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Price Cobbs, Who Helped Define ‘Black Rage,’ Dies at 89

Price M. Cobbs, who in an attention-getting 1968 book written with William H. Grier sought to define the deep-seated anger felt by many black Americans and identify it as a legacy of slavery, died June 25 in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. He was 89.

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Neil Genzlinger
, New York Times

Price M. Cobbs, who in an attention-getting 1968 book written with William H. Grier sought to define the deep-seated anger felt by many black Americans and identify it as a legacy of slavery, died June 25 in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. He was 89.

A statement from the Executive Leadership Council, an organization of senior black executives for which Cobbs was a consultant, said the cause was heart and lung failure. The council said Cobbs, who lived in San Francisco, had traveled to Philadelphia for a grandson’s high school graduation.

Cobbs and Grier, both psychiatrists, had opened a clinic in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and had begun to notice patterns in the problems and experiences of their patients.

The result was “Black Rage,” published a few months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and in the midst of a decade marked by rioting in Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

“Aggression leaps from wounds inflicted and ambitions spiked,” they wrote. “It grows out of oppression and capricious cruelty. It is logical and predictable if we know the soil from which it comes.”

That soil was slavery.

“The black man of today is at one end of a psychological continuum which reaches back in time to his enslaved ancestors,” they wrote. “Observe closely a man on a Harlem street corner and it can be seen how little his life experience differs from that of his forebears. However much the externals differ, their inner life is remarkably the same.”

The book, through case studies, examined the entrenched societal systems that preserved the subservience, dependence and hopelessness of the slave era. It discussed how a century after slavery ended, its baggage continued to affect blacks’ ideas of manhood, womanhood, family structure and more.

The book, buoyed by the timing of its publication, drew wide notice. Not all of that was favorable.

“The authors have blended the reality of black existence with the mythology about it, mixed fact with folklore,” Florence Shelton, writing in The Boston Globe, complained. “'Black Rage’ is a confusing, misleading, intellectually untidy piece.”

But other critics agreed with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who in his review in The New York Times called it “among the most important books on the Negro to appear in the last decade.” After “Black Rage,” Cobbs and Grier collaborated on a second book, “The Jesus Bag” (1971), which gave particular attention to the role of religion in shaping the black psyche. Cobbs also became a consultant for companies and organizations seeking to become more diverse and develop executives of color.

Ronald C. Parker, a former PepsiCo executive and former president and chief executive of the Executive Leadership Council, called Cobbs “one of the most important change agents we have seen in corporate America when it comes to diversity and inclusion.”

Price Mashaw Cobbs was born on Nov. 2, 1928, in Los Angeles. His father, Peter, was one of the few black physicians in that city at the time, and his mother, Rosa Mashaw Cobbs, had a teaching degree.

In his autobiography, “My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement” (2005), Cobbs recalled his mother as being very conscious of skin color — not just white or black, but the varying shades of black, since in her view lighter was better. She had her own terminology for the assorted skin tones among blacks, he wrote — “almond,” “high yellow,” “blue black” and so on, “vivid words that would enable me to see, on a scale of one to ten, white to black, exactly where some particular individual belonged in my mother’s skin-color consciousness.”

“When I grew up and became more aware of what motivated these things,” he continued, “I realized the terrible irony in thinking that being closer to white would bring you closer to beauty.”

Cobbs graduated from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1946 and enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, transferring after three years to Berkeley. He interrupted his education to enter the Army in early 1951 and served until late 1952, mostly in West Germany.

After his discharge, he finished his studies at Berkeley, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1954, and enrolled in Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated in 1958.

In 1963, after several residencies, he became an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California’s San Francisco Medical Center. He and Grier, who died in 2015, may have been the only practicing black psychiatrists in San Francisco at the time, Cobbs wrote in his autobiography.

They wrote a draft of their book, then decided it was not forthright enough.

“We realized that the truth we had discovered was not being served by the way in which we were describing it,” Cobbs wrote. “We needed a language that told the truth, in the way that it had been told to us by black people everywhere.”

So they rewrote, cutting out psychiatric jargon and passive wording. They were pleased with the result.

“Rage had provided its own eloquence,” Cobbs said.

The book was already in production when King was assassinated. Basic Books, their publisher, allowed them to make last-minute revisions to account for the murder.

The book brought its authors numerous interviews and led to an ABC television special, “To Be Black.”

In the 1970s Cobbs faced some professional setbacks, including a lengthy legal battle over claims of overcharging patients at a care facility he had established. He tried, he said in his autobiography, to use the setbacks to examine his own “black rage.”

“I had to make adjustments to my own judgment, and to exercise better judgment,” he wrote. “I’d have to use that rage as a vehicle for self-understanding.”

He became a sought-after consultant on matters related to diversity, helping both blacks and whites at corporations and nonprofits adjust to the increasing integration of the workplace. His other books included “Cracking the Corporate Code: The Revealing Success Stories of 32 African-American Executives” (2003), written with Judith L. Turnock.

Cobbs married Evadne Priester in 1957; she died of cancer in 1973. He is survived by his wife, Frederica Maxwell Tipton, whom he married in 1985; two children from his first marriage, Renata Cobbs-Fletcher and Price Priester Cobbs; two stepchildren, Jan Tipton-Valenzuela and Jill Merli; three grandchildren; and five step-grandchildren.

In all his work, Cobbs was conscious of the complexity of race issues, whose causes are so often hidden or underexplored.

“Racism looms like an iceberg in the Arctic Sea,” he wrote. “It is huge and immobile and what lies above the water must be avoided, but the real danger lies in what is unseen.”

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