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African-American scholar talks race, literature with students

Booked with breakfast, lunch and a 7 p.m. lecture, renowned scholar Dr. Houston Baker managed to squeeze in enough time for a discussion on Black lives and white privilege with a group of Blount students.

The meeting was facilitated by Dr. Fred Whiting, Assistant Director of the Blount Scholars Program, and was specifically geared towards his students, who have read the works of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois as part of Blount’s foundational, literature-based curriculum. The “informal chat” acted as a precursor to the annual “Hidden Humanities” talk Baker would give later in Gorgas Library.

“The brunch is an opportunity for you to get to know one the foremost literary and cultural critics in the U.S.,” Whiting told his students.

The students gathered around in a circle as Baker opened up a dialogue on race in America, commenting on the timeliness of his visit in the wake of a Trump presidency.

“Without crisis, there’s no progression,” Baker said later, a statement that contained the truths of civil rights and reformation and slavery - and a statement that empowered people to enact change in the face of violence and oppression. These ideas were presented by the scholar to a handful of white students, some of which were convinced white privilege did not exist.

The group spent two hours discussing affirmative action, institutionalized racism, “good ole boy” administrations and other ways in which minorities are disadvantaged in modern America – a discussion which began with silence but ended in sustained dialogue.

Thanking the students for their time, Baker adjourned to meet with Dr. Merinda Simmons, one of his main connections to the university. Baker worked under Simmons’ PhD board, and the two coauthored The Trouble with Post-Blackness, a work Baker discussed in his lecture six hours later.

Now speaking to a full room of students across campus, Baker addressed what he called the “elephant in the room,” as the Trump election signified a “shift in the way we will talk about our nation.”

He alluded to the shootings of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and Freddie Grey, of the birth of Black Lives Matter as a reaction neoliberal policy and white complacency, and of the curse of “white male violence.”

Pointing to a classic picture of a crouching woman below an empty noose, Baker introduced the idea of a “black bottom line” of which our nation profits from the “war, capital punishment, lynching, eminent, guaranteed death, violence and injustice” of Black men and women.

Dr. Houston Baker shows a piece of artwork to a room full of students, pointing out the "heap of a woman in mourning," the negative space surrounding the empty noose to foreshadow "unlimited fields of bodies yet to come."

He ended the hour-long lecture in summation of his distaste for the president-elect, which he called the “bigot-elect.”

The question posed, though, was, “What do we do next? What do we do as a student body, as a University?”

Just as the Blount program uses literature to help students form their worldviews, Baker advocated in his lecture for the use of Black literature to enact positive change, listing off readings by contemporary Black authors like Mark Lamont Hills, Tiana Clark and Gabby Carlisle.

Dr. Trudier Harris, an expert on Langston Hughes who has also spoken to Blount students, said that literature can often “act as a bridge across different cultures.”

“Just like in To Kill A Mockingbird, in which Harper Lee talked about the importance of walking in other people’s shoes, literature allows us to do that,” she said.

Simmons, an advocate of using humanities to shape social discourse, concurred.

“The way that we read text is the way that we shape reality,” she said.

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