In his new essay collection, “Known and Strange Things,” writer Teju Cole examines bonds between people and places, from civil-rights battleground Selma, Ala., to Switzerland, as Cole makes a journey in writer James Baldwin’s footsteps.
‘Known and Strange Things: Essays’
by Teju Cole
Random House, 416 pp., $16
It’s fitting that Teju Cole placed an account about walking in the footsteps of that earlier African-American master of the essay, James Baldwin, in Leukerbad, Switzerland, at the beginning of his new compilation of writings, “Known and Strange Things.”
In the essay, titled “Black Body,” Cole compares his own, present-day experience as a black man visiting a remote town in Europe to the midcentury reflections on that town by Baldwin, who famously exiled himself from the United States and, with that long-lens view, became America’s most astute observer on race.
In Baldwin’s work, he is public witness, soul-searcher and watchdog, always taking us to task and always pushing us, and himself, to see beyond what we think is there.
Reading “Known and Strange Things,” Cole’s collection of previously published essays about his travels, his passions, the issues of the day, people and places that fascinate him, and ideas that keep his mind racing well past bedtime, Baldwin kept springing to mind.
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We have in Cole, a Nigerian American, a continuation of Baldwin’s legacy; he’s an observer and truth-seeker of the highest order.
These intimate yet expansive essays, some mere musings, some critiques, others scholarly articles and still others insightful pieces of cultural reportage, display the same peripatetic spirit and dot-connecting that Cole put to such good use in his debut novel set in Manhattan, “Open City,” and his novel exploring the social dynamics of Lagos, Nigeria, “Every Day is for the Thief.”
In the essay “In Alabama,” which finds him heading to Selma and visiting key locations from the civil-rights movement’s darkest days, he writes that “Alabama’s earth is red like West Africa’s, dusty, unpromising.” And he asks, “Long after history’s active moment, do places retain some charge of what they witnessed, what they endured?”
Days later, he goes back home to New York and hears echoes from the past at a Black Lives Matter march through lower Manhattan.
In “The Reprint,” Cole gets caught up in the carnivallike revelry of election night 2008 in Harlem and ponders the nuances embedded in Barack Obama’s status as our first African-American president.
In “A Piece of the Wall,” Cole travels to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to better understand the immigration and border-control debates, but from varying perspectives.
Cole is also a seasoned photographer who writes a column on the subject for The New York Times, and has more than 15,000 followers on an Instagram feed dedicated to his pictures and reflections.
Many of the works included here explore his thoughts on photographers he admires and how the camera is used to represent and help us process reality.
Cole explores his own imagination in the same open-ended way he strolls around a city, and it is a joy to go inside the mind of someone for whom clever insight is second nature.
“A photograph is nothing but surface,” Cole writes with knowing irony in “Touching Strangers,” an assessment of the famous project of the same name by the photographer Richard Renaldi.
And a book is nothing but pages.
Fortunately for us, Cole has trained himself well in the art of seeing bottomless richness in things normally taken at face value.