Cobb, Charles E(arl), Jr. 1943-
COBB, Charles E(arl), Jr. 1943-
PERSONAL: Born June 23, 1943, in Washington, DC; son of Charles E. (a United Church of Christ minister) and Martha (Kendrick) Cobb; married Ann L. Chinn; children: Kenn Blagurn (stepson), Zora Nomnikelo. Education: Attended Howard University, 1961-62.
ADDRESSES: Office—AllAfrica Global Media, 920 M St. SE, Washington, DC 20002.
CAREER: Poet, writer. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), field secretary, 1962-67; associated with Center for Black Education, Washington, DC, 1968-69; Drum and Spear Press, member of board of directors, 1969-74; U.S. House of Representatives, subcommittee on Africa, staff member, 1973; WHUR radio, Washington, reporter, 1974-75; National Public Radio, foreign affairs news reporter, 1976-79; wrote and produced documentary films on a freelance basis for Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1979-85; National Geographic, writer and member of senior editorial staff, 1985-96; AllAfrica.com, senior diplomatic correspondent.
MEMBER: National Association of Black Journalists (founding member).
In the Furrows of the World (poetry), Flute, 1967.
Everywhere Is Yours (poetry), Third World Press, 1971.
African Notebook: Views on Returning "Home" (nonfiction), Institute of Positive Education, 1971.
(With Robert P. Moses) Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2001.
Also author and coproducer of documentaries, including In the Shadow of the Capitol; Crisis in Zimbabwe; Bread, Butter, and Politics; Chasing the Basketball Dream; and A Class Divided, all for PBS. Contributor to Thoughts of Young Radicals, New Republic, 1966. Work represented in several anthologies, including Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, Morrow (New York, NY), 1968; Campfires of the Resistance: Poetry from the Movement, edited by Todd Gitlin, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1971; and The Poetry of Black America, edited by Arnold Adoff, Harper (New York, NY), 1973. Contributor to newspapers, magazines, journals, and Web sites, including African World Newspaper, Black Books Bulletin, Black Enterprise, Journal of Black Poetry, National Geographic, and Southern Exposure; Africa News, member of the board of directors.
SIDELIGHTS: Charles E. Cobb, Jr.'s literary career, spanning several decades and including writings in various genres, represents a clear example of a mix of the personal and political. His early work, primarily poetry and essays, explores the struggles of the civil rights movement, racial strife in the United States, and the relationship between African Americans and Africa; his later journalism focuses on the Third World, particularly Africa, as well as environmental issues in America. Over the years, the medium for his views has changed, but his work, noted critic Clara R. Williams in her Dictionary of Literary Biography profile, "continues to exemplify his love and respect for his people; there is no doubt that he is dedicated to writing the truths of the political, economic, and social problems confronting black Americans as well as citizens of the Third World."
Cobb was born in Washington, DC, in 1943. His father served as a United Church of Christ minister, and throughout his youth, the family relocated often, living at various times in Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and other states. In 1961, Cobb entered Howard University in Washington, DC. He did not remain for long, however. The burgeoning civil rights movement held great interest for him, and in the spring of 1962, he left his studies and moved to Mississippi, where he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In an interview with Howell Raines, published in My Soul Is Rested, Cobb recounted how he both witnessed and himself suffered abuses during the period while registering black voters and otherwise organizing members of the community in the struggle for equality.
This political activity was significant, for it was out of these experiences that Cobb's literary endeavors were born. His first volume of poetry, In the Furrows of the World, was published in 1967. The poems in this collection address many of the struggles that Cobb endured while working for the SNCC. The focus, as Williams remarked, is on "the many signs of racial unrest in the United States during a time when black America was engaged in more visible means of securing equal rights." Williams also noted that "Cobb's style of using minimal capital letters, staccato phrasing, and little or no punctuation is also seen in other black writers' compositions." These inversions of literary conventions, she added, "gave these writers a way to play artistically with the established terms of language, much as their political experimentation was geared toward changing the terms of society."
As the 1960s drew to a close, Cobb began to move the focus of his writing beyond the domestic scene. In 1967 he traveled to Vietnam. During his work with the Spear and Drum Press in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he first visited and then lived in Tanzania for two years. Two books, African Notebook: Views on Returning "Home" and Everywhere Is Yours, appeared in 1971, both influenced by the wider perspective his travels offered. The first is a nonfiction work outlining Cobb's views on the relationship between Africa and African Americans. In that volume, which Williams described as "one of his most self-revealing," Cobb encourages closer ties between the people of Africa and those of African descent elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States. As Williams commented, the book demonstrates that "one of the most destructive elements of our condition is the separation and fragmentation that exists between us." In Everywhere Is Yours, Cobb uses poetry to reflect on similar themes. In one poem, "Nation No. 3," the narrator speaks of Africa as his true home and laments his being severed from it.
Cobb's later work consists of contributions to numerous magazines, including Black Enterprise, Africa News, and National Geographic. He continues in his journalism to write about the subjects that have long interested him—Africa, the Third World, and Black Americans—while also pursuing new topics, such as environmental issues in the United States. As a staff writer for National Geographic, he has written on the dangers of radiation and on pollution in the Great Lakes, as well as articles related to the black American experience, including such pieces as "Traveling the Blues Highway" and "In Soulful Harlem."
Cobb also collaborated with long-time friend and SNCC organizer Robert P. Moses in writing Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights. Moses, who has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard University, tutored his eldest daughter, Maisha, and by 1982, he knew she was ready for algebra, but her eighth grade class in Cambridge, Massachusetts did not offer the subject. Moses and her teacher arranged for him to come in and teach a small group, and soon after, the Algebra Project was born with the help of a five-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation. It has since spread to schools across the country, in cities like Boston and Los Angeles, and in the South, especially in Mississippi. Kimani Toussaint wrote in a review for Africana.com that "the book's great gift" is in how it "juxtaposes two seemingly disparate ideas—voting rights and math literacy—to present an overall story of grassroots organizing and the struggle by people to gain a voice in a world often structured to silence them."
Cobb and Moses wrote about the subject in the Harvard Education Letter, recalling how literacy tests were used against Southern blacks to deny them the vote, a metaphor for the disenfranchisement of poor and minority communities whose access to math and technology skills are now limited by their circumstances. They wrote, "We think that in an era where the 'knowledge worker' is replacing the industrial worker, illiteracy in math must now be considered as unacceptable as illiteracy in reading and writing. The Algebra Project is retooling the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement to advance an American tradition that argues for education as the fundamental structure for opportunity and meaningful citizenship."
In reviewing the book for Rethinking Schools Online, David Levine noted that the authors "argue that the civil rights movement's undeniable achievements in winning civic empowerment and formal equality for African Americans failed to overcome the economic servitude still endured by millions. This failure has been exacerbated by profound technological changes.... Cobb and Moses contend that poor (and poorly educated) white, black, and Latino students of today are the equivalent of Mississippi's disenfranchised black sharecroppers of the 1960s, 'trapped at the bottom with prisons as their plantations.'"
The first part of the book describes how civil rights emerged from the struggles of the 1960s, and the second part shows how the same sort of organizing can bring change to the classroom. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote, "Peppered with anecdotes and quotations from participants, this dense book is surprisingly captivating."
After nearly a decade with National Geographic, Cobb became a senior diplomatic correspondent for AllAfrica.com, a component of AllAfrica Global Media. The Web site states that it is one of the largest content sites, posting more than 800 stories daily in English and French, as well as offering multilanguage streamed programming and more than 750,000 articles in a searchable archive. Its global reach is expanded through its alliances with media and information technology companies, including Comtex News Network, Radio France Internationale, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and more than one hundred African news organizations.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets after 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Forman, James, The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1972, pp. 297-299, 387.
Raines, Howell, My Soul Is Rested, Putnam (New York, NY), 1977, pp. 244-248.
Spradling, Mary Mace, editor, In Black and White: A Guide to Magazine Articles, Newspaper Articles, and Books, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980, p. 195.
Black World, February, 1972, p. 91.
Mathematics Teacher, December, 2001, Judith Kysh, review of Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, p. 795.
Nation, April 22, 1968, pp. 547-548.
Publishers Weekly, January 22, 2001, review of Radical Equations, p. 312.
Washington Monthly, April, 2001, David J. Garrow, review of Radical Equations, p. 57.
Washington Post Book World, April 8, 2001, Joyce A. Ladner, review of Radical Equations, p. T8.
Africana.com,http://www.africana.com/ (March 12, 2001), Kimani Toussaint, review of Radical Equations.
AllAfrica.com,http://www.allafrica.com/ (June 24, 2004).
Harvard Education Letter Online,http://www.edletter.org/ (July-August, 2001), Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., "Quality Education Is a Civil Rights Issue."
Rethinking Schools Online,http://www.rethinkingschools.org/ (summer, 2001), David Levine, review of Radical Equations.*