MODERNISM AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE By Houston A. Baker Jr. University of Chicago Press. 122 pp. $19.95
HOUSTON A. BAKER Jr.'s slender volume presents a provocative approach to Afro-American culture that may eventually expand the vistas of Afro-American cultural and literary thought. Inspired by what he considers critical misperceptions of the past that perpetually trap critics of Afro-American literature in "a scholarly double bind," Baker redefines the assumptions and the vocabulary of critical discourse. Unlike most other scholars and writers who have discussed the Harlem Renaissance, he does not view the outpouring of black creativity and cultural expression during the '20s as an anomalous event, a decade's flash in the American literary pan whose import was minimal because it failed to produce modernist masterpieces such as Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's The Wasteland.
Eschewing what he calls a "problematic of failure," Baker replaces it with what he designates as "the mastery of form" and "the deformation of mastery," two concepts that are indicative of his innovative approach to Afro-American literaure.
The mastery of form involves the Afro-American's complex, contradictory and even ironic mastery of the minstrel mask. Here, Baker is not so much concerned with the pathetic, obsequious figure one usually associates with the minstrel tradition as with minstrelsy's deep-seated and far-reaching cultural significance. Baker chooses the praying mantis as nature's analogous representative of the mastery of form. Appropriating terms from the zoologist, H.B. Cott, Baker explains that the praying mantis (and the Afro-American discursive practice for which it stands) is essentially a "cryptic mask." The praying mantis' "aesthetic characteristics allow it to master the form of the green stalk so completely that predators -- at a distance, and even close at hand -- cannot distinguish its edibility." This artful strategy of survival reminds Baker of how Afro-Americans have coped with the stern discipline of self-presentaton and self-preservation. Black Americans -- in literature, music, and life -- have had to appropriate discursive practices that at once signal necessary compromises with brutal American realities as well as highlight a distinctive racial dignity.
If Baker's key concept of the mastery of form involves how, when and why Afro-Americans, in Paul Laurence Dunbar's eloquent phrase, "wear the mask that grins and lies," "the deformation of mastery" involves a more assertive or even aggressive discursive practice. Baker uses the gorilla to personify this phenonenon. He borrows Cott's term "phaneric" to describe the gorilla's display. When confronted with an intruder in its natural habitat, the gorilla rises on its hind legs, beats its chest and hoots. Baker concludes: "Rather than concealing or disguising in the manner of the cryptic mask (a colorful mastery of codes), the phaneric mask is meant to advertise. It distinguishes rather than conceals. It secures territorial advantage and heightens a group's survival possibilities." In this case, the phaneric mask displays to the presumptuous or imperial intruder that there are at least two visions of truth and error, and life and death, in the world.
When Baker applies his concepts of the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery to actual literary texts, he provides some strikingly original readings of what have become by now familiar books. Who, for example, would expect the critic to find Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) a sort of harbinger text of the Harlem Renaissance? But Baker discovers "a liberating manipulation of masks and a revolutionary renaming" in it. Calling the work an extraordinary "speaking manual," Baker highlights the subtle workings, the psychodrama, of minstrelsy in Up From Slavery. While Washington consistently attempts to mollify his audiences with ridiculous disclaimers and appealing stereotypes, he simultaneously speaks in another register. For instance, while noting what the newly emancipated slaves made of their freedom, Washington states: "In some way a feeling got among the colored people that it was far from proper for them to bear the surname of their former owners, and a great many of them took other surnames." reads what appears to be a rather benign comment, a statement of simple historical fact, as a rhetorical gesture, a discursive practice, of profound consequence. He concludes: "What causes one to bracket (in an almost phenomenological manner) such liberating strategies is the way the narrator keeps culturally specific information hushed to low register beneath his clamorous workings of the minstrel tradition."
If Up From Slavery is an example, par excellence, of the mastery of form, W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is an early example of the deformation of mastery. Du Bois' seminal work is a defiant cry, echoing through the decades as a profound summary of the black American's quintessential plight: "An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." But even with its no-nonsense title, a bold advertisement to all, The Souls of Black Folk does not only represent the deformation of mastery. Baker is careful to point out that while one rhetorical practice may be salient in a specific work, it is likely to have its moments of discursive counterpoint. In short, while The Souls of Black Folk is an extraordinary example of the deformation of mastery, it has its mollifying moments reminiscent of the mastery of form.
Baker considers Alain Locke's anthology, The New Negro (1925), "a seminal discursive act," combining "formal mastery and deformative creativity." The New Negro features poetry, fiction, drama, essays and art work and color portraits by such writers and artists as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, Aaron Douglas and Winold Reiss. Concluding that Locke's anthology is "something more extensive" than Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, Baker describes The New Negro in comprehensive terms:
"The work has, in effect, the character of a panorama's 'unlimited view,' summoning concerns not of a problematical 'folk' but rather those of a newly emergent 'race' or 'nation' -- a national culture . . . it manages to provide a visual, auditory, and, indeed, almost tactile field that offers new national modes of sounding, interpreting, and speaking 'the Negro.' "
It is quite appropriate that Baker discovers in The New Negro a far-reaching cultural act, for he has written his book in a similar spirit of offering "new national modes of sounding, interpreting, and speaking." Moreover, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance "is part of a critical trilogy that includes the forthcoming Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic and Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing." His present work on Harlem is offered as a foretaste of what promises to be a new way of looking at Afro-American expressive culture. A challenging theoretical approach characterizes Baker's own subversive deformation of mastery. His critical voice or persona is unique, for Baker's command of American and English literature and criticism is so effortless that he is capable, like a jazz virtuoso, of playing around and about standard literary criticism. His "sound," which he modestly attributes to "personal reflection," is a remarkable record of the cutting edge of Afro-American cultural and intellectual thought.
Horace Porter, associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, is author of the forthcoming, "Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin."