Houston Baker’s Critical Memory (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 choice…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 Daybreak (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.