Lecture Notes: On Reading and Writing

“We must be a reading people.” -William Cooper Nell

The beginnings of the academic year are often the moments where we think about the utility of what it is we commit so much of ourselves to doing. In those moments we revel in the beauty of having spaces to think and learn. There is a sense of purity. For a few brief moments, we remember that ideas are what rule the world. And we relish the opportunity to think about the world.

And then we remember that not all are as committed. Structurally, they cannot be.

Reading and writing is long and hard. An original idea is not as simple to conjure as fleeting thoughts and simple observations are to utter. But it is the foundation for knowing. We are readers. And always have been. And writers, too. Our ancestors invented writing. At the heart of the collective enterprise we might dub “knowing” is a commitment to be deliberate, to only speak when we are sure we have something to say. And to ensure that that something is meaningful, connected to our best senses of “what is.” And to do it, constantly and unapologetically.

And so the question arises of what we do when our inheritance is compromised by a range of external factors that conspire to reduce us to nonreaders. And nonwriters. Nonthinkers. There is no time. We have no money. There is no support. We have no competent teachers. On and on. These structural conditions persist. Yet we know that they cannot prevent an insurgency to know. That is all in our history. It seems the only thing that we can do to continue it is to recommit and to sacrifice those things that prevent us from doing so. To plunge even deeper into the traditions that made us and the world into readers, writers, thinkers. Ultimately, we can only do this work by doing it more, and resisting falling victim to the platitude that such external factors are insurmountable.

An exemplar of mine is Gerald Horne. In my first year of graduate study, I listened to him answer a question about how he was able to be so productive. His answer was something along the lines of “I write so much because I read.” This kind of reciprocal relationship to the function of intellectual work reminded me of something I had heard often repeated, but never quite understood: “listen and inscribe”–the second “ground rule of intellectual work” introduced to me as an undergraduate at Howard by Greg Carr. Horne gave that idea force and the ways that he coupled his commitment to doing his work with speaking truths that we could call radical was a model to emulate. It continues to be. And it is connected to the best of ourselves and our ancestors (many of whom Horne writes about–the circle has not been broken). So I was comfortably unsettled when a few months ago Horne indicated to a group of us gathered at Sankofa, here in Washington, D.C., that he too, has trouble getting his undergraduate students to read. Comfortable because I was not alone. Unsettled because it made me think that our actions were futile (if Horne’s students don’t read, then whose do?). I’ve been thinking about what to do ever since. How do we ensure that we remain a part of the progeny of committed readers and writers that made our very lives what they are?

I often think about the question of how intellectuals are made, of what conditions must exist to produce readers and writers. But also intellectuals committed to going against the grain, to sacrificing comfort to speak truths unacceptable to those in power, and to do it out of love. If we can contribute to this sort of making then we have done not only our jobs, we have fulfilled a calling more sacred than any academic process. There are also deeper connections–human connections–that words on a page can forge. In some ways Horne made me. And so the protest that “we have to meet them where they are” does very little for me. I needed to be taught to read, that there was value in contemplation and study. One does not become Cedric Robinson or Sylvia Wynter without this sort of commitment. “Where I was” was a place that could not be met and still retain the value of what it was I needed “to meet.” I needed to be uprooted. My sense is that more of us need to be uprooted, made to do the things that they would not normally do. And in the age of aliteracy, reading particular kinds of texts is one of those things. And as hard as it may be, in those texts that line the halls of our libraries there are connections to be made, some of them spiritual. So we must provide that space.

We must assign more. And we must assign to ourselves a deeper engagement with the world. Our narrow training in disciplines is not enough. And reading must be thought not to preclude other forms of texts–but to support them. We must increase our range and our depth. We must know more, because we are carriers of a tradition–either we know it or we lose the ability to frame it to those who do (a reminder from William Maxwell’s work, is that there are always going to be those who do–they are often enemies of liberation).

It is writing that provides that ability to frame. One cannot read for one’s self. Like those ancestors who read newspapers aloud or who sat around the bonfires to tell tales, reading is a collective act. Writing adds one’s voice to that conversation. We cannot produce only receptacles, we must produce producers. As we cultivate writers, we need to remember that writing matters in how we can build a society that uproots despair. And so the long hard act of writing the world must emanate from ourselves, so that we can put our reading to its best use. Write. And then write more. I had to be told to write by teachers who refused to “meet me where I was.” Rather, they used the act of writing to show me that “here” is where I needed to be. And though it is difficult, writing is indeed like nurturing.

Writing is something that nurtures you, like [a] mother. Not only you, but it nurtures everybody. It nurtures all generations. And it then, like [a] mother, causes goodness to come into your heart. – Jacob Carruthers

We have lost our mothers. But they can be found.


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