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Anthology 'The Matter of Black Lives' reflects on America's past to guide its future

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

"The Matter Of Black Lives" is the title of a collection of pieces published in The New Yorker. The writers range from James Baldwin to Toni Morrison to help Hilton Als to our next guest, Jelani Cobb. Cobb co-edited the book, and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: First of all, how did you approach this assignment? There are so many pieces you could have put in this book. How did you think about which writers, which pieces you wanted to include?

COBB: Very scrupulously. We looked at this in the summer of last year in, you know, the aftermath of George Floyd's death while conflict was raging, you know, across the country. And The New Yorker made, I think, a very wise editorial decision in republishing James Baldwin's "Letter From A Region Of My Mind," which is - you know, originally appeared in The New Yorker but has more widely been known as the essay "The Fire Next Time." And in that essay, he really kind of lays out the racial conflagrations of 1962 in a way that resonated really strongly with what was happening last summer. And so we started thinking that that could perhaps be a lens to think through a collection of work that in some ways could be thought of in dialogue with Baldwin across the years and across the decades.

MCCAMMON: One thing I learned about that essay that I hadn't realized before from reading your commentary was that Baldwin's framing of the piece as a letter was really a reference to a long-standing genre at The New Yorker of respondents writing letters from all over the globe. But it's interesting that Baldwin was writing from his mind, what does that mean, that framing?

COBB: Well, I mean, it's interesting because, you know, even to this day, there's, you know, the tradition in The New Yorker of letter from, and it's always a distant locale or, you know, the person is writing about a set of experiences that the reader is likely to not have heard. And Baldwin was writing about a neighborhood that is maybe 60 blocks north of The New Yorker's offices. And so it wasn't a distant geographic locale, but he was writing from a particular mindset. And he used the frame of reference - Harlem as a frame of reference in his autobiography to explain where that mindset came from.

MCCAMMON: I think one of the most enduring themes in Baldwin's piece is his calling out of white liberals. He writes at one point - (reading) therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably what they do not know about themselves. Unpack that for me. What does it mean? And is it still true today?

COBB: So Baldwin - that's a theme, by the way, in his work he has come back to, you know, time and time again. Another line in that essay is that he says the future of the country is precisely as dark and precisely as bright as the future of the Negro. And when he says what they don't know about the Negro is what they - precisely what they don't know about themselves is that he frames Black life as a creation of white America, the depravations of Black life.

And one of the things that he finds irreconcilable is the fact that the culpable community, the culpable elements that really benefit from this situation have no knowledge or profess to have no knowledge of how things got to be where they are. And he says, I'm not a Negro, and if you think I'm a Negro, you need to examine yourself and ask yourself why you would need me to be that. And what he meant was what was associated with Black life was a product of white imagination. He wanted people to actually confront history to understand how we had arrived at the moment that we'd arrived at.

MCCAMMON: All of the essays in this collection, "The Matter Of Black Lives," come from The New Yorker. Prior to 1962 and Baldwin's pivotal essay, how would you characterize the way the magazine approached stories about non-white people?

COBB: The magazine was founded in 1925. You don't find much about race in the publication. You don't - certainly don't find very many writers of color or any writers of color in that early period writing about it. And then when African Americans do emerge, when they become part of The New Yorker's coverage, it's around jazz. It's through the lens of jazz criticism, sometimes profiles of jazz musicians. But Baldwin really kind of kicks open the doors into much broader coverage in 1962. And then, of course, the following year, Charlayne Hunter-Gault joined The New Yorker as the first Black staff writer.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about one of the essays in this collection, also a letter - Calvin Trillin's "Letter From Jackson." It's a pretty simple essay. It's just his observations traveling with Martin Luther King Jr. by plane in the South. And in this account, King is in dialogue with a very young white man who's clearly skeptical of King's message. What stood out to you from that essay?

COBB: It's an unguarded moment with King. We know about his official actions and the speeches he gave and kind of public life. But this is what every day a kind of quotidian moment in King's life looked like. And, you know, it's astounding that - and then at the same time not because the conversation that he has with a fellow passenger on an airplane that Calvin Trillin is also a passenger on involves a young white man who accuses King of causing the racial problems in the United States and actually says that he thought that relationships between the races had improved in the years prior to King and the civil rights movement beginning to stir up all of what he thinks of as trouble.

It's an astounding statement, given that Black people in Mississippi, where they're headed, can't vote. They're segregated. They go to inferior schools. But his idea of race relations and proving is one in which people are suffering meekly and in silence or that's what seems to be implied.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. I mean, it reminds me - as I was reading that exchange, it reminded me a little bit of what we hear sometimes today of people saying, why do we always have to talk about race? Why won't people stop talking about race? It's so divisive. And it - I mean, we heard some of that last summer too.

COBB: Sure. If George Floyd had died in a society that was not stratified by race, it wouldn't have registered in the way that it did. It still would have been horrific. People would have thought of it as this thing that just happened. But the fact is that when we looked at the Black communities in Minneapolis and the white ones, we saw astounding differences in life expectancy and health care, access in employment and unemployment and lifetime wages and infant mortality, a whole array of things that neatly correlated with the traditional racial hierarchies in the United States. And so by saying that it's divisive to talk about those things, it recalls the sentiment or the mindset of the young man in the essay that Calvin Trillin wrote in which you're OK with inequality if people are willing to suffer silently.

MCCAMMON: Jelani Cobb, writer for The New Yorker and editor of its new collection, "The Matter Of Black Lives."

Thanks so much for talking with us.

COBB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.