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Into the Jaws of the Demon

Photo by Ted SoquiThe most arresting moment in Price Cobbs’ recently published My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement is not exactly what you’d call dramatic. In fact, it’s commonplace, one more bit of negative space in a collective history of negative spaces. It is the late 1940s and Cobbs is an undergraduate at UCLA. He is one of a handful of black students there, but he is young and feeling some oats — excited at the prospect of following the trail blazed by fellow Bruin Jackie Robinson. Though he grew up in racially circumscribed L.A., Cobbs is solidly middle-class, inculcated with values about education and achievement that are bolstered by a sense that the walls of legal and de facto segregation in postwar America are finally coming down. It is with this new confidence, this new expectation of American-ness and acceptance, that Cobbs decides to join a committee to help decorate a float for UCLA’s annual homecoming parade. When he shows up for duty, he is not turned away. But he is not embraced, or even acknowledged. He is moving about freely, but in a vacuum that renders freedom almost meaningless. The moment sparked a painful epiphany that would eventually lead Cobbs to a career in psychiatry, specifically the study of the mental health of black folk who had so long endured in a country that, while it may have tolerated them, essentially did not want them. “A question began circulating over and over through my mind . . . ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” Cobbs writes of that fateful day. “I saw right away that there was a cultural milieu that these kids occupied that included an entire manner of acting, a way of speaking, a way of dressing, a very essence of being, of which I was not a part.” After realizing he was more or less invisible, he abandoned the float work, and the idea of going to the homecoming game at all. “I decided not to do any more decorating, and I left,” he writes. “I’m not sure anyone noticed.”The late poet and writer Charles Bukowski once said that it is not the big tragedies in life that break your heart, but the small ones that happen every day — shoelaces snapping in half as you’re trying to rush out the door to go to work in the morning. It is this crushing of the soul by degrees that has always interested Cobbs, the co-author of one of the most seminal books of the ’60s, Black Rage. Despite its incendiary title, the book was a thoughtful, detailed, thoroughly analytical but impassioned discussion of the effects of hundreds of years of institutional and casual racism on the black state of mind. It put social science in the highly individualized framework of clinical psychology, with black people as subjects — a first. Cobbs and his co-author William Grier were paying attention to black people in a way that had never been done because it hadn’t been considered necessary, or even worthwhile. The result was groundbreaking. But like so many other phenomena of the ’60s, a window was cracked but hardly pushed open all the way. Now, 37 years and several political eras later, Cobbs has penned a memoir to shore up a black sense of self that he still sees as endangered, albeit more subtly than it once was. The subtitle, From Rage to Entitlement, also challenges black Americans to do something new in their eternal quest to belong: claim the validity of their own needs — before race, before politics — in a way that is not only inimitably American, but fundamentally human. Cobbs describes “entitlement” in the book as simply “the essential vision of the American dream . . . What the Founding Fathers had in mind when they held ‘these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Not a new ideal, but historically one that African-Americans have had a hard time regarding as anything but a sham; Cobbs says the time has come for blacks to lay down that burden of disbelief and accept without comment their innate equality — their entitlement — at last. This is much easier said than done. It is one thing to believe in your own equality, quite another for everyone else to believe in it too. Like “rage” before it, “entitlement” is a hot-button word, one that conjures up notions of welfare, reparations and affirmative action; at the other end of the spectrum, we are living in a society that has become expert at subsuming any problems of race, making subtleties like “entitlement” difficult to discuss, let alone achieve. Difficult, Cobbs agrees, but not impossible. He is pleasant but utterly firm in that conviction, with an air of patience common to mental-health professionals and to black people of a certain generation who have seen and experienced much. “I’m talking about entitlement both internally and externally,” Cobbs explains over breakfast one morning at the Luxe Hotel on Sunset. “The external is still hard to control. But if I validate my own sense of self-worth, then even if reality tells me that there are obstacles in my way, I’ll be much better off dealing with them.” Cobbs says that officially recognizing black rage was an important step in the ’60s, but resolving it now with a sense of entitlement will be even more crucial. “Otherwise,” he says, “the rage will consume you.” In My American Life, the 77-year-old Cobbs uses himself like one of the many case studies documented in his first book, detailing his own successful story of grappling with rage, both his own and that of those close to him, and coming out on the other side. The narrative style is straightforward and old-fashioned, with none of the emotional flourishes or indulgences of so many other modern memoirs that strive to impose meaning on an ordinary life; to the contrary, Cobbs strives to show his life is meaningful because it was so ordinary, because so many black people of his generation shared the same dreams and got thwarted, and rewarded, in the same ways. It is that post-’60s, more complex dynamic of racism — one step forward, two steps back, one plum job gotten, 10 more denied — felt most keenly these days by the black middle class, not the poor, that Cobbs is getting at in this book. In his longtime job as a consultant to black corporate America, he has seen plenty of emotional fallout among black executives who assume — often wrongly — that because they occupy a corner office in a high-rise, the race struggle is over. “People say, ‘Damn, when I got hired they said it was a meritocracy,’” says Cobbs. “As we would talk, I’d say, ‘What makes you think it’s any different than working in the post office?’ Black people function on a level of hope, of ‘I’m gonna get in and it’s all gonna work.’ But really, it’s the faith of the church” — something that sustained Cobbs’ own family, and many others, in unjust times — “translated to the real world.” Cobbs says it’s “supremely ironic” that My American Life was released on the heels of Hurricane Katrina — Black Rage was published in the wake of the King assassination in 1968. Both events were wake-up calls to black people around the nation who cautiously believed they were finally being accorded the respect and equal treatment promised by years of struggle and compromise; both events rekindled the rage of racial exclusion that Cobbs made highly visible in his first book and that white America, and much of nonwhite America, have eyed warily ever since. He doesn’t have good news for these folks. “In this book tour, I’ve realized that black audiences are as angry now as they’ve ever been,” he says. “And these are middle-class types who are up in arms about the treatment of the hurricane victims. I think we’re going to see a resurgence of rage across the board.” Of course, Cobbs always hopes that rage finds appropriate expression, preferably as a sense of entitlement, though by his own admission it is still an elusive thing, even for the executive types. The psychic and social space that black people occupy that Cobbs famously called “the ledge” has widened considerably since the ’60s, he says, but not enough; today it is still a ledge to avoid falling off, not the ever-expanding plane we like to imagine. “Black people still struggle around the entitlement issue, afraid to speak up, to raise their hands — they’re apologetic,” he says. “We need to get past it. But there’s still a lot to navigate.” Cobbs says that “it was precisely the point at which I realized I was [racially] isolated” — doing the float, later doing his residency work at a hospital in San Francisco — “that I knew I had to strike out on my own path.” Though his path has proven fruitful, what Cobbs wants to impress most in My American Life is that for so many other blacks the fruit has been too often sour. In another poignant moment, Cobbs recalls his brother Prince coming home from the war; he is happy to see him, happy he is alive. But Prince was a cook in a segregated Marine Corps that should have made him a soldier, and the reunion ends up being stifled by what Prince cannot say about what he wasn’t allowed to do in a war that was supposed to facilitate democracy not just abroad, but here at home. “I sensed right away that I was looking into the jaws of a demon,” says Cobbs. “I’m a survivor of that demon. I got out alive, that’s it.”


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