Historian and playwright Nicole Anderson-Cobb believed so much in the promise of President Barack Obama that she was willing to put her livelihood – and her car – at risk if it meant helping him get elected. “I remember going to campaign events in Jacksonville, Florida, where there were planes hired to sky-write ‘THIS IS PALIN COUNTRY’ over Obama rallies,” she says. “It had a really chilling effect on the events. And when I talked with Floridians they would tell me how much courage it took for people to come out and support Obama’s candidacy. I had a real fear of even having a bumper sticker on my car, for fear of reprisal.”
Now back in her hometown of Chicago, Anderson-Cobb is exploring the relationship between her life and her president in the one-woman show Black Reign?: Survivin’ the Obama Years. In addition to her life in theater, she holds a doctorate in African history and Islamic studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and teaches history at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.
You’ve said that our polarized political climate makes you more nervous about traveling through certain parts of the United States than traveling abroad. What do you think is the remedy for the rancor in our public discourse?
This kind of division concerns me. It concerns me as an educator, and as a historian. Being a historian and understanding the history of our nation is important, because we’ve been here before. We’ve gone through a short season of black elected leadership followed by a white backlash, the rise of Jim Crow segregation, and the rise of the Klan. I think we need to keep that in front of us. Spitting at people, death threats…that’s a part of our past, and we need to think about whether we want that to be a part of our future. There is room for freedom of speech and political mobilization on all sides of our political spectrum in this country. But people need to be reminded that this is connected to a set of historical behaviors that we don’t want to define our contemporary public discourse.
What have you thought of the president’s performance so far?
My expectations of him were measured, and I give enough grades in my professional life; I have no desire to “grade” or “rate” President Obama. However, Black Reign? grew out of my listening to cable television and observers, and it seemed to me that the kind of scrutiny leveled against him had never been leveled against any other president. I can’t remember any other president for whom the next election began the day he moved into the White House! There was so much at stake: his first steps, his first actions, everything he did was examined with a microscopic laser-like focus. The show came from my own desire to get out of the bubble of media talk and backtalk about what he should do, what he didn’t do, what he’s gotta do.
At the end of the president’s first year in office, I took some time to get quiet and write and get a sense of what this first year of the Obama presidency meant to me.
Then again, I understand that people were ravenous for change, and the quick implementation of every policy that would get us out of the very difficult eight years that we lived through. I understand a progressive community that is tired, a population that has been neglected.
During the healthcare debates, pundits on all sides made claims about how the president’s actions would be viewed through the lens of history. What do you think when you hear people using that rhetorical tactic?
A close colleague of mine, who is also a historian, put it best when she said that we just have to wait and see. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do think that history will speak well of him. He certainly didn’t have to take healthcare on during the first year of his presidency, but he did because he thought it was a human rights issue. However, I wish that his decision-making and passion around healthcare could have been applied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The drain that they create on our culture matters, and I find it fascinating that people would fight against the cause of healthcare without having conversations about how much these wars are costing us every day. I think it’s a profound problem when people allow money to flow freely toward these wars that are not serving us, while denying people healthcare because of the cost.
And why do you think that is?
I think it’s because so much of our identity is rooted in gun culture. The role of military culture and gun culture in our country is so accepted and even celebrated. I think that the big donors from the gun lobby and companies that need wars in order to be able to produce more armaments essentially have our elected officials held hostage, and that’s the reason why these wars continue. For a president who inherits a legacy of Democrats being weak and seen as not tough on defense, it made it possible for such individuals to get in his head. They made him believe that his masculinity and the country’s safety were at stake if we didn’t continue these wars.
Your profession as a historian informs so much of your perspective on these issues. What attracted you to the theater as a mode of expression?
I have a book chapter written about my experiences in Yemen that I’ve been in negotiations to get published for several years. That’s part of the culture of the academy. You’re waiting on your editors, and they’re waiting on the people they’re in discussion with, and that wait is excruciating! You have to jump through all these hoops to get your ideas into the public square – and then there are only a handful of people who are going to read them in an elite journal. It became really debilitating.
When I began to write plays and solo shows that integrated my interest in history and social justice, there was more immediacy. I found that I could plug in with a local theater company or group of actors and have the piece embraced and staged really quickly. For example, I worked in Black Reign? over the Christmas holiday, sent it off in January, and by early February I was contacted by the American Blues Theater. For someone who’s been waiting to get a book chapter published for two years, to have a well-respected theater company contact me within a month and say “we love what you do” was amazing.
I love the academy, but wanting to have a broader impact with everyday people brought me to the theater, and it has brought me enormous support, nurturing and feedback.
What has fueled your decision to return to Chicago?
My family is here, which has been fantastic. Moving back home provided an opportunity for me to connect with a community of artists. Chicago is a fertile creative environment, and I have been energized by being back home. But at the same time, I am profoundly concerned about gun violence in this city. I am heartbroken, horrified and outraged. Last summer I wrote a play called Tangled that deals with the issue of gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, and I have been looking for a home for that play because I see theater as a good vehicle for us to talk about these issues.
I moved home because Chicago is where my heart is, but I feel like the specter of violence has got to be dealt with – right here in the backyard of the president! I’m ready to hit the streets, because I’m sick of it.
How do you feel when you’re watching the news, and the local segment talks about how many people in Chicago have been killed in a week, and then national news follows showing the president elsewhere?
Particularly during the beating death of Derrion Albert, it blew me away. That act, which captured national attention, brought home the disconnect between our national leadership from Chicago and the day-to-day struggle of living and surviving in the city of Chicago. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Chicago, they had a closed-door meeting with handpicked community leaders, and they left. It was profoundly disturbing to me. What I understand is that the president has an amazing set of issues on his plate, but I think he is working pretty hard to distance himself from Illinois politics.
In so many ways, these issues are representative of problems that are endemic across the country: wealth disparities, violence, lack of educational resources.
Right. It’s not a local issue, because young people are being slaughtered in cities across America every day. But we can’t assume that Obama is going to tend to it if we don’t keep the issue before him. Why spend trillions of dollars in other nations when we need that same ferocious commitment to our own cities? We have to help this president understand that he can’t fight wars to establish safety and security in other countries when we don’t have that same safety and security in our own streets or our own schools. Unfortunately, part of the issue is that the president is a celebrity. It’s easier to pay attention to what the First Lady is wearing than it is to do that hard work. We live in a fantasy culture, and the president’s celebrity becomes an extension of a culture of escapism that doesn’t allow us to take those blinders off and deal seriously and realistically with the issues that plague us.