Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor at The Columbia School of Journalism. He was recently named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in distinguished commentary. He gave a speech at Kenyon on April 18 called “The Half-Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America Today” and participated in a Q&A on April 17.
You emphasized the importance of reading broadly during the Q&A. What are you reading right now, and what would you consider critical texts?
[Cobb took Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion out of his pocket.] They just made this pocket-sized edition of Didion and I’ve literally had it in my pocket. This is very nerdy but this is the other thing I’m reading, which is in my other pocket. [The Doctor and the Saint by Arundhati Roy.] I’m also reading a book on Flint, the water crisis, by a really wonderful journalist by the name of Anna Clark. That’s what I’m reading right now.
But in terms of the range of other stuff that I’ve read, I encourage people to read Christopher Hitchens because he’s such an eloquent writer of dissent and contrarian opinions and I think that he’s crucial reading. And, of course, James Baldwin. Even Baldwin’s journalistic work, which people haven’t paid as much attention to.
You are here at a time when a couple of conflicts [over racial discrimination on campus] have come to a head. This is one of the ways the administration is responding, giving us these talks. What is your response to those who feel that dialogue is not an adequate response to instances of racial discrimination and insensitivity on college campuses?
It’s not an adequate response. It’s an initial response. It’s one response. But there have to be policy responses, there have to be consequences when there are problems or when things go awry on campuses. Dialogue is one of the ways that we begin. Generally speaking, it is insufficient.
You often speak at college campuses about these issues. What is your impression of Kenyon?
It seems like a place where people are at least having the conversation. I don’t know how much context or arm-twisting went into that. But this is not uncommon. The places I go, these are not unique questions to Kenyon. They’re more categorical questions. They crop up at some point in time — maybe not here in your four years but at a whole bunch of other places in the last four years. It just happens to be here, now. These problems, very often, if you talk to other people, they may have been experiencing them but it just has not been public. If you’re talking about the police shootings, people are like, ‘Oh my God, when did all this start?’ It started a long time ago. It’s just now going public.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.