UPDATE: Don't miss our upcoming evening of conversation with Jelani Cobb, Breaking the Line: A Parable of Race and Education in Queens, NY, on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., at Manducatis Rustica, 46-35 Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.
Jelani Cobb is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama & the Paradox of Progress and To The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic.
Professor Cobb is no stranger to the Queens Library community; he’s joined us in the past for author events and he will again in February 2015. He also promoted our recent “Giving Week” event to his followers on Twitter, encouraging people to join him in supporting Queens Library. He was gracious enough to talk with us about his early experiences with the Library, his books, and the heated events of this past summer.
You recently asked your Twitter followers when they got their first library cards. You got yours at the community library in South Hollis. How important was Queens Library to you growing up?
After school one day, when I was in the fourth grade, my mother picked me up and we stopped at the library on the way home. We were living in Hollis, Queens at the time and the local library was four blocks away from our house. She walked me in and then sent me up to the desk to ask for an application for a library card. I remember it very vividly, even her urging me to speak up so the librarian could hear my request. I had no idea how essential that building would become both to my childhood and to a great deal of what I've done since then. I lost myself in volumes of Greek mythology, science books, fiction — every one of the Encyclopedia Brown books I could get my hands on — without ever considering that I might grow up and write books of my own one day. The South Hollis library was pretty much a cornerstone.
What do you think are the best ways that people can support their local libraries?
It would be great if everyone took a moment and gave something, however small, to the branch where they received their first library card. I didn't know until very recently that the experience of getting that card is so emotionally resonant for so many people — it's often the first document a child possesses with their name on it. It's also great to see people volunteer for workshops or events based upon what they do professionally and contribute the skills that libraries helped them develop.
Your book To the Break of Dawn explored the aesthetic qualities of hip hop and traced its origins back to other forms of black expression. What sources did you use for your research?
When I started my book on hip hop, I first delved into the blues because I was interested in understanding the relationship between the two genres. I explored a wonderful concordance of blues lyrics that I came across in the library of Spelman College (where I was teaching at the time), audio recordings of early blues songs, a ton of music reviews, and some interviews as well. Research is work but it doesn't feel like it, and I often had to remind myself that I was trying to complete a book, not just reading lots of things I found interesting.
You travelled to Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed and also after the recent grand jury decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson. Can you talk about your experiences there? What do you think about the related wave of political protests stretching from New York City to the West Coast and even Delhi, India?
Being in Ferguson was a confluence of sorts. I teach history and I'm often trying to convey to students its immediate relevance to the present — but in Ferguson I could see, very clearly, the way that fraught relationship between the police and black communities has survived history and become part of the present. I believe that the people in power in Ferguson and far beyond tended to think this was about the forensic details of a specific shooting by a particular police officer on a given day. The people in the streets understood the events in Ferguson contextually, as part of a much bigger narrative about whose lives matter and deeper questions that really couldn't be dispelled by a ballistic report or an autopsy. And given that this occurred not very long after the Trayvon Martin incident, it resonated in a way that it might not have otherwise.
Your book The Substance of Hope came out 18 months into President Obama’s first term. Can you talk about your observations then and if/how they’ve changed now that we’re nearing the end of his presidency?
The Substance of Hope was my attempt to make sense of a question that thrilled, vexed, and fascinated us throughout 2008 — specifically, how it was possible for the term "black President" to move so quickly from nearly oxymoronic to an actual political reality, and at a time when race continues to bedevil the social and economic realities of this country. It was easy at that point to engage Obama as metaphor in a way that you couldn’t do even one year into his presidency, much less now, halfway through his second term. I think he's governed domestically with a degree of cautious pragmatism that people didn't anticipate in 2008, but being a historian I know better than to draw too firm a conclusion about that before the dust has entirely settled.
What’s the most recent book you’ve read and who are some of your favorite writers?
I'm currently reading the Modern Library's collected essays of Joan Didion. Her work has a staggering clarity and a subtlety of observation that is rare and compelling. A lot of times, people think of the essay as an informative genre and that poetry and fiction place more emphasis upon aesthetic qualities; I find myself drawn to nonfiction writers who dispel that notion. Didion, James Baldwin, Tony Judt, and Amiri Baraka are some of my favorites.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and journalists?
Attentive reading and diligent note-taking are the best tools I know for aspiring writers. The most important thing I've learned about writing is the importance of reading, not simply as an exercise in gaining knowledge — though that is crucial — but also for the practice of taking something apart to see why and how it works. When I first started writing, I amassed a huge file of clippings, full of writing that I thought was great in some way — and I would read and re-read them until I could understand what the writer had done, and what distinguished that piece of writing from something average or forgettable.
Born and raised in Queens, Jelani Cobb was educated at Jamaica High School, Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Rutgers University, where he received his doctorate in American History. His forthcoming book is titled Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931-1957. His articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Essence, Vibe, The Progressive, and TheRoot.com. He has also been a featured commentator on MSNBC, National Public Radio, CNN, Al-Jazeera, CBS News, and other national broadcast outlets.