Write an essay in which you develop an idea of your own by engaging the ideas of the authors of your chosen essays. To do this, find a connection (or connections) between two or more of the essays we have read and an essay of your own choice. This task demands that you recognize, present, construct, and mediate useful and enlightening relationships that you see between a constellation of texts and then use these relationships to push your own discussions forward. Your participation in the conversation between texts — as the writer mediating it — is the essay's central feature.

Living, Learning, and Lager:

Ruminations on Identity From a Post-Millennial Barstool

I wasn't expecting to have my mind expanded that particular evening; rather the opposite. A friend of friends was in town last month, and they had invited me to join them at a pub which had been selected on the basis of its quaffable in-house specialties and the known rapidity of its refills. I'd met Ann (not her real name) once or twice before, years ago. I certainly didn't know her well enough — so I'd assumed — to have her confide in me, before the beer arrived, her very recent discovery that she enjoyed dating preoperative transgender men, let alone that the discovery had come about by happy accident. That I was a near stranger seemed not to deter her: she had just found a new aspect of her identity, and it seemed of crucial importance for her to share it with anyone who would listen. I was happy to oblige because I knew the feeling. Plus, it was fascinating. Here was an expert — she'd majored in Gender Studies — holding forth accessibly on a topic about which I knew next to nothing. Forgetting politeness in my alacrity, I assailed her with questions: When a biological male, for instance, decides that he identifies as a female, what does that signify in his/her mind? What should it signify to others? When, if ever, should we switch to using female pronouns? What is the path from one's personal self-identification to one's public self-identification? For that matter, what is the path of experiences and thoughts leading to identification with another gender? The disorienting unfamiliarity of this new territory left me grasping. As a group, we agreed on the conclusion that to be transgender is to make a connection from the perceived expectations of others to a major aspect of one's identity — a defiant one, but a connection nonetheless. It had never occurred to me to connect the two. I'd silently accepted my being male as a biological fact, no more, no less; I'd silently accepted facts as the sort of thing with which disagreement is nonsensical; and I'd gone on doing whatever I felt like doing. Now that I think about it, some of my non-biological traits are probably stereotypically masculine, some of them probably aren't, and I'm probably not unique in either respect. I hadn't been conscious of any of this before. My conversation with Ann, in its groping to comprehend a foreign notion of identity, brought me to wider awareness of the moorings of my own.

Gerald Early's seemingly unrelated exploration of racial identity in “Their Malcolm, My Problem” also illuminated my self-conception by contrast. As with Ann and friends, this result came as a surprise, though ultimately for different reasons. A black man, Early weaves together anecdotes from his youth, reflections on raising his children, and his rocky transition to a position of significant academic influence, connecting them by means of Malcolm X's relevance to each. The essay opens with Early, having been promoted within his university to the directorship of African and Afro-American Studies, struggling to understand how “a coalition of black students” can protest because they consider him not “sufficiently Afrocentric” (Early, 89). In response, Early rails against Malcolm, “the architect of it all, the father of Afrocentrism” (Early, 90). This evaluation of Malcolm differs markedly from that of his boyhood self, who had found Malcolm eye-opening and instructive. As a ten-year-old, “Hearing ['Message to the Grass Roots'] for the first time was a shock and a revelation…. I felt each word burn with the brightness of a truth that was both utterly new and profoundly familiar…. I never looked at the world in quite the same way again” (Early, 90). Indeed, he was jarred into this reverie by his ten-year-old, who reacts to her father's rage with ”'But I thought you liked Malcolm X'” (Early, 90). He fears he has erred as a parent because his daughters relegate blackness to the periphery of their identities. ”'Yeah,' my youngest says, 'it's good to be black, but it's better not to have to spend all your time thinking about how good it is to be black'” (Early, 97-98). He further worries ”…about my daughters, wondering whether they are getting too cozy with whites at school and whether they are too utterly middle class. So much are they protected from any blatant form of racism that I fear they are likely never to understand that it existed and continues to exist today” (Early, 95). In these respects, at least, I believe his work as a parent has been a success. His children have it better than he did: despite his manifest racism — imagine a white person as openly leery of his kids getting too cozy with blacks! — and his discontent with their having done so, his daughters have apparently accepted the biological fact of their blackness without accepting the baggage others may attach to it. In the end, having long since outgrown Malcolm's advocacy of “a single identity for all black people,” Early himself holds with W.E.B. DuBois “that both blackness and Americanness are real options, each having meaning only when measured against the other” (Early, 98-99).

I had hoped that Early's essay would resonate with me. I'm not black, but I was born into a community with some strikingly similar properties. For most of their history, Jews have been in exile, treated as second-class citizens in someone else's country. Of necessity, where they were not welcome, they created their own parallel enclaves, separate but unequal. Like blacks in America, Jews have always been embattled from without, and the continual struggle for their very lives has shaped and strengthened the resolve of their communities. Even at a comfortable distance, having been born into the historical circumstances of Judaism has cost me. My Israeli father fought in two wars; many of my ancestors disappeared during one. By rights, then, I should identify every bit as strongly with my Judaism — or perhaps more immediately with my Israeli citizenship — as Early does with his blackness. Yet I do not. To turn Early's words about Malcolm against him, I find there is “something about his quest for humanity that [leaves] me unmoved,” because his view of identity as inextricably intertwined with race and history feels, to me, “as narrow as it [is] vivid” (Early, 87). Early seems to be missing the obvious solution to his self-imposed paradoxes of race and identity: stop forcing race to pertain to identity. When he observes “There is a sense that integration has been halfhearted and has been achieved only at the expense of black identity,” it seems to go without saying that this expense is too high (Early, 94). His accounting is faulty, however, because he does not consider the cost of deriving identity from race.

In his famous “Self-Reliance,” which promulgates a nearly diametrically opposite notion of identity, Ralph Waldo Emerson directly addresses the deleterious effects of community affiliations. En route to establishing his overarching titular imperative, he warns, “If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life” (Emerson). As strongly as Early instinctively trusts the community of his race, Emerson tends to distrust such communities, because membership “loses your time and blurs the impression of your character” (Emerson). Early also recognizes these dangers, criticizing Malcolm X for preaching “a love of the misty past at the cost of our actual lives” (Early, 99). Implicit in Emerson's criticism is the assumption that one's individual nature is of inherent value; unlike Early, Emerson makes his key assumption fairly explicit: ”[Every man] must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion,” he observes, and implores the reader to “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” on the basis that “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature” (Emerson). To form one's identity from one's nature, in Emerson's view, then requires but one additional step: “Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself” (Emerson)

In “Mendeleev's Garden,” Oliver Sacks takes Emerson's advice to heart. Unlike both Early and Emerson, Sacks here does not concern himself with abstractions about the nature of identity. Instead — fittingly, since the piece comes from his memoirs — he tells a personal story that illustrates a giant step toward his intellectual maturity. In relating Mendeleev's discovery of the periodic table and his first childhood encounter with the famous chemist's masterwork, Sacks puts on vigorous display the fundamental aspects of what I consider to be a healthy self. At a young age, he has demonstrated the willingness to seek principles and patterns behind anything and everything: “I had already become familiar with the properties of many elements and I knew they formed a number of natural families” (Sacks, 22). Upon first scanning the table, on display at his local science museum, “I wondered if [chemists in Mendeleev's time] had reacted as I did to this first revelation: 'Of course! How obvious! Why didn't I think of it myself?'” (Sacks, 23). Emerson speaks of this reaction when he observes that “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts,” and anticipates that it is to be followed by “shame [at taking] our own opinion from another” (Emerson). Yet Sacks exhibits no such shame. “I could scarcely sleep for excitement the night after seeing the periodic table — it seemed to me an incredible achievement to have brought the whole, vast, and seemingly chaotic universe of chemistry to an all-embracing order…. And this gave me, for the first time, a sense of the transcendent power of the human mind, and the fact that it might be equipped to discover or decipher the deepest secrets of nature” (Sacks, 23-26). Emboldened by the existence of such a glorious thing as the periodic table, he is armed not only with curiosity, but also with proof that reasoning and creative insight lead to dizzying discoveries. For Early, hearing a recording of a Malcolm X speech was formative; for Sacks, it was these momentous minutes at the museum. “Seeing the table, 'getting' it, altered my life'” (Sacks, 26).

Last night, an author by the name of Jennifer Finney Boylan came to Barnard to talk about what is, arguably, the most life-altering change imaginable: born male, but having identified as a female for as long as she could remember, a few years ago she chose to undergo an operation to become female. An engaging speaker, Boylan provided context for the uninitiated, as well as some basic vocabulary, in her opening remarks; among other terms, she spoke of distinct meanings for male/female (biological concepts) and masculine/feminine (social constructs), a distinction which informs the language of this essay. After reading a touching and funny excerpt from her memoir She's Not There, she fielded personal questions from the audience. Her responses were uniformly thoughtful and disarmingly honest. For instance, she admitted hoping that the media would fixate on some other transgender person so she could stop being an activist. When someone inquired after her post-operative sex life, she answered clearly, unambiguously, and without shame. Meanwhile, back at the bar, Ann's openness had been strongly polarized: whereas her eagerness to discuss transgender issues bordered on the exhibitionist, she flatly refused to entertain questions about her own sexuality. Of course, in so doing she was well within her rights. Nonetheless, this contrast helps to demarcate a pattern which emerges in the interplay between the respective situations of Boylan and Ann. In discussing transgender, the forty-seven-year-old professor was speaking candidly and eloquently about herself, from decades of firsthand experience; the twentysomething recent college graduate was speaking freely about others, from two or three weeks of secondhand information, and was entirely uncomfortable speaking of herself. This suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that one becomes more firmly seated in one's identity partly due to the passage of time and partly due to the quality and quantity of one's reflective thinking. Along this path, Boylan has come far, while Ann is nearer the beginning. For both of them, and for the rest of us, the route is best illuminated by means of an intellectual toolkit much like that of young Sacks. Via incessant inquisitiveness and the sense that our searches can succeed, all of us — regardless of the current shape of our identities — can push our self-awareness forward. As did I, in a relatively small way, at the bar with friends one month ago.

Works Cited

  • Boylan, Jennifer Finney. She's Not There. New York: Random House, 2003.
  • Early, Gerald. “Their Malcolm, My Problem.” The Best American Essays 1993. Ed. Joseph Epstein. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993. 87-100.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm. (10 March 2006).
  • Sacks, Oliver. “Mendeleev's Garden.” The American Scholar. 70 (2001): 21-37.