Jalani Cobb, a Professor at Columbia University and a staff writer at The New Yorker, came to Chautauqua to give one of the most informative and captivating lectures I’ve had the pleasure of attending. Cobb’s lecture focused on the surrounding theme of ‘American Identity’ and what that really means in today’s society.
Opening the lecture with the statement that our identity has leaned towards being about what we are as opposed to who we are, a distinction Cobb’s made well known to those in attendance was crucial in correcting the identity crisis our nation is has been and continues to go through. The individual “who,” according to Cobb’s, is imperative in understanding the larger “we”, referencing the first word of the Constitution.
One of the stories that Cobb’s shared that really resonated with me and I believe connected with the overarching theme of American Identity really well was one about a Muslim man on a plane. This occurrence happened shortly after 9/11 where tensions were at an all-time high regarding the Islamic community. Cobb’s stated that an olive-skinned man wearing cultural garments walked down the aisle of the plane receiving angry looks from those on board. Cobb shared that he also gave the man a few extra looks, but not for the same reasons that you may think. Cobb’s said that he looked at the man time and time again not because he was afraid as a result of the narrative that was being spread through the media, but because he recognized the man as one of the “best break dancers Queens, New York had ever seen” when he was a teenager. Although this statement drew some laughs from the audience, it really made me reflect on the larger picture. We mustn’t assume someone is a certain type of person based on what we hear, whether that be from our families or from society, we must take the time to appreciate each individual especially if they don’t look the same as us because that is what the American Identity, truly is. It is, as Cobb’s stated who we are that matters, not what we are.
Cobb’s overall message in understanding who we are as a means to achieve the end goal of what we are currently and what we are to become as a nation really made a lot of sense when looking at today’s politics. In order to achieve the American identity of not only one specific race, religion, economic class or social class but of a collective unit, we must acknowledge the differences in who we are and how those differences alter what we are to be as one of the greatest nations to ever be.