Baker, Houston A., Jr.

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Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Literary critic, editor, poet, educator

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Houston A. Baker Jr. gained national and international prominence as a literary critic and scholar. Decades after the publication of his first book in 1972, Baker continues to play pivotal roles in the advancement of African American literature and culture as critic, editor, poet, and university professor.

Baker was born on March 22, 1943 in Louisville, Kentucky; he was the second of three sons born to Houston Alfred Baker Sr., a hospital administrator and businessman, and his wife, Viola Elizabeth Smith Baker, an English teacher. In Turning South Again (2001), the renown critic writes that his father emphasized the importance of culture during his son's formative years; they were exposed to classical music, theater, and books. The Baker children received a dime for every book they read and a quarter for each written book report. Houston A. Baker Jr. was not the first member of his family to earn advanced degrees. His father earned a graduate degree in hospital administration from Northwestern University as well as an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business (1938), and his mother earned an MA from Indiana University.

After graduating from the predominantly white male high school in Louisville, Baker attended Howard University where he earned a BA in English literature (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in 1965. One year later, Baker received an MA from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He then completed a year of doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (1967–68) before he returned to UCLA where he was awarded a PhD in 1968.


Born in Louisville, Kentucky on March 22
Receives B.S. (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Howard University
Completes M.A. at the University of California at Los Angeles; teaches at Howard University during the summer
Begins one year of doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland
Earns Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles; accepts a teaching position at Yale University
Joins the faculty of the University of Virginia
Edits his first book, Black Literature in America
Publishes his first book of literary criticism, Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture
Holds dual appointments at the University of Pennsylvania as the director of the Afro-American Studies Program as well as a professor of English
Serves as a delegate for the United States Delegation of Five to the First Conference on Literature and National Consciousness (Moscow)
Publishes his first book of poetry, No Matter Where You Travel, You Still Be Black
Receives his first honorary doctorate (Berea College)
Becomes the first African American president of the Modern Language Association
Joins faculty of Duke University where he is the Susan Fox and George D. Beisher Professor of English and African and African American Studies
Assumes editorship of American Literature

Distinguished Career as Educator

His distinguished career as an educator began at Howard University, his undergraduate alma mater, where Baker was an instructor in English during the summer of 1966. Then from 1968 to 1969, he was an instructor in English at Yale University. The next year, Baker was appointed for a four-year term as assistant professor in English at Yale, but he left in 1970 in order to accept the positions of associate professor and member of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia (1970–73) and then professor of English (1973–74). During the early 1970s, Baker, an expert in British Victorian literature, began to focus on African American literature and culture. Consequently when he joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty as a professor of English in 1974, he was appointed as the first director of the University's Afro-American Studies Program, a position he held until 1977. During his tenure at the University of Pennsylva-nia, Baker was a member of the Graduate Group in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory (1979–82 and 1988), the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations (1982), and the director for the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture (1982). Since 1999, Baker has taught at Duke University where he is the Susan Fox and George D. Beisher Professor of English and African and African American Studies.

A National Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar (1975–76), Baker has held visiting professorships at such institutions as Cornell University (1977 and 1988), Tougaloo College (1980), Haverford College (1983–85), Colgate University (1991), the University of Vermont (1992), and New York University (1994). He has lectured at more than sixty institutions of higher learning, including George Mason University, Cornell University, Purdue University, Yale University, Fisk University, Brown University, Morgan State University, Morehouse College, Stanford University, Princeton University, and Howard University. Baker has conducted seminars and lectured in such foreign locales as Moscow (1976–78), Nigeria (1990), Belgium (1991), and Ottawa (1994).

Exceptional Service to Academe

Baker's influence extends beyond university classrooms and lecture halls. In 1992, he served as president of the Modern Language Association (MLA); Baker was the first African American elected to head the influential organization of more than 30,000 members that was founded in 1883. Baker is editor of American Literature, the journal founded at Duke University in 1929 that is considered as the preeminent periodical in American literary studies. His inaugural issue (June, 2000) was entitled "Unsettling Blackness." In the Preface, Baker asserts that after the Integrationist, Black Aesthetic, and Recon-structionist/High Vernacular analyses of the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century, "Unsettling Blackness" heralds a "fourth critical position—… [one that] reads modernism, progressivism, architecture, avant-gardism, montage, hybridity, anxiety of influence, and continental theory through African American texts and authors thought by some of us-in an earlier day …—to be merely black."

Scholarly and Creative Achievements

Although Baker's work with the MLA and American Literature are remarkable achievements, he is best known as a prolific literary critic. He has written more than 90 articles, essays, and reviews, as well as authored or edited more than 20 books. In books such as Long Black Song (1972), Afro-American Poetics (1988), Workings of the Spirit (1991), Critical Memory (2001), and Turning South Again (2001), Baker analyzes the works of writers such as James Baldwin, Imamu Baraka, Countee Cullen, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison, Jean Toomer, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright. Baker is also a poet, and his volumes of poetry include No Matter Where You Travel, You Still Be Black (1979), Spirit Run (1982), Blues Journeys Home (1985), and Passing Over (2000).


Among Baker's many honors are Competitive Scholarship, Howard University (1961–65); Kappa Delta Phi, Howard University (1965); John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellow (1965–66); NDEA Fellow, UCA (1965–68); Alfred Longueil Poetry Award, UCA (1966); Legion of Honor, Chapel of the Four Chaplains, Philadelphia Community Service Award (1981); Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, University of Pennsylvania (1984); Alumni Award for Distinguished Achievement in Literature and the Humanities, Howard University (1985); Outstanding Alumnus Award of Howard University, Alumni Club of Greater Philadelphia (1985); Distinguished Writer of the Year, Middle-Atlantic Writers Association (1986); Creative Scholarship Award, College Language Association for Afro-American Poetics (1988); and Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Excellence in the Humanities (1990). He is the recipient of fellowships such as the John Simon Guggenheim (1978–79); National Humanities Center (1982–83); Rockefeller Research Fellowship Program for Minority Group Scholars (1982–83); and Council of the Humanities (Princeton), Whitney J. Oates Short-term Fellow (1991–92). Baker's honorary doctorates include Berea College (1988), Williams College (1989), Beaver College (1990), Ursinus College (1990), State University of New York at Albany (1991), Knox College (1992), Marymount Manhattan College (1993), and the University of Louisville (1994). An additional honor was bestowed upon Baker when a special issue of Chung Wai, was devoted to the "Work of Houston A. Baker Jr." (November, 1993).

Houston Baker is married to Charlotte-Pierce Baker, a professor of Women's Studies and English at Duke University and whose publications include Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape (1998), and two works co-written with her husband: Renewal (1977), a volume of African American poetry; and "Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use,'" an article that was published in the Southern Review (Summer 1985). The couple has one son, Mark Frederick Baker, who during his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania founded the African American Arts Alliance, an organization that promotes Black cultural awareness via African American theater.

For three decades, Houston A. Baker Jr. has reigned as one of the most prolific and eloquent voices in African American arts and letters. Thus expectations are high for his continued, significant contributions to African American literature and culture.



Awkward, Michael. "Houston A. Baker Jr." In Oxford Companion to African-American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jeffords, Susan. "Houston A. Baker Jr." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 67: Modern American Critics Since 1955. Ed. Gregory S. Jay. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1988.


Berube, Michael. "Hybridity in the Center: An Interview with Houston A. Baker Jr." African American Review 26 (Winter 1992): 547-64.


Eakin, Emily. "Black Captive in a White Culture?" (Accessed 25 January 2005).

"Houston A. Baker, Jr." Contemporary Black Biography 6 (1994). Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005. (Accessed 17 February 2005).

                                      Linda M. Carter

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Baker, Houston A., Jr.

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