HOUSTON A. BAKER JR.’S impressive study, ”Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature,” reminds us that what is at issue in our debates among various schools of literary criticism is nothing less than the nature of American reality. Using a fusion of new and traditional critical methods – along with insights from the black American vernacular – Mr. Baker insists that whatever else American culture is, it is part black. No charting of American literature can be valid without taking into account the Afro-American contribution. He means not simply acknowledging a token black book or two but recognizing an entire expressive culture – a perspective, a set of values, motives and forms that characterize black Americans and their literature.
Accordingly, Mr. Baker examines Afro-American literary works against the background of what he calls the blues matrix. Here he has in mind not ony literature bearing the impress of the folk-become-fine-art form that began to be widely circulated at the turn of the century. He is referring also to the black American’s disposition (antedating blues music as such) to improvise resiliently with opportunities that arise and to the sense of life as unrelentingly hard and unjust but allowing for the possibility of fruitful achievement that was shared by slaves and their children.
From this perspective, Frederick Douglass, Linda Brent and Gustavus Vassa (all writers of slave narratives, forms crucial to the making of an Afro-American tradition in literature) are self-portraitists imbued with the blues. Their books describe a world of trouble where only improvisers can survive. Mr. Baker also argues that the blues culture has contributed elements not only to slave narratives but to all of black literature. Among those elements are playfulness of language, driving irony, compression and the use of undercutting references to other literary works and conventions.
Ralph Ellison and, especially, Albert Murray already have explored in detail the poetics of black music and the bluesiness of certain American writers. What’s new about Mr. Baker’s interpretation is his emphasis on the economics of the blues. Blues music, he observes, has been for sale almost from its inception, and blues musicians have long been cast as entertainers – merchants of the blues as property. So there are special overtones, inevitably recalling slavery, related to the predicament of blues artists whose forebears saw not just their art but themselves and their family members sold.
With this economics of the blues in mind, Mr. Baker presents detailed readings of the slave narratives. His main point is that from the accounts of their lives it is clear that Douglass, Brent and Vassa did not rely on providence alone to free themselves; they engaged slavery’s treacherous economic system on its own terms. By saving, trading and stealing, at last they were able to buy their way out of slavery, organize independent family units and work for themselves.
This critical view also produces fresh insights into certain key works by black writers of the 20th century, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. The reconsideration of Wright, whose critical star has lately sunk so low, is particularly valuable. For Mr. Baker, Wright is the master symbolist within the tradition. He is not only a blues writer of the first rank (all his characters negotiate in a low-down, dirty world full of economic woes) but, in Mr. Baker’s eyes, a ”deconstructionist writer.” Of ”Black Boy,” Mr. Baker writes: ”From one analytical perspective, Wright and his autobiographical narrator are forerunners of Roland Barthes’s project in ‘Writing Degree Zero.’ Like Barthes’s idealized writer, Wright confounds the ‘literariness’ expected of ‘novelists’ (and) of ‘literary autobiographers.’ ” Wright’s impulse was to lay waste to the world he knew (and to help generate a better one) with language as inversive as it is switchblade sharp and swift. Therein, Mr. Baker writes, lies ”Richard Wright’s attractive singularity.”
While Mr. Baker is at his best as an interpreter of specific texts, he also is a solid theorist. Painstakingly, he sets his ”vernacular theory” in context. Obviously, he defines his task in opposition to that of American literature’s official historians. According to Mr. Baker, when these mainstream critics do not leave out black writing altogether, they reduce it to a ”shadow” or a ”cross-hatch” on the national canon.
In a longish chapter, he also takes to task certain major theorists of the Afro-American literary blurb tradition. He inveighs against the proponents of ”integrationist poetics” (Richard Wright, Sterling Brown, Arthur Davis), who deny the existence of formal peculiarities in black literature, lest it be judged ”in an alcove apart” from literature by white Americans. ”Presumably,” he writes, ”integrationism holds that structurally peculiar Negro forms are trapped in an evolutionary backwater.”
He is somewhat more generous when he turns to critics of his own generation – the Black Esthetic critics and those he terms the Reconstructionists. In the fullest and fairest treatment anywhere of Black Esthetic critics – those associated with this movement, which emerged from the explosion of black arts and letters in the 1960′s, include Stephen Henderson, the late Larry Neal and, originally, Houston Baker – Mr. Baker admits that they romanticized the ”poetry of the people” and sought to catch in loose-weave nets the elusive smoke of blackness, unknowable by those unswathed in the black experience. Still, these critics did make abundantly clear what we now take for granted – black literature, albeit an American literature that at its best has international significance, has specific formal characteristics. How could it be otherwise, with black writers sharing not just the ”concord of sensibilities” defining them as an ethnic group but also the desire to define in their work the meaning of this group’s glories and travails from Africa to slavery toward freedom? Unlike Reconstructionists, Black Esthetic critics insist on context (literary, historical. political, economic, cultural) as well as text – one explicates and enriches the other.
Reconstructionists, according to Mr. Baker (he also terms them Aristotelian Metaphysicians), are the new New Critics, who would attempt to cull text from context. Robert Stepto and Henry Louis Gates Jr., both contributors to the landmark book ”The Reconstruction of Instruction” (hence Mr. Baker’s term for them), are the villains of this section of the book. They proclaim the existence of a black literature connected not so strongly by a common black culture or struggle as by images and techniques found from book to book (”intertextually”). Mr. Baker criticizes them for loading their work with jargon and ill-fitting critical armor. But then he goes on to praise them for serving notice to the modern critic of black literature: don’t condescend to black literature by applying to it the dead metaphors of shopworn critical theory. A great literature needs not just great audiences but great critics as well.