateur on matters of race, is required reading even for critics who find his pessimistic views too extreme. . . . In his new book . . . he elaborates his view that to be a black American—no matter how successful or well off—amounts to a kind of prison sentence.” — Emily Eakin , New York Times

“Houston Baker is among the premier literary scholars of the twentieth century. . . . For anyone interested in an insightful revisionism of Washington’s Up From Slavery, Reconstruction, the Southern past, or Houston Baker, Jr., this is a must read.” — Thabiti Lewis, Mosaic

“It is not uncommon for scholars to revise views espoused in earlier works. But Houston A. Baker Jr.’s new take on Booker T. Washington is more than a revision—it’s an about-face.” — Jeff Sharlet and Alex P. Kellogg , Chronicle of Higher Education

(The Vibe 100) “Skip Gates and Cornel West may get all the publicity, but Baker is the rebel without a pause who keeps them, and the rest of the black academics, honest.” — , Vibe

“Throughout this luminous pyschoanalytic exhibition from Baker’s point of view, the text flows rhythmically with a style all writers dream of attaining. Scrupulously researched, rigourously documented, brilliantly communicated and as thoughtful as it is devastating, Turning South Again is an inspired reflection on what it means to be an American . . . who happens to be black.” — Susan Farrington , Sanford (NC) Herald

“What Houston Baker has done in Turning South Again is demonstrate the fullness of the process of intellectual re-visiting.” — Humberto López Cruz , South Atlantic Review

"[M]andatory reading for scholars of African American literature. . . . [A] probing examination. . . ." — African American Review

"Baker [is] a figure to be reckoned with both in and beyond the American academy. . . . Critical Memory . . . and Turning South Again . . . may incorporate Baker's best work yet as an essayist. . . . Baker has done a superb and compelling job in treating the issues that are at stake for him. These are two books to which we will likely feel the impulse to return again and again for years to come. . . . Neither . . . is a work that we can afford to ignore." — Riché Richardson , Mississippi Quarterly

"The argument in Turning South Again unfolds in perfect sequence, building from one startling (yet once stated, inevitable) claim to another with the pacing of a highly intellectual detective novel. . . . It is. . .required reading for any scholar doing work informed by postcolonial theory." — Jon Smith, American Literary History

“A book by Baker tends to be something of an event in the field—the field being not only African American literature but also cultural studies impinging on Americana. His books have an impact, cause discussion, and provoke debates. This one, however, seems to me unusually well motivated. Personal matters have moved Baker to outdo himself in the sharpness of his observations, the power of his insights, and the vigor of his language.” — Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University

“Baker offers an original blend of self-reflection, cultural inquiry, social critique, and close textual analysis of a classic book in African American history and literature. This is the most revealing study of Up From Slavery that I’ve ever seen and the most personal and self-revealing piece of writing that Baker has ever published.” — William L. Andrews, author of To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Houston A. Baker Jr. is the Susan Fox and George D. Beischer Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and editor of the journal American Literature. In addition to being the author of numerous books of literary criticism—including Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy and Modernism and Harlem Renaissance—and collections of poetry, Baker is the recipient of many awards and distinctions, including eleven honorary doctorates.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Prologue: Blue Men, Black Writing, and Southern Revisions

Modernism’s Performative Masquerade: Mr. Washington, Tuskegee, and Black-South Mobility

A Concluding Meditation on Plantations, Ships, and Black Modernism


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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2695-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2686-1
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