Rejecting Cultural Literacy for Culturally Relevant: From Baldwin to Cole, “the custodian of a black body”
By Paul Thomas, author of Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance
…to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Haunting the American character still is a fact confronted early in Teju Cole’s Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (originally published in The New Yorker 19 August 2014 but also opening Cole’s Known and Strange Things): that Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Coltrane are all “people who could still be with us.”
Living, Cole means—because, of course, they remain with us in ways that are both beautiful and disturbing.
Retracing Baldwin’s time in Switzerland and his essay spawned from that visit, Cole recognizes Baldwin was “depressed and distracted” during his trip in the 1950s—in part due to the “absurdity” of being a stranger during his travels as well as alienated in his home city of New York through the fact of the manufactured concept of race.
Cole experiences a “body-double moment” that emphasizes a physical self-consciousness of being black and male; being “like [Baldwin],” Cole catalogues insecurities of the flesh, building to:
and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.
This racialized and genderized self-consciousness, Cole details, is cultivated in being surveilled; “glances,” in Cole’s diction, but commonly identified as the “gaze,” whether the white gaze or the male gaze.
“To be a stranger is to be looked at,” Cole explains, “but to be black is to be looked at especially.” Hard, Cole means, as in the perpetual policing of the black body.
Cole’s “custodian” echoes Baldwin’s witnessing—bound as the two men are by what Baldwin captures in “‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.’”
The black body and the American character—both Baldwin and Cole demand—are inextricable. But for Baldwin, Western culture forced him to conclude: “‘I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.’”
However, Cole, shifting to Ralph Ellison, embraces Western art despite the lingering weight he shares with Baldwin: “I have experienced in my own body the undimmed fury he felt about pervasive, limiting racism.”
Continuing the scarred mosaic of history, Cole’s contemporary reality will not allow him to escape “the news online”:
There I found an unending sequence of crises: in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia, and everywhere else, really. Pain was general. But within that larger distress was a set of linked stories, and thinking about “Stranger in the Village,” thinking with its help, was like injecting a contrast dye into my encounter with the news. The American police continued shooting unarmed black men, or killing them in other ways. The protests that followed, in black communities, were countered with violence by a police force that is becoming indistinguishable from an invading army. People began to see a connection between the various events: the shootings, the fatal choke hold, the stories of who was not given life-saving medication. And black communities were flooded with outrage and grief.
Like Baldwin in 1966, Cole cannot escape the policing of the black body, the political “obsession with cleaning, with cleansing,” that “policymakers believe that going after misdemeanors is a way of preëmpting major crimes.”
Dropped like a stone too heavy to carry any further, Cole concludes:
But the black body comes pre-judged, and as a result it is placed in needless jeopardy. To be black is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.
Endless surveilling, constant policing the black body are fed by the “fantasy about the disposability of black life [that] is a constant in American history.”
Cole as custodian witnesses that “American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage….Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.”
But there remains one more damning stone to drop: “black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard”—one of which, left unnamed by Cole, is formal education.
An educational dinosaur who refuses extinction, E.D. Hirsch yet again offers a plea for cultural literacy, folded into the decades-old standards debate.
There is a disturbing irony about a torch bearer of the dominant culture lobbying for that culture to remain dominant—specifically through the codified curriculum of the formal education system.
Hirsch cloaks his message in an unaddressed assumption that knowledge can be somehow politically neutral; it’s all about the role of knowledge in teaching students how to read, you see.
But official curriculum and the current state of high-stakes accountability can never be disentangled from power—who can and does decide what knowledge matters.
Just as Cole above confronts how art, culture, and race intersect—among Cole, Baldwin, and Ellison—when the knowledge that matters is the province of some people (read “white,” “male,” and “affluent”), other people become the Other, marginalized by their identified lack of the knowledge that matters.
Cultural literacy/knowledge as that which is objective, easily identified, and then easily dispensed is the fertile soil within which the status quo of society and formal education thrive. Like the literal policing of the black body in the streets, education becomes an act of “cleansing” the Other of their heritage to make room for cultural literacy/knowledge writ large.
And the status quo of the streets and the hallways must not be allowed to remain: where black girls are policed for their hair, the same hair that is fetishized, rendered exotic; where black boys are seen as older than their biological ages; where the black body has been so demonized that blacks themselves embrace the punishing, cleansing, of their own flesh.
If we pretend knowledge is politically neutral, that whoever is in power has the right to decide what knowledge matters, and if we define reading in a way that depends on that cultural knowledge for anyone to be considered literate, then we are failing to read and re-read the world as it is in order to make a new world.
Not the world as it was during Baldwin’s life. Not the world as it is during Cole’s life.
The “obscene American forms of white supremacy” are the parents of cultural literacy/knowledge.
And this white gaze has also created “no excuses” charter schools that “fix” black, brown, and poor students.
White privilege and its cognate racism, as Cole notes, are invisible: “You don’t see it at first.”
The “at first,” however, must not be undervalued.
To see privilege and racism requires not cultural literacy, but critical literacy—reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world—fostered in a context of culturally relevant pedagogy.
From Baldwin as witness to Cole as “custodian of the black body,” the message about how our society and our schools must change is not absent but “preferably unheard.”
Change must happen, but it must not “shame or defame black people and [black] organizations,” Adrienne Dixson and Andre Perry argue, concluding with a stone of their own: “Be accountable to black people.”
Cultural literacy is stasis, not change. It is accountable to white privilege.
Haunting the American character still is Baldwin demanding that we must “cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
About Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas is a recipient of NCTE’s George Orwell Award and author of Beware The Roadbuilders: Literature As Resistance. He engages the public in the most profound and controversial topics of our day, exposing the terrifying truths of the times in which we live. His work can be followed at The Becoming Radical (blog) and @plthomasEdDon twitter.
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