tv Jelani Cobb and David Remnick The Matter of Black Lives CSPAN January 17, 2022 1:30pm-2:01pm EST
century , the idea that we're stuck with people in the 18th or 19th century were doing is ridiculous as far as i'm concerned because they didn't have computers. they didn't have cars . there are lots of ways in which citizens could have a lot more influence and opportunity in the democratic processes of the united states. >> lonnie when he or died recently at the age of 71. to watch the rest of this interview visit booktv.org. use the searchbox at the top of the page to find all her appearances . >> i am david remnick, editor of the new yorker and thank for coming to today's talk on a book called "the matter of black lives: writing from the new yorker". it's a new anthology that collects almost a century of reporting, profiling, memoir
and criticism from the magazine and i'd like to introduce my coeditor, my colleague and friend jelani has been a staff writer at the new yorker since 2016. he writes on race, politics, history and culture. he is a renowned teacher of journalism at columbia university . he has his phd from rutgers in history. he wrote the introduction to the essential turner commission report which was published recently this year. jelani and i edited this book together. i'll hold it up for you to see. i think jelani, it's fair to say that if the new yorker had attempted to do such an anthology in the 60s thisbook would be very slender indeed . the anthology begins with james baldwin and his famous piece that came to be known as the fire next time. i just wonder maybe you could talk about why it begins the
book and its central place. >> the other thing that i would say about this tome is we knew that people were still working from home. and so were going to assist in that.you can read it, you canalso work out with . . biceps and triceps. >> had a dual-purpose object here. >> you the baldwin piece is so incredible and so insightful.and you're all come back to that piece many times over the course of my life when i first read it early on in college. and the fact that the new yorker saw fit to republish it on the website last summer in the midst of the
turbulence and told that was going on really i think spoke to just how timeless some of the things in that these are. and it's also helped i think when it was the tuesday nights that we would talk. we kind of talked through. >> the regular sessions just sorting through the pieces. >> it helps the book itself starts making more sense when for me at least when i stop thinking about the secret pieces being in some way a dialogue with baldwin. and i think he became a lens that was possible to look at from much other work. >> maybe it's what i'm talking about the origin story of this piece which you write about in the introduction. >> james baldwin at the time he published this published in 1962 but he wascontracted to write it before that . he had been initially
supposed to write something about his travels in africa and the you know, traveled extensively but the experience left them cold. he didn't find anything that was you know, connecting to him as a writer. at the same time he had a piece on harlem that was contracted for commentary. he juggle multiple assignments for different publications. and you know, the experience in africa only made him more intensely curious about mining is identity as an american and specifically as a negro american as he would have said then. he writes this piece, this is astounding essay that really kind of redefines the parameters of theconversation around race . and commentary has a jewel on
their hands. if in fact they ever got their hands on but he decides to send it instead to william shawn the new yorker. to fulfill that contract. potentially because we talked about the new yorker pays better. had abigger office . and it was just a kind of you know, practical decision for him as a writer. but when it appeared in 1962, i think you would attest to the new yorker has not ever runanything like that . and one of the things that i thought was most subversive and intriguing is the fact that the new yorker tradition of having letters from divers geographic locales. that people would write the correspondence writing from all over the globe and baldwin is writing this in
america and he frames it as a or from a region in my mind. which is just as complicated and fascinating and provocative as any other distant locale you could have thought of. and i think that was part of what made it an instant classic. >> part of it to call things as they are, the new yorker had not published black writers very often at all. it's not very uncommon in what we now think of as mainstream american publications that we saw photographs of the new york times newsroom and in 1960 was one long row of white men in white shorts, blue shirts pumped overtypewriters . it's strange that also the editor of commentary was
infuriated by baldwin's decision to send this piece to the new yorker and he had a point. he then wrote a conservative piece about race but not long after the t publication called my negro problem and hours. one of the great titles that i've ever heard. the piece itself is both internal and external. it's about the inner life of james baldwin. it's also about his explorations of possiblepaths . he goes to visit elijah mohammed was a founder of the nation of islam and then comes back to his own church where negroes grow up and he seems to be indicating certain potential pathways for protest, for religion. for the country itself.
>> he does and one of the things the lake sportswriter ralph wiley told me when i was very young. i was maybe 23, 24. he said writing in the first person is only really defensible if you can navigate that experience into a more universal understanding. if not then it's just a diary entry. baldwin does that incredibly in the essay. when he talks about growing up in harlem he talks about particularly the onset of adolescence inharlem and how treacherous that is . because we begin to map out the paththat our lives will take . and he sees nothing but danger really ahead of him. and the allure of the church is one kind of escape route. the lord of the avenue. there are all these things
will in some way compound the dangers of living in harlem. and the sum total will be people's lives that are stilted in some way by race . what he does inin the course of telling this long autobiographical preface is contextualized elijah mohammed. for people who could not understand the militancy, the radicalism, the contempt for white people that the nation of islam embodies. you read the preface of what baldwin is saying and he never says this is how black people feel that he's explaining he comes to the question and how elijah mohammed is almost kind of a logical product of the world that he had navigated. >> one of the long pieces and there are many great pieces in this anthology is henry
lewis gates profile of louis farrakhan written around the time ofthe million man march . how e do you see ponds, how would you go about explaining farrakhan's appeal in some quarters? compared to the way baldwin is assessing the nation of islam in 1962? it's a pretty big generation at least gap between those two pieces. >> what's interesting about that is baldwin iswriting in the midst of the civil rights movement . and he wrote another essay. he wrote a long profile of martin luther king but he said that the negro leader had traditionally been in the position of telling white people to hurry up while telling negroes to wait. and he really is kind of
articulating that dilemma in the midst of the civil rights movement within all these new vistas of possibility that there also is this anger that elijah mohammed and the nation of islam represent and for farrakhan whose emergence in the mid-80s and seen it of his influence is in the 90s. when henry louis gates is writing about him is on the other side of that.there is no kind of burgeoning movement for these incipient reformsthat are going to change things . what you're looking at would be the despair of the hiv-aidscrisis . crack, astounding amounts of violence happening in american cities. overwhelmingly centered in black and brown communities. and farrakhan's skepticism of america has purchase. it's almost a kind of see, i told you.
so i think that moment where henry louis gates captures him it really kind of is almost like a map of where we were in that moment of history. >> this book contains a great range of writers, toni morrison is represented a few times. you yourself are represented as well it should be in this book a number of times and you came to the magazine and you certainly came to my attention as a writer kind of as the obama era was happening. and this book is the fruit of our mutual thinking about what this bookcould be . post obama time during the george floyd moment. when you first encountered obama as a political presence and you write about this in one of the pieces in your
book, i think it's called barack ask. what were your hopes and to what degree were they dashed to if you look back on it now? >> the thing that was interesting about obama was the no precedent. he wasn't the product of some immediate trauma. there hadn't been a kind of sympathetic move for recompense. he just emerged out of nowhere at a moment when even the people who study race and the political scientists and sociologists, the historians, nobody was looking at the american society saying we're at a moment where we can anticipate a breakthrough of this magnitude. he just showed up. so because he upended so many expectations, i think people
have this idea that he couldn't, there was nothing he could do. so there was a picture of him outside the superman museum where he's kind of posing with his hands on his hips like superman does. you imagine like maybe, this guy can do something unprecedented. and at the same time there's a gravity of everyday politics. and it was to craft a very heavy-handed metaphor here, the question of whether or not he could like superman take flight or whether the gravity would hold him in place. i think there was essentially astalemate there. in looking at the prerogatives of the presidency being denied to him, can be called a liar in the midst of a joint address to congress . and being denied the possibility of appointing a supreme court justice, having to show his birth certificate
to prove that he was actually a citizen of the united states. and in that context, it really became especially when i was writing the piece in 2012 where you could kind of see we were past the euphoria of him being elected if you kind of start to see the outlines and contours of the political dynamic. he was encountering so i was writing that looking very much at the kind of what will the ultimate yield of the sea? who does thisperson and what can we say about this moment . that waswhat i was trying to get . >> the darkest interpretation of people would be his successor. and it seems like a logical conclusion to draw the logical conclusion of barack obama is so complex is done on front and all he came to represent i think worse and worse as time went by.
you accept that, that was just a lot of our first black president would be a boldly racist residence? >> yes. and at the risk of self-supporting, i will self quote . literally the first thing i ever wrote for the new yorker which was about trey von martin. it was barack obama and the parameters of hope. and you know, i talked about how he and his political rhetoric constantly ly criticized cynicism. anytime that people disagreed , thinking they were skeptical, cynicism that. you couldn't call people racist but youcould call them cynical. that was an accessible political language . in that piece i wrote the
problem is not cynicism but the extent to which cynicism proved accurate . the most cynical interpretation of that moment would be that there's going to be a gigantic racial backlash as aconsequence of him existing .and that proved to be right. so i think the obama defied every kind of cynical expectation of race in america? yes. did obama confirmevery cynical expectation of race in america ? yes. that's what it became so public to understand what he meant. >> you see some disappointment with his post-presidency, his lack of presence on the political scene e. you share that or do you think it's depending on one person too much ? >> i think it's mnot depending on one person too much because there are the 12 years which we can speak of those tyears hopefully in retrospect now.
>> to some regard still living in them. >> we don't know what will happen in 2024. but in speaking of the trunk years i think now i forgot what i was going to say. >> i'm reading right now about this piece that i was reading about trying to describe the trump phenomenon. the anti-democratic phenomenon and the minority aspect of his politics in the republican party right now. we were speaking at the miami book fair and nobody knows better than floridians how the battle that's been waged over the vote. donald trump is part of a long legacy of this, of the destruction of reconstruction.
since jimcrow and on and on . i think maybe the way i think of it in terms of obama and then trump is that both of them tore back the mask of what american history and being american is all about both in a positive and deeply negative sense. i can't bring myself to see it otherwise. >> there's something particular about the time and place trump comes from and i say this because i'm a queens native as is he. we grew up in to communities that are adjacent. you and i have talked about this. you grow up in a place called jamaica estates and i grew up in a place called frost to make a. we have exactly the relationship you anticipate based on their name .
, right. and he's about almost a generation olderthan me . when i grew up queens was this entirely multiracial enclave. as a result of the 1965 immigration reform act.th and when trump grew up in queens it was the second whitest borough in new york city. it was kind of a escape from manhattan outer borough ideal almost. certainly jamaica estates was which was an wealthy upper-class area of queens and when that changeover happened , in a stunningly short period of time it went from astoundingly white to this polyglot multicultural united nations of new york city. there was a part of his generation that whad very much
circled the wagons bunker mentality. who are these people, why are they coming here, whereare they from ? they don't share our values. the reaction was not unfamiliar in american history so observing him and observing where he went in american politics, i recognize that he was speaking a language that he had learned early on in life . it was a language that because it took some time for the rest of the country to catch up to the kind of immigration and nativist resentments that manifested in queens in the 1960s, 1970s . he was speaking a language he had spoken all of his life to people who were newly enamored of it. >> and his father as we know ran highly discriminatory housing. my great grandmother lived in a lower middle-class housing set up by trump's old man in
coney island. you prefaced something so interesting and eloquent. race has exuded a profound distorting effect on american lives. all of it, not simply the portion labeled with the racial modifier black but the nature of the problem baldwin highlighted in sure is that it's generally associated with only that sliver of the public . this is not an anthology about race but a broad fascinating set of events and people. talk about the degree to which race as we discussed distorts american lives? because one of our mutual acquaintances, my friend anthony at the rights that race doesn't exist. race has an effect certainly on the biological. >> it is a fantasy. i think when it was deemed
men's most dangerous mix of the 20th century i think, the idea of race. it really is but it's a myth that as anyone who studies literature work k studies folklore. you know that the myths have incredible power to shape our realities and that's what's happening here.and we also have we associate the idea of race with community that are that are tasked with navigating its complexity. but we don't associate with the entire country. and so when we think about the american society we say american democracy. we think it's a benchmark for american democracy in the world but we don't generally reflect upon the fact that none of our elections are legitimate prior to 1965.
if we go back to 1920s we would say even there were less legitimate because women couldn't vote, white women couldn't vote in those elections either but it's only been since 1965 that we had free and fair elections. a community that represented around 15 percent of the population overwhelmingly in the south couldn't vote. meaning you don't really know what the results of the 1932 or 1948, any of those presidential elections, we don't really know what the results of those would have been everyone happened to vote which was why the uproar is 2020 culminating in the january 6 debacle was so astounding to view from people who had any basic familiarity with american history. saying this election wasn't rated lebut you really don't have to go that far back if you wantto find a rigged election .
>> this book was conceived in a time of tumult and crisis. more thanusual . which is the year ago this summer. i wonder now that 14 months or have passed or whatever it's been. when you look back at the george floyd moment of course you covered the trial that came out of that. what do you think is the lasting effects of that summer and the way that historical flashpoints can have their lasting effect and what's ephemeral. >> i think what is lasting what i think will be lasting is that horrific image of george floyd suffering and calling out for the intervention of his deceased mother. that image is in our mind in
a way that i think emmett till have never been forgettable for the generation of people that were exposed to that. >>that photograph in life magazine . >> that has stayed in people's minds.what i think is ephemeral is any thought of unanimity around what represents. you've seen at the beginning this indictment which was so shocking to see police unions come out. which they almost never do. police unions to announcing the actions of people on the right side of the political spectrum who were saying this was indefensible. just the cold-blooded murder of someone on a street corner and in minnesota, minneapolis . but as time has gone on. the idea that this represented some bigger reality, in your statement about a bigger truth of race
in america has come under dispute . come under attackrather . and i think the conversation that we have around critical race theory or at least what we're calling critical race theoryis an example of that. that if for a brief moment before part of a summer , these country was willing to reckon with a lot of the things baldwin had been putting on the tablein 1962 . and the conversations around workplaces. the conversations in schools and various other communities. certainly in the publications , conversations that happened among editors. and elected officials. and then that kind of fell toback into our baseline period of finger-pointing and disagreement and this ingenuity and where we are now. >> and when you look at the political arguments that's
going on now, about january 6 . wouldn't you expect it to come out, how should we understand it beyond just the finger-pointing and screaming and yelling? how would we look at it historically through the lens of some time? >> i don't really know what i fear that we will look at it in the way that we look at 1877. which was the end of reconstruction and the retreat from actual democracy. i think that whereas the conversation about january 6 attended at the moment tends to think of it as a culmination of tropism. i see that it might be the herald of an even more to lunch with sarah. and we don't know where we are. we don't know whether that's true or not it's potentially true. so i think that we that real, worst-case scenario is that we look at this 20, 30, 50
years from now as another, yet another moment in which reactionary forces arose in an attempt to stifle if not outright eradicate democracy in the united states. >> i want to thank my coeditor jelani cobb. this book features everyone from toni morrison to james following to tommy secrets to lots of writers that you read in the magazine every week. i think we're all very proud of those writers and a lot of them are collected here in the class. thank you everyone at the miami book for you for having us and ihope to see you soon . >> every saturday american history tv documents america stories and on sunday but ed brings you the latest in