tv Jelani Cobb and David Remnick The Matter of Black Lives CSPAN January 1, 2022 11:05am-11:36am EST
jelani cobb and editor david remnick discuss the new yorker's articles on race throughout its history class i am david remnick, editor of the new yorker and thank you 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, profiles, memoir and criticism from the magazine and i'd like to introduce my coeditor, my colleague and friend jelani cobb. he's been a staff writer since 2015 and writes regal frequently on race, politics, history and culture. he's a renowned teacher of journalism at columbia university and has his phd from rutgers and wrote the introduction to the essential carter commission list which
was published recently this year. he and i edited this book together. hold it up for youto see . but i think jelani is going to say if they new yorker had attempted to do such an anthology in the 60s this would be slender in the. the anthology begins with james baldwin and his piece that came to be known as the firenext time . and i just wonder if you could talk about why it begins the book and its central place. >> the other thing i would say about this: is that people are still working out from home and so you can read it but you can also work out with it.
>> biceps and triceps. >> dual-purpose year. you know, your piece is so incredible and so insightful and i've come back to that piece many times over the course ofmy life and i read it early on in college . and the new yorker saw fit to republish it from the website last summer in the midst of the turbulence and turmoil that was going on really i think spoke to just how some of the other things in that these are. and then it also helped i think. work wasn't the tuesday nights we would talk? >> the regular sessions just sorting through the piece
itself . >> it helped with the methods when i set out thinking about the pieces that in some way in dialogue with baldwin. and it became possible to look atother work through . >> we just want to talk about the origin story of that piece which you write about in the introduction. >> james baldwin at the time he published this was contracted to write it before and he had been initially supposed to write something about his travels in africa and he carried out essentially the experience left him cold. he didn't find anything that was connecting to him as a writer and at the same time he had a piece on harlem that contracted full commentary.
he like many freelancers doubled multiple assignments for publications and the experience in africa only made him more intensely curious about mining his identity as an american and specifically as a negro american. and he writes this piece, this astounding essay that really redefines the parameters of the conversation around race. and commentary on the other hand if in fact they ever got their hands on he decides to send it instead to william sean at the new yorker to fulfill that contract potentially because the new yorker paid better. and it was just a kind of practical decision for him.
but in 1962, the new yorker did not ever run anything like that. one of the things i thought was most intriguing is the fact that the new yorker should be ashamed of having letters from diverse geographic locales of people that write. foreign correspondents and writing from all over the globe and baldwin is writing in america and he frames it as a letter from a region in my mind which is just as complicated and fascinating and provocative as any other distant locality you could have thought of and that is part of what made it an instant classic.
>> it's part of you to call things as they are. the new yorker had not published black writers very often at all. it's not very uncommon now in mainstream american publications to photograph the new york times newsroom and it was one long row of white men in white sleeve shorts hunched over typewriters and it's interesting that the editor of commentary for brits was infuriated by the decision to send this piece to the new yorker. >> right. he wrote quite a conservative piece about race not long after the public occasion of this called the negro problem and hours, one of the great titles that i've ever heard.
the piece itself is both about the inner life of james baldwin. it's also about his explorations of possible paths, elijah mohammed who founded the nation of islam and then comes back to his own church where he grew up and it seems to be indicating potential pathways for protest, for reaching, for the country itself. >> he does and one of the things the late sportswriter ralph riley told me when i was very young, maybe 23, 24. he said writing in the first person is only really sensible if you can navigate that experience into a more universalunderstanding . had it not been, it's just a diary entry.
and baldwin does that incredibly in that essay. he talks about growing up in harlem and he talked about particularly the onset of reticence in harlem and how treacherous it is because we begin to map out the paths that our lives will take. and he sees nothing but danger, really ahead of him. and the allure of the church is an escape route, it gives that avenue. there are all of these things that 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 . and what he does in the course of telling this long
autobiographical premise is contextualized elijah mohammed. for people who could not understand the militancy, the radicalism, the contempt for white peoplethat the nation of islam embodied . you need the preface of a baldwin essay. he goes out and says islamic people feel this way but he's stating how he comes to the question and how elijah mohammed is almost a logical project that he had navigated . >> one of the many pieces in this anthology is gates profile of louis farrakhan. it's writtenaround the time of the million man march . how do you see farrakhan? how would you go about explaining farrakhan for people in some corners still compares to the way all the wind is assessing the nation of islam in 1962?
so it's a pretty big generation at least gap between those two pieces. >> what's interesting about that is baldwin is writing in the midst of the civil rights movement. and to colson he wrote another essay either a long profile of martin luther king but he says that the negro leader has traditionally been in a position of telling white people to hurry up while telling negroes to wait . and he really is articulating that in the midst of the civil rights movement that is a possibility but also is, there's this anger that elijah mohammed and the nation of islam represent and for farrakhan in the 90s, it's on the other side of
that. there is no burgeoning movement or these incipient reforms are going to change things. you're looking at the despair of the awa crisis and crack, astounding amounts of violence happening in american cities overwhelmingly in black communities, blackand brown communities . and farrakhan's skepticism of america as purchase. it's almost become and i told you. so i think that moment where he just captures him is really almost like a map of where we were at thatmoment in history . >> this contains a great range of writers. toni morrison is represented a few times.
you yourself are represented as well in this book. and you came to the magazine and 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 book can be post obama during the george floyd moment. when you first encountered obama as a political presence and you write about this in one of your pieces for the book called barack x, what were yourhopes and how were they ãbetween then and now ? >> the thing that's interesting about barack obama was there's no precedent. he wasn't the product of some
immediate trauma . there had been a kind of sympathetic move for recompense. he just emerged at a moment when even people who studied race, like political scientists and sociologists and historians nobody was looking at american society and saying we are 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 there was this idea that there's nothing he couldn't do. there's a picture of him outside the superman museum where he's posing with his hands on hiships . maybe i can do something unprecedented and at the same time there'sthe gravity of everyday politics . and it was to craft a very
heavy-handed metaphor here. he was requesting whether or not he could like superman take flight. i think that it is essentially a stalemate there . and making the prerogative of the presidency beingdenied to him , being called a liar in the midst of an address to congress . him being denied the possibility of appointing a supreme court justice, having to show his birth certificate to prove that he was a citizen of the united states. and in that context, it really became especially when i was writing in 2012 where you could see we were past the euphoria of him being elected. and you start to see the outlines and contours of a political dynamic that he was encountering. so i was writing that looking
very much at the kind of who with this person be and what can we say about this moment? that was what i was trying to get with barack x. >> the darkest interpretation of the book would be was his successor. and it seems like a logical conclusion to draw that the logical conclusion of barack obama is donald trump and all he came to represent. i think which was worse that as time went by. do you accept that? that that was a logical outcome of a black president that was a boldly racist president? >> and yes, it's worth quoting. really the first thing i wrote for the new yorker which was about thurgood
marshall, barack obama and the parameters of hope and i talked about how he in his political rhetoric constantly personifies cynicism and anytime people disagreed with them, whether they were skeptical , he couldn't call peopleracist but you could call them cynical and that was accessible political language . the problem of that cynicism but to the extent that cynicism proved accurate and the most cynical interpretation of that moment would be there was going to be a gigantic racial backlash as aconsequence of him existing .and that proved to be right. i think the obama defined
every kind of cynical expectation of race in america? yes. did obama confirm every cynicalexpectation of race in america ? yes. that's why it became so complicated is because you have to understand what he meant. >> you see some disappointment with his lack of presence on the political scene. do you share that or do you think that's depending onone person too much ? >> i think it's a measure of depending on one person too much because during the trump years which we hope we can speak of those years in retrospect now, there was some solidity in them. you knew what would happen in 2024 but in speaking of the trump years i think that 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. the aspects of his politics in the republican party right now. we're speaking at the miami book fair and no one knows better than floridians the battle that's been waged over the vote. donald trump is part of a long legacy of this. the destruction of reconstruction. it's on and on. i think maybe the way i think of it in terms of obama and trump is that both of them tore back the mouse of what american history and being an american is all about both in the positive and deeply negative sense .
i can't bring myself to see it otherwise. >> i think it's something particular about the time and place that trump comes from . i've said it often because i'm a queens native as is he. and we grew up in two communities that are adjacent. you and italk about this . he grew up in a place called jamaica estates and i grew up in a place called south jamaica . we have exactly the relationship based upon their names. and almost a generation older than me and the idea of queens as this entirely multiracial racial enclave in the wake of the reform act,
when trump grew up inqueens it was the second largest borough in new york city . it's in that escape from manhattan outer borough ideal . it was a wealthy uppercrust area of queens. and when that changeover happened, and it happened in a short period of time where it went from astoundingly white to this polyglot multicultural united nations of new york city, it was a part of this generation that very much had circled the wagon mentality. who are these people, why are they coming here, theydon't share our values . it was not at all unfamiliar in national history so in voting for him and voting where he went in american politics i recognized that he was speaking a language that he learnedearly on in life . and it was a language that he
took some time for the rest of the country to catch up to this kind of integrate immigration and native history that was invented in queens in the 1960s and 1970s . he was speaking a language he had spoken all of his life. and we were newly enamored of it. >> 'sfather as we know said my great grandmother lived in a lower middle-class housing set up in coney island. you and i prefaced something so interesting and eloquent. race has exuded a profound distorting effect on american life, all of it, not simply the portion of the racial modifier of black but the nature of the problem baldwin highlighted ensures that it's generally associated with only thatsliver of the public
. this is not an anthology about race, it's about a broad fascinating set of people so talk about the degree to which race as we discuss it distorts american lives and because one of our mutual acquaintances anthony says race doesn't exist. >> sure, it is a fantasy. i think when it was viewed a dangerous myth in the 20th century i think the idea of race, it really is but it's a myth that as anyone who studied literature or studies
folklore, myths have incredible power toshape our realities. and that's what's happened here .and we often have we associate the idea of race with communities that are cast with navigating its complexity. but you don't associated with the entire country and so when we think about the american society, american democracy as the benchmark micro see in the world, we don't generally reflect upon the fact that none of our elections prior to 1965. and even back to 1970 we can say even that women couldn't vote or what women couldn't vote in those elections either but it had only been since 1965 that we had free and fair elections. a community that represented around 15 percent of the population was overwhelmingly located inthe south couldn't vote .
and we already know what the results of the 1932 and 1948, any of those presidential elections we don't really know the results of those those would have been if everybody had been able to vote each was why the 20/20 culminated in the january 6 debacle was so astounding to view from people who had any basic familiarity with american history. so this election wasn't rated but you don't have to go back that far back if you want to find that. >> this was conceived in a time of trouble and crisis is unusual. i wonder now that a few months as fast, whatever it's been or more when you look back at the george floyd moment and it's of course you covered the trial that came out of that.
what do you think is the lasting effect of that summer and what's seminal? >> 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 minds in a way that i think has never been forgiven for a generation of people exposed to that . >> those photographs in life magazine. >> that has just stayed in people's minds. what i think is ephemeral is any sort of unanimity about around what that image means. we see at the beginning this indictment which was so
shocking to see police unions come out, police unions denouncing the actions. people on the right side of the political spectrum incorporated thiswas indefensible . it was just the cold-blooded murder of someone on a street corner in minnesota, in minneapolis but compile that on the idea that this represented some bigger reality, a statement about a bigger truth of race in america that has come under dispute . come under attackrather . and i think the conversation that we have around critical race theory, what we're calling critical race theory is an example ofthat . if we are part of a summer, the country was willing to reckon with a lot of what james baldwin had been
putting on the tablein 1962 . and it's a conversation in both places, a conversation with various other communities that happened among the editors and elected officials and then that kind of fell back into our baseline period of finger-pointing and disagreement and this ingenuity and where we are now. >> when you look at the political argument, how should we understand it beyond just the finger-pointing and screening? how can we look at the through the lens ofsome time ? >> i don't really know but 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 the actual. [inaudible] whereas the conversation in january 6 tended to think of it as a culmination of trumpism but it may be the herald of a more serious era where we are, i don't know if it's true or not but it's potentially true . i think that the worst-case scenario is that we look at this 20, 30, 50 years from now as another moment in which reactionary forces arose in an attempt to stifle if not outright eradicate democracy in the united states.