Black Culture in the Age Dave Chappelle

William Jelani Cobb, professor of history at Spelman College, talks to Farai Chideya about his new book The Devil and Dave Chappelle, a collection of essays about the art and politics of black culture.

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TONY COX, host:

Remember back when Dave Chappelle split for Africa, ditching a $50 million TV contract? Or when Oprah went toe-to-toe over morals with some hip-hop heavyweights? William Jelani Cobb does. His new book, "The Devil and Dave Chappelle," is a collection of essays that draws on contemporary entertainment, politics, and his own life to create a critical vision of black America. Cobb is a professor of history at Spelman College and spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya from the studios of WABE in Atlanta. He began by explaining the book's title essay.

Professor WILLIAM JELANI COBB (Author, "The Devil and Dave Chappelle: And Other Essays"): I think that Dave Chappelle's exit from his show really crystallized a lot of the questions that are, you know, surrounding black culture right now. And so, with him leaving, you know, over the issues of the work that he was producing and how it was being perceived, a lot of people took it to be that he was just crazy.

And I think the reason that we saw it as that is that we're not accustomed to people being conflicted about the issue of artistic responsibility. But for him to say that I'm producing work and it's being misinterpreted, that I'm doing work that seeks to destroy stereotypes by ridiculing them, and instead people don't get the irony in simply have the effect of affirming them; and to step back and say how is this impacting the, you know, the community that I come from, I thought it was a profound and brave thing.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Now in other essays, you give us a taste of other popular figures. We've got Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey. Cosby you talk about misreading class issues; Oprah you seem to laud for standing up to gangster rappers. Is that an accurate assessment? And tell us more about your thoughts on them.

Prof. COBB: Well, I think, you know, the issue that I had with Mr. Cosby was not so much about the right to criticize ourselves. I think that criticism is important and essential to growth. But what I took issue with was the dehumanization, the element of it as if we weren't even talking about people who had a actual human dimension and a story behind whatever life circumstances they found themselves in.

And so one of the things that we also wound up doing in that entire Cosby discussion was simply conflating behaviors that we might see as bad etiquette and making them into a shorthand for bad moral character. And so that's why you can say things like, you know, naming your daughter Shaniqua indicates that you're a bad parent, and those two things have nothing to do with each other.

On the case of Oprah, what I thought was interesting was that she basically did the same thing in asking people to stand up and be more responsible about the art that they were producing. But in this bizarre, Kafkaesque kind of way, we actually allowed people with the credentials of 50 Cent to criticize Oprah Winfrey.

And so it's being very clear we have an ex-crack dealer who is calling a woman who has given millions of dollars to Morehouse College, to prevent HIV in South Africa, to build the schools there, to build homes for people after Hurricane Katrina. And I just don't think that he had the moral standing to say anything in that discussion.

CHIDEYA: Now, really, what you have talked about deals with clashes within the black community over class and culture. So who's winning the internal culture wars?

Prof. COBB: I think it's something that we always have to struggle with. On the one hand, we look at the culture that we have produced and that has sustained us, and I think that we still participate in; sustained us through travail, through adversity, though hardship. And it's all there within the music, especially if we're talking about hip-hop. Hip-hop has a resilience and a refusal to surrender that I think represents the best of the black tradition in this country.

At the same time, we have that kind of split personality wherein we see the ugly head of sexism, misogyny, homophobia; the lauding of violence as long as it it's directed at our fellow black people and all those other elements. And so it's one of things that we're always in flux about is, you know, to quote Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times.

CHIDEYA: Now I want to get more personal with you. One of the essays, I think the essay that really struck me the most is called "My Daughter Once Removed." So, first off, can you read me the first paragraph?

Prof. COBB: I can. So that essay was a product of where I was at a particular point in time. And one of the things about this collection is that it's autobiographical. Some of the things are overtly autobiographical in that I talk about my life and my experiences, and some of them are autobiographical in the sense that I talk about an issue that was weighing on my mind at a particular time, and how I viewed it.

But the first paragraph is when I wake up in the morning, I think about Ayeesha(ph) first thing. I haven't spoken to her in a month but all of her messages are still saved on my answering machine. I still tell her that she is my favorite person. There's a T-shirt in the exact same spot she left it in three months ago when she last visited me. Ayeesha is eight, spoiling for nine, and she is my ex-daughter.

The essay, and that was a long time ago, actually, that I wrote this, covers over 10 years of my writing. And it was about the experience of being divorced and having a very close bond with a child who I was not biologically related to but did believe that paternity and do believe that paternity is more than a matter of simply chromosomes.

And so when my marriage ended, it left me with this profound question about how do I define my relationship to this young woman. And that was five years ago when I wrote that piece. And so, you know, since then, I'm very happy that she's, you know, flourished and developed and grown into a wonderful young woman who I have a very close relationship with to this day.

CHIDEYA: It is a beautiful essay. And finally and briefly, tell me about the good, bad and ugly of writing so much. You have a huge volume of work here. What's you process? How do you keep up?

Prof. COBB: You know, what happens is you find something that gets on your mind, and then you wind up having conversations with smart friends. And then you sit down and say, well, if I'm thinking all these things, well, I should sit down and write them.

And it's been a form of therapy, actually, to get things out on paper. When you see things that frustrates you, things that disturb you, things that make you happy, you know, things that you think that were doing well. And, you know, my goal has always been as a writer to talk, to speak for people who don't necessarily get a chance to articulate these things for themselves.

CHIDEYA: William Jelani Cobb, thanks so much.

Prof. COBB: Thank you very much.

COX: William Jelani Cobb's new book is titled "The Devil and Dave Chappelle: And Other Essays." He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya from Atlanta, where he is a professor of history at Spelman College.

Well, that's it. That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. Tomorrow, Joe Zawinul in studio.

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