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Take Note: Jelani Cobb On Politics, Race And Writing

Jelania Cobb

A staff writer for the New Yorker and a professor of journalism at Columbia University, Jelani Cobb writes about politics, culture and race. He brings both historical insight and an eloquent writing style to topics ranging from football players kneeling during the national anthem to political battles over bathrooms. His writing has won awards and appeared in a number of publications, and he is the author of several books, including “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.” He is also known for his appearances on national television and radio programs.

TRANSCRIPT:

Anne Danahy:

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. A staff writer for the New Yorker and a professor of journalism at Columbia University, Jelani Cobb writes about politics, culture and race. He brings both historical insight and an eloquent writing style to topics ranging from football players kneeling during the National Anthem to political battles over bathrooms. His writing has won awards and appeared in a number of publications, and he is the author of several books, including "The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress." He is also known for his appearances on national television and radio programs. Jelani Cobb joins us in our studio. Jelani Cobb, thank you for coming in to talk with us.

Jelani Cobb:

Thank you.

Anne Danahy:

You almost always include a historical perspective when you're writing about current events. That's one of the things that makes your work so interesting. What are you seeing now?

Jelani Cobb:

For one, we've had this conversation when we looked at the last 18 months in American politics and thought that it was unprecedented or the level of friction and division that we have, and the explosive reemergence of populism as a political force. And those things are not new. They're not unprecedented. There's a striking degree of symmetry, I think actually when we look a hundred years ago, exactly, we were dealing with those exact questions, those same questions. We were dealing with strife and discord around issues of immigration. There were questions about the religious loyalties of immigrant groups and that particular case where people were talking about Jews and the belief that they were predisposed towards sympathies toward with Bolshevism and, you know, those kinds of conversations we were having a hundred years ago. But now would sound very familiar to someone who is Muslim in the United States. And populism as a response to the aggregation of power in the hands of a very small number of people and the aggregation of wealth in particular. We saw that at the beginning of the 20th Century, as well, with the rise of corporations and a tremendous degree of influence over the economy being held in the hands of a small number of individuals.

Jelani Cobb:

And so now maybe we're looking at this in terms of globalism, which is the next, you know, twist, I suppose, in the fable. But the bottom line dynamics, the concerns that people have about, you know, what does this mean for me? What does this mean for my ability to take care of my family and someone, those ideas are not new.

Anne Danahy:

As an example of a recent use of history, when writing about the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem, you put it in a historical context by looking at how a musician Louis Armstrong reacted to a racist governor who wanted schools to stay segregated. Which is a very interesting comparison. Can you just talk a little bit about that?

Jelani Cobb:

Well, the reason that Louis Armstrong came to mind was that he was thought of as this genial safe figure, apolitical. And his job consisted of making his audiences happy. And those audiences were predominantly white, often. And so when he turned around and spoke with indignation about an issue that was affecting African-Americans, people were shocked. And the predominant response was a sense of betrayal. Kind of, "Et tu, Louie?" You know, so when I looked at the NFL, when people were saying, "OK, your job is to show up on Sunday and make people happy." But these individuals are not atomized. They don't exist outside of the context of community. I think there was the incident a couple of months ago. With Michael Bennett an NFL player, was reportedly had a gun held to his head by a police officer in Las Vegas and you know, threatened with being shot. So you don't stop being African American. You don't stop being impacted by issues that disproportionately are concerns for African Americans the minute you suit up and step out onto the field. And for the audience in 2017, as in the audience in 1957, it was very difficult, I think, for people to make the transition, to say that even these individuals who we thought were here these beloved figures who allowed us to look past race, they exist in the context of race as well.

Anne Danahy:

And you earned your doctorate in American history from Rutgers. And you've said that growing up history helped you make sense of the world. Could you talk about that?

Jelani Cobb:

I took a history class my first year at Howard University and I was expecting...history. Just I'll read the book and, you know, I'll take some exams. And, you know, then end of the semester I'll be done with it. But what wound up happening was that it completely reoriented my understanding of my own life. You know, for instance, I had grown up in Queens, New York. I had no context for why the community I lived in was so heavily West Indian. And then, you know, I'm taking a class and I'm learning about the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 and what was going on with the Jamaican economy in the 1960s and the 1970s that brought so many specifically Jamaicans to New York City. Also reading about the Great Migration and the industrial political and social dynamics that caused 2 million African-Americans to leave the South and go to industrial centers in the North and the Midwest. And all of a sudden it was kind of like being able to look at the world around me and see the pixels." Like, Oh, this is how this got here. This is where, you know, this is where I enter the story." And I've never stopped being fascinated by that.

Anne Danahy:

And is there a particular time in history that you were interested in then and are now? What, what time period in American history.

Jelani Cobb:

In American history, I've mostly specialized in 20th Century Civil Rights and Cold War. But I've been interested in the entirety of it. And then of course, when you have to say, like, when you talk to people who are European historians, they're kind of like, well, you know, you don't have very much history in the United States.

Anne Danahy:

Pretty quick time period, yeah.

Jelani Cobb:

It's like our history consists of what they would consider a preface to history.

Anne Danahy:

Flash in the pan.

Jelani Cobb:

Right. But of late I've found colonial history to be much more interesting than I did earlier points in my life. Because so much of what we're looking at now, it's kind of in the DNA element of American society. And so we kind of go back to the origins and say, "Oh, well, the roots of this problem lie here." And we can see how it developed and grew over the course of American history.

Anne Danahy:

And before you went to school, going back even a little bit farther in your own personal history, you talked about the memory of learning to write from your father. Tell us about that.

Jelani Cobb:

And I think that's part of history too. So my father was from a place called Hazlehurst, Georgia, which is a little speck of a town. And he had only a third grade education. And one of the most formative memories I have is when I was a small child and he was teaching me the alphabet with like his hand wrapped around my small hand and we're tracing the letters and so on, and he's praising me and telling me how good my handwriting is and so on. And I always tell young people that, you know, our parents have a head start on us. That we start thinking about who we are, I guess when we're, you know, 10 or 11 or entering adolescence. And like, what do I think and so on. But that means they have a whole decade of shaping that they get to do before you actually know what's happening. And so in some sense, I think my father was setting me on a path because he certainly wanted me to get what he didn't get, what he wasn't able to get. And that was education. And so that was very crucial to him. And so always kind of giving me pens and paper as gifts were, you know, putting his thumb on the scale, I think.

Anne Danahy:

And when did you know that you wanted to be a writer or a historian?

Jelani Cobb:

I was always interested in writing. And I think that, you know, lots of times we have children who are interested in writing stories or poems. It's like one of the things that we, you know, encourage children to do. And then we maybe decreasingly encouraged that over time. And for me I always maintained that interest and, you know, that was always, I think, the thing that I felt like I could, I felt confident I could express myself in that medium. And that goes very far back. It goes back to probably not long after, you know, my father was tracing the alphabet with me.

But in terms of history, that was definitely a kind of connection that I made when I was in undergrad and a professor -- unfortunately he passed away just last month -- a professor by the name of Adel Patton who was my first history professor in college. And I kind of maintained a relationship with him over the next almost 30 years and was as impressed, I think, by his intellect just in the past few months as I was when I was a very impressionable 18-year-old.

Anne Danahy:

And you've also said that getting things on paper can be a form of therapy, both for the writer and the people reading it, kind of cathartic. Is that still true for you?

Jelani Cobb:

Yes, absolutely. Because there are you know, things I think that you feel pressure to respond to or at least to contribute to the conversation around. And hopefully if you kind of hit the nail on the head, there are other people who are going, yes. You know, I felt that same way. Or this is something I hadn't thought about in this way, but it's worth considering more of. And you know, that kind of interplay and exchange I think is invaluable.

Anne Danahy:

And you often focus on those issues that are kind of at our collective nerve center, including the recent mass shootings and Chief of Staff John Kelly's comments on the Civil War. How do you decide what you're going to write about?

Jelani Cobb:

I think that decision gets made for me. Like sometimes you're looking around and seeing just breathtaking situations that are going on. Like, it was very striking for me to hear you know, the chief of staff say that the one, that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. And two that, you know, the war, the Civil War had begun because of the inability to compromise. And, you know, neither of those things really bears up to much scrutiny. When we look at the fact that Robert Lee was a slaveholder that during the course of the Civil War. He allowed his soldiers to kidnap African Americans who actually were free and sell them into slavery.

And so none of that conforms, I think, To the idea of someone being honorable. And the idea that the war came about because of the failure to compromise, just doesn't conform to the historical record. And so I wrote about that. And it was also striking to me that, you know, that Kelly is a Boston guy and, you know, Donald Trump is a Queens guy. I'm also from Queens. And it was very striking to me to hear both of them defending the Confederacy in no way, shape or form. You know, Trump notably, you know, defended Robert E. Lee after Charlottesville. I was kind of struck by that. And I was like, "What's going on here?" Like, this is not typically the dynamic... We expect this from somebody from Mississippi or somebody from Texas or a politician who you know, comes from Georgia maybe. But these are two northerners who are articulating this line that is very much the old Southern lost cause ideal. And that was why, you know, I felt like I had to respond to it.

Anne Danahy:

I think it might be surprising to a lot of people that these are conversations that we are still having.

Jelani Cobb:

It's not surprising to me.

Anne Danahy:

No?

Jelani Cobb:

No, because as I said at that piece, at the conclusion of it, I said that we reached the end of the war, but not the end of the hostilities. And so we continue to have a kind of...and because we've been in denial about what was at the heart of that war, we've never been able to escape its shadow. So it doesn't really surprise me.

Anne Danahy:

And another recent topic that you've addressed is gun control. And I'm going to quote you here. You wrote in part, "The attack in Las Vegas is the worst mass shooting right now, not because of the number of dead but because it reveals, yet again, that our steadfast refusal to do anything different is enabling those who wish to give us more of the same." What did you mean?

Jelani Cobb:

I meant that we were looking at numbers, and I thought that was not the right calculation to make about what makes it the worst. I said, it's the worst because it's the most recent. And, you know, we've shown yet again, that we refuse to take any steps that would protect innocent citizens, innocent children, innocent human beings from being preyed upon, by really, really powerful weapons. I didn't like the idea that we were kind of calculating, or we're doing this kind of accounting of mortality. We're going, "Oh, okay, let's get the spreadsheet now. And we can, you know, put debits on this side." And so, I don't think that's the right way for us to think about this.

Anne Danahy:

And you've been critical of the left, too. In a piece this summer, you wrote that the behavior and images of the Antifa protestors will be held up by many on the right as evidence that Trump was correct about the blame falling on "many sides." And you're laughing.

Jelani Cobb:

Yeah. Because I got a little bit of criticism about that. Which is fine, you know. I'm fine with, you know, taking incoming fire. So after Charlottesville, there was this big question among people on the left about how you properly respond to kind of racist displays or Neo Confederate or Neo Nazi demonstrations. And one of the questions I think, centered around violence and is it OK to behave violently toward people who are expressing these really odious, sentiments? And I felt like morally, and even, you know, kind of more pragmatically, politically, it was bad to use violence against anyone who doesn't pose an active threat at that point in time. And so when I saw that there were instances where there was some times four or five or six Antifa protesters corralling or shoving one of the Neo Nazi demonstrators, I didn't feel like that was morally justifiable unless that person posed a threat to other people.

And I think I got a lot of pushback for that because there's this idea that, Oh, it's OK if they're Nazis, you know. And I don't think that, I think that ultimately wound up opening the door to much more egregious kinds of, and much more commonplace and mundane kinds of trampling on people's rights when you create those asterisk categories like that. And obviously a lot of people didn't feel that way. You know, they thought that, I mean, I think in Charlottesville it was different. I think because in Charlottesville the people who were arrayed there actually did pose a threat to the public. And so when people were involved in kind of physical clashes and so on, it wasn't something that I thought you could actually make a moral judgment about. But in the subsequent ones that happened in you know, the days and the weeks following Charlottesville, it was a very different, I thought calculation.

Anne Danahy:

And on a current topic. There's of course an election going on in Alabama coming up for the open Senate seat. And I'm going to quote you again here. Republican Roy Moore is under pressure by some to drop out because of reports of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. And you tweeted, "Having blown past sexual assault of adult women and tolerance of neo-Nazism as disqualifiers the GOP electorate now looks at pedophilia and says 'Meh, I could still vote for the guy..." So pretty strong critique.

Jelani Cobb:

Well, so it's very funny to me because it's, you know, 60 years ago or so when Jerry Lee Lewis, you know, the musician is criticized and it basically derails his career for marrying a 15 year old or something. And now we've reached a point where we're saying not only is this not kind of clearly amoral or immoral, that we actually believe someone could in theory, and this is what we're hearing, in theory, someone could behave this way and still qualify to represent a state in the United States Senate. And so it's a really kind of bizarre place to be. And I think that there's so little, I think in contemporary politics about commitment to principles where we're going, like these are, these are the lines that we won't cross. Every time we see, you know, one of those lines, especially in the last 18 months we've seen those lines crossed and really not much consequence to them. And so now we have found a point where, you know, we're debating... And it isn't even so much the question of whether he did this, you know? And so, which is a fair question. Someone could say, well, we have questions about this. Although the Washington Post did a fairly exhaustive investigation here, you could say, well, I want, you know, more evidence that this happened. And, you know, I respect that position.

Anne Danahy:

Right, he hasn't been convicted of anything. He hasn't even actually been accused in court.

Jelani Cobb:

Sure. And, and we could say, well, this is a conversation that we need to have more information about. But that's not the conversation. What we are hearing in many instances is the minimization of the wrongfulness of it, if he did do it. And so I don't think that any reasonable person who has a 14-year-old daughter wants a 32-year-old man knocking on the door to come say, I'm taking her out on a date. That's not in keeping with most of what our values are in this country. And so to see that even this has now kind of relativism attached to it is yet another, I think, signpost of how our politics have evolved or someone say degraded.

Anne Danahy:

Devolved?

Jelani Cobb:

Yeah, devolved in the past year or two.

Anne Danahy:

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. We're talking with Jelani Cobb, historian, social commentator and writer with the New Yorker. I read an interview with you about your love of the local library growing up in Queens. When did you start going there and why was it so important?

Jelani Cobb:

So I remember distinctly when I was nine, when I was nine years old. I went to the library with my mother and I think I maybe had library cards before that. But this was the first time I went and got my own library card, you know, with my mother and I had to go up and sign my name and, you know, kind of go through that. And I didn't know, actually, like I found this out later that that is a really pointed memory for lots of people.

Anne Danahy:

Yeah, I remember getting mine.

Jelani Cobb:

People remember getting their library cards. They remember it. It was the first thing they had with their name on it. And there are people who remember their first librarians and, you know, the books that they took out. You know, I had that experience and I just fell in love with, you know, the Queens Borough Library, you know, South Hollis branch.

And I was able to go back there not long ago. And I did a talk for the young people there, and I was able to make a contribution to the library. And, you know, it was very important. Libraries are very near and dear to me because they're really the citadel of democracy. We're saying that democracy rests upon having a properly informed public. And here we have institutions that... Let's talk about how amazing it is that these institutions, where you can go and you find hundreds or thousands of books, and you can read them for free. For free. They have films. You can watch them for free all in the ultimate objective of creating a better educated public. If that's not a commitment to democracy, then I really don't know what is. And so I have this kind of lifelong love of libraries.

Anne Danahy:

I also think of them as a place for little kids where they can get completely lost in a positive way.

Jelani Cobb:

Right, right. You know, the kids go and, you know, they do their homework, they socialize. And, you know, there's always the kind of shushing, like, you know, the boisterous kid in the library. It's like a relationship that all of us have some sort of reference to.

Anne Danahy:

And you're a professor now, how do you inspire your students to have that same passion for learning and curiosity that you have?

Jelani Cobb:

I think we generally are more curious as young people. And sometimes that's not cultivated, it's not nurtured or whatever. And when, you know, I have a classroom full of young people, I try to ask the question that I would find interesting. Or to pose questions that I would want to have pondered at that point in my life. Or ideas that were interesting to me and changed the way I looked at the world and present them to them. And, you know, I challenge their views. I always say, you know, if I'm successful at the end of the class, no one will know what I actually believe. Because, you know, I'll be all over the map and arguing against whatever position is the prevailing one. And my hope is, and I think, you know, having heard from former students over the course of years my hope is that that kind of challenge does help cultivate and nurture that curiosity and that critical faculty as well.

Anne Danahy:

And these might be future reporters that you're working with. How do you see the role of reporters as having changed, particularly when it comes to fact-checking what's being said.

Jelani Cobb:

Well, it's very much... So one, you know, reporters don't presume there's not a kind of presumption of the rectitude of reporters anymore. People don't trust the media. And you know, I was in class last week actually. And I was saying, you know, "Should they?" And students were like, yeah, you know, we think that people should trust us and so on. And I said, OK, let's just be clear about what we're saying. That we exist as individuals. And we have because of the advances of technology, the capacity to communicate with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or tens of millions of individuals at once. And we say to these individuals, trust me. The traditional way in which we cement trust in individuals is longterm one-on-one interaction. Face-To-Face that we know people, we get to know them over time. We see them in our communities, and so on.

And so I said, for us, we have to show our work. So to speak that people in the social sciences have known for a long time, they have to be able to show that their results are valid through, you know, footnotes or citations or people in the hard sciences have to show that their results can be replicated in a laboratory. And for media, we don't have the kind of easy thumbnail way of doing that. And so I said, we have to have a kind of radical transparency so that when we report things, you ask the public to believe something. We'll say, well, if you don't believe in my personal credibility, here's the information. And you can actually see and check this out for yourself.

Anne Danahy:

Some sort of online footnotes for journalism. But it seems like there is a lot of pushback. I might believe this newspaper, but my neighbor doesn't, they believe this news source and everybody's getting their information from different sources that are arriving at different conclusions.

Jelani Cobb:

Yeah. And I was saying that that's what I always referred to as a la carte reality. We can believe anything that we want and we can get the information to justify that belief. And I knew that we were in trouble I guess this was about a year and a half ago when I saw there was a debate going on, on social media about whether or not the earth was flat. And I mean, like actual debate

Anne Danahy:

Not as a sarcastic response?

Jelani Cobb:

Not a sarcastic thing. And Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, AKA knower of the shape of planets weighed in on this. And even his erudite perspective didn't carry the day. And they're like, "Well, you know, this is just what he says." And so we have reached this really kind of concerning point, I think that if we don't agree on some fundamental ideas and verifiable ideas, then the things that are hazier, the things that maybe we have a preponderance of perspective on, but not a definitive conclusion about, those things a much more subject to be interpreted in ways that we want to see.

So if you don't believe that there's evidence of Russian intervention in our elections, you simply choose the information that tells you that that's not the case. Or if you do believe that you can find that information too. And if that proves to be valid, sometimes we believe things without knowing why they're actual valid propositions, which is just as bad as believing the wrong thing. In a real sense I think that we haven't figured out how to navigate that. And it's reflected in our media. It's reflected in our politics and therefore reflected in the social tensions that we see in society right now.

Anne Danahy:

Yeah. And I guess on a more optimistic note the presidential election seems to have, in some ways, kickstarted the media. There's even more demand for it. So there's always curiosity or speculation about the downturn of print media, but definitely newspapers are very active. Do you think that there's reason to be optimistic about the role of media?

Jelani Cobb:

Yeah, definitely. I think that there are some things that people have to figure out. You know, the decline of local media is really concerning. And that has to be figured out if we're going to kind of reach a healthier place in terms of, I think our civic culture. But there's all kinds of innovation that's going on. There are lots of young people that are interested in working in media and interested in reporting out stories and see more than ever the virtue and importance of doing the work of informing the public. I think that, you know, it's very difficult to be pessimistic if you're looking at a classroom full of people every day who are very much invested in the idea of the fourth estate.

Anne Danahy:

And your parents named you William, but you later added "Jelani," which means "powerful" in Swahili. Why?

Jelani Cobb:

That happened in college actually. It was at a point where I really felt like I wanted to connect to my African ancestry. So I think that was kind of... It also was kind of aspirational because it was at a point where I wasn't quite sure, as many young people feel, I wasn't quite sure I'd be able to actually do the things that I hoped I could do in life. And so I picked this name, that'd be kind of a reminder, like, yeah, I'm strong enough to do this. I can do you know, I can get a PhD or I can write books or, you know, I can you know, speak in public forums. And those were all things that I hoped to do one day, but wasn't sure that I'd be able to get there.

Anne Danahy:

And now you've done that and I hope it's okay. I'm asking you a personal question. So you have a new baby.

Jelani Cobb:

Yes. She's seven months old.

Anne Danahy:

And what is her name?

Jelani Cobb:

Her name is Lenox.

Anne Danahy:

And have you already started reading to her?

Jelani Cobb:

Oh my God. We started reading to her the day she was born. I think the day after she was born. And, you know, I was reading to her "Black Reconstruction" by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Anne Danahy:

A light bedtime read.

Jelani Cobb:

A 700 page tome on the rise and fall of Reconstruction governments after the Civil War. And I mean, I was very interested in it. She didn't find it quite that interesting. So now I've been reading her children's books. You know, we'll work our way back to Reconstruction one day.

Anne Danahy:

Jelani Cobb, thank you so much for talking with us.

Jelani Cobb:

Thank you.

Anne Danahy:

We've been talking with Jelani Cobb, historian, social commentator and professor at Columbia University. To hear this and other Take Note interviews, go to wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Anne Danahy, WPSU.

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Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.
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