The Root Interview: William Jelani Cobb on Obama and Black Leadership

The historian and author of an important meditation on the hip-hop aesthetic talks to The Root about the meaning of President Obama's 2008 election, the problems of black leadership and black self-definition.


Dr. William Jelani Cobb, one of the country's most visible African-American intellectuals, is an associate professor and chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta. His meditation on the hip-hop aesthetic, To the Break of Dawn, is one of the most important texts on this cultural phenomenon.

In his latest book, The Substance of Hope, Cobb turns his attention to the 2008 election, the political climate preceding the election and his own involvement as a delegate for the state of Georgia. (He blogged for The Root from the Democratic National Convention in 2008.) His training as a historian comes to bear as he asks, What does this all mean? And where do we go from here?

The interview was conducted via Google Chat.

The Root: In The Substance of Hope, you play both historian and participant as a delegate in the 2008 election. How did these distinct roles help shape your book?

William Jelani Cobb: Initially they made it more difficult because I'm accustomed to writing about things that are more static. This was an attempt to place the election into a context in terms of history, and in some ways in terms of irony. But this was also a rapidly changing subject. The result was that I wrote about three-quarters of the book and then threw it all out and started again from scratch. It was much more difficult to decide what story I wanted to tell.

TR: In a way you were chronicling history as it was unfolding?

WJC: Right. And the first rule of historians is that we take the long view of things. I think the book wound up being a balance of historical background and current events, with a dash of first-person reportage thrown in also.

TR: I think that's a fair appraisal. The way you write the personal and the historical has far-fetching implications. For instance, you said that black America is not a democracy. Too much of its leadership is self-appointed and media designated. Can you expand on this?

WJC: I was referring to the somewhat arbitrary process by which people are deemed "black leaders" -- a term that really doesn't require that you be answerable to any given constituency. There certainly are no mechanisms for recalling or impeaching anyone with that designation, and those points became particularly important in 2008 as we saw people reacting to Obama in all kinds of self-interested ways and justifying those positions as some kind of leadership stance.

WJC: The "black machine" is representative of a particular political model that is diminished but not exhausted. As we have seen in the past two years, there are still racial fault lines in this country, and as long as we have outrages like the Oscar Grant murder, we will have need for a leader with a bullhorn and a protest sign.