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Teju Cole’s recent New Yorker essay is a timely and engaging piece. Not surprising. On Facebook today he writes, “I gave this piece my all.”

The essay is about blackness and estrangement. Responding to one of James Baldwin’s travel essays, Cole thinks about the meaning of being black and feeling like a stranger in an all-white Swiss village versus being black and feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. 

 There are lots of dense and beautiful moments in the essay. Here is one that strikes me as rich for further reflection.


At some point in the essay Cole argues that Shakespeare is as much his heritage as Yoruba poetry. His claims to the Western archive is as legitimate as that of any white, or British or American person. He writes:

There’s no world in which I would surrender the intimidating beauty of Yoruba-language poetry for, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, nor one in which I’d prefer the chamber orchestras of Brandenburg to the koras of Mali.

I’m happy to own all of it.

This carefree confidence is, in part, the gift of time. It is a dividend of the struggle of people from earlier generations. I feel no alienation in museums.

In contrast, when Baldwin stood before a Rembrandt’ painting, he didn’t feel Cole’s “carefree confidence.” In the essay, “Stranger in the Village,” Baldwin writes:

 “In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the Stones of Paris, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and the Empire State Building a special attitude.

These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search them in vain forever for any reflection of myself.

I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.”

“The lines throb with sadness,” Cole observes. “What he loves does not love him in return.” I sense the sadness too. But the reason for the sadness can be made more interesting than it is in Cole’s reading of Baldwin.

Cole delights in laying claims to supposedly alien cultural artifacts—“I’m happy to own all of it.” But the legal metaphor of ownership does not capture the depth of Baldwin’s uneasiness while standing in front of Rembrandt.

Notice the visual metaphor—“I might search them in vain forever for any reflection of myself.” He worries about not seeing his reflection in Rembrandt’s portrait. When he stands in front of Rembrandt, he doesn’t see himself as part of the world and the history in which Rembrandt participates.

Teju wants to own things. He wants to assert patrimony over alien cultural things. He wants to take them for himself. Baldwin’s desire is of a different kind.

It’s one thing to claim the right to stand in front of Rembrandt’s portrait. It’s quite a different thing to look at the portrait and realize that you appear in it as an absence, as something opaque refusing to be reflected.

It is possible to care for Shakespeare “more than some white people do” and, because of this labor, to claim ownership.

But that does not necessarily make you present in Shakespeare or weave you back into a Shakespearean history from which you were excluded.

What I want to take from Baldwin’s statement is the idea that there’s always something in other cultures, histories, worlds that we can never fully assume. No claims of ownership can erase this uneasy feeling of exclusion.

I’d even say that Baldwin’s melancholy has an ethical value that makes me prefer it to Cole’s “carefree confidence.”

If the West knew how to feel the sadness that Baldwin felt while standing in front of Rembrandt, they wouldn’t march all over the world trying to own everybody’s stuff and history would be so much different.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

6 Responses to “What’s Weird about Teju Cole Claiming A Shakespearean Heritage?” Subscribe

  1. IfeOluwa August 20, 2014 at 2:22 am #

    I like Teju Cole and admire his brilliance, but in this matter I also disagree with him. I listen to Mozart, and have the right to, but there’s something I feel when I listen to Jazz that Mozart can’t give me. I can’t figure out why, but it’s just there. And when my friends break into spontaneous Apala songs to ease tension, Jazz in all its beauty can’t match the way it makes me feel.

    I have the right to listen to all of them, but I see myself in some more than the others. I don’t own Mozart the way I own Apala.

    Your last paragraph is Gold:

    “If the West knew how to feel the sadness that Baldwin felt while standing in front of Rembrandt, they wouldn’t march all over the world trying to own everybody’s stuff and history would be so much different”

    By the way, that Teju Cole essay is one of the most brilliant essays I’ve read this year.

  2. Lighthouse August 20, 2014 at 7:10 am #

    (As an afterthought I felt I should repeat my take here even after having shared it as a comment on your update.)

    A brilliant opinion there, Ainehi. This easily reminds me of the ‘disagreement’ Ngugi wa Thiongo had with Adichie – he described her a part of a metaphysical empire, following her claim of the English language as hers – a claim made in, you could say, ‘carefree confidence’ (which could be as adorable a trait as it could be annoying, I must say).

    I think this sets forth for us a dichotomy concerning heritage that, though interesting, is not entirely new – it’s a part of a number of other dichotomies – concerning identity (African writer vs internationalist/afropolitan, for instance), style (verbose British vs simple American), PoVs and tenses (‘Down with the historical present’ is the cry on certain lips), etc.

    In the end, for me, I believe Cole just as I do Baldwin in this matter, because I think heritage is a question of leaning, of loyalty (Cole appears quite appealingly ‘internationalist’ indeed; Baldwin appealingly ‘regional); but then, Baldwin’s view on heritage holds more appeal, for just one satisfying reason that, without your help with the apt phrase ‘ethical value’ (which is quite romantic because old-fashioned, I should say), I wouldn’t have been able to define.

  3. madweekay August 20, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Very well put. I have yet to read Teju’s piece, but I do remember reading “Stranger in the Village” and coming to the same conclusion as you did.

  4. Onyemelukwe August 20, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Wow! Your last paragraph is so strong and bitter it leaves me feeling a little guilty – I am of the West – but also sad at what we’ve done to others.

    I remember a moment at an in-law’s funeral in Nigeria when I was struck by the strangeness of my presence and my alienation. Though I’d lived in Nigeria for 24 years, I could never belong completely. Nor could I claim the heritage as mine.

    Yet I don’t dispute Teju Cole’s claim to Shakespeare – why is it different? Surely that’s a question for another essay! Maybe I’ll write that essay, or you could.

  5. Sonia August 21, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    “I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare.” – James Baldwin

    “I would have to appropriate these white cultures, I would have to make them mine– I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme– otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.” – James Baldwin

    Your post confused me. Neither Baldwin nor Cole seem to feel excluded from Shakespeare, and Baldwin has never struck me as particularly melancholy. (He’s written about how little he cares for “white people.” I hardly think he’d need a dead Dutch guy to validate his existence.) He also recommends appropriating Shakespeare. Cole doesn’t need to appropriate; Shakespeare is already his.

    Cole stated in his essay that he feels no alienation. Is there a reason that you don’t believe him? Why isn’t he allowed to say that Shakespeare is his? Anyone who speaks English owns Shakespeare to some extent. It’s a little weird to me that you think that because you feel excluded, Cole should too.

    I loved your final paragraph, though, or at least the part about the relationship between the ability to feel and the impulse to conquer and steal and exploit. Exactly.

  6. Alex August 25, 2014 at 1:02 am #

    ‘This carefree confidence is, in part, the gift of time. It is a dividend of the struggle of people from earlier generations’. Whatever else they may disagree on, it’s interesting to note that Akin Adesokan and Teju Cole agree on that bit.

    This might be glib, in light of the heavy issues that lie here but here’s what I’ll say: I’m a fully paid-up member of the Appropriationist Club.

    However, I’m not as concerned about ‘ownership’ as with sitting, as one would at a communal gathering, and not ‘own’ the palm wine, but take a good quaff from the calabash and then pass it on. Take it, pass it on, if possible, a nod to Ezra Pound, make it new.

    So, while on the topic of Shakespeare, there’s the visual fiesta of Wole Oguntokun’s The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba which is based on the translation of The Winter’s Tale into Yoruba done by the elder Ipadeola (not the son and poet who recently won the NLNG prize).

    Those kinds of developments seem to circumvent the kind of debate we are having within the framework of possession (and dispossession), exclusion/representation
    including the Ngugi v. Adichie. The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba, text and practice, even ‘takes’ elements of what might be seen as Ngugi’s own project while leaving totally untouched other things in that mixed bag. As an aside, there’s some lesson in this kind of thing in Seamus Heaney’s language project, which shares some common ground with Ngugi’s and divergences as well.

    And we need to account, in the politics of alterity, for the active role of those who draw the line for appropriation in different places and those who would not inscribe themselves on to what they see as exclusionary history even when they could create such an opportunity, certainly a different, appropriative, revisionist historiography that challenges the orthodox White Supremacist history that might be current.

    But then again, the life, work and response to Derek Walcott, embodies much of this, expressing it in more eloquent ways than I could ever hope to achieve. At least not in this one comment.

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