tv Jelani Cobb and David Remnick The Matter of Black Lives CSPAN December 26, 2021 11:04am-11:36am EST
staff writer jelani cobb and ettore david remnick discussed the new yorkers articles on race throughout its history. "newsweek" deputy opinion editor argues journalism once a blue-collar profession as a profession for elite pushing radical ideas. later on her author interview program "after words" codis prize-winning journalist farah stockman looks at how u.s. coverage moving overseas have affected the working class. you can find a full schedule in your program guide or by visiting booktv.org. and now here's the new yorker jelani cobb and david winnick. >> hi, everyone. i'm david winnick with 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 like to introduce my coeditor, my colleague and friend jelani
cobb. he has been a staff writer for the new yorker since 2015. he writes frequently on race, politics, history and culture. he is an renowned teacher of journalism at the lumbee university. he has a phd from rutgers in history. he co-edited and wrote the introduction to the essential -- recently published this year. we edited this book together. hold it up for you to see. i think it's fair to say if the new yorker had attempted to such an apology in the '60s this book would be very slender indeed. the anthology begins with james baldwin famous piece they came to be known as fire next time. and i just wonder maybe to toggle a bit about why it begins the book and its central place.
>> sure. the other thing i would say about this column is that the media people are still working out from home and so you can read it comes you can also work out with it. >> biceps and triceps. >> exactly, kind of a dual purpose object. the baldwin peace is so incredible and so insightful, and i'll come back to this many times over the course of my life. when i read early on in college, and the fact that the new yorker saw fit to republish it on its website last summer in the midst of the turbulence and the tumult that was going on really i think
spoke to just how timeless some of the themes that are in that piece are. and it also helped i think -- [inaudible] >> regular session is sorting through the pieces. >> it helped with the book started making real sense for me at least once i started thinking about the subsequent pieces being in some way in dialogue with baldwin, and it became a a lens possible to look at other work through. >> we didn't talk about the origin story of that which you wrote about in the introduction. >> james baldwin at the time he published this, was published in 1962 when he was contracted to write it before hand, and he had been initially supposed to write something about his travels in
africa. he carried out ostensibly the experience left him cold. he didn't find anything that was connecting him as a writer, and at the same time he had a piece on harlem that was contracted for commentary. he has juggled multiple assignments for different publications, and the experience of africa only made him more intensely curious about mining his agenda as an american, specifically as a negro american. he writes this piece, this astounding essay that really, really kind of we define the parameters of the conversation around race, and commentary if
they have gotten her hands on it, he decides to send it instead to william shawn at the new yorker to fulfill that contract, potentially because the new yorker pays better. it was just a kind of practical decision for him. but in 1962, you would attest to, the new yorker would have not ever write anything like that. one of the things i thought was most subversive and intriguing is the fact that the new yorker addition of from diverse geographic locales, writing 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 and i think that isf what made it an instant classic. >> part of it, you know, all 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 mainstream america publications that you saw photographs of the "new york times" newsroom, it was one long row of white men in white short-sleeved shirts hunched over typewriters. it's very interesting that also the editor of commentary was
interrogated by the decision to send this piece to the new yorker. >> right. >> then wrote quite a conservative piece about race to say the least not long at the publication of this calling it a negro problem of hours. one of the great titles i've ever heard. the piece itself is both internal and external. it's about the real-life of james baldwin but also about his explorations of possible paths, elijah mohammed who was head of the nation of islam, and then comes back to his own church where he grew up. he seems to be indicating certain potential pathways for protests, for the region, for the country itself. >> he does, and one of the things the late sportswriter
ralph riley 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 out into a more universal understanding. if not then, , it's just a diar. baldwin does that incredibly in the essay. he talks about growing up in harlem. he talked about particularly onset of adolescents in harlem and a treacherous it is because adolescence, we begin to map out the paths allies will take. he sees nothing but danger really ahead of him, and the lure of the church is kind of an escape route, via lure of the avenue, all these things will in
some way compound the dangers of living in harlem, and the sum total would be people's lives that are stilted in some way by race. what he does in the course of telling this long autobiography process is contextualized elijah mohammed. for people who could not understand the militancy, the radicalism, the content for white people that the nation of islam embodied, you need the preface of a baldwin essay. he goes on to say islamic people feel this way, but he was explaining how he comes to the question at how elijah mohammed is almost a logical project of the world that he had navigated. >> interestingly, one of the baldwin pieces and as many great pieces in this anthology is henry louis gates profile of
louis farrakhan. a piece that was written around the time of the million man march. how do you see, how would you go about explaining farrakhan for people in some corners comparing to the way baldwin is assessing the nation of islam in 1962? so it's a pretty big, a generation at least gap between those pieces. >> what's interesting about that is baldwin is writing in the midst of the civil rights movement, and he wrote another essay either a long profile of martin luther king, mighty says that they negro leader has traditionally been in a position of telling white people to write up what telling negroes to wait. he really did articulate in the
dilemma in the civil rights movement there are these possibilities but there also is anger that elijah mohammed and nation of islam represent. for louis farrakhan whose emergence in the late '80s and really his influences in the '90s when henry louis gates of writing about him is the other side of that. there is no urgent movement or reforms that will change things. looking at despair of the aid crisis, crack, a stunning amounts violence happening in american cities, overwhelmingly in black communities, black and brown communities. and farrakhan's skepticism of america had purchased. it's almost see, i told you, you know? and so i think that moment where
henry louis gates captures him really it's almost like a map of what we were at that moment in history. >> this contains a great range of writers. toni morrison is represented a few times. you yourself are representing as well as you do in this book many 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. this book is the fruit of our mutual thinking about what this book can be obama during the george floyd moment.
what were your hopes and to what degree where they dashed as you look back on it now? >> the thing that was interesting about obama was there was no precedent. he wasn't the product of some immediate trauma. there hadn't been i kind of sympathetic move for recompense. he just emerged at a moment when people who studied race, like political scientists and sociologist and historians, nobody was looking at american society and saying we are at a moment when we can anticipate a breakthrough of this magnitude. he just showed up. because he upended some expectations, yet this idea that the wasn't nothing could do, and
so there's a picture of an outside the superman museum where he's posing with his hands like on his hips. you imagine, maybe i can do something unprecedented. at the same time there's the gravity of everyday politics, and it was to craft a very heavy-handed metaphor here. he was requesting whether or not he could come like superman, take flight, or whether the gravity would hold them in place. i think that is essentially a stalemate there. and looking at the prerogatives of the president being denied in and 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 actually a citizen of the united states. and in that context it really
became, especially when is writing a piece in 2012 where you could kind of see we're past the euphoria of him being elected, you can start to see the outlines and contours of a political dynamic that he was encountering. and so i was writing that looking very much at the kind of what was the ultimate year this would be, you know, who is this person? what we say about this moment? that was what our time to get at with barack x. >> but the darkest interpretation the book would yield was his successor. >> true. >> what seems like a logical conclusion to draw that the logical conclusion of barack obama is such a contrast to put it mildly, is donald trump and ali came to represent. i think worse as time went by. do you accept that?
is that a logical outcome of a black president that would be a boldly racist president? >> yes at the risk of self quoting, i will self quote. literally the first thing he ever wrote for the new yorker which was about thurgood marshall, barack obama and the parameters of hope, and i talked about how he come in his political rhetoric, constantly personifies cynicism. anytime the people disagreed with them, whether they were skeptical or ever, he couldn't call people racist but he could call him cynical and that was acceptable political language. in the piece i wrote the problem was that cynicism but the extent to which cynicism proved accurate.
and the most cynical interpretation of that moment would be there's going to be a gigantic racial backlash as a consequence of him existing. that proved to be right. so i think the obama the five every kind of cynical expedition that race in america, yes. did obama confirm every cynical expectation of race in america? yes. that's what it became so complicated is because you have to understand what he meant. >> use some disappointment with his post-presidency, present of the presidency on the political scene. do you share that what you think that's depending on one person too much? >> i think it's a matter of depending on on one person too much, because during the trump years, which we hope we can speak of those years in retrospect now, --
[inaudible] you don't know what will happen in 2024, but in speaking of the trump years i think that -- now i forgot what i was going to say. >> look, i'm reading right now about this piece that i was just reading about trying to describe the trump phenomenon, the at the democratic phenomenon, that market the aspect of his politics in the republican party right now. we're speaking of the miami book fair in the windows better than floridians, the battle that's been waged over the boat. donald trump is part of a long legacy of this, the distraction of reconstruction, on 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, both of them tore back the masks of what american history and being an american is all about, both in a positive and deeply negative sense. i can't bring myself to see it otherwise. >> it's something particular about the time and place that trump comes from. i've said this often because i'm a a queens native, as is he. and we grew up in two communities that are adjacent. you and i talked about this. he grew up in a place called jamaica estates and and i gn a place called south jamaica. we have exactly the relationship you can anticipate based on their names.
almost a generation older than me, and the idea of queens as this entirely multiracial enclave in the wake of the racial reform act, and when trump grew up in queens it was the second largest borough in new york city. it's the kind of escape from manhattan outer borough all deal almost than jamaica estates was which was a wealthy uppercrust area of queens. when that changeover happened, and it happened in a stunningly short part of time where it went from astoundingly white to this multicultural of united nations, you know, of new york city, was a part of this generation that very much a circle the wagon
mentality, who are these people, why are they come here, where are they from? they don't share our values. it was not at all unfamiliar in american history, and so where he went in american politics, i recognize that he was speaking a language that he learned early on in life, and 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 needed issues that was in queens in the 1960s and 1970s. he was speaking a language he has spoken all of his life to people who were newly enamored of it. >> his father as we know, his father ran highly discriminatory -- my great-grandmother d any lower middle-class housing set up by trump the old man in coney island. you and i prefaced something so
interesting and eloquent. race has exuded a profound, distorting effect on american lives. all of it, not simply to push the racial modifier of black but the nature of the problem baldwin highlighted ensures that is generally associated with only that sliver of the public. this is not an anthology about race, it's about abroad, faceting set of people. talk about the degree to which race as we discussed it distorts american lives. because one of our mutual acquaintances, anthony, says race doesn't exist. race is a fantasy. >> sure, i mean, it is a fantasy. when it was deemed a dangerous
myth at the turn of the 20th century, i think the idea of race, it really is but it's a myth that asked anyone who studied literature or studies folklore, mists have incredible power to shape our realities, and that's what's happened here. we often have come we associate the idea of race with communities that are tasked with navigating its complexities. but you don't associate it with the entire country, and so when we think about the american society, american democracy as the benchmark democracy in the world, but we don't generally reflect upon the fact that none of our elections prior to 1965, and even back to 1920 you could
say even that because women couldn't vote or white women couldn't vote in those elections either. but it's only been since 1965 with that free and fair elections, a community that represented around 15% of the population was overwhelmingly located in the south couldn't vote. meaning the results of the 1932, 1948 or -- we don't really know what the result would've been if i don't have been able to vote which is why the uproar in 2020 culminated in the generous six debacle was so astounding to view from people who had any basic familiarity with american history. so this election wasn't rigged but you really don't have to go that far back if you would want to find a rigged election. >> this book was conceived in the time of some old and crisis,
more than usual -- tumult. i wonder now that 14 months have passed or whatever spin, or more, when you look back at the george floyd moment and, of course, you covered the trial they came out of that. what do you think is the lasting effect of that summer in the way that historical flashing can happen? >> i think what is lasting, what i think would 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 generation of
people that were exposed to that those photographs in life magazine. >> that just has taken people's minds. what i think is ephemeral is any sort of unanimity around what that image means. we see at the beginning this indictment in which so shocking to see police unions, out, because it almost never do, please unions denouncing the actions of people on the right side of the political spectrum who are were saying this was indefensible. ..
january 6, where do you expect to come out and how should we understand that beyond just looking at it. how do you look at it historically through the lens of time? swimmac i don't really know, but i fear that he will look at it in the way that we looked at 1877 in reconstruction and the retreat from actual democracy. and so some times it is taken as trumpism. but it is part of it. so i think that in the worst case scenario, this can be
looked at as yet another moment in which the action area is in an attempt to stifle but not outright eradicating the democracy in the united states. 2 i would like to think my guest, mr. cobb and the matter of black lives. thank you so much. we are reading the magazine every week. many great parts of this book. thank you for joining us at the miami book fair. ♪ ♪ ♪ >> an intellectual feast every sunday on booktv. bringing you the latest in nonfiction books and authors.
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