A profound book of essays from a celebrated master of the form.
“Darkness is not empty,” writes Teju Cole in Black Paper, a book that meditates on what it means to sustain our humanity—and witness the humanity of others—in a time of darkness. One of the most celebrated essayists of his generation, Cole here plays variations on the essay form, modeling ways to attend to experience—not just to take in but to think critically about what we sense and what we don’t.
Wide-ranging but thematically unified, the essays address ethical questions about what it means to be human and what it means to bear witness, recognizing how our individual present is informed by a collective past. Cole’s writings in Black Paper approach the fractured moment of our history through a constellation of interrelated concerns: confrontation with unsettling art, elegies both public and private, the defense of writing in a time of political upheaval, the role of the color black in the visual arts, the use of shadow in photography, and the links between literature and activism. Throughout, Cole gives us intriguing new ways of thinking about blackness and its numerous connotations. As he describes the carbon-copy process in his epilogue: “Writing on the top white sheet would transfer the carbon from the black paper onto the bottom white sheet. Black transported the meaning.”
About the Author
Teju Cole is a novelist, photographer, critic, curator, and the author of seven books, which include Open City, Blind Spot, and Golden Apple of the Sun. He was the photography critic of the New York Times Magazine from 2015 until 2019. A 2018 Guggenheim Fellow, he is currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard.
"The celebrated author of Open City explores the ways we retain our humanity and different ways of thinking about the colour black."
"From scrutiny of a colonial-era photograph in 'Restoring Darkness' to 'Experience,' in which he considers human senses and our cultural understandings, Cole's engaging collection of essays reassembles the visual kaleidoscope of life now in sharp, exacting prose. Cole should be seen and attentively read."
“In this erudite collection of observations written over the past three years, art historian Cole meditates on art, identity, politics, and literature to decipher ‘the fractured moment in our history.’ . . . Offering a window into his articulate worldview, Cole brings into sharp relief the very humanity he seeks.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Dense and provocative, the essays in Black Paper are a reminder that darkness cannot last forever, and even within it, there is meaning and hope.”
“[Teju Cole is] an emissary for our best selves. He is sampling himself for our benefit, hoping for enlightenment, and seeking to provide pleasure to us through his art. May his realm expand.”
— Norman Rush, New York Review of Books, on Known and Strange Things
“The places he can go, you feel, are just about limitless.”
— Dwight Garner, New York Times, on Every Day Is for the Thief
“He takes in news from African countries and American cities; but also, by necessity and interest, Asian, European and Latin American culture and history. In short, the world belongs to Cole and is thornily and gloriously allied with his curiosity and his personhood.”
— Claudia Rankine, New York Times Book Review, on Known and Strange Things
“The forms of resistance depend on the culture they resist, and in our era of generalizations and approximations and sloppiness, Teju Cole’s precise and vivid observation and description is an antidote and a joy. This is a book written with a scalpel, a microscope, and walking shoes, full of telling details and sometimes big surprises.”
— Rebecca Solnit, on Known and Strange Things