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Jelani Cobb

Tuesday, April 16, 2019
7:30pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 06/16/2019, 06/18/2019, 06/19/2019

This event appeared in the series
Social Studies

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Jelani Cobb has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2015, writing on subjects of race, politics, history, and culture. Cobb’s books include The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, and the collection, The Devil and Dave Chappelle and Other Essays. He has also contributed essays and articles to the Washington Post, The New Republic, Essence, Vibe, The Progressive, and Across his body of work, Dr. Cobb regularly interrogates intersections of race, social justice, and American politics, suffusing them with his characteristic incisiveness and wit. His awards include the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford foundations. Dr. Cobb was a 2018 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Commentary, “for combining masterful writing with a deep knowledge of history and a deft reporter’s touch to bring context and clarity to the issue of race at a time when respectful dialogue on the subject often gives way to finger-pointing and derision.”  He is the Ira J. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, specializing in post-Civil War African American history, 20th century and modern American politics, and the history of the Cold War.

Hilton Als is an essayist, author, and has been the lead theatre critic for The New Yorker since 2012. Als received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, “for bold and original reviews that strove to put stage dramas within a real-world cultural context, particularly the shifting landscape of gender, sexuality and race.”  He is the author of The Women, and White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Non-fiction. His writing, regardless of form, explores race, sexuality, class, art, and American identity provocatively, exploding the boundaries of the genre in which it is contained.

Books Referenced:

Articles Referenced:

Musical Groups referenced:

  • Run-D.M.C.
  • LL Cool J
  • Public Enemy

Writers / Journalists Referenced:

  • Toni Morrison
  • Stokely Carmichael
  • Amiri Baraka
  • Harry Allen
  • James Baldwin
  • Joan Didion
  • Jimmy Cannon
  • Red Smith
  • A.J. Liebling
  • Gay Talese
  • David Halberstam
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • Edna Lewis
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • David Carr
  • Neil Drumming
  • Tina Brown
  • David Remnick
  • Khaleel Mohammed
  • Amy Davidson Sorkin
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • Ralph Wiley


City Arts & Lectures Jelani Cobb with Hilton All. April 16, 2019. 415-392-4400.Hilton Als: Thank you.  It’s a very great day for me and for many others when William Jelani Cobb is in our midst, because, as is generally true of the most interesting writers and thinkers, his insights make one feel more intelligent and capable during correspondingly troubled times. Ever since he started contributing to the New Yorker in 2012, but long before that really, he has been a voice that I not only long for, but find necessary. An essential consciousness that lifts us up by the sheer virtue of his intelligence, insight, and sense of fair play.

He has published a number of significant books, and edited  “The Essential Harold Cruse” in 2002. His own works include “The Devil and Dave Chappelle and Other Essays” in 2007, “To the Break of Dawn: a Freestyle on The Hip Hop Aesthetic,” published the same year, and in 2010, “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.” 

Whether he’s writing about recent tragedies, such as the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, or R. Kelly, and emblems of another way of being, such as Lucy McBath, and I hope down the line the newly installed Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, Jelani Cobb’s powerful stance has to do with humanism, a rare commodity in public forums. 

And so, in life.  Please help me welcome, not only a great writer but a great humanitarian, William Jelani Cobb.

You’ve already won them over. You don’t have to do another thing. 

Jelani Cobb: Good night. Good seeing you all. 

Hilton Als: Thank you for coming. 

Jelani Cobb: Thank you. 

Hilton Als: Jelani, it’s a very sort of strange process, because we’re colleagues at the New Yorker, who are generally on the other side of this kind of conversation, so. But I’m so curious and sort of hungry for things, autobiographical and biographical information, that I’m very curious about your life. And in a little note in “The Devil and Dave Chappelle” you describe how as a child, it wasn’t unusual for an elder to grab you by the wrist and tap you on the head and say “get something up there.”

Can you tell me something about your background? Where you were born and what your family atmosphere was like? 

Jelani Cobb: So I’m from Queens, New York and…Oh, that’s hilarious. That never happens. So just, it seems like people are already familiar, but just to kind of talk about the geographic tribalism of New York City.

Hilton Als: Yes. 

Jelani Cobb: Is that it’s typically Brooklyn people who react like this, right? 

Hilton Als: Yes. 

Jelani Cobb: You know, how people say “Brooklyn,” and the next five minutes it’s like, there’s like, you know, making all of these sounds and foghorns… 

Hilton Als: But not when they say “Flushing?” 

Jelani Cobb: Not when they say Flushing, you know. And so, you know, I grew up in Queens. My parents met in Harlem. And you know, like many people in my generation, they were migrants from the south. My brother’s from Alabama. My father was from Georgia. And you know, I think the fundamental, foundational things about my life have been the reaction to what happened in their lives. My mother had a high school education. She left Alabama when she was 15. 

Hilton Als: So that would have been in the late 50s?

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, in the late 50s. And pregnant with my oldest sister. And never went back to Alabama. Went to Chicago, and then from Chicago to New York. And my father left Georgia, and he had a third grade education. Had this idea that things would be better, if not for him, then for his children if he went to the north. And they met in Harlem. My father was the electrician in my mother’s building. And so he kept making excuses to come check her lights. As it were, so to speak. 

Hilton Als: As it were, so to speak, metaphor. 

Jelani Cobb: And eventually, my mother realized that this was not about wiring. 

Hilton Als: Yeah, or it was. 

Jelani Cobb: Or was about wiring. Like this launched a thousand bad metaphors. A charge, a spark, you know, a volt. You can just go through all these things. 

And so, but I’m very much, you know, like that other, you know, generation of young people whose parents came in the Great Migration. And their objective was for our lives to be a refutation of everything that they experienced. And so my interest I think, in writing about the things I write about, are steeped in those experiences.

My mother had a wellspring of resentment that she carried to her dying days about not being able to go to the public library in Birmingham, Alabama and Bessemer, Alabama. Like that never, she never reconciled herself to that. And I think that somehow the really fervid, devout sense that education had to be key you know, for us came as an experience, as a reaction to that. 

Hilton Als: You know, there’s something, going through your work, and going through “The Devil and Dave Chappelle,” there’s a very short piece that is so emotionally astounding to me, and it’s about black men and women loving each other, and the myth of separation that black men either beat women or they leave. And it’s almost a short story, what you’ve written, about the ways in which history has defined, the ways in which black love is defined. 

Your parents gave you something really extraordinary, which was the reality and the idea of family. And so when you speak now, do you feel–you said just now that it’s a sort of continuation of the conversations that they started with you. What was it that they saw in you specifically about history? I was very interested in this aspect of how the historical has played a big part in your life forever. Did they tell you stories about where they had grown up? 

Jelani Cobb: Absolutely. So there’s, it’s interesting, like my parents talked about where they grew up in a particular context, but they didn’t talk about the factors that led them to leave. You know, and my father would talk about, you know things that he experienced growing up in a little speck of a town called Hazlehurst, Georgia. And, but he wouldn’t talk about the violence that they witnessed or the things that, you know, the poverty, and how brut–. 

I didn’t understand this, my aunt told me when I was an adult, the way that my father went to work. And he was a large man, he’s who I get my size from. And this is during the Depression. My father was a good bit older than my mother. And they were about to be kicked out of their home. And my grandparents were divorced. 

And so the white man who owns this house, he looks over and sees my father who was 9, but considerably larger than the average nine-year-old, and he says, you know, “I’m going to throw you out, or you can let that boy come over and work for me and I’ll let you keep staying here.” And I was it. My father went to work. And that was the kind of like narrative of that. And so that was a kind of… 

Hilton Als: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because in West Indian, or Southern, or Caribbean, it’s a similar thing where they won’t, they’ll tell you to a point, right, where you’re coming from, and they edit out the blood. And it’s similar to Eastern European Jews coming to New York or California, where the parents cut off the language. That’s the first thing that has to go in order to be in the new place. So they wanted you to be in this new place.  And yet you were so fascinated by history. 

Jelani Cobb: Oh, absolutely, because that was like how you fill in the other parts of the puzzle. And so you’re like, who are these people really? I mean, that’s the first mystery you’re trying to resolve as a young person is like, who are these people who have near totalitarian control over my life? And you know, this history thing seems to shed some light on the forces that shape them and turn them into whoever they are. I think that was where my initial interest in it came from.

Hilton Als: What was your relationship to your mother and your father? Obviously, it’s always different for a boy, as they say. What was your relationship to your father like? 

Jelani Cobb: So I had this sense of my father as like the super heroic dimensions, almost. And you know partly just because of stature. Like I was a small child and he was this large man who retained his strength and vitality well into his, you know, his later years. 

But the other things I guess I didn’t really get, or I couldn’t really grasp about him were like the kind of limitations that he encountered and what that meant to him and what that did to him and the parts of his life that he didn’t really want to talk about. And so in that way that he was super heroic for me as a young person, and then an enigma as I got older. And so I think that was largely the sense that I had of him. 

But the thing also about like writing that was connected to him is, I think the thing about parenting is, that we can rebel against our parents and what their aspirations are for us. But they have a good decade head start to kind of shape and mold us before we really even know what they’re doing, you know. 

Hilton Als: And years of telling us to shut up…

Jelani Cobb: Years of, right exactly. It’s like, but we haven’t gotten like the cognitive abilities to rebel quite down. 

Hilton Als: Yeah, plus they have the checkbook.

Jelani Cobb: And they have the checkbook. They have all these things. But my father would always give me notepads, like as gifts. Like if he was going like out of town, or if he was doing, whatever it was. He would always come home and give me writing paper and pens. 

Hilton Als: Implements. 

Jelani Cobb: Implements. And you know, one of the most foundational things for me was him teaching me the alphabet. And I of course didn’t understand what the significance of this was. But for him, a person who had a third grade education, that was huge, that he was going to equip me with the alphabet and then I would go further then he did. 

And I wound up becoming a writer, and even now like this feels foreign to me, like this feels like how you’re supposed to write. And I was like, he had a decade before. I was like, of course I wound up being a writer. He was shaping and molding, manipulating me in that particular direction, right?

Hilton Als: But I mean, and also, one of the things that was happening obviously was how do you train children–you can’t train children for something that they don’t have, and they saw that you had something in this relationship to words and and those implements. Were you a big reader as a kid or? 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, and I think I got that from my mother. And so I think, you I’m sure, you know people like this. Like we all know people like this, but my mother was one of them. I didn’t understand this until much later in life, but there are, like one of the strategies that people use to combat marginalization is dignity. You know, so they–.

Hilton Als: Dignity of dress. 

Jelani Cobb: The dignity of dress.

Hilton Als: The discipline of care? 

Jelani Cobb: Of enunciation. Like they speak with calibrated precision. They dress, bearing is meant to be kind of, counteract the indignity that is directed at them from externally, from outside. And like my mother was one of those people. Like she really felt like by reading voraciously she was doing something, it was like an act of self-defense. 

Hilton Als: Because it’s freedom of mind. 

Jelani Cobb: It is. 

Hilton Als: You can go anywhere.

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, you can go anywhere. And even like, so I have an aunt, I had an aunt, late aunt, who, she was like the most bougie person I’ve ever met. She was like. And I mean I hated going to her house as a kid. I mean it was just the enforced discipline of all the kind of, the rigors of bourgeois existence. 

So they didn’t have a whole lot of money. So for me, this was just pretense. Like y’all don’t have a whole lot of money, but you like have the bourgeois manner, distinctions of people like several income ratios higher than here, than yours. 

Hilton Als: Like the couple in, the old couple in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” or something. 

Jelani Cobb: Right, exactly. Exactly. Even like the kind of Sidney Poitier as kind of an example of that. 

Hilton Als: Exactly. 

Jelani Cobb: Like dignity as a weapon. But I didn’t understand that til later. She played the piano and you know, I didn’t understand any of this. But later I realized how radical it was for a black woman with not a whole lot of education from Bessemer, Alabama, who had experienced the worst deprivations of Jim Crow, to say “you will not quarantine the rest of the world from me, but I will be interested in art. That I will buy a piano, even though we can barely afford it, and learn to play it, and I will make sure that these children get piano lessons, and whatever it is that is like interesting to me in the world, I’m going to have access to it as a matter of my own defiant will to be a human being.” And my mother was like in that tradition, I think. 

Hilton Als: It’s very interesting that you bring up this particular kind of woman, because I’m a child of a Black Nationalist era, which was still very strong when you were born, and one of the offshoots or asteriks of Black Nationalism was the Black Arts Movement, of course, and I had a sister, and she would just take me everywhere. So culture to me was never defined by race, it was always defined by urgency. 

And one of the things that I think I’m hearing you say, is that it was urgent for your parents, as parents, to give you this foundation to go out into the world unobstructed by what had slowed them down. They didn’t want you to have that information, because it was just going to get in your way. They’d lived it for you. 

So I’m just wondering, when you, as a student, started to really–it’s not well known, but it should be more well known that you were trained as a historian. Let’s talk about that aspect of your education. Moving from what they gave you to your thinking life.

Jelani Cobb: Oh. And so I think, one, I’ll tell you like, as a kind of quick point that… 

Hilton Als: No, take your time. 

Jelani Cobb: As an aside. There was some detours to the history thing. But I initially, like I think, a lot of young people in that era, fell in love with hip-hop. And I started writing rhymes and writing raps. And I grew up in Hollis, Queens, you know. Are you serious? I like must be related to you. It’s my cousin, from my bourgeois aunt. 

But I grew up in Hollis, Queens, which people under a certain age know to associate with Run-D.M.C. And yeah, and so, but like they were my brother’s classmates, like they wasn’t like, Run and DMC, it was Joseph and Darrell, you know from the neighborhood. 

And then in eighth grade, this is a kind of very funny story. I had a classmate. And we used to have to line up in height order before we were dismissed. I don’t know why. It was this kind of discipline that we had. We all had to line up in height order.

I was the third tallest boy in my class. There was me, there was James, then it was Anthony Weeks. And Anthony Weeks ended up being like six eight or something like that. And so we would line up, and this one day James hands me a slip of paper. And it has his name on it. And I was like, “what is this?” He’s like “that’s my autograph. You should keep it. I’m going to be real famous.” 

Hilton Als: This is about ’84, ’83? 

Jelani Cobb: This is ’83. Yeah. And so I took it and crumbled it up and threw it across the room. I remember this. And it didn’t have James’s full name on it. It had his rap name, which was LL Cool J.

Hilton Als: Now I’m really going home. 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, right, right. But it was funny. I ran into him in an airport, I ran into him in LAX, like two summers ago and was like, he remembered me from school and everything. I was like, “I’m going to tell you a story I’m sure you have forgotten.” And I told the story of the autograph. He was like “did I do that?” I said “you totally did that.” 

But so that’s where the language thing came in. Like there was like all of this ferment of like culture and everything, and I was like writing raps and not realizing that in writing raps I was teaching myself to write. You know that the use of simile, the use of metaphor, the use of… 

Hilton Als: Space.

Jelani Cobb: Space. Of sentence having rhythm. Of you trying to paint an image in the mind of the reader, of all these kinds of things that are tactics that we deploy in our writing in other genres. And unknowingly I was absorbing that. And so when I got to school, I was an English major and a history minor and… 

Hilton Als: Where were you at school?

Jelani Cobb: I was at Howard. And so I went to Howard kind of–one of my friend’s parents had graduated, and I didn’t really have a whole lot of guidance about this. And so one of my friend’s parents was like “you should go to Howard,” and I was like, “okay.” 

Hilton Als: Right. 

Jelani Cobb: And you know, I went to Howard. 

Hilton Als: It’s a similar, it’s an old part of the immigrant story, is that they can take you so far and they can’t take you further, because they don’t have that information. 

Jelani Cobb: That’s right. And so I found my way to Howard and found my way into a class with a professor by the name of Adell Patton, and like my life was different after that.

Hilton Als: But can you tell, give us a description of that? And also, just to give the folks a little context, Howard had always been–it’s a Black University, but there’d always been incredible people there. For instance, it was one of Toni Morrison’s first jobs teaching there, and one of her students was Claude Brown who wrote “Manchild in the Promised Land.” Stokely… 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, Stokely Carmichael. Amiri Baraka. 

Hilton Als: And she said that it was really Baraka who was one of the big people to turn the campus around.

Jelani Cobb: Yeah. 

Hilton Als: Because she had gone to Howard, and it was still the color scale then. And talking about Bourgeois attitudes.

Jelani Cobb: Very much. Well, it’s funny because I talked with Baraka. His son, Ras, who’s now the mayor of Newark, was one of my classmates at Howard, and we got to be good friends in activist circles. And so Amiri Baraka would come and he’d kind of give us advice and sometimes he’d just talk about life. And Toni Morrison had actually been an undergrad at the same time that he was at Howard. And he said that she was so far, he said she was stunningly beautiful.

Hilton Als:  Gorgeous. 

Jelani Cobb: Gorgeous, and he was like, but even more intimidating was the fact that she was so far more mature than they were, and it was like, that no one dared approach her. It was like, you know, just admired her from afar. And so, you know, I fall into this environment. 

And you know, Howard has this tradition of being dissenters in the cause of black humanity, black freedom. And this is an institution that’s in the middle of Washington DC and very much tapped into all the currents there. And when I got there, you know, I didn’t know a whole lot of this. And I took this class with a professor named Adel Patton, a Black Diaspora class.

And I was staggered, that anyone could hold that much information in their head. And I just wanted to be like him. And just started reading everything. It was, I remember specifically that he had suggested readings on the syllabus, and I actually read the suggested readings. I was like, I think I’m hooked. I think I’m developing a problem here. And that was how the historical part came. And I’ve been trying to wed those two things. 

Hilton Als: Well, it’s one of the extraordinary things, just listening to you now, is an image comes to mind of your father’s hands. Your hand and your father’s hand, your father handing him, your hand over to this professor, because he could only take you so far. 

But this admiration that I find very moving in you, for black masculinity that teaches and passes on is something that’s very powerful to me as you talk. And so he wanted you to know, your father wanted you to know, what he didn’t know. And here was this professor saying–they always know when the kid is going to surpass them in some way.

So what was it like when you were doing freestyle? Were you interested in Black politics then, or was it Howard that really sort of cemented that?

Jelani Cobb: It was Howard, and also it was kind of the era, because you know Public Enemy had a huge influence. 

Hilton Als: Harry Allen. 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, Harry Allen and like these people. So it was like a kind of moment of ferment. We were learning about apartheid in South Africa, and we’re in Washington DC. For the people who are protesting, you know, daily, things that are going on there. There are, I mean, we’re starting to see in the 80s–and again, we’re in DC–these large-scale protests about AIDS and AIDS policy in the government and this is happening like around. 

And so there’s this real ferment that kind of said you need to actually understand what’s going on. You need to kind of get up to speed on these things. And I kind of fell like right into it. And interestingly, I was born William Anthony Cobb, and it was in the midst of that that I dropped Anthony and and took Jelani, because we were all activists and we were all changing our names.

I had a personal reason for it, which I don’t really talk about but. You know, my initials, W– 

Hilton Als: Oh, come on. 

Jelani Cobb: I know, my initials are W, J, C. William Jelani Cobb. And then previously, my name was William Anthony Cobb, and my initials were. Yes, right. I was like, I can’t go anywhere in life with these initials. So this was partly about my politics and this is partly about my monogram. And so I changed it.

Hilton Als: It’s the same thing. 

Jelani Cobb: The same thing, right. I was like I can’t do that. 

Hilton Als: What else was going on in terms of your process of intellection? Who were you reading that was having a profound effect on you in terms of language? 

Jelani Cobb: Oh, that’s–so my first year in college, at the end of my first semester, James Baldwin died. And my English professor came in and he tried explain to us the significance of Baldwin. And I mean you can’t do that. You can’t do that in a class. You’d be lucky if you did that in a semester. 

And I was kind of like, who is this person? It’s to me a crime that I was able to graduate from a New York City public high school without knowing James Baldwin. And so on, at his behest, I was like, okay, I have to read this person. 

And I mean as a freshman I read and was like, “why is his sentences so long?” That’s what I took away from it was like “God, man. Did you get like these commas on sale?” And like em dashes and all this like, every kind of method of elongating, you know, an idea he deployed. And it just kind of threw me, I couldn’t grasp it. And then I came back to him and like many of us in our generation, just became a complete apostle, you know, of him and… 

Hilton Als: Cause the sentences are really like breathing. 

Jelani Cobb: They are. And there’s also, there’s an elegance to it that I didn’t realize that he’s not just writing long sentences. It’s like, when you, in architecture, you know, the first thing that you have to do is ensure that the building can sustain its own weight. And his sentences were doing that. 

Like when you create a sentence that long, you have to have an internal structure that holds the idea together, that allows it to be cohesive, or else it falls, it collapses under its own weight. And Baldwin could do that again and again and again and again. And it is what allows you, I think, to fall into his prose in that way and get lost.

I didn’t know that then, you know. And I hadn’t really tried to write anything serious. And once I did, I became more respectful of like his gift and how he was able to do that. 

And then there were other people. I had a, like most young people, you have these phases. I had a Toni Morrison phase, which is kind of like ongoing, but a moment where I was like this is the only person I need to read. Then later at some point I kind of had this Joan Didion phase, which is still like ongoing too. And all you know  nonfiction writers. You know for well, I mean Morrison, but mostly like nonfiction people. 

And then I started going into these old 1950s newspaper columnists who had this very hard-boiled prose that you know, I still found interesting. Like Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith and these people that like, nobody was reading, but I was in like the archives pulling up their old work. 

Hilton Als: Liebling?

Jelani Cobb: Liebling. A.J. Liebling, and his work on boxing especially. Yeah, and you know, I was in the orbit of these people who had written in the New York literary scene or the established places and outlets like the New Yorker, and I was absorbing everything that they were writing. Gay Talese, you know, also, David Halberstam, like these people. 

Because I figured that there was this world I was trying to get into, that I wanted to get into, and this world of letters and I didn’t know exactly how to do that. And I was like, I’m going to read everything that these people write so I can figure out how to navigate a path in there myself. 

Hilton Als: Did you–one of your first books was editing a collection, “The Essential Harold Cruse.”

Jelani Cobb: Harold Cruse. Yeah. 

Hilton Als: And I wanted to ask you about that because the crisis of the Negro intellectual was such a milestone in Black Culture, black popular culture, especially attacks on Lorraine Hansberry and Baldwin and so on. It remains a kind of watershed about writing about race. And I was interested in this dichotomy that he presents a lot in his work and that you talk about in your introduction, between art and politics. 

He on some level didn’t feel that it was possible to synthesize both things. Synthesize these things together. Whereas, of course, you’re a great example of being able to do both and either or. So I was wondering what your attraction to Harold Cruse was, and this idea of art and politics. 

Jelani Cobb: So I dropped out of Howard after my junior year. Not intentionally, but just ran out of money. And so it took me seven years to finish undergrad, because I just went to school when I had money. If I didn’t have money, I didn’t go to school. And so, and I worked in bookstores. And this one day I came across “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” 

And there’s an interesting story about this, a 600-page analysis of African-American culture and politics. And the story about that origin of that book is that he wrote a short, like hundred, hundred fifty page book on issues in Black Culture. And his editor then said, “this is great, but we need an introduction.”

He then wrote a 600 page introduction to a hundred fifty page book. And they published the introduction as “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” And the thing about Cruse that I admired was that he was absolutely fearless. He didn’t care who he was challenging. He didn’t care about if this person’s reputation was, you know, sacrosanct, he’d go after them. 

And but he wouldn’t go after them just in kind of petty ways, he had this scalpel, analytical scalpel, that he would just dissect the contradictions of people’s work. And not always fairly, a lot of times it was ad hominem, you know. But anytime he criticized somebody was going to have like a serious heft to it. And I think he opened up a whole world to me in terms of his writing.

He also had come out of the Communist party, like lots of black people who’d been on the left then, he had this kind of really laser–excuse me? 

Hilton Als: Edna Lewis. 

Jelani Cobb: Edna Lewis–I mean there’s a whole array of these folks–and he’s there. But he had some other things that were really troubling as well, which is that he had this very pronounced bias against West Indians. Which was about the friction that had been between black Americans and West Indians, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. One of the other things I really–. 

Hilton Als: You couldn’t mention them in my house. 

Jelani Cobb: Oh, I’m sure yeah. Yeah, you know Cruse–I won’t say who but–when I finally met him, I tracked him down, he was living in a retirement community in Michigan.

And so he says to me, you know, he’s just kind of like taking, you know, account of me and seeing if I’m worth talking to. And you know, he’s kind of older and he’s not in good health and he kind of sits up on the edge of his bed, and he asks me “what do you think of the work of insert very well-known afro-d black intellectual here.” 

And I said, “well, I find you know, this, this, and this interesting, and you know, I’ve thought about this and so on” and I kind of go like into this critique of his ideas and like the things I think have been enlightening and so on. And this is like with verbal footnotes and everything, trying to show him how smart I am. And he listened to what I said, and said, “Well, I think he’s a goddamn dummy.” 

And that was it. And that was like, little did I know, that was like the most Cruse-ian you know, kind of response.

But he was also like–and something that later, as I kind of grappled with him–like backward on issues of gender and kind of backward on issues of like West Indians and Black Americans. And then like in other places, he’d be like rhetorically brilliant. And you understand people have their limitations, I think that’s what I got from him. 

But in that time period, you know, when I was out of school, when I was just working in this bookstore and absorbing everything I could read, you know Cruse could do no wrong in my eyes. 

Hilton Als: Tell me about those years where the struggle to support yourself, and you were beginning really an intellectual and sentimental education at the same time. Was there really a support–there was support at home to finish school, was very important to the family? 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah. 

Hilton Als: What was–was it the professor that really sort of inspired you to do history or was it reading outside of the University?

Jelani Cobb: It was both. And there was another professor there–I mean I have to talk about Howard in a particular light, because it’s almost like a missionary ethic, but it’s a Black missionary ethic, like the people who feel that they are obligated to uplift other people who were in their community. 

And so there’s a story about like my first year at Howard, which is that I had to do this this diagnostic exam, you know in English. It was literally just to see where my writing skills were. And I choked. I froze. I just was like, I can’t write, I don’t belong in college. Nobody in my family has gone to college. What am I doing here? I really should go back home. I just like almost, just shy of a panic attack. And I turned in a completely blank paper.  

And the professor invited me–the same professor who turned me on to Baldwin–invited me to his office and told me to just try to write something. And you know, I came a couple days later and wrote something, and he graded it, gave me a B, which I was certain he did just for my self-esteem purposes. And then we had a 14 week semester. We had to write 14 essays, had to write an essay  every Friday, and we’d get it back every Monday. 

And so I write this piece. I wrote the first one, and then I actually got an A. And I was shocked. Then I wrote the second one and I got an A. And I wrote the third one, and I got an A. And by the end of the semester, I had 14 As. 

And I was like, oh I actually can do this. I’m actually good at this. But at the beginning of the semester, I had this idea that I had no capacity to do it at all. 

But now, being on the other side of that table, the other side of the desk, he was looking out at me and saying, this is a person who does not come from a world that has said you should be working in the realm of ideas. That you can do something that nobody in your family has been able to do before. That you have these things–like all those things that he knows when he sees me. And he says “come to my office, you know, let’s talk.” 

And so that was kind of foundational, like even when I was at Howard and didn’t have the money, and kind of like on this very patchwork educational plan, their faculty who were there trying to work with me, trying to help me get through, you know what I need to do. And so that was like the springboard into this other stuff. So everything else I think came from there. 

Hilton Als: I mean, it’s an extraordinary thing when there’s someone who can see what you can’t see at all. 

Jelani Cobb: We should all be so lucky. 

Hilton Als: Yes, we and it’s a profound relationship then that they give you to your own process of intellection, that it’s possible.

Were you–after Howard–were you intent on having a career as a writer or as a scholar or both? 

Jelani Cobb: I wanted to do both. I didn’t understand how I was going to do both of those things. I knew that I wanted to write and I wanted to have a scholarly training. And so I went to graduate school. I went to Rutgers. I did a doctorate in American History. And all the time, I was writing. And I mean I was writing scholarly stuff, but I was also writing essays and reviews and critiques and… 

Hilton Als: Where were you publishing, Jelani? 

Jelani Cobb: I was working at the Washington City Paper. I was mostly writing for the Washington City Paper, which was an interesting outlet. 

Hilton Als: How did you get connected to them?

Jelani Cobb: Oh, so Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was a friend of mine from Howard. And we were in writing and poetry circles, you know hanging out together. And the Washington City Paper was a loathed institution among kind of Black Washingtonians. It was this very snide, braying we would say like, bro culture, kind of outlet now. And always had like these kind of sardonic things to say about Black Washington. And there was a great deal of tension between them. 

And into this mix drops David Carr. The late David Carr of the New York Times. And he comes in as the editor-in-chief of the Washington City Paper. And it’s almost like the setup for a sitcom, because he has this very Midwestern practicality. And almost like a kind of naivete, clueless naivete, about these things. 

And his exact phrasing, as I understand it, was that–first of all, the Washington City Paper had, I think, one Black writer in a city that was like 70 percent black. And David’s phrasing of it was like, “hmm. We got to get some of those.” It’s like as if he was going to the store for eggs, bread, Black Writers. 

And so he created this internship program to bring in writers of color. And his first class, his first group, he brought in Neil Drumming, who is now a producer at This American Life, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and me. 

Hilton Als: That’s not dumb. 

Jelani Cobb: It’s not dumb. It’s not dumb. And David literally said that. And to his benefit, I think one of the best things is that he never treated us like his prize Negroes, right? You know, he never used us in any way to kind of like burnish his own credentials as you know, a good antiracist white person. 

He was just extremely practical. He thought that there were stories that he was missing because he didn’t have writers who were tuned into particular places or communities. And he was like, I want those writers because I want those stories.  And that was how we all got connected there. And so I wrote through there throughout, for like five or six years. 

Hilton Als: And the stories that you were writing were always sort of timed to current events, or the cultural things that were in the air, but one of the things that has always been a distinguishing characteristic of your writing is incredible architecture of history underneath what you’re writing. Moving away from the newspaper to other venues, was that something that people were responding to in your writing? Editors who were reading you?

Jelani Cobb: Yes and no. Because one thing is that, as you know, we like, to start talking about the politics of this, like the places where people could have the kind of freedom to do really layered, historically informed kind of work, like the big outlets, like especially when I was coming along, in like the late ’80s, 1990s, those places had the demographics of like the state of Vermont, you know. Like there were not writers of color there. And we just didn’t show up there. And it was hard to even kind of imagine what a route there was. 

And I think even like my first interaction with your work was like, “wait this Brother’s at the New Yorker? Like they got Brothers at the New Yorker?” 

Hilton Als: But it was a–it’s a long story. But there is, in terms of what you were saying just now about the professor seeing something in you before. It’s very brief story, but it will amuse you and the audience. That Henry Finder, who’s the literary editor, knew my work. 

And Tina Brown, to her credit, she walked in there, she said, “where’s, there’s no diversity here at all. Can someone put me in touch with younger writers of color?” And Henry gave her my… At that time she was the most famous woman in the world. 

And she had me come in and she said “I haven’t read your Talk of the Town stories.” And she spoke so quickly, because she was so busy trying to organize it, and she said “go see the money people.” And I walked out of her office for two years, because I didn’t know what the money people was.

I handed in a piece after two years and she said “can you please come see me?” And she said “Hilton I wanted to hire you two years ago. What happened to you?” And I said “you were so famous and you spoke so quickly, I had no idea what you were talking about.” 

Jelani Cobb: Wow. Wow. 

Hilton Als: And she grabbed me by the shoulders and she said “Hilton I’m hiring you. Go see the money people.” That’s how she hired me. 

Jelani Cobb: That’s very funny. 

Hilton Als: Yeah. But there was–it was sort of like, I think I was maybe the seventh writer of color that they had ever hired in eighty, seventy years by then. So one of the great things that happened when David Remnick started was that I… There was an amazing guy at the Voice, I’m sorry, his name is escaping me now, but David would go and see anybody who was recommended. So was that a similar thing for you? 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, it’s, so Khaleel Mohammed, who is a dear friend of mine, and we went to grab–.

Hilton Als: He’s at the Schomburg.

Jelani Cobb: He’s at the Schomburg right now. He’s at Harvard. He was the director of the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and he’s a dear friend of mine. We went to graduate school together. We almost got arrested together, which was like the way we first became friends. 

Very crazy, like brief aside. First year of graduate school. First semester, Khaleel gets a parking, he gets a ticket actually. He’s driving. For some ridiculous little–they said his frame, his University of Pennsylvania Alumni frame was blocking, obscuring his license plate and whatever, so they give him a ticket for this. 

And he said “I want to go down to the precinct and talk to them about this. Do you want to come?” And I’m like sure, like a fool, because I don’t know Khaleel. And we get to the precinct and you know, he’s like “I’d like to talk to like whoever is in charge.” And you know, and Khaleel is like this tall, and I’m like this tall. And so I’m like, okay and you know we get there.

And he says “yeah, I got this ticket and I wanted to find out why I got it.” And he was like “well because you have this license plate.” And he’s like “is that why?” And the officer’s this white guy who’s like, I don’t know maybe in his 40s, he’s like “yeah, that’s why.” He said “because in my estimation, this is because there are racist cops in this area, and they pulled me over because I’m a black man driving my car.” And right, it was like that silent.

And my first thought was like, we’re in the precinct and I did not tell anybody I was coming here. Nobody knows we’re here. Nobody knows where you are. Nobody knows where I am, right. And Khaleel was like just dressing these people down. I’m looking around like man next time you do something like this, you give me a heads-up.

So anyway, he and I have like, were friends from that point on. After we survived this…

Hilton Als: You better be.

Jelani Cobb:  We survived that encounter, right. And so when he became director of the Schomburg, and I had been trying, I had been writing in like largely like Black outlets for that point almost 20 years. Aside from the Washington City Paper–that was the only non-black outlet I had written for probably in my life. 

And I was sitting across, I was coming to this event at the Schomburg, and it was like a reception. And so Khaleel said “I’m going to sit you across from David Remnick. Say something smart.” And so I sat down, and we had a conversation. 

But it’s similarly, a similar story, which is that he said, you know, “you should write for us. You should write something.” And I was like this guy’s not serious. Yeah, you know and maybe a couple weeks after that, Amy Davidson sent me an email and was like “David said that you were interested in writing, and you should do something for us.” And I said, okay. 

There was this little story out of Florida about this young man who had been killed and there had been no arrests made. And I was like, I just did a basic why you should know, why you should care about this, why this story is important thing. And the young man was named Trayvon Martin. 

And then the vortex opened up because Amy said “you should follow this story.” And I followed that story, and then Ferguson happened, and then Baltimore with Freddie Gray happened. And then Charleston happened. 

And then there was all of these stories that were landing on my desk and I felt a kind of obligation to write about them because I could put them in a historical context. And I could say this is not a novel development. This is not something that is just a quirk of the system, that these people have found themselves on the receiving end of brutality from largely white officers charged with enforcing the law.

Hilton Als: It’s one of the things that you write about in your book, that saying that the history of Black oppression is not separate from police brutality and oppression. And one of the things that I really wanted to talk to you about tonight was the fact that when I read you on these subjects, I’m learning something about my own history that I didn’t know. And that not only makes it resonate, but also allows me to have the information to talk to somebody else. So, thank you for that. 

When these stories started coming up, you were also thinking a lot about Barack during those years. And may I read? It’s the worst thing that writers hate, hearing their own words, but may I read something you wrote? 

Jelani Cobb: Sure. I’m scared though. 

Hilton Als: Okay, this is from Jelani’s book “The Substance of Hope.”

“For all his”–this, Jelani writes–“for all his accomplishments, Barack Obama’s ultimate significance may be less as a president than as a harbinger of what comes after his presidency.” I know. “Even as he campaigned for the highest office in the land, an Obama generation was taking shape.” 

You canvassed for Obama. And you were part of, a little younger, but part of his generation. What effect did his election have on you? And then subsequently, the tidal wave to Clinton and you know, what else follows. 

Jelani Cobb: I know, I know. So one, Obama was a validation of the most outlandish ideas about American democracy. Because it was an outlandish idea for people who were never meant to be included in that compact of democracy to imagine themselves as free. 

And 1857, when the Dred Scott decision comes down, and it says that Negroes are not citizens of the United States–and he’s not saying this simply by kind of judicial edict, he’s saying this based upon a reading of American History, which has a pretty substantive basis. He has a reason for saying this that is a reason to understand the founders as having never meant for Black people to be citizens.

And now, with the 14th Amendment, we’re going to rewrite that and say we’re creating this new dispensation where Black people will be included in this idea of democracy.

 And I think that Obama was like the ultimate validation of that. You know, it was a validation of the everyday person and the small ways, over the course of decades or centuries, that the system of codified white supremacy was undermined in these ways that we understand now. 

And at the same time, we always knew that for every measure of progress there is a backlash. There was a backlash to emancipation. You know, when we see that tide of lynching that happens in the 19th century, they are directly trying to reinstitute slavery. Or a condition as close to slavery as possible. 

There is a backlash of the Great Migration, when people are trying to flee Jim Crow and they go to the north and to the west, and people coming to New York and Michigan and Pennsylvania and California and where the Black populations of these places come from in the South, and they are greeted by and large with hostility. And urban segregation and school riots in places like Boston and those kinds of things. There’s the backlash to Martin Luther King, the backlash to the Civil Rights Act, the entire realignment of the American political system based upon the civil rights movement. 

And we would have had to have been foolish to not recognize that there would be a similar dynamic in response to the election of the first Black president. And I think Obama was–.

Hilton Als: Do you think that that was the haze of hope or the sort of, the hangover of hope? 

Jelani Cobb: It was I think, the wishful thinking, you know of hope. 

Hilton Als: Dreaming. 

Jelani Cobb: Dreaming, but there were people who were talking about… I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who said, you know, just before the election, as it became like more clear that Obama was going to win. He said “you do know there’s going to be hell to pay for this.”

And I said, “yeah, you’re right. You’re probably right.” And he said “you do know that the Voting Rights Act is gone.” And I said, “yeah, you’re probably right.” And that’s what we’ve seen. And so on the personal note, and you know, the he who shall not be named, but you know, I’m from Queens.  

Hilton Als: Right. 

Jelani Cobb: Right. I know that dude. 

Hilton Als: You know his father.

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, we know, like… Here’s one other thing, one rule of thumb that I find about, useful in politics, which is to always be suspicious of people who are more popular away from home than they are at home. 

You know. He would be hard-pressed to win a City Council seat in New York City. He certainly could not win the New York mayor’s race. But he could win the presidency. Because of you know, the particular dynamics that we’ve spent the last two or three years trying to analyze. But if you were from Queens you knew… 

There are two things that you need to know about Queens. One is that in prior to 1965, Queens was the second whitest borough in New York City. And I’ve written about this in the magazine too. Second whitest borough. 

It was so white that when Jackie Robinson was playing for the Dodgers, when he moved to Queens and tried to purchase, and purchased a home, someone burned a cross to let him know he wasn’t welcome. This is Jackie Robinson. And LaGuardia Airport was segregated. You know, that’s Queens. That’s the first thing. 

The second thing that you need to know about Queens is that it is right now, statistically speaking, the most diverse county in the United States. And among the most diverse counties in the world. And by some estimates there are between four and six hundred languages spoken in Queens. So it’s more languages per square mile than any place else in this country. And the 1965 Immigration Reform Act is what made that difference happen. 

Between–but for people, especially whites, who witnessed it move from this almost entirely white enclave, to being the most diverse county in the country, they had this permanent mindset of the hordes being at the gate. And a kind of bunker mentality. And Trump comes out of that. Like he is legible to me in a very particular way. I went to school with the children of people who thought like him. When Norman Lear made that character Archie Bunker…

Hilton Als: “All in the Family.” 

Jelani Cobb: “All in the Family,” he was talking about that generation of people. And the generation just a little bit ahead of Trump. And their resentment about the demographic changes that were happening in Queens. And by 2016, Queens had become a metaphor for the United States. 

And what Trump did was cherry pick all of those people who were feeling about the country the way that his generation had felt about Queens. And that’s how we got a large part of where we are. And that’s absolutely a narrative in response to Obama. And if we had been willing, I think, to think about American history honestly, and the tides and cycles of it, we would have known that this was likely to happen. 

Hilton Als: It’s very interesting that you mention the ways that we think about an American history. I don’t think that we think about it so much as we enact it, because we’re Americans and it’s all about movement, it’s all about action. 

My feeling is that if we have, if we’ve given anything to a younger generation of writers and thinkers, one of the things that I would actually tell my students right now is to study the law. Because it gives you not only the, oversight– overview, sorry. But it gives you this idea of the ways in which the law can be used to your advantage and disadvantage. Do you think that that was something that we weren’t paying attention to as well? 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, I think there’s so many things that we weren’t paying attention to. And also I think there was a problem from the top, which is that I think that Obama seemed curiously naive about the dynamics that were going to emerge. 

Hilton Als: Well you say that in your book. And there was a sort of not useful comparison to Abraham Lincoln, in terms of you know, up by your bootstraps sort of thing. But do you–was Obama naive? Or was he? 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, I mean, because the problem with the Lincoln analogy was that like, Lincoln got shot in the head.

Hilton Als: Yeah. 

Jelani Cobb: You know, and that was the thing that was like the implicit fear that all of us had. 

Hilton Als: Which is what Michelle said. 

Jelani Cobb: That’s right.

Hilton Als: In that interview. She said “well, he can be shot going to the gas station, so.”

Jelani Cobb: Yeah. Yeah. She was like, but I mean it was funny, because by that logic, when she was like, “he’s a Black man in America, he can be shot anytime. You might as well run for president.” She was like, well, hell. 

Hilton Als: Could be worse, right. 

Jelani Cobb: You look at it, right exactly. He was like, I could just be out here by myself, or I could have Secret Service protecting me. 

Hilton Als: Yeah. Yeah. 

Jelani Cobb: Right exactly. Like all of us should announce our candidacy. 

Hilton Als: Yes. Wouldn’t that be great?

Jelani Cobb: That’d be great. 

Hilton Als: It’s so good. I say Jelani for president. 

Jelani Cobb: It’s like, Hilton and I will leave this auditorium and form our separate exploratory committees immediately thereafter. 

But you know, I  think that his naivete about some of this was–let me just say this. My father was conflicted and ambivalent in a way that a lot of people are, a lot of Americans are, especially the way a lot of Black Americans are, especially if you are a Black American who lived in Jim Crow in Georgia. And he was driven by two things.

He was a Catholic, he converted to Catholicism as a young man. And he really embraced the kind of Catholic doctrine of universalism. He believed that we are all God’s children. That the only thing that mattered about a person is character. And he would tell me this, like don’t judge anybody by anything other than their character and how they treat you.

And he would say that on like Monday. And then on Tuesday, he’d turn around and say “never ever underestimate what white people will do to you in this world.” He thought both of those things with all of his heart. Because he was trying to reconcile those dynamics. I don’t know if Obama understood that in that same way, because he had a very atypical kind of relationship… 

Hilton Als: And childhood.

Jelani Cobb: Right. Yeah, exactly. And so when it became clear, like time and time again, when he would try to make bargains, and try to cut deals, and I was like, you think this is about politics. This is not about politics. This is about you. You know, it was like, they’re not going to make a deal, because that would mean that they were actually acknowledging that you are the President of the United States.

Like they’ll never call you a liar in the middle of a State of the Union Address, like they will make you show your birth certificate to prove that you were eligible to vote in the election you actually won. You know, those kinds of small humiliat–not-so-small humiliations that were visited upon the office of the presidency. They would degrade the office of the presidency if it gave them an opportunity to degrade him. 

And I think that in many instances these were things that we knew through very hard earned experience and wisdom of surviving in America, that he was perennially a step behind on. 

Hilton Als: Do you think that the one-two punch of him and Michelle was important because she was us, right? She had been the child of immigrants, really, who had–the children didn’t die. Right, that was the first law of order. 

And the second thing that she was able to do was–and they had her shut up after a while–was to speak truth to his power, and say well, he doesn’t see it that way, but I see what this country is capable of doing. 

Jelani Cobb: That’s entirely right. And I think that that was why people didn’t want her–they wanted her to garden. They wanted her to get people active and like healthy. All of which are great things. But the version of Michelle Obama that we met early on in the campaign, the person who was formerly from the south side of Chicago and talked about it? Like, yeah, no, they didn’t want that. That was a bit more than people could handle. 

And you know, I think the worst part of this is that–you know, what reminded, what I thought of in November of 2016, November 9th, 2016, was that line from W.E.B. Dubois, you know where DuBois said “America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy America.” And I remember feeling like ignorance was ahead on the scorecards that day. 

Because the dynamics that–and I also say when people say like, you know, “this is like very partisan, and this is like blah blah blah. And this is why people like hate, the Republicans think that I hate them,” and so on, but my defense is that I held those same exact views of Donald Trump when he was a Democrat. So no, this is not about partisanship. This is about this particular person. And so yeah, what were you going to say? 

Hilton Als: No, I just wanted to ask, because I have to–I’m so greedy about our time together that I don’t want to have anyone else ask questions except me. One last question, which is the obvious question. Where will the tides turn after this period of power? 

Jelani Cobb: I don’t know, but here’s what sustains me. Somebody, a young person posed the question about whether I consider myself an optimist. And I said, “yeah, but my version of optimism is probably not the same as yours.” You know, I said “I think in America what passes for optimism is kind of irrational exuberance, you know, where we just believe that things are going to be great no matter what.” Or that we have some sort of social algorithm that will only produce, ultimately produce, good outcomes. 

But if you are familiar with the version of American history that was enacted in Bessemer, Alabama, and Hazlehurst, Georgia, you know that that is not the case. And so if you’re going to be optimistic, it has to be informed by a different vantage point. 

And so I said, “I have the optimism of a boxer going into the late rounds, saying that whatever happens, you are cognizant about your ability to withstand pain, and you are confident about your ability to get through whatever is next. And that if you are diligent enough and determined enough, and if you were willing to suffer enough, there’s a chance that you can win.” And I think that that is the most realistic version of optimism that I can muster.

Hilton Als:  A candidate that can take it. 

Jelani Cobb: I think that that’s that. I mean whether it’s, you know, whoever winds up being the Democratic nominee of the 200 people who are running now. And I think that you know, I have, I know I’m in Kamala Harris state. I have a great deal of admiration for Elizabeth Warren for a number of reasons, as well. 

But I think that whoever that person winds up being, that is the real task. Of kind of putting yourself to the shoulder of history. And sometimes you win and sometimes you have really protracted battles. It takes you longer to get anywhere. 

But you know, that’s the narrative my parents were trying–it was profound optimism that led them to try the daring experiment of leaving the South. And I can’t be a pessimist, you know without refuting what they were trying to do. 

Hilton Als: It’s the same family that we come from, where my parents would say, “if they’re saying that you work too hard, work harder.” 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah. 

Hilton Als: Yeah, mmm. Thank you, Jelani. Thank you so much.

Jelani Cobb: Thank you.  

Hilton Als: We have a little time for questions. And I can’t quite see. Oh, there we go. There’s a microphone over there. 

Jelani Cobb: My god, so there are people here. 

Hilton Als: Yes.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming towards your left. 

Audience Member 1: Thank you so much. I love that profound dialogue between two Black men. Thank you for advancing that. I just want to ask from the historical point of view, with all my doubts about America, its prehistory, everything that’s happened. 

Do you see the potential optimistic outcome coming more from Black people being able to organize, withstand this? Is it from white people correcting the  racist system? Is it from the wave of people of color, of the new majority? What possible optimistic outcomes are there? What kind of advance might lead to that? 

Jelani Cobb: So here’s one thing I think is–and this is important to recognize. We have heard the word populism thrown around a whole lot. And we’ve seen a particularly lunatic form of populism.  And it is conspiratorial. It is people believing the QAnon thing now, believing the pizza gate thing before, believing, kind of having their worst tendencies catered to. 

And believing that the problem is the Muslims, the problem is the Latinos, like the problem is trans people. The problem is like, anybody who is not like the way that you conceive of yourself. And that has been lumped in under the rubric or the umbrella of populism. 

And it fits, that is a form of populism that we see, like the kind of resentment toward elites, etcetera. Even though it’s contradictorily led by a putative billionaire with a fixation for gold. But that’s you know, their own contradiction. 

And we look at the history of populism in this country, it has always been that. Been conspiratorial, paranoid, resentful toward people of other ethnicities, other religions, etcetera. Going back to the origins of American popularism. 

But that’s not the entirety of what American populism has been. There’s a second strand of it. And so we think about– well, we talked about George Wallace being a model for what happened with with Donald Trump. 

We don’t talk about Henry Wallace. Henry Wallace, who ran for  president in 1948, and pulled Harry Truman to the left. One of the reasons that we wound up getting the integration of the Armed Forces, the anti-lynching measure, the equal employment opportunity commission. 

All these things that came out of Truman was that he was concerned about this white populist on his Left flank, who was going around the South, the American South, having integrated campaign rallies, advocating for the enfranchisement of poor white people who poll taxes could keep them from voting, as well as keep Black people from voting, and finding their common ground, their common threads. 

When we look at where Martin Luther King was with–if you read that last book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” that is a populist book. It’s in that same Henry Wallace vein, that Henry Wallace tradition of populism, the tradition of Jesse Jackson in 1984 with the Rainbow Coalition. That what we have seen, the kind of populism, the kind of virulent, hostile, hateful populism that has dominated the conversation, is not the only way in which populism can exist in this country.

Hilton Als: That’s right. 

Jelani Cobb: And if we think about Reverend William Barber, who’s somebody I wrote about in The New Yorker. He’s very inspirational. His work is all about that. That is what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to recall the best of that tradition of populism, in which people are saying that irrespective of what you look like, irrespective of who you love, irrespective of how you identify, irrespective of how you pray, we have a common enemy, and that enemy is the injustice of poverty. 

Hilton Als: You know, it’s–I’m just going to add two seconds to this–but in the  King book, it took me years to get past his description of being stabbed. Because of the way that he approaches it, and he says “and this person put a knife in me, and I had to really think about why this was happening.” 

Because he doesn’t say “it hurt.” He doesn’t say “I wanted revenge.” He wanted to know the root causes of anger, fury, and frenzy. So I agree with you. Thank you for your question, sir. 

Jelani Cobb: Thank you.  

City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the back toward your right.

Audience Member 2: Hi. You talked tonight about the importance of David Carr, and I wanted to ask you a question about mentorship. I’ve heard you elsewhere talk about the wise words of Ralph Wiley, and now with the prominence that you’ve arose to as a writer, or that you’ve risen to, I’m curious how do you mentor younger writers, and what are the ways that you really try to impact the lives of folks that are trying to make it in this journalistic landscape? 

Jelani Cobb: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that. You know, so I have like a set of people who–some of whom I’ve met through like my official capacity, that they wound up in my classes and in other kind of professional things I’ve done. And other people who I meet in a variety of outlets, including the New York City subway. And that has been what I’ve done. I’ve tried to like walk people into places. 

Fortunately, as you were saying about about David Remnick, we’ve had these conversations even like recently, where it’s like, okay, you know, I’m open. If anybody you want to like bring in–and you know, I was like, “oh, what about this person and this person?” 

And you know, that’s what I do. I get in where I fit in and try to make connections and try to get people to be the link that gets people a little bit closer to where they want to be. And that’s like the unofficial stuff. 

Then like the official thing is that I’m in the process of creating a community journalism workshop, which will be at Columbia University. And it will be bringing people in from the surrounding parts of New York City to have access to the resources of Columbia University and the intellectual resources of the Journalism School. Saying if you’re going to be doing this, if you going to be blogging, or vlogging, or whatever, here are the things from–10 things you can learn from professional journalists that may be helpful to you, and doing that.

So, you know, I try to make sure that people coming up after me  will have an easier time than I had trying to get in.  

Hilton Als: I think it’s also the discipline of care, right. And Jelani’s at the Journalism School, and I’m at the School of the Arts, and the first day of any class where I teach nonfiction, narrative nonfiction or, is I say, you know, “just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.” Lesson one. And I think that’s the discipline of care as well. Right? 

Jelani Cobb: So can I just tell you my version of that? Which is, my version is that students want to write in the first person, which I don’t allow early on. And of like, there’s a difference between writing–there’s a difference between the first person and a selfie. 

Hilton Als: Same thing. 

Jelani Cobb: Same thing. 

Hilton Als: I think we have time for one more.  

City Arts & Lectures: Okay, this question is coming from the very front row. 

Hilton Als: Okay. 

City Arts & Lectures: All the way to your left. 

Audience Member 3: Hi, thank you. I was wondering if you could continue the historical analogy. I mean if we look at the Obama presidency as sort of post-reconstruction, I mean, you know the Reconstruction period and then what we have now is post, and talk about the fact that the only people, I mean that we’re the calvary. I mean it was it was Black people who saved Black people. And do you have an analogy now? I mean Stacey Abrams sort of comes to my mind. But… 

Jelani Cobb: That’s funny that you’d say that. I’m literally working on a profile of Stacey Abrams right now. And it’s not unrelated. Like the last profile I did was William Barber. I’m now writing a profile of Stacey Abrams. There’s an overlap there, you know, of people who are doing their best to summon democracy in response to demagoguery. And you know, then as now, and my good friend Adam Serwer wrote about this in these essays, “The Nationalist’s Delusion” was one of them.

And the more recent one, “White Nationalism’s Long Roots in American History,” about this, when we talk about all of the disastrous things that have not happened because there’s a Black electorate in this country. So if you do not have a Black electorate, you have Senator Roy Moore. Like you literally, because the majority of white people in Alabama heard what he was saying and were like, “sure, that sounds reasonable.” 

Hilton Als: I’ll buy that. 

Jelani Cobb: Right. I’ll buy that. You know, but for the Black electorate, you would have had Senator David Duke from Louisiana. But for those two million missing Black voters that drop off between 2012 and 2016, if we’re really talking about the things that Stacey Abrams is doing in terms of trying to ensure that people have voting access. 

But we see that drop off particularly in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee where all those Black voters disappear, in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania where like all these Black voters disappear, Michigan where like these significant numbers of Black voters disappear. Those are the three states that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the election. 

And so this is–and people think that you know, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Right, because I write a lot about race, I see race everywhere. But we’re actually talking about the numbers here. We’re talking about how this shakes out. 

And if we’re looking at the concern with immigration right now, it’s not coincidental that we have this fixation with immigration in our politics at the same time that we have this large-scale voter suppression. Because what this is about is the demographics of the electorate. And that’s what ties those two things together.

And so it’s like, Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. And we talk about the Emancipation Proclamation as an act of kind of moral philanthropy. That he gave us freedom.  But in reality, this was a transaction. 

Hilton Als: That’s right. 

Jelani Cobb: Abraham Lincoln would like to preserve his Union, we would like to not be owned anymore. In exchange for not being owned anymore, about 200,000 Black men joined the Union Army and became the force that enabled the Union Army to win the Civil War. 

And this has been once again a kind of moment where American Democracy is imperiled, and we are looking at us as a bulwark to save…And with the 190,000 Black men in the Civil War who are fighting for democracy; the only thing they knew about democracy was the biting end of a whip. That’s what their experience of American Democracy was. But they had to save it in order to have the possibility of other people, of any background, experiencing it generations down the line. And I think that’s the same moment we find ourselves in now.

Hilton Als: There’s just one other thing that I would like to say,

 is how grateful we are for the audience that hears what we’re saying. And also, especially Jelani coming all this way to really enlighten us in many ways. So thank you, Jelani.

Jelani Cobb: Thank you. Thank you.