Saturday, April 14, 2012

Houston Baker, Jerry W. Ward, and the title of my Black Arts book

At the end of March, I attended the College Language Association conference in Atlanta, GA. My undergrad professor, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., who remains a constant source of ideas, was there and so was Houston Baker, whose works I've followed since I was a student at Tougaloo College in the late 1990s. Although I spoke with both Ward and Baker at the conference, I regret that I somehow neglected to make them aware of how a conversation they had decades ago informed the title of my book The Black Arts Enterprise.

During my days at Tougaloo, I was once looking through Black American Literature Forum (which is now known as African American Review) and came across an interview between Ward and Baker published in the Summer 1982 issue of the journal. Ward opens the interview by asking "Insofar as it's safe to talk of black readers--and I'm not certain I can give a satisfactory description of them--do you feel black critics evidence great concern about addressing those readers? And to what end?" Baker responds by referring to three "enterprises," the work of the teacher, the work of the critic, and the work involved in literary theory, and he goes on to discuss the development of a "public trust" between scholar-writers and readers.

The Ward and Baker conversation is filled with all kinds of fascinating reflections and insights about black book history, readerships, the significance of key developments in artistic and political life between 1954-1964, and the need to expansively imagine ruptures and connections in intellectual and literary histories with Ward noting at one point, "I can't deal with paradigms that are linear or only three-dimensional; thinking about paradigms is a creative act, for I envision graphic projections, geometries of aesthetics."

I encountered the Ward and Baker interview shortly before becoming more deeply immersed in black arts discourse. Now, I don't want to overestimate the influence of a single published interview on the work I undertook over the years. However, I suspect that aspects of Ward's and Baker's comments circulated in my mind as I began considering issues such as African American publishing history, artists as critics, and black aesthetics.

When my publisher asked me about potential titles for my black arts book, one of the first ideas that immediately came to mind was The Black Arts Enterprise. Among other things, that phrasing is rooted to Baker's attention to "enterprises" in the opening of the interview, and Ward's closing statement about the necessity of viewing the work of critics as "a black and crucial enterprise," which was, by the way, the title of the Ward and Baker interview.

A Notebook on Black Intellectual Histories
A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

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