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‘A New Way of Writing About Race’

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John Lucas
Claudia Rankine, New York City, 2014

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen opens:

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.

The reader is forewarned: what follows will explore what happens when the “devices” are switched off, not just the smart phone or the iPad, but techniques of evasion and compromise that let the poet exist in the present. There’s also the suggestion that the repudiated “devices” are poetic, rhetorical tricks that ornament or soften. Accordingly, Rankine’s language is prose, plain, direct, conversational, though simultaneously uncanny and reverberant, continually wrongfooting the reader, swapping referents, mixing the physical and metaphysical at will. (It’s not just “you” “stacked among your pillows” but the past itself.)

Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America. Some of the incidents happen to the poet, some are reports from friends. Rankine writes almost exclusively in the second-person present, a tense that implicates as it includes, endowing events with a sense of immediacy and urgency.

As in her last book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004, with which it shares a subtitle, An American Lyric), Citizen combines commentary, “lyric essays,” reproductions of artworks, frequent quotation from artists and critics (including Frederick Douglass, Chris Marker, Claire Denis, Ralph Ellison, and Frantz Fanon), scripts for films, and an eight-page lined poem (section VII). Rankine’s writing is, to borrow Jack Spicer’s phrase, “a collage of the real,” and doesn’t lend itself easily to short excerpts. The force of her work (and it has plenty) is mostly achieved incrementally, drawing meanings from cumulative patterns, in a tone almost flat, resigned, but punctuated with moments of emotion: rage, exhaustion, disgust. The impression is of an intensely sensitive writer—in both senses—trying to confront the mess of modern America with a clear critique. In a historic first, Citizen was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in both poetry and criticism and on March 12 won the award for poetry.

At the core of Citizen is an “anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.” In “Making Room,” Rankine writes:

On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it….

When another passenger leaves his seat and the standing woman sits, you glance over at the man. He is gazing out the window into what looks like darkness.

Rankine’s sentences have a great deal of doubling and repetition in them—standing, understand, stand—and the eye is encouraged to skim over the surface, but while the language appears at first direct, colloquial, it’s actually distinctly odd and ramifying. In that movement where the poet “step[s] quickly over the woman’s fear,” an action becomes an idea, and the phrase “a fear she shares”—which would normally mean we partake in her fear—shifts to imply that the woman has expressed a fear that the poet has refused to accept: “You let her have it.”

What a resonant double-edged little phrase: standing behind the gesture of renunciation—you can keep your fear—is the demotic meaning, a submerged, even violent anger. And then that freighted word “Union” splinters out historically, ironically: there is only separation here on the train. Rankine’s language continually undermines the casual reading it encourages, revealing how exchanges are coded, complex, how tone decides everything. (Later, in a script about Zinedine Zidane—the famous soccer player who, because of an insult, knocked a player to the ground with a head butt after the 2006 World Cup Final—she quotes Ralph Ellison: “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.”)

The poet sits “next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken” and hears a woman ask “a man in the rows ahead if he would mind switching seats. She wishes to sit with her daughter or son. You hear but you don’t hear. You can’t see.”

It’s then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you’ll tell them we are traveling as a family.

Rankine’s response to the perceived racial slight is to fully align herself with the man, at least inside her head. The past—both personal and historical—demands it:

A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.

Rankine was born in 1963 in Kingston, Jamaica, and studied at Williams College, then took an MFA at Columbia. She’s published five collections of poetry, edited several anthologies, and is the recipient of many fellowships and awards, including the 2014 Jackson Prize. She’s the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

In Citizen she presents her life as lived in the mostly Caucasian world of the academy, of privilege: she speaks of tennis lessons, housekeepers, conferences. Many pieces are about how her color precludes acceptance in this white space she inhabits. She foregrounds her own position (“Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat…”) as a means of demonstrating an all-pervasive racism that cuts through economic and social privilege. The micro-aggressions she suffers may seem small compared to the brutality and indignity experienced by those less fortunate, but they are still presented as corrosive, undermining, and overwhelming.

Citizen suggests that racial harmony is superficial—skin-deep—and Americans revert readily and easily to their respective racial camps. A friend’s son is knocked over in the subway—again, the ethnicity of those involved is not made explicit—“but the son of a bitch kept walking.” The friend says she

grabbed the stranger’s arm and…told him to look at the boy and apologize. Yes, and you want it to stop, you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.

The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers.

(A recurring theme is the paradox of being seen but not seen, of being both overly visible and completely invisible.) Concerned citizens of all colors do not stop to help, the story tells us without quite saying so, but only black men, “like newly found uncles and brothers.”

Whether buying a coffee or in line at the drugstore, Rankine encounters this invisibility that racism occasions:

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.

Another incident:

When the waitress hands your friend the card she took from you, you laugh and ask [the friend] what else her privilege gets her? Oh, my perfect life, she answers. Then you both are laughing so hard, everyone in the restaurant smiles.

This is how racism works: it blocks the possibility of living an undefended life. For those who know “the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day,” every incident is a possible example of it. In an open letter discussing “The Change,” a poem by her erstwhile colleague the poet Tony Hoagland (Rankine maintains that “some readers perceived [it] to be…racist” and Hoagland maintains that it is “racially complex”), she writes that “when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.”

Citizen contains several “scripts for situations,” texts for documentary films made with Rankine’s husband John Lucas. There are scripts about Hurricane Katrina (“comprised of quotes collected from CNN”), the Jena Six, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, stop-and-frisk, and the 2006 World Cup Final when Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi. The scripts make use of Rankine’s gift for repetition and variation and, throughout the book, artworks are reproduced to inform these texts. In the Katrina script the refrain “Have you seen their faces?” recurs: the next page is a large ink drawing of a black man’s face by the Nigerian artist Toyin Odutola. Citizen demands that we look: Rankine repeatedly returns to the space a black body occupies in a white world. She quotes the artist Glenn Ligon quoting Zora Neale Hurston, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” adding that it “seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.”

In these scripts the writing moves backward and forward, setting out thesis and antithesis (though tellingly no synthesis), as it tries to enter the associated paradoxes and inconsistencies. Here is an extract from the script for Trayvon Martin, who, walking to his father’s apartment, was talking on the phone to his girlfriend when he was followed, and ultimately killed, by the Latino neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman:

If I called I’d say good-bye before I broke the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up. Don’t hang up. My brother hangs up though he is there. I keep talking. The talk keeps him there. The sky is blue, kind of blue. The day is hot. Is it cold? Are you cold? It does get cool. Is it cool? Are you cool?

My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence. Eventually, he says, it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down.

When Rankine reads her work aloud it is often in a monotone, a kind of robotic exhaustion. This allows the short phrasings to open out into many meanings: “Are you cold?” can mean “Are you unfeeling?” even “Are you dead?” “Is it cool?” can mean “Is this allowed?” “What is happening?” “Are you cool?” suggests “Are we fine?” “Is something wrong?” The many senses grow organically out of the phrasal variations, a form of verbal riffing that finds its musical equivalent in jazz (leading us back to the Miles Davis reference: “kind of blue”). “It is raining down” suggests the physical fight between Zimmerman and Martin: we hear the idiom “blows raining down” behind it. Rankine’s phrases follow the narrative of the incident, but obliquely. Her work is extremely unusual in the limits she sets on her own language, in its understanding of and belief in the efficacy of the tonal ambiguity of ordinary idioms.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images/John Lucas
An altered photograph of a public lynching, Marion, Indiana, August 1930; created by Claudia Rankine’s husband, John Lucas, from Citizen

Citizen repays repeated readings: it’s arch-like, each piece supporting the other, and one begins to notice the deep metaphors of the book, such as the idea of tennis, of serve and return. Perhaps the strongest essay about the relation of a black body to a white space concerns Serena Williams and her treatment in the white world of tennis. This probing essay seems to have its origins in that public argument Rankine had with Tony Hoagland. In Hoagland’s poem “The Change” he refers to, presumably, Venus Williams, as “that big black girl…/cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,/some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” He goes on to call her “so big/and so black,/so unintimidated…like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.”

The speaker in the poem can’t “help wanting/the white girl to come out on top/because she was one of my kind, my tribe” even though she is European and the black player is American. “The Change”—though she never refers to it in Citizen—has caused Rankine to consider the racism meted out to the Williams sisters, the bad calls, and their responses to them, and enables her to write of the problems of articulating black anger. She writes of “Hennessy Youngman,” an alter ego of the artist Jayson Musson, “whose Art Thoughtz take the form of tutorials on YouTube…on contemporary art issues.”

He addresses how to become a successful black artist, wryly suggesting black people’s anger is marketable. He advises black artists to cultivate “an angry nigger exterior” by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working…. The commodified anger his video advocates…can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.

Rankine’s own work succeeds in most clearly delineating “actual anger” from “sellable anger” when actual anger is tied “to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.”

The Rodney King video recurs later in Citizen when Rankine again outlines the problem of (the lack of) white empathy toward black suffering. In “In Memory of Mark Duggan” Rankine is in London at a party “in a house worth more than a million pounds” (in a book full of contemporary references, this is perhaps the only one that already feels dated) and meets an English novelist. She writes that “the Hackney riots” (she means the riots that started in Tottenham, a district of Haringay, and spread throughout London, and then England) “began at the end of the summer of 2011 when Mark Duggan, a black man, a husband, a father, and a suspected drug dealer, was shot dead by officers from Scotland Yard’s Operation Trident.”

She quotes James Baldwin, “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers,” and compares the London riots with the LA riots that followed Rodney King’s beating, suggesting that “if there had been a video of Duggan being executed, there might be less ambiguity around what started the riots.” The English novelist asks, “Will you write about Duggan?” “Why don’t you? you ask. Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.” Rankine argues that

though in this man’s body, the man made of English sky, grief exists for Duggan as a black man gunned down, there is not the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day.

She argues that “grief comes out of relationships to subjects over time and not to any subject in theory.” The distance between her and the novelist “is thrown into relief: bodies moving through the same life differently…. Apparently your new friend won’t write about Mark Duggan or the London riots; still you continue searching his face because there is something to find, an answer to question.”

She asks in relation to the white novelist, “Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?” The questions that Rankine’s art lays bare circle almost exclusively around race (“A similar accumulation and release drove many Americans to respond to the Rodney King beating…. As a black body in the States, your response was necessary…”). But it happens that the English riots were different in kind from, say, the LA or Ferguson riots. For one thing, in every city including London the largest group involved in rioting was white (though those of British Caribbean and British African ethnicity were disproportionately represented), suggesting that the causal tensions and failures were not delimited by skin color. Any reading of the sources of the English riots would have to include social exclusion, family breakdown, government cuts to welfare, mass unemployment and poverty, gang culture and criminal opportunism, a kind of communal “fun,” anticorporate feeling, and the advent of mobile technology and social media.

The English novelist’s inability to reply positively in relation to Mark Duggan, to reply to Rankine that he will write about him, reminds me of an incident in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine’s own ability to access grief for people she’s never met but feels for because of “a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day” doesn’t stretch to women, for example, or at least not a particular white woman. She writes about visiting a pop-up museum on London’s South Bank, run by the Body Shop:

The Museum of Emotions in London has a game that asks yes and no questions. As long as you answer “correctly,” you can continue playing. The third question is: Were you terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died?

I told the truth and stepped on the NO tile. I was not allowed to continue. The museum employee, who must have had a thing with shame, looked away as I stepped down. Walking out, I couldn’t help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive to anyone outside of her friends and family—truly?

Rankine questions the authenticity of the mourners of Princess Diana’s death, a mourning she finds lacking in the English novelist, and yet it’s hard not to hear the questions she poses as inflecting her own process of grieving that Citizen enacts in a piece like “In Memory of Mark Duggan”:

Weren’t they mourning the protection they felt she should have had? A protection they’ll never have? Weren’t they simply grieving the random inevitability of their own deaths?

One problem with writing poetry about political or historical issues is that poetry proves a terrible method for transmitting real information. The personal poems in Citizen, the anecdotes and micro-aggressions, have considerably more power than the more abstracted ones. The elegy for Trayvon Martin works because Rankine imagines, inhabits, and replays the actual events, of which we too have some knowledge. The elegy for Mark Duggan works insofar as it portrays a social friction between two middle-class artists, but I’m not sure it goes much further than that. Its too-smooth equation of the UK and LA riots, of Mark Duggan and Rodney King, flattens and reduces detail in a way familiar in political language but difficult to work successfully into poetry.

Rankine’s work though, as the NBCC nominations suggested, is on the cusp of poetry and critique; her reductionism, of course, is meant, and is intended to be symptomatic of the culture: it wants to simplify as racism simplifies; she means to tell us that these people were killed precisely because they were black. This is page 134 of Citizen, in its entirety:

November 23, 2012 / In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis

August 9, 2014 / In Memory of Michael Brown

Page 135 states simply:

February 15, 2014 / The Justice System

The book has no explanatory notes but Jordan Russell Davis, an unarmed seventeen-year-old African-American, was shot and killed by a forty-five-year-old software developer, Michael Dunn (white), when he fired into a car full of black teenagers in an argument over loud music at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. Dunn was convicted on October 1, 2014, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Michael Brown was an unarmed eighteen-year-old African-American who was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Rankine lets the blank page stand in for a joint elegy—though by any reading the cases are very different.*

When we march under one banner for different causes, when we gather many different cases under the title “Black Lives Matter,” for example, simplification is needed. Political movements require basic statements like these in order to gather disparate groups into one powerful bloc. But lyric poetry tends not to work like that. It chases particulars. Its symbols are not public ones. It aspires to compress without simplifying. Citizen dares to reject those tenets. It suggests that because white culture is prevailingly reductionist, seeing a black man and feeling fear, viewing blackness as one monolithic construct (Rankine refers to “the ‘all black people look the same’ moment”), the poetry that responds should likewise be unafraid to adopt those modes, to link and equate the deaths of different black men without regard to respective circumstances.

There is a (left-wing) view that even to discuss those circumstances is to attempt to obscure the nature of the wrong. In the sociological terminology relating to African-American studies, Rankine is a “structuralist,” emphasizing the influence of institutional racism above all else, while those who highlight the influence of self-perpetuating norms and behaviors are known as “culturalists”; we might say the popular singer Pharrell Williams showed himself to be a culturalist when he pointed to the “bully-ish” behavior of Michael Brown, referring to the CCTV footage of Brown robbing a store and assaulting the owner minutes before the confrontation with Officer Wilson. Williams was shouted down on social media and accused of “victim-blaming.”

Attempting to differentiate the political and poetical methodologies of Citizen feels similarly fraught, but where the book is complicit in abridging, as in the bare pages above, and where the poetry is replaced by a structuralist critique that simply names and equates, it can feel like the renunciation of a responsibility that Rankine elsewhere brilliantly articulates and assumes. She refers to Robert Lowell in Citizen, and one thinks of his view of poetic function: “We are poor passing facts,/warned by that to give/each figure in the photograph/his living name.”

But when Rankine’s voice connects—as in “Making Room” or “In Memory of Trayvon Martin”—her work is wonderfully capacious and innovative. In her riffs on the demotic, in her layering of incident, she finds a new way of writing about race in America. Although Marjorie Perloff praises Citizen by saying that “Rankine is never didactic: she merely presents…allowing you to draw your own conclusions,” the opposite is actually the case. Rankine’s series of anecdotes are geared to a purpose and theme: they are ethical formulations that are too honest and angry to be merely presentations; they’re intended as proofs.

  1. *

    This was the second edition of Citizen, which I was sent to review. The third edition adds two more names: Eric Garner, an African-American who died in July 2014 on Staten Island after Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold, and John Crawford, the twenty-two-year-old African-American who picked up an unpackaged BB gun in an Ohio Walmart and continued talking on the phone, standing by himself in an aisle before being gunned down by policemen.

    The CCTV footage makes it clear that no warning was issued to John Crawford, and in any event Ohio is an “open carry” state where carrying and displaying firearms is legal. Again, astonishingly, a grand jury declined to indict the police officers involved. The third edition of Citizen replaces the date and words “The Justice System” on page 135 with the haiku-like “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.”