MY AMERICAN LIFE
From Rage to Entitlement
By Price M. Cobbs
Atria. 256 pp. $24.95
In 1968, Price M. Cobbs co-authored "Black Rage," one of the seminal books of the 20th century. In it, he and William H. Grier argued that the struggles of the civil rights movement in the 1960s had created a fierce new consciousness among African Americans. It may now seem obvious that black people were then shrugging off the habits of servitude for the delights of "I'm black and I'm proud," but it was hardly clear back when "Black Rage" first hit the bookstores. Many readers were startled by the book, even though -- coming hot on the heels of two summers of civil disorder in dozens of U.S. cities -- it seemed to voice something that was on the tip of everyone's tongue. It has sold more than a million copies.
Now, Cobbs, a psychiatrist, gives us his own story, offering both a personal memoir and a look at the black experience in recent decades. The result is a well-considered, deeply moving book. He opens "My American Life" with a detailed picture of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s under the hardships of segregation. While riding the bus through unfamiliar neighborhoods, the young Cobbs fretted about whether he might be attacked by angry bigots if he got off. "As I got older, I learned how to sense the situation," Cobbs remembers. "If I did not know for sure about a certain neighborhood through which the bus was moving . . . I carefully checked out the people walking up and down the street. I had to make assumptions about a particular place that were based on what I felt might be the conditions there." If he concluded that things just "didn't look right, I wouldn't get off the bus because I knew, in my soul, that that was a bad idea." Even then, Cobbs was reading the world around him and trying to decode it.
Living with bigotry taught him that one must always be aware of the outside world. His father, a well-known physician, taught his son to rebel against the injustices of oppression. Though Cobbs rejected his father's radical politics, he absorbed a broad sense of activism. This rebelliousness was nurtured by a neighbor, a divorcee in her late twenties who introduced him to sex and nightclubs. In an otherwise sheltered life, this experience was "daring and risky, even exotic."
His defiance did not flower into deep engagement with the civil rights movement, but it did allow him to think and act independently. A fundamental part of Cobbs's ability to identify black rage seems to have been his capacity to read situations and his equally profound insistence on following his own ideas. Cobbs went to medical school at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, a historically black school, and finished his psychiatric training in California. At the time, the dominant schools of psychiatric thought certainly paid little attention to the interaction between outside oppression and internal self-worth. Once, while working at Mendocino State Hospital, Cobbs noticed an older black woman with severe mental illness who would not respond when addressed simply as "Emily." He proposed that the staff begin to call her "Mrs. Thomas." His colleagues scoffed, but he insisted that if they would try it, she would get better. Eventually they did -- and she did, too. Cobbs understood that this patient experienced the staff's use of her first name as part of the indignity and humiliation of racism. She could not begin to relate to her doctor until he had demonstrated his respect for her.
In today's parlance, Cobbs got it. Because few others did, he could chart the shift when black anger began to emerge more directly. Emily Thomas expressed her anger the old way, by simply withdrawing. But with their freedom being won during the civil rights movement, blacks could begin to say what was on their minds. Cobbs, himself resentful and rebellious, was not frightened by this; rather, he recognized that the new words bespoke a new epoch in black history.
But Cobbs also felt a deep sense of entitlement. As the son of a prominent doctor, he was welcomed in the highest echelon of black society. He was never hungry or cold, never witnessed violence in his home or on his block, never endured the brutality of racist police, bigoted employers or callous welfare workers. His life of privilege allowed him the time to ponder existential questions: Who am I? What am I doing here? Why do I, Price Cobbs, have to put up with this nonsense? This sense of "I'm owed more than this" reverberates off the pages of the book -- his own form of black rage. Nevertheless, Cobbs does not thoroughly examine his sense of entitlement; like most of us, he has more to learn about his own life, which is here both endearing and annoying. But just as the superficial part of the book was starting to frustrate me, I arrived at its dramatic heart (and saving grace).
In a hugely ironic twist, just as Cobbs reached the apogee of his career, he was brought low by the death of his dear wife, Evadne. Before he could recover, he was accused of fraudulent billing and medical malfeasance. The heart of this book -- although too short and a little skimpy on details -- is the resolution of this life-shaking crisis. Many will buy "My American Life" because of Cobbs's fame. But they will get something out of this book not because he wrote "Black Rage" but because he had black rage -- and lived to tell about it.