Literary Criticism & Theory

Our Professor: A Toni Morrison Memory

Houston A. Baker Jr. is Distinguished University Professor of English and African American Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. He was the editor of American Literature from 1999 to 2006. Here, he remembers Toni Morrison from his time at Howard University.

The fortunes of being rejected by selected white colleges and universities during my senior year of high school manifested themselves when I received, and accepted, a handsome scholarship offer from Howard University in Washington, DC. It was 1961. I was leaving my home in Louisville, Kentucky, for the “Capstone of Negro Education.”

On a sweltering late summer afternoon, with a small cohort of other African American (then called “Negro”) high-school matriculants, I boarded a train from Louisville’s Union Station to Washington, DC. Louisville’s station still boasted the readable sign and signature of racial segregation: “Colored Waiting Room.” I wondered if I would find the same at the other end of my journey.

To enter Howard University’s campus in 1961 was to encounter a neatly maintained greensward sentineled by the classical cathedral design of Founders Library. Drew Hall (the new men’s dormitory) was a wonder in its impeccable hospitality. And as we young men sat on the short wall outside the Ira Aldrige Theater, we were confirmed in our first impressions that we were indeed occupants of a brave new world. We marveled at a slow parade of abounding beauty, pristine grace, and assured self-possession as young women of color made their way past us. These young women were simply mesmerizing. They seemed so far beyond our country selves. They left us breathless.

There was no ease in this beautiful Zion when we entered our first classes a few days later. The Howard professoriate was unstinting in its demand for excellence. All courses required commitment to black achievement grounded in a proud legacy of historically black colleges and universities. During the first week, we were challenged to serious intellection and adept manners of scholarly exchange.

Toni Morrison, 1970. Photo by Bert Andrews.

The foregoing variables were energized by the uproarious revolts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The direct address—the praxis—of that radical assault on centuries of black abjection and exclusion in America was everywhere near at hand. Black resistance and revolutionary projects were the temper of the times at 1960s Howard, despite administrative injunctions for the student body to maintain a traditional decorum of colored amiability. A crowning moment of my freshman year was enrollment in a required course whose title I forget but whose import was something on the order of “Great Books of the World.” I do not recall a syllabus, but there was a reading list that did not (I believe) include African American authors.

The first day of class, students filed respectfully into the room. I took a seat on the front row as an earnest demonstration of my consummate interest in everything the professor might have to say. The professor’s chair was one of those yellowish, hard wooden strongholds that signify scholarly austerity. The chair sat at the back of the desk.

The moment of arrival unfolded when one of the most arresting presences I have ever encountered in the academy floated into the classroom. She moved to the desk, slipped around and past its back, seated herself atop the front of the desk, and sat eloquently at ease before us. She flashed a welcoming and serious smile. “Good morning. My name is Toni Morrison. I am your professor for this course. This is a required course and we will accept no excuse for absence or failure to do the work.” I was rendered breathless—not so much by her undeniable poise and gesture as by her calm equanimity of presence and intellectual authority.

Our text was William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” to be taken up at the next class meeting.

The following class session, I had nothing to say, having been completely mystified by Faulkner and his bear. Professor Morrison began to unfold for us an extraordinary explication of the Faulkner story, when all at once a hand shot up just down the front row from me, and a loud mellifluous voice commanded: “Black people in the United States are being beaten and dying. The capitalist system is corrupt. Why are we reading this racist old white man who said he would defend Mississippi against any civil rights intervention with a shotgun in hand?” He continued: “We should be reading Chairman Mao and Che Guevara. We should be learning the sober dialectics of revolution.”

It was, indeed, the voice of Stokely Carmichael. His face was swollen, and he had a bandage over his right eye from participation in a civil rights action in neighboring Maryland just a few days before. He looked weary and incredulous that something as seemingly inane as a Faulkner story should ever occupy the mind of any black student.

Without so much as a small readjustment of her professorial posture, Professor Morrison answered: “Mr. Carmichael, scripture tells us there is a time and place for every occasion. For today, the time before us is reserved for Faulkner’s masterpiece “The Bear.” Please, let us continue, in season, with Faulkner’s astonishing creative achievement.”

Silence fell. Professor Morrison’s lucid and brilliant explication recommenced.

As class was adjourning, I found the courage to say hello to a young woman who had returned my friendly nod during the prior class session. I ventured an opinion: “That was pretty terrific of Professor Morrison to put Faulkner and his complicated book ahead of the civil rights movement, wasn’t it? I’m Houston.”

She said: “Hi, I’m Charlotte. And, yes, I think Professor Morrison was astonishing in her handling of Mr. Carmichael’s interruption.”

Toni Morrison became my ever-loved genius of the humanities and authorship.

Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Touré) still represents my best exemplar of what it means to be young, brilliant, and daringly committed to the global struggle for black liberation. Charlotte eventually became my wife. And in the late ’90s, Charlotte’s publisher sent Toni Morrison a draft copy of her book Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. Toni Morrison called Charlotte of a winter’s evening and lauded her book: “This,” she said, “is a love story.” Toni Morrison befriended my academic career and writing at many a turn of life’s wheel. News of our professor’s passing is very, very hard to bear in these most awful of times in America.

Remembering Toni Morrison with American Literature

Groundbreaking, beloved author Toni Morrison’s literary legacy will continue to reverberate long beyond her lifetime. In the wake of her death, we are honored to offer a small tribute: a reading list of American Literature articles that study her work, all made freely available through the end of November.

Signifyin(g) on Reparation in Toni Morrison’s Jazz
Marjorie Pryse, 2008

Toni Morrison’s Paradise: Black Cultural Citizenship in the American Empire
Holly Flint, 2006

Houses of Contention: Tar Baby and Essence
Susan Edmunds, 2018

What The Bluest Eye Knows about Them: Culture, Race, Identity
Christopher Douglas, 2006

The Literary Afterlife of the Korean War
Joseph Darda, 2015

Ruins Amidst Ruins: Black Classicism and the Empire of Slavery
John Levi Barnard, 2014

“what Is Your Mother’s Name?”: Maternal Disavowal and the Reverberating Aesthetic of Black Women’s Pain in Black Nationalist Literature
Meina Yates-Richard, 2016

Critique and Cosmos: After Masao Miyoshi

Contributors to the newest issue of boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture explore the works of Masao Miyoshi, who introduced the concept of “aftering” — the act of prolonging and transforming impacts across cultural, political, and disciplinary borders.

Critique and Cosmos: After Masao Miyoshi,” edited by Rob Wilson and Paul A. Bové, is a reflection of Miyoshi’s concept and a tribute to the scholar himself, as illustrated in Harry Harootunian’s essay “As We Saw Him: Masao Miyoshi and the Vocation of Critical Struggle,” available free for three months.

The remaining essays offer fresh takes on several of his critical visions, including a humility of our knowledge system and the quest to exceed it, relearning the sense of the world in which we live, the practice of “anti-photography,” and the need for humanistic disciplines to address the global commons created by runaway consumption and environmental deterioration.

Browse the table of contents and read the introduction, freely available.

New Books in August

Our Fall 2019 season is off to a phenomenal start with a diverse range of titles in Theory and Philosophy, African American Studies, Native and Indigenous Studies, and more. Take a look at all of these great new books coming in August!

Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory by Patricia Hill Collins

Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory by Patricia Hill Collins offers a set of analytical tools for those wishing to develop intersectionality’s capability to theorize social inequality in ways that would facilitate social change.

In Animate Literacies, Nathan Snaza proposes a new theory of literature and literacy in which he outlines how literacy operates at the interface of humans, nonhuman animals, and objects and has been used as a means to define the human in ways that marginalize others.

Fictions of Land and Flesh by Mark Rifkin

Mark Rifkin’s Fictions of Land and Flesh turns to black and indigenous speculative fiction to show how it offers a site to better understand black and indigenous political movements’ differing orientations in ways that can foster forms of mutual engagement and cooperation without subsuming them into a single political framework in the name of solidarity.

In The Black Shoals Tiffany Lethabo King uses the shoal—an offshore geologic formation that is neither land nor sea—as metaphor, mode of critique, and methodology to theorize the encounter between Black studies and Native studies and its potential to create new epistemologies, forms of practice, and lines of critical inquiry.

Savage Ecology by Jairus Victor Grove

Jairus Victor Grove’s Savage Ecology offers an ecological theorization of geopolitics in which he contends that contemporary global crises are better understood when considered within the larger history of geopolitical practice, showing how political violence is the principal force behind climate change, mass extinction, slavery, genocide, extractive capitalism, and other catastrophes. Watch the trailer for the book here.

In How to Make Art at the End of the World Natalie Loveless examines the institutionalization of artistic research-creation—a scholarly activity that considers art practices as research methods in their own right—and its significance to North American higher education.

Wages Against Artwork Leigh Claire La Berge’s Wages Against Artwork shows how socially engaged art responds to and critiques what she calls decommodified labor—the slow diminishment of wages alongside an increase of demands of work—as a way to work toward social justice and economic equality.

In Sounds of Vacation, edited by Jocelyne Guilbault and Timothy Rommen, the contributors examine the commodification of music and sound at popular vacation destinations throughout the Caribbean in order to tease out the relationships between political economy, hospitality, and the legacies of slavery and colonialism. 

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“Emotion and Visuality in Chinese Literature and Culture”

“Emotion or qing 情 has been identified at the core of Chinese thinking about literature, such that ‘lyrical tradition’ becomes an encompassing concept for many to distinguish Chinese literary tradition from its Western counterpart,” write the editors of the newest Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture issue in their introduction, freely available

“Emotion and Visuality in Chinese Literature and Culture” explores topics such as the presence of emotion in medieval Chinese burials; image-text relationships of gendered emotions, such as is depicted in the “hundred beauties” (baimei 百美) genre of the late Ming and Qing dynasties; and the affective experience of Chinese culture, as evidenced in the works of Chinese artists Chen Hongshou, Qiu Canzhi, and Yuan Kewen.

Browse the table of contents, read the introduction, and sign up for email alerts to not miss an issue.

Series Launch: Theory in Forms

This year we are pleased to launch a new series, Theory in Forms, edited by Nancy Rose Hunt and Achille Mbembe. A few of the books came out this spring and we have several more on the fall list.

Theory in Forms presents new writing showcasing the import of new political contours in our planetary times of crisis, racializations, and securitization. The books address temporal and spatial scales—whether global, transnational, or intimate—and emphasize movement, borders, enclaves, and impasses in (post)colonies, global South(s), and beyond. Inciting experimentation with structure, methods, and the practice of writing, the series argues that form enables theory. Theory in Forms seeks new work that addresses the politics of life and death—whether in history, anthropology, aesthetics, geography, architecture, urban design, or environmental, medical, oceanic, literary, and postcolonial studies—and creates a transversal space for new modes of writing, reflection, and timely interventions.

Experiments with Empire by Justin IzzoThe first book in this series is Experiments with Empire by Justin Izzo, which examines how twentieth-century writers, artists, and anthropologists from France, West Africa, and the Caribbean experimented with ethnography and fiction in order to explore new ways of knowing the colonial and postcolonial world. Focusing on novels, films, and ethnographies that combine fictive elements and anthropological methods and modes of thought, Izzo shows how empire gives ethnographic fictions the raw materials for thinking beyond empire’s political and epistemological boundaries.

 

The Fixer by Charles Piot

In the West African nation of Togo, applying for the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery is a national obsession, with hundreds of thousands of Togolese entering each year. In The Fixer Charles Piot follows Kodjo Nicolas Batema, a Togolese visa broker—known as a “fixer”—as he shepherds his clients through the application and interview process. Relaying the experiences of the fixer, his clients, and embassy officials, Piot captures the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game between the embassy and the hopeful Togolese as well as the disappointments and successes of lottery winners in the United States.

 

Colonial Transactions by Florence Bernault

In Colonial Transactions Florence Bernault moves beyond the racial divide that dominates colonial studies of Africa. Instead, she illuminates the strange and frightening imaginaries that colonizers and colonized shared on the ground. Bernault looks at Gabon from the late nineteenth century to the present, historicizing the most vivid imaginations and modes of power in Africa today: French obsessions with cannibals, the emergence of vampires and witches in the Gabonese imaginary, and the use of human organs for fetishes. Overturning theories of colonial and postcolonial nativism, this book is essential reading for historians and anthropologists of witchcraft, power, value, and the body.

Coming this fall we will publish series editor Achille Mbembe’s own book Necropolitics; Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners by Lynn M. Thomas; and The Complete Lives of Camp People: Colonialism, Fascism, Concentrated Modernity by Rudolf Mrázek.

About the series editors: Nancy Rose Hunt is Professor of History & African Studies at the University of Florida, and the author of the prizewinning A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo. Achille Mbembe is Research Professor in History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economy Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is author of Critique of Black Reason and coeditor of Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. 

We look forward to watching this exciting new series expand. 

 

Digital Methods and Traditional Chinese Literary Studies

JCL_5-2_coverIn the newest issue of the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, contributors explore how the digital humanities have revolutionized the study of classical Chinese literature. Edited by Jing Chen, Thomas J. Mazanec, and Jeffrey R. Tharsen, the issue depicts how modern technologies can enhance traditional philology and literary studies.

Methods discussed include computational analysis of Tang dynasty poems, using Gephi software to compare Ming dynasty anthologies, and creating network diagrams from ancient Chinese annotations.

Browse the table of contents and read the introduction, freely available.

New Books in March

Spring brings a fresh crop of new books. Check out what’s new in March.

The Politics of Operations, edited by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, investigates how capital reshapes its relation with politics, showing how contemporary capitalism operates through the extraction of mineral resources, data, and cultures; the logistical organization of relations between people, property, and objects; and the penetration of financialization into all realms of economic life.

Zorach cover with border low resIn Art for People’s Sake Rebecca Zorach traces the little-told story of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago, showing how its artistic innovations, institution building, and community engagement helped the residents of Chicago’s South and West Sides respond to social, political, and economic marginalization.

Drawing on previously unexamined archives, the contributors to The Revolution from Within, edited by Michael Bustamante and Jessica Lambe, examine the Cuban Revolution from a Cuba-centric perspective by foregrounding the experience of everyday Cubans in analyses of topics ranging from agrarian reform and fashion to dance and the Mariel Boatlift.

978-1-4780-0380-9.jpgIn Hush Mack Hagood outlines how noise-cancelling headphones, tinnitus maskers, white noise machines, nature-sound mobile apps, and other forms of media give users the ability to create sonic safe spaces for themselves, showing how the desire to block certain sounds are informed by ideologies of race, gender, and class.

In Thought Crime Max Ward explores the Japanese state’s efforts to suppress political radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s through the enforcement of what it called thought crime, providing a window into understanding how modern states develop ideological apparatuses to subject their respective populations.

In Breaking Bad and Cinematic Television, Angelo Restivo uses the innovative show Breaking Bad as a point of departure for theorizing a new aesthetics of television in which the concept of the cinematic points to the ways in which television can change the ways viewers relate to and interact with the world.978-1-4780-0092-1.jpg

Examining the work of writers and artists including Carrie Mae Weems, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Allan deSouza, in The Difference Aesthetics Makes Kandice Chuh advocates for what she calls “illiberal humanism” as a way to counter the Eurocentric liberal humanism that perpetuates structures of social inequality.

In Surrogate Humanity Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora trace the ways in which robots, artificial intelligence, and other technologies serve as surrogates for human workers within a labor system that is entrenched in and reinforces racial capitalism and patriarchy.

In The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery Alys Eve Weinbaum investigates the continuing resonances of Atlantic slavery in the cultures and politics of human reproduction that characterize contemporary capitalism, showing how black feminist thought offers the best means through which to understand the myriad ways slavery continues to haunt the present.

Eliza Steinbock’s Shimmering Images traces how cinema offers alternative ways to understand gender transitions through a specific aesthetics of change, thereby opening up new means to understand transgender ontologies and epistemologies.

978-1-4780-0091-4.jpgGökçe Günel’s Spaceship in the Desert examines the development and construction of Masdar City, a zero-carbon city built by Abu Dhabi that houses a research institute for renewable energy which implemented a series of green technologies and infrastructures as a way to deal with climate change and prepare for a post-oil future.

In Developments in Russian Politics 9 an international team of experts provide a comprehensive and critical discussion of the country’s most recent developments, offering substantive coverage of the key areas in domestic and foreign Russian politics, perfect for courses on Russia today.

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Call for Papers: Prism

artboard 1Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Zong-qi Cai and Yunte Huang, seeks contributions for the following upcoming themed issues:

  • “On Method,” edited by Carlos Rojas
  • “Theory and Chinese Literary Studies,” edited by Zong-qi Cai
  • “Sinophone/Xenophone Studies and Chinese Literature,” edited by David Der-wei Wang
  • “New Media and Chinese Literature,” edited by Yunte Huang

Prism presents cutting-edge research on modern literary production, dissemination, and reception in China and beyond. It also publishes works that study the shaping influence of traditional literature and culture on modern and contemporary China. Prism actively promotes scholarly investigations from interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives, and it encourages integration of theoretical inquiry with empirical research. The journal strives to foster in-depth dialogues between Western and Chinese literary theories that illuminate both the unique features of each interlocutor and their shared insights into issues of universal interest. Prism is a new incarnation of the Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese (JMLC), founded in 1987 by the Centre for Humanities Research of Lingnan University of Hong Kong.

For submission guidelines and more information about the journal, please visit Prism’s website.

2019 Modern Language Association Highlights and Awards

This year’s meeting of the Modern Language Association was absolutely packed with awards, receptions, and events—and, like always, we had a wonderful time meeting authors, editors, and attendees and selling our books and journals.

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Congratulations to Melanie Yergeau, whose book Authoring Autism won the MLA Prize for a First Book, and Fred Moten, whose book Black and Blur won the William Sanders Scarborough Prize!

Several of our journals and books also received awards from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ) and from the GL/Q Caucus for the Modern Languages:

CELJ Awards

Archives of Asian Art, the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and American Literature each received a CELJ award this year—congratulations to these journals!

coverimageThis year’s Best Journal Design Award was given to Archives of Asian Art. Upon joining Duke University Press in 2017, the journal was redesigned by Sue Hall, our now-retired journals designer of 23 years. The 2018 Association of University Presses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show also recognized the journal’s redesign: “The new design stands out because of the luxurious and well-placed illustrations and because it combines an elegant, versatile page design with fine-grained typographic sophistication,” wrote eminent typographer Robert Bringhurst.

The CELJ also recognized two of our journal issues with the Best Special Issue Award: “Queer about Comics,” an issue of American Literature (volume 90, issue 2) edited by Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz; and “The Bible and English Readers,” an issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (volume 47, issue 3) edited by Thomas Fulton.

GL/Q Caucus Celebration and Awards

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Marcia Ochoa and Jennifer DeVere Brody with the 25th-anniversary issue of GLQ

This year, the GL/Q Caucus celebrated the 25th anniversary of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies with a panel on the journal and a reception. The caucus also awarded prizes to several outstanding books and journal articles:

The Crompton-Noll Award was given to Mary Zaborskis for the article “Sexual Orphanings,” published in GLQ (volume 22, issue 4), and Margaret Galvan for the article “‘The Lesbian Norman Rockwell’: Alison Bechdel and Queer Grassroots Networks,” published in American Literature (volume 90, issue 2).

The Alan Bray Book Award was granted to Jasbir Puar, author of The Right to Maim, and Ariane Cruz, author of The Color of Kink (NYU Press). Kadji Amin, author of Disturbing Attachments, received honorable mention, as did Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, editors of Trap Door (New Museum and MIT Press).

Eric A. Stanley and Andrew Spieldenner received the Michael Lynch Award for Service, which, in Eve Sedgwick’s words, serves “to publicize and celebrate—and as widely as possible—the range, the forms, the energy, and the history of queer activism by academics.”

Other Highlights

We enjoyed celebrating several new journals with a wine reception Friday afternoon: Critical TimesEnglish Language Notes, Journal of Korean StudiesMeridiansPrism, and Qui Parle.

It was also wonderful to see several of our authors who stopped by the booth:

Thank you to all who came by to see us! For those of you who weren’t able to make it out to MLA, or who didn’t have enough room in your suitcase to pack all the books you wanted, don’t worry—you can still take advantage of the conference discount by using coupon code MLA19 at dukeupress.edu through the end of February.