Author Jelani Cobb Engages With History Students at Convocation

Advanced history students at Loomis Chaffee interviewed Jelani Cobb, a historian, staff writer at The New Yorker, nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, for a video convocation that was discussed in advisory groups on Thursday, October 29.

Mr. Cobb writes about race, politics, history, and culture for The New Yorker, and his most recent book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Promise, published in 2010. He was the lead correspondent on the documentary “Whose Vote Counts?,” broadcast last week on PBS’s Frontline.

Mr. Cobb, who previously visited the Island in 2015, was invited to return to speak at an all-school convocation because his writing draws people’s attention away from chaos and confusion and directs it toward “themes of justice and possibility,” said history teacher Eric LaForest, the Kelly Director of the Norton Family Center for the Common Good.

As an assignment, Loomis students in College-Level U.S. History read Mr. Cobb’s recent New Yorker articles related to the history of racial injustice in America and its effect on voting and elections, and they submitted questions about the readings. Nine students were selected to pose their questions to Mr. Cobb for the convocation.  

In the 30-minute video exchange, Mr. Cobb responded to the queries from senior Nathanial Barr and juniors Drew Boutry, Rachel Cranston, Paige Davis, Aidan Frazier, Tallula Johansen, Bill Ngo, Jayhun Hong, and Timothy Sullivan.

The questions covered a range of topics, including the dilemma of discussing history when people don’t agree on the facts, the difference between investigative reporting and editorializing in journalism, the impact of social media and technological development on this year’s election, the future of justice in law enforcement and in voting rights for Black Americans, and proposals to amend or rewrite the U.S. Constitution to reject principles originally set for the country during the time of slavery.

Mr. Cobb responded based on his scholarly and journalistic expertise as well as his lived experience as a Black man in America. He said he hoped to “use history as a way to navigate [the questions] so we can confront them as a means of establishing some sort of common basis for what we mean when we use the word ’America.’” He also suggested books, documentaries, and other ways for students to explore and engage further on the topics of racial injustice and voting in America.

“One thing we can take some assurance in,” Mr. Cobb said, “is that we have idealistic, smart, and thoughtful young people like you who will eventually be leading the country. Thank you and continue to work hard.”

For more about Mr. Cobb, connect to his bio page at The New Yorker website.

As one of several convocations addressing issues of democracy and citizenship this election season organized by the Norton Center, the dialogue with Mr. Cobb was part of the Hubbard Speakers Series, made possible by a gift from Robert P. Hubbard ’47, as well as the Hazel Thrall Sullivan ’32 Lecture Fund.