William Jelani Cobb’s “The Substance of Hope”

William Jelani Cobb’s “The Substance of Hope” [An Excerpt]

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A Special Excerpt
By William Jelani Cobb
Though I would not have admitted it at the time, in some ways the nomination of Barack Obama was an anticlimax. The Democratic Party orchestrated the elaborate flea- flicker pass between delegations, allowing Hillary Clinton to formally put Obama’s name into nomination. But the process itself was more akin to applying for a driver’s license than changing the direction of history. That is, until the next morning.

I caught the tail end of a prayer breakfast at the convention center. Celebrities filtered past reporters virtually unnoticed, and clergymen offered long- winded meditations on the meaning of Obama. All were still trying to figure it out. It was fitting that eighty- six- year- old Reverend Joseph Lowery closed the event. He spoke a few words and then requested that the people in attendance stand, link arms, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” The song had begun to show its seams years earlier. We take its lyrics for granted; over the years it became such a mainstay of civil rights commemorations and anniversaries that its actual intent faded into the background. But a strange thing happened in Denver. The song’s meaning changed in ways that were both immediate and profound. Few if any of the five hundred people in that room made it through the first chorus before the tears began streaming.

For reasons that are both deeply personal and thoroughly common, I thought about my father at that point. He passed on seventeen years earlier. Willie Lee Cobb was born in a stoplight town called Hazelhurst, Georgia, in 1920. He was what they would call corn- fed, six foot three and well muscled. He was given to flights of imagination that he disguised as biography— outsize tales of his days as a boxer, a baseball player, an itinerant colored man surveying the boundaries of the Jim Crow world. His stories were a delight to his children, but imagination and biography both stopped cold at the subject of his Georgia roots. I asked him once about what life was like when he was a child, and he offered dry words: No reason to go talking about all that. Memory, like schools, water fountains, and train cars, has its own brutal boundaries.

Here are the things not worth talking about: In 1929 a white man came to my grandmother’s house to evict her. She had no money and no job. The man looked over at my father, quietly protective of his mother and much bigger than his nine years would suggest. His offer: You send that boy on out to my field, and I’ll let him work “till he pays off the money you owe.” That was my father’s last day as a child, the boundary between the world of school and that of work. He finished the third grade.

Please read the rest of Jelani’s excerpt at EbonyJet.com.

William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. He specializes in post–Civil War African American history, twentieth century American politics, and the history of the cold war. He is a contributing writer for EBONY, EbonYJet.com, Essence magazine, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the Progressive, Alternet.org, and other publications.. He is the author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic and The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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