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.
Beyond that, we see disparities in unemployment, income, incarceration, lots of specifically racial issues that the old model of leadership was adept at highlighting, if not resolving. I think if Obama was being 100 percent accurate on Election Day, he would have amended his statement and told the crowd in Grant Park: "Some change has come to certain segments of America."
TR: How do you mean? Are you speaking to the class divide here?
WJC: Mainly, I'm talking about the ways in which some problems that existed prior to the arrival of the Obama administration continue to exist after the election. I talk at one point about how Frederick Douglass witnessed emancipation and told his peers, somewhat presciently, that the nation would still very much need abolitionists. And of course in a few years, people understood exactly what Douglass was talking about. In short, the problems evolve and shift and are resistant to our efforts to eliminate them.
TR: Why do you believe there was such a generational divide in support for Barack Obama? And since we're talking designated black leaders, can we say that Barack was a white-designated black leader?
WJC: No, I don't think Obama was white-designated. He came by his black support the hard way — by making a compelling case to people one community at a time. If you recall, he trailed Hillary Clinton in black support for the first half of 2007; there was a bona fide effort to win the support of black voters.
The generational divide was different. Some people had cynical reasons for not supporting Obama early on. Some had principled ones, but a very big part of the generational division was along the lines of whether or not a black candidate could actually be elected. There was also a point that few people wanted to talk about but was key: Many of the people who lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King still had the fear that by supporting Obama, they were opening the door for history to repeat itself.
WJC: I don't subscribe to the idea that Obama's blackness was in question; it was much more of a canard that caught fire, but there were never any real numbers behind it. The idea that he wasn't "really" black assumed that there was a single version of the black experience. Whites weren't necessarily warmer to him — at least not nationally — but there was a period where he had much more name recognition among them. In South Carolina, where blacks are a huge portion of the Democratic primary, many of the voters didn't even know he was black well into 2007. The campaign began printing materials that had a picture of him and Michelle in order to point out they were African Americans.
TR: In the chapter "The Joshua Generation," you make a point that many black leaders have emerged who have not been shaped by black institutions outside of their family. Some call this "post-racial politics." How do you perceive this trend? Does this phenomenon require a redefinition of what a black leader is?
WJC: We certainly have to distinguish between whether we mean the word black as an adjective or a noun. We now have increasing numbers of black people who are in charge of institutions that are not necessarily black in their populations, and that's not simply in terms of the White House. It's in academia, corporate America and other arenas. Obama obviously highlights that trend. At the same time, though, there are very specific concerns that black people have as an interest group, and institutions to address those concerns.
TR: I noticed that there were two very distinct attitudes about Barack Obama's ascent to presidency. On the one hand, Obama broke barriers and made history. On the other, I'm reminded of the end of your chapter "Where Do We Go From Here," where you conclude: "Some of us live in the White House, some of us live on the street. Most of us are somewhere in between and still trying to decipher the meaning of our times. Joseph Lowery was wise to bring us back to that song at the convention. And the song was correct. We shall overcome. Just not all at the same time … " [italics added for emphasis]. Can you speak a bit about your thoughts on the phenomenon that is Barack Obama, but the "changing same" that black America finds itself in?
WJC: Our history is one that does not lend itself to neat endings. Each of our advances has occurred over great opposition and with the threat of backlash. Obama's election marked something that few of us ever thought we would witness in our lifetimes. But our struggle continues.
Abdul Ali writes about culture for The Root. He lives in Washington, D.C.