“This is ‘legacy time’…Is he going to step into his time and be the man that Mandela was?”– Janet Langhart Cohen on President Barack Obama
*We, each of us, have two personas. The one people perceive us to be – based solely on superficial aspects (how we look or act in public); and the one that we truly are, as realized by those who actually know us.
To look at Janet Langhart Cohen you might see a strikingly beautiful, apparently affluent woman of African American descent. And if you happen to overhear her in conversation, without actually seeing her, you will recognize her exquisite use of the “King’s English,” and even question her heritage. Let’s be clear: many black people speak the English language well. This writer has been known to often say, “I have never met a white person that speaks as well as I,” in response to certain comments. But there is a bit of an “English flair” to the speaking pattern of Langhart Cohen; and her “spirit” may not quite fit her physical appearance.
Speaking of that spirit, Dr. Martin Luther King, who was her personal friend and mentor, wouldn’t even allow her to participate in protests for peace and nonviolence due to her temperament. And after working side by side in Boston with controversial commentator, Bill O’Reilly, she claims a “love-hate” relationship with him; saying he’s not what he appears to be, and remembering how he used to get “fired a lot.” She calls his over-the-top approach to African American culture “Schtik”— excuse the possible error, dammit! I never could spell that word—but she says it’s an “act” for which he has finally found a home – at FOX. She authored a book called “My Life in the Two Americas: From Rage to Reason.” It’s a memoir where she speaks on what she describes as Apartheid America and the America of Promise; and she is the visionary behind the play, “Anne & Emmett,” an imaginary conversation between holocaust victim Anne Frank and Jim Crow victim, Emmett Till. The play has been lauded by some pretty important folk, and the script was even read by Steven Spielberg, for possible film consideration.
OK so now you get an idea of who this woman is. Yet and still, such impressive edification may pale in comparison to her latest fait accompli. Fueled by the same anger and despair many of us felt about Trayvon Martin’s murder and the acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman; and frustrated by the silence on the topic of race and racism by President Barack Obama, Langhart Cohen dismissed the naysayers who urged her not to “go there” and wrote an essay – aimed at the president – that was published in The Washington Post on Wednesday, July 17. She wanted him to know that it was time to step up, speak out on race and racism, and that his silence on the topic was no longer acceptable.
Call it a coincidence if you must, but less than 48-hours later, his silence was broken.
“I think it’s important to recognize the African American community is looking at this through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
— Barack Obama in his July 19 speech following the Zimmerman verdict
For one hour and 29 minutes Janet Langhart Cohen, a 72-year-old former model turned activist, television journalist, producer and wife to the former Secretary of Defense, William Cohen (since 1996), a white man described as a “moderate Republican” who actually served in the Clinton cabinet, spilled her guts to EURweb publisher Lee Bailey. She spoke of what led her to write the editorial that Washington insiders say the president did read; and also of her understanding but non-acceptance of the societal conditioning that kept the president silent on the topic of race for so long. She addressed her agitation at the “calm reflection” president Obama had previously asked the African American community to demonstrate; and her own experiences with racial profiling as a black woman.
She spoke about how white people tend to “forget” you’re black once you’ve become successful; and the reasons why she personally has no white girlfriends. She also broke down the difference between racism and prejudice; and why many African Americans (“minus some detractors”) have been loyal to the first black president – biting their tongue in an effort to protect his presidency against the fear of “making white people mad.” And the list goes on…In this, the first of a two-part installment of EURweb’s exclusive interview with Janet Langhart Cohen, readers will get to read (and hear) audio about experiences and accounts that will surely reiterate the truth of the old cliché: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
“I had gotten word through the grapevine that he had read my speech and he was going to make a speech on the subject of race very soon. And it was sooner than I thought,” Langhart Cohen tells Bailey over the phone, adding how people had asked her “not go there” for fear of Obama being labeled “The president of black people,” to which she responded:
“So what. When he spoke up for the gays did they say he was ‘president of the gay people?’ When he spoke up for women did they say he was ‘president of the women?’ When he spoke up for the Latino’s did they say he was ‘president of the Latino’s?’ Why do we (African Americans) get so separate and denied equality even on the raising of the issue? ”
Of course, she says, these same naysayers wasted no time showing their delight when the president did finally broach the conversation.
“It hurt me so bad to watch some of my friends, who are black, on TV; who are parents and have sons. From … Melissa Harris-Perry to Joy [Ann] Reid; even the New York Times reporter, columnist Charles [M] Blow,” Langhart Cohen describes about the myriad of emotions that touched the black community and her public media friends in particular. “I saw on their faces after the verdict came down … the same painful look … that I had seen on the parents and elders of my generation when they learned that Emmett Till was murdered and his killers got away with it and there was nothing they could do. There was no redress. There was no sanctuary; there was no court. There was no justice to go to, even if we couldn’t protect our children from racist murderers, we still couldn’t get justice,” she concluded.
“When the Trayvon Martin case came about I saw startling parallels…” she says. “It was a young teenage black boy who didn’t seem to be menacing other than … whistling at a white woman in 1955, and one wearing a hoodie walking in the rain with a can of tea and a bag of skittles.”
Langhart Cohen admits that it is the racism in this country and the Stand Your Ground laws in the state of Florida that makes it easy for someone like Trayvon Martin to be determined a criminal. She believes that Trayvon’s generation will now wear his murder as a scar, just as her generation wears the scar of Emmett Till. Below, she talks to Lee Bailey about how when she first “integrated,” she noticed the cultural conditioning that still affects the black community today; how this mindset has contributed to the presidents’ ability to talk on every topic except race and black issues.
“When the president’s response came out to the verdict, he asked for all people to go into calm reflection. And I thought, ‘calm reflection?’ Were you watching the same case I was watching? Do you share the same history, if you don’t, do you share the same knowledge of the American history as it relates to African Americans? Can you not feel our pain that you can ask for something as benign as ‘calm reflection’? What have we been if not being calm?”
It was at this point that Langhart says she wrote her now infamous editorial.
In the segment below, Janet speaks on the essence of racism. Interestingly enough, using would you believe – Lee Bailey – as an example because, well, we later learn that she didn’t even realize he is black. She also addresses a comment that she often hears white people make, “black people don’t like white people” and why, to this day, she has no white female friends.
In the final installment, more audio. Langhart Cohen says a whole lot more including why the editorial would not have had the same impact if her colleague, Tavis Smiley, had written it; an issue she has with one point the president made in his speech and what she believes we need from the president RIGHT NOW. Also, she speaks on what inspired her to write the play “Anne & Emmett,” and the fatal incident that stopped its debut at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. DON’T MISS THIS!
Janet Langhart Cohen is on Twitter: @LanghartCohen