Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s Critical Memory

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Houston Baker’s Critical
(University of Georgia Press, 2001) is a meditation on how, why and
where his values are grounded.  A few
students of African American intellectual history may genuinely admire Baker’s
indebtedness to Richard Wright’s racial wisdom, his gratitude to his parents
for modeling civic virtues in the pressure cooker of segregation, and his
critique of race as “the ruling idea that conjures and pronounces sentences of
guilt or innocence…on we who are black by
…or due to inescapable circumstances” (10). Transcendentalists who
fed on denial, thin air and mental narcotics will not admire, I suspect, Baker’s
Old Testament forthrightness.  He is too
much like Fred Daniels, the man who lived underground.  His truth-telling brings discomfort.  Despite potential threats of minority
condemnation, Baker has written an eloquent testimony on the power of autobiographical
examination.  Critical Memory is a thick description of historicity.

Richard Wright is the tutelary spirit of the book, modified
versions of the 1997 Averitt Lectures at Georgia State University.  His presence influenced Baker’s angles of
vision regarding the topics of “Black Modernity,” “Failed Memory,” and “Words
for Black Fathers and Sons in America.” 
That Baker chose not to mention Wright’s The Long Dream (1958) in the third lecture on fathers and sons is a
slight surprise.  The more delightful
surprise is Baker’s treatment of the word like
as verb and preposition in the first lecture, a strong way of illuminating why
neither Wright nor he are “likeable” in the eyes of those who champion
America’s War on Decency. The second lecture delivers a shock of recognition
about Ralph Ellison’s beloved American novel Invisible Man. Baker’s is an elegant rendition of James Brown’s
“The Big Payback,” contrasting Wright’s active critique of capitalism with
Ellison’s aesthetic hibernation in “a colorblind, literarily allusive prison of
language” (30).  The acidic exposure of
Ellison’s failure of critical memory is sharp and unsettling; it is an
effective use of Baker’s version of critical memory in the service of iconoclasm.  It is a concise precursor of the sustained
iconoclasm in Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ellison.  Baker’s example of stern honesty may be one
reason he is not mentioned in William M. Banks’s Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life
(1996), a book authenticated by the very likeable John Hope Franklin. Critical
memory cuts both ways.
From Singers of
(1974) to Betrayal
(2008), Baker has provided many iterations of critical memory.  His manipulations of theoretical postures
constitute a body of work that merits scrutiny. It can be argued, without
exaggeration, that his work casts a long shadow over men who “have gladly
accepted the affirmative action benefits bestowed by race in America while
writing fiercely and with studied hypocrisy that there is no such thing in America
as race” (39). Even the hypothetical village idiot in the United States knows
that race matters, that American literary and cultural criticism is indelibly
marked by “race.”  Critical Memory is, in just this sense, a mirror for critics in
need of self-assessment.