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.