By: Sheilan Foran
William Jelani Cobb brings an unrepentant curiosity about how the past influences the present to his role as a teacher and social commentator.
Cobb came to UConn from Rutgers University in January, as an associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African American Studies (IAAS). His appointment is part of UConn’s expansive hiring initiative designed to attract up to 500 professors in four years.
This semester, his first on campus, he is teaching a course in African American History to 1865. Yet Cobb’s inclination to ‘say what needs to be said’ about contemporary issues is never very far from the surface, and he is as much at home in front of the media as he is in the classroom or in his office in Wood Hall.
“A lot of times, people see a contradiction in the fact that I teach history, yet I write and speak about contemporary issues. But I don’t see it that way,” he says. “To me, those two things are conjoined. The present is always rushing into the past, and an understanding of the past allows us to see how we got to where we are now. The past and the present reinforce each other.”
Cobb is a native of Queens, N.Y., where he first developed his interest in history. “One of the most important things to me as a young person was that history helped the world make sense to me,” he says. “It literally contextualized my surroundings. It allowed me to see the world around me in entirely different ways.
“I could see the community where I grew up in Queens … which was made up of black migrants from the south and Caribbean immigrants … and I could see how the community came to be populated by those people … why people had come from the Caribbean … why my parents had come from the Deep South … why they had settled where they did. All of a sudden it clicked and it began to make sense. And that is the kind of experience I hope my students get when they study history.”
Before earning his Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University in New Jersey, Cobb studied English as an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He also worked as a journalist while in school, putting in time at the Washington City Paper and at various community and alternative newspapers. In addition to learning to meet deadlines as part of his job, he says, “my dissertation advisor at Rutgers was David Levering Lewis and he gave us an absurd amount of writing to do. I learned to write fast because I had to!”