If any of the topical essayists currently appearing in New York dailies were graced with the wit, sensitivity, and insight of William Jelani Cobb, I’d rush to the newsstands every morning. Never annoyingly glib, cranky, or prolix, this former Queens resident brings persuasive humor and scope to a range of topics that beggars the often sloppily framed polemics of Gotham’s op-ed-page pundits.
With two very different essay collections hitting the racks this year (including a stylistic analysis of hip-hop music titled To the Break of Dawn), this Spelman College history professor strives to bring a balanced intellectual perspective to cultural and current events. His newest collection, The Devil & Dave Chappelle, compiles more than 50 short articles from the past 10 years. Some originated in his roving “Past Imperfect” online column, on sites like Africana.com and AOL Black Voices, while others first saw publication in magazines like Essence-—all venues where black editors and readers are usually guaranteed. Free to speak his mind without necessarily writing for a white audience, Cobb discusses everything from the titular seduction of cable-TV comedian Chappelle to the war in Iraq.
Cobb attacks commercialized misogyny (“The Hoodrat Theory”), police brutality (“41 Shots”), and federal disaster relief (“The More Things Change”), demanding improved activism and statesmanship. But it’s the quality of Cobb’s more personal journalism that gives real weight and authority to his political opinions. Few professional critics-—white or non-white—dare to scrutinize their own lives in print. But Cobb’s heartbreaking tale of losing his beloved stepdaughter in an unwanted divorce and the unexpected vulnerability revealed in memories of black men hungrily bonding with strangers at Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March break this unspoken taboo, which makes The Devil & Dave Chappelle a work of heart and mind rather than merely sound and fury.