Cobb Addresses Structural Racism

Speakers discussed race relations in America at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice’s “A Dream Deferred: Black in the USA” symposium April 11 and 12.

The two-day symposium featured a series of events dedicated to addressing and battling structural racism, microaggressions, police brutality, civil rights and many other issues. The symposium sought to expose the experiences that are inherent with being black in predominantly white institutions.

The inaugural event took place on Monday evening in Gaston Hall with a conversation between Director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut Jelani Cobb, who also contributes to The New Yorker, and the Lannan Foundation’s Chair of Poetics Aminatta Forna.

Director of the Lannan Center Carolyn Forché introduced the event with a quote from James Baldwin about society and its governance by hidden laws.

“It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are. In a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it will not be an easy matter,” Forché said.

Cobb said it is important to understand race and its role within the greater context of American history.

“We have a sense that race is a kind of side dish to the entrée of American history, that we can talk about American history without engaging race, without confronting the complexities of race within this country. The country’s history and its present is unintelligible without an understanding of race,” Cobb said.

Cobb said the United States must consider how to deal with racism in the future.

“The question is not when we’ll be done with racism as a country, the question is when will racism cease to be useful in this country?” Cobb said.

He also stressed the importance of understanding not only the law but human interactions when confronting institutional racism.
Cobb praised the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of the potential of democracy.

“These people actually believe in the potential of democracy, because if people did not believe in their constitutional right to petition their government, then they would be doing something completely different,” Cobb said. “When people are protesting, they believe that there is some sort of possibility.”

Cobb emphasized the importance of using anger in movements, something for which the Black Lives Matter movement has faced criticism. Cobb also said he has optimism for the progress that America has the potential to achieve.

“When I see young people getting together and organizing around the way that we treat undocumented people, and the way that we see people who have organized and said ‘there is a problem that we’re not talking about the violence that is directed at trans people and that this has to be visible.’ That is the thing that gives me a basis for my optimism,” Cobb said.

In the third event, which took place Tuesday afternoon, professor Marcia Chatelain moderated a conversation between Cobb and poet Claudia Rankine.

Rankine said trauma caused by oppression, a topic she addresses in her acclaimed and award-winning poetry book, Citizen, must be addressed through conversation.

“I am very interested in the ways in which living through trauma, living through terrorism perpetuated by white supremacy, destroys the internal ability to address the life, and that has to be addressed through conversation,” Rankine said.

Cobb said dialogue has had great power for him in addressing the question of the lack of recognition of black humanity.

“Having been in some way traumatized by being in Ferguson, being in Charleston, being in Baltimore, being in New York … I looked and said this other more disturbing question of ‘What if they do recognize your humanity and they just don’t care?’” Cobb said.

Cobb said African Americans may be full citizens, but their rights as citizens fluctuate.

“But I think that probably a more accurate description would be something I have been calling ‘contingent citizenship’ which is that under certain circumstances, with the proper barometric pressure, and the temperature is within a certain range on a particular day, what you have functions as citizenship,” Cobb said.

Rankine advocated for the power of poetry in addressing social justice issues during a seminar following the discussion.

“For me, poetry is the doorway to feelings. Poetry allows privileges, honors, has at its center, internal feelings. I think that is the piece that sometimes gets lost inside of academia, people have agendas. They forget that in the end it’s just you and me and how we feel,” Rankine said.

Zachary Hughbanks (COL ’18), who has read Rankine’s work, said her presentation was particularly powerful.

“Rankine’s reading of her work conveyed the sense of power and resistance present in her written work. However, her reading took away one of the most powerful aspects of her writing in Citizen. In Citizen her use of the second-person narrator allows the reader to project their own feelings and experiences fully on the piece. With the addition of Rankine’s voice and supplemental anecdotes, it becomes harder for the audience to project themselves on her work,” Hughbanks said.

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