Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Houston Baker, July 2, 2018

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Personal background / Lineage project

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Partial Transcript: This is Shanna Smith interviewing Dr. Houston Baker in the recording steri--studio at the Louie Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky and today is July the 2nd, 2018.

Segment Synopsis: Baker describes his background as being from Louisville, Kentucky and living currently in Nashville, Tennessee while working as a professor at Vanderbilt University. He describes the areas he concentrates on in his studies. The interviewer describes her lineage project and how Baker fits into the project.

Keywords: Interdisciplinary studies; Lineage; Professors; Projects; Studies

Subjects: African Americans--Education (Higher); Heritage; Louisville (Ky.); Nashville (Tenn.); Vanderbilt University

GPS: Nashville (Tenn.)
Map Coordinates: 36.162222, -86.774444
GPS: Louisville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.256111, -85.751389
00:01:55 - Identities as a writer

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Partial Transcript: And so, um, how do you identify yourself first as a writer?

Segment Synopsis: Baker says he identifies himself as an academic-scholarly writer, poet, memoirist, critic, and academic activist. He discusses the term 'academic activist' and how it relates to academia, the Black Arts Movement, and everyday life. He talks about the importance of being an academic activist for himself as well as for his students.

Keywords: Academic activists; Daily life; Higher education; Literary criticism; Literary critics; Memoirs

Subjects: Black Arts Movement.; Critics.; Education, Higher; Memoirs and biographies; Postsecondary education.; Scholars.; Students.

00:08:38 - Lineage as a writer

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Partial Transcript: Um, I'm just curious, who would you consider, uh, to be a part of your literary lim--lineage?

Segment Synopsis: Baker names his mother as the first influence on him as a writer and lists the British and African American writers she introduced to him. He discusses the ways this combination of writers impacted him. He also talks about his house and family and how it was full of an appreciation for writing, despite some family members not having completed education past elementary school.

Keywords: African American writers; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Black writers; British writers; Carol Brice; Cornell University; Geoffrey Chaucer; Horatio Alger; John Webster Smith; Langston Hughes; Leontyne Price; Little Africa; Mentors; Mothers; Paul Lawrence Dunbar; Todd Duncan; William Wordsworth

Subjects: Alger, Horatio, Jr., 1832-1899; Authors.; Brice, Carol, 1918-1985.; Chaucer, Geoffrey, -1400.; Dunbar, Paul Laurence, 1872-1906.; Duncan, Todd; Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967.; Price, Leontyne; Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, Baron, 1809-1892.; Wordsworth, William, 1770-1850.

GPS: Cornell University
Map Coordinates: 42.447222, -76.483056
00:13:41 - Connection to Danville, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: But I really feel like in, in something that I was, uh, reading, you have a connection to, uh, Danville, Kentucky. Am I right about that?

Segment Synopsis: Baker says his grandparents on his mother's side were from Danville and his mother grew up in Danville. He talks about the trips he would take to Danville. The interviewer mentions her own familial connection to Danville.

Keywords: Car trips; Family; John Smith; Road trips; Travel; Traveling; Trips

Subjects: Automobile travel.; Danville (Ky.); Families.

GPS: Danville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 37.645556, -84.769722
00:15:12 - Transition from studying Victorian literature to studying African American literature

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Partial Transcript: So but also, um, based on what you were just saying, um, I noticed that you specialized in Victorian literature and then was persuaded to teach, um, Black literature by, um, uh, Black students at Yale University and then found yourself immersed in the Black Arts Movement and a scholar of African American literature.

Segment Synopsis: Baker talks about his mother's influence on him with her interest in nineteenth century British literature and how he studied Victorian literature at Howard University. He describes some of his mentors at university who helped him with his interest in Victorian literature and discusses how Addison Gayle, Jr. got him interested in African American studies. He also describes the moment a group of Yale students recruited him to teach African American literature, as well as his internship at the Washington Post during the Watts Rebellion. He talks about the research he did to learn even more about African American literature and culture. He also discusses why he chose to continue exclusively teaching African American literature.

Keywords: Addison Gayle, Jr.; African American literature; African American writers; Beinecke Library; Belonging; Black literature; Black writers; Charlotte Watkins; Howard University; James Emanuel; James Weldon Johnson; Minority writers; Mothers; Oscar Wilde; Paul Davis; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); Victorian literature; Victorian writers; Washington Post; Watts Rebellion; Watts Riots; Watts Uprising; Yale University

Subjects: African American authors.; Authors.; Emanuel, James A., 1921-2013; Gayle, Addison, Jr., 1932-1991; Johnson, James Weldon, 1871-1938.; Minority authors.; Wilde, Oscar, 1854-1900.; Writing.; Yale University.

GPS: University of California, Los Angeles
Map Coordinates: 34.069444, -118.445278
00:25:49 - The writers that built the foundation for Baker's writing

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Partial Transcript: Um, let me ask you--I'm going to go back to, uh, lineage just a little bit, um, because I want to ask you, uh, whose work do you believe that you build upon maybe as a foremother or forefather either inside or outside academia or inside or outside the state of Kentucky?

Segment Synopsis: Baker talks about how he fits into the history of Kentucky writing in comparison to other Kentucky authors. He talks about the influence of the vernacular and the extent to which Kentucky has influenced his writing.

Keywords: African American authors; African American writers; Allen Tate; Black authors; Black writers; Carter Du Valle; Effie Waller Smith; Hunter S. Thompson; Kendrick Lamar; Kentucky authors; Kentucky writers; Minority writers; Robert Penn Warren; Vernacular; bell hooks

Subjects: African American authors.; Authors.; Kentucky.; Lamar, Kendrick, 1987-; Minority authors.; Smith, Effie Waller, 1879-1960; Tate, Allen, 1899-1979; Thompson, Hunter S.; Warren, Robert Penn, 1905-1989; Writing.; hooks, bell, 1952-

00:30:43 - Viewing himself as a scholar

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Partial Transcript: But I, I have to say this. I do have to say this.

Segment Synopsis: Baker said one of his professors at Howard University introduced him to the idea of being a scholar. He discusses the difficulty of translating one's studies into everyday life. He talks about his mother writing her master's thesis and his father's research into leading Louisville's only Black hospital at the time as reasons he had to be a scholar.

Keywords: Daily life; Hampton University; Higher education; Hospital administration; Howard University; Northwestern University; Postsecondary education; Research; Scholars; Studies; Wharton School of Business

Subjects: African American authors.; African Americans--Education (Higher); Authors.; Minority authors.; Rockefeller Foundation.; West Virginia State University; Writing.

GPS: Howard University
Map Coordinates: 38.922222, -77.019444
00:36:54 - Memories of Estella Conwill Majozo

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Partial Transcript: Well, I have another, uh--actually my mentor came out of Louisville as well, who also lived a few blocks from you and her name was, um, Estella Conwill Majozo.

Segment Synopsis: Baker discusses Estella Conwill Majozo, the interviewer's mentor and someone whom Baker is acquainted with. He talks about her prowess as a speaker. The interviewer mentions a memory Majozo shared about Baker and other Black artists visiting Kentucky State University and dancing to a song version of one of Baker's poems. Baker reflects on the event as a momentous one in his life.

Keywords: Authors; Estella Conwill Majozo; Kentucky State University; Speakers; Writers

Subjects: African American authors.; African Americans--Education (Higher); Authors.; Majozo, Estella Conwill; Minority authors.; Poets.; Writing.

GPS: Kentucky State University
Map Coordinates: 38.2, -84.858333
00:40:32 - Future poetry plans

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Partial Transcript: Well, when both of us were, were talking about this, uh, we were both kind of wondering if you would plan to return, or maybe not exactly return, uh to continue your poetry after your retirement?

Segment Synopsis: Baker says he does not have immediate plans to continue writing poetry. The interviewer discusses how Baker merges his poetry with his academic work.

Keywords: Academic works; Interdisciplinary; Interdisciplinary works; Poetry; Poets; Scholarly articles; Scholarly works

Subjects: Authors.; Poetry.; Poets.; Writing.

00:41:46 - Discussion about home versus birthplace

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Partial Transcript: Well, you mentioned a term, uh, a little bit earlier, uh, in the conversation you were talking about--when you were talking about the vernacular and how you can--you know, how can you possibly escape the vernacular in your everyday life at the barber shop and, and all the places that you go.

Segment Synopsis: Baker discusses the idea of home versus birthplace and how well Louisville and Kentucky fit these roles. He uses quotes from other authors to talk about how the racism in Louisville did not make it feel like home. He describes the city and state as touchstones for critique and explains what that means.

Keywords: Gertrude Stein; Homeplace; Kentucky; Louisville (Ky.); Toni Morrison; William Faulkner

Subjects: African American authors.; African Americans--Crimes against.; African Americans--Race identity.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Authors.; Faulkner, William, 1897-1962.; Minority authors.; Morrison, Toni; Race discrimination.; Race relations--Kentucky; Racism; Stein, Gertrude, 1874-1946.; Writing.

GPS: Louisville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.256111, -85.751389
GPS: Kentucky.
Map Coordinates: 37.5347, -85.3021
00:50:05 - How writers can write during difficult times

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Partial Transcript: Um, since we were talking about the, uh, the Toni Morrison quote, I'm just going to read it so we can have it, uh, for the recording.

Segment Synopsis: The interviewer reads a Toni Morrison quote and says she thinks Baker is living out her work. He talks about how writers can operate during difficult times.

Keywords: James Baldwin; Notes of a Native Son (Book); Toni Morrison

Subjects: African Americans--Civil rights; African Americans--Race identity.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Authors.; Baldwin, James, 1924-1987.; Morrison, Toni; Writing.

00:56:35 - Diverse research interests

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Partial Transcript: I'm, I'm curious about this.

Segment Synopsis: Baker explains why he has many different interests. He speaks about his desire to change the world for other African Americans and gives examples of ways his ideas translate to real-world projects such as housing projects like the James A. Cayce Project.

Keywords: Daily life; Interdisciplinary studies; James A. Cayce Project; Little Africa

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; Interdisciplinary approach in education.

01:03:59 - Interest in hip hop and rap

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Partial Transcript: How did you land with, uh, with hip hop and rap?

Segment Synopsis: Baker discusses why he decided to research hip hop and rap. He talks about how he and his son would talk about rap frequently when he was a teenager and how it led to Baker doing research into the genre.

Keywords: Bonding experiences; Family; Fathers; Hip hop; Rap; Teenagehood; Teenagers

Subjects: Families.; Hip-hop.; Music; Parents.; Rap (Music).; Sons.

01:06:43 - What Baker is most proud of in his career

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Partial Transcript: Okay, I know we're going to be wrapping up, uh, very shortly so I want to make sure that I ask you this question.

Segment Synopsis: Baker identifies the thing he is most proud of in his career as his ability to work on academic pursuits with his wife as well as to raise their son with her. He talks about what he and his wife have accomplished together and what his wife has accomplished by herself. He later talks about his spiritual beliefs. He concludes with a humorous memory of the interviewer's father.

Keywords: Academic pursuits; Beliefs; Careers; Families; Memories; Research; Research interests; Research pursuits; Sons; Spiritual beliefs; Spirituality; Spouses; Wives

Subjects: Authors.; Careers.; Writing.