Rewrite 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, and I'd been invited 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, in the abstract, 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, 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 were able to agree that to be transgender is to stake a major aspect of one's identity in opposition to the perceived expectations of others — a defiant connection to those expectations, 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; other than the necessity of acknowledging it as such, it seemed irrelevant to my self-definition. 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. The beer was as good as advertised, but the longest-lingering taste left by this memorable evening's challenging conversation was that of inward inquiry.

My mental orchestra thus arranged, when reading three very different essays for this assignment, I couldn't help but hear them all as variations on a theme. Gerald Early's “Their Malcolm, My Problem” views identity through the historical prism of race; Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous “Self-Reliance” calls the reader to heed that which inheres in him; Oliver Sacks' “Mendeleev's Garden” depicts an author too busy simply being himself to waste time thinking about selfhood. Each of these essays raised, then dashed, my hopes of finding my thoughts fully represented by someone else's words. More important, their notions about identity, as had Ann's, forced me to reexamine some of my assumptions about the path to personal enlightenment.

Intrigued by the title, thinking it might resonate with me, I started with Early. 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. In “Their Malcolm, My Problem,” he weaves together anecdotes from his youth, reflections on raising his children, and chronicles of his rocky transition to a position of significant academic influence, by explaining Malcolm X's relevance to each. The essay opens with the author, 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” (90). This evaluation 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” (90). Indeed, he is jarred into this reverie by his ten-year-old, who reacts to her father's rage with ”'But I thought you liked Malcolm X'” (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'” (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” (95).

Already on weak footing, here Early loses me. To turn his 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” (87). His racism is appalling. Imagine a white father as leery of his kids getting too cozy with blacks! Remarkably, his children have apparently managed to accept the biological fact of their race without accepting the baggage their father and others may attach to it, though it remains to be seen how they'll fare as adults. Early himself, having long since outgrown Malcolm's advocacy of “a single identity for all black people,” holds with W.E.B. DuBois “that both blackness and Americanness are real options, each having meaning only when measured against the other” (98-99). His racism can be regarded as a logically illogical outcome of his self-imposed paradoxes of race and 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 (94). His accounting is faulty, however, because he does not consider the cost of deriving identity from race.

Seeking sanity and intellectual comfort, I turned to an old friend. Emerson, in “Self-Reliance,” promulgates a diametrically opposite notion of identity: whereas Early assumes race's centrality and exalts the importance of Malcolm X, Emerson recommends eschewing group affiliations and the following of leaders. En route to establishing his 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.” 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.” To his credit, Early also recognizes these dangers, criticizing Malcolm for preaching “a love of the misty past at the cost of our actual lives” (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.” 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's missive is an abstraction of abstractions, which constitutes both its inspirational magnetism and its philosophical weakness. I'd forgotten how ambivalent I felt about “Self-Reliance” in high school. Unmoored by definitions of good and evil, Emerson can be used to justify either. It's unclear whether this is an improvement over Early's racism, and in any case is hardly comforting.

Thoroughly unnerved, I visited a neurologist. Oliver Sacks brings us back to earth with “Mendeleev's Garden,” which, unlike the other two essays, does not concern itself with abstractions about the nature of identity. Instead — fittingly, since the piece comes from his memoirs — he tells a personal story that illustrates a leap 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 demonstrates 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?'” (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.” 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” (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'” (26).

”Garden” reminded me of my happily science-loving childhood and thrilled me in the unadulterated way “Self-Reliance” once did. Yet Sacks, too, left me somewhat cold. Since he devoted his life to the study of the mind, I wanted to see him study his own with the inquisitiveness he brought to the chemical elements. Perhaps he writes introspectively elsewhere in his memoirs; in this chapter, however, he does not.

I found my introspection in another memoir. Recently, the author and college professor Jennifer Finney Boylan read a touching, funny excerpt from She's Not There at Barnard. Boylan was born male, identified as female since childhood, and a few years ago underwent an operation to become biologically female. An engaging speaker, she offered distinct meanings for the biological concepts of “male” and “female” and the social constructs of “masculine” and “feminine.” Her responses to questions from the audience — some of them quite personal — 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 and focus on her own priorities; no doubt Emerson would have approved. When someone inquired after her post-operative sex life, she answered clearly, unambiguously, and without shame. By contrast, Ann's eagerness to discuss others' transgender issues bordered on the exhibitionist, while 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 that one becomes more firmly seated in one's identity 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 to personal enlightenment is best illuminated by means of an intellectual toolkit much like that of young Sacks, applied with the fervor of Emerson, taking eternal care to correct errors like Emerson's and Early's as they occur. 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, among friends at a pub one evening.

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.” (10 March 2006).
  • Sacks, Oliver. “Mendeleev's Garden.” The American Scholar. 70 (2001): 21-37.