Readings: • “The Matter of Black Lives” by Jelani Cobb • “The Year Without a Nam
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• “The Matter of Black Lives” by Jelani Cobb
• “The Year Without a Name” by Cyrus Grace Dunham
Question: While we usually do not consider the way that our names impact our identity and our relative place in the world, many would argue that the act of naming is fundamental to our construction of identity—particularly, to the way in which the world perceives us. Names and recognition go hand-in-hand. Naming a thing expresses a desire for it to be recognized in a certain way. Moreover, the recognition of a name can impart the person, object, or place itself with a certain power—a solidification of its existence, or even an acknowledgment of its position within a hierarchy.
Both Jelani Cobb (he/him) and Cyrus Grace Dunham (they/them) scrutinize the importance of naming and recognition at the group and individual levels. In his essay, Cobb places the various historical incarnations of black social activism under a microscope. His aim is to consider how formalizing a movement—naming it—can become an obstacle to achieving the goals of that movement. As the visibility of Black Lives Matter has increased over the years, the confusion about who and what it represents has allowed it to take on the divergent personalities of the individuals associated with it—and, as Cobb admits, these personality conflicts may ultimately compromise its effectiveness.
Cyrus Grace Dunham presents the reader with a microcosm of Cobb’s focus on movement-wide visibility and recognition by examining their own individual experience with crafting an identity. As they move through the confusion surrounding their gender non-conformity, Dunham expresses their simultaneous desires to be seen and unseen. Their challenge in naming themselves demonstrates the impact that names can have on the way that we are seen, and on the way that we see ourselves.
Given the stakes at play within each reading—in Dunham’s, their ability to feel that their outer self represents who they are inside and, in Cobb’s, the chance of finally overcoming the obstacles and discrimination that have faced black Americans for decades—consider the following question:
How does a name empower or disempower the identity with which it is associated?
When writing your essay, you should:
• Use the author’s examples to inform YOUR analysis. Do not merely summarize the readings or restate the authors’ arguments. Make your own independent claim.
• Present an original and complex thesis statement (1-3 sentences in length) at the end of your introduction paragraph. Your thesis statement should be specific and should incorporate the key terms of the assignment question.
• Expand your ideas and support your essay’s thesis based on close reading of idea-rich passages from the texts. Use text quotes that highlight complicated language and ideas from the readings, and explain how the language and ideas of the quotes connect to the thesis of your essay.
• Engage equally with both of the readings and make thematic observations that can be supported by both of the texts. Do not just talk about one reading for half of the paper and one reading for the other half. In each body paragraph of your essay, you should 1) connect and discuss BOTH readings and 2) include at least two text quotes that support your arguments (one from each reading).
While you are not obligated to respond to the following questions, they may assist you in thinking about your response to the prompt:
• How do names symbolize power? Is it through the name itself, or through recognition of the name? How is the power of leaders of the 1960’s civil rights movement linked to recognition of the formal and rule-abiding nature of that movement? How is the circumspect response to leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement linked to associations with that movement as disruptive or rule-breaking? • Is it fair for a name to take on a power or identity based on how others perceive it? Or should the owner of the name have the sole right to define what it represents? How does the name “Cyrus” possess a power that was instilled in it before they were even born? How does it take on a power that is outside of the author’s control once they tell their partner and friends about it? How does the name “Grace” hold a power over the author that they both crave and resent?
• Are names limiting by nature? Do they force the person, place, or thing that is named to exist within a set of predefined traits and characteristics? Where can you find examples in the readings of ways that a name can actually hide the complexity of the underlying identity? Consider the label of Barack Obama as the first black President. How does this name allow Americans to believe that a post-racial nation has been achieved? How does the name “Cyrus” imbue the author with a false sense of conviction—the idea that they are perfectly aligned with a new gender identity when the reality is that their experience is much more fluid and non-conforming?
• Can an identity ever be separated from the name it possesses? Can Black Lives Matter ever become a part of “politics as usual” if it emerged in the context of an anti-establishment, apolitical grassroots movement? Can Cyrus Grace exist without a name? Does the inner tumult and confusion that they experience during their “year without a name” prove that a name is what anchors us to our identity—to ourselves? Or do they evolve beyond the limits of a name? Features of Your Paper:
• THREE full typed pages minimum: one-inch margins, double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12-point font.
• Name, course and section, assignment number, version (rough or final draft), and date should be in the upper left-hand corner. Follow this format:
Paper #4 Rough Draft
[Date] • Last name and page number should appear on each page in the top right-hand corner of the header (e.g., “Doe 1”).