“You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” -Claudia Rankine, Citizen
I heard a lot of people talking about Citizen when it came out, and understood it to be somewhat genre-bending while at the same time a powerful discourse about race in America. I bought it, because I like books, and because I especially like poetry books that push the boundaries of the genre, and also especially because I consider myself an ally of the Black Community, as in, 100% definitely not racist. And yet.
It took me a few months to pick up the book and read it. It’s worth mentioning that my partner, whose mother is black, read the book in one sitting at the bar while I was working and he loved it. He said, “the way it was written gave me a renewed sense of validation for my feelings, like of course I feel like this but it’s refreshing to see it in this language. The only surprising thing was that fucking tennis photo.*” Why did it take me so long to read it? Obviously, because I was afraid of feeling bad, or guilty, or complicit. Reading the book doesn’t change the fact that I’m already complicit in racism, because I both benefit from white privilege and also occupy space as a white person. These are things that I can’t change. I can however, check myself and not worry about how I’m feeling in order to listen to other voices- no matter how uncomfortable it might make me. I finally read the book, and I’m glad I could recognize both why I put it off and why it was important for me to read it.
The book is subtitled An American Lyric which seems appropriate, at a time when it seems like every other day a black person is killed by police in America (let’s be honest, this is nothing new, but the populist power of things like twitter and the direct political action of groups like Black Lives Matter has brought acute attention to these tragedies). As Claudia Rankine says in the book, “because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying.” Split into 7 parts, the book takes on different forms. Some of the writing reads like poetry, and sounds like lamentations,
“To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about.”
These are ephemeral poems, oscillating between emotion and observation. Some are placed in daily reality, but some of these, like the “sigh” lines above could be from any part of her life. These are emotional and felt, in stark contrast to the way she objectively writes about the aggressions of her day to day life in the other sections,
“When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks at niggers. Hey, I am standing right here, you responded, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you.
He is holding the lidded paper cup in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say.
Now there you go, he responds.
The people around you have turned away from their screens. The teenagers are on pause. There I go? you ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stanger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile.”
There are examples like that of “everyday racism” (which I put in quotes because it’s so foreign from my life, what looks like “everyday racism” to me is just “everyday” for someone in a non-white body) in the book as well as the absolutely lunatic-crazy narrative of Serena Williams, an incredible tennis player- literally probably the best in the world- who has had to put up with an incredible amount of verbal and physical violence in her career, and then told not to overreact or respond to it. That chapter in the book doesn’t read very poetic, not like the scripts she wrote for the Situation Videos (a collaboration with John Lucas) that Rankine puts together about Katrina, Stop-and-Frisk, Trayvon Martin and others, which read, without the video accompaniment, like poems. The Serena chapter instead serves to illustrates the swallowing of anger, the diminishing of a person in the face of this kind of aggression. The game always continues.
There’s another type of encounter in the book, the microaggression of either casual racism or just the invisibility of the body, not that they’re mutually exclusive.
“In line at a drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.”
There is a theme of invisibility. Of diminishing. Rankine’s body in these stories, as both author and character, is someone who is adjusting to make the people around her feel comfortable. She addresses this with a quote from Judith Butler, someone who has written a lot about the body vis a vis the world,
“Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. You can feel everyone lean in. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.
For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and as insane as it is, saying please.”
This book is both poetry and sociology. It’s incredibly well-written, and thoughtful, and also unexpected (there’s a soccer sequence that mixes photos of a fight with Franz Fanon quotes, it’s fantastic). At the end I think it also reminded me to be alert, open, and to have that desire to engage that Rankine has. Required reading for sure.
*the photo depicts Dane Caroline Wozniacki, a tennis player, with towels stuffed down her skirt and shirt to depict Serena Williams, on December 12th, 2012 two weeks after Selena was named WTA player of the year.