Claudia Rankine's bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV-everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person's ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship.
I didn't mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn't mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that."
"I knew what ever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.
And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always fitting the description."
"because white men can't
police their imagination
black men are dying"
"Your friend is speaking to your neighbor when you arrive home. The four police cars are gone. Your neighbor has apologized to your friend and now is apologizing to you. Feeling somewhat responsible for the actions of your neighbor, you clumsily tell your friend that the next time he wants to talk on the phone he should just go in the backyard. He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."
Being black in America. Claudia Rankine brings that home in a way I haven't experienced before, in Citizen: An American Lyric. It's an amazing, heartbreaking book.
I feel that this is a composition that will require further investigation - actual study - in order to better comprehend a subject that is, by definition, not of me.
I struggle with poetry, and have recently decided to try to read more. So I found the form of the more poetic sections of this book difficult (how long did it take me to figure out the form of the Zidane World Cup section?).
But this is an important book. It does have a section that takes place in London, and then the Zidane section as well--neither "American", but clearly these issues are not simply American.
I would love to know if there was a specific design reasoning for using the large sans serif font. Does it mean strength? Or is it meant to be stark? Naked? Or maybe it means nothing? (This is me struggling with poetry.)
I’m on record as not reading poetry, but I know I’ve never read poetry like this. Rankine’s poetry is journalism, op-ed, and political commentary. It’s frank and accessible and genuinely artful. It’s consciousness-raising and gut-punching. It feels specifically timely and sadly timeless.
Citizen is, in short, affecting and important, and after this first reading, I’m left with two things: the need to read it again, and to tell you to read it for the first time.
I made a note of this quote on page 89 to give you an idea of just how powerful her words are:
Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and where we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.
A part of me feels like I shouldn't even review this book.
I don't need to. There are enough white opinions on pieces like Rankine's to last a thousand lifetimes.
But I want you to read it.
Claudia Rankine's book is activism and love and compassion at its best. This piece is organic, it flows like blood and sweat and tears flow. Rankine incorporates a variety of mediums, poetry, essays, photos, artwork and it feels cohesive and comprehensive. She tackles racial micro-aggressions in the most eloquent, the most simple way.
But I don't have to tell you that.
I want you to hear it from her, in her voice.
Her voice is powerful. It's a cry, a whisper, a shout, a scream, and all I can say is that I hear her. I feel that voice.
And I want you to feel it, too.
(P.S. I will say it's definitely worth buying a hard copy of this book because reading it on an e-reader doesn't give you the full view of the artworks, but that's just my personal opinion.)
“Because white men can't police their imagination black men are dying”
On being stopped by police: “You are not the guy. You are always the guy, because you fit the description and there is only one description. You are always the guy there is only one description.”
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
"Before it happened, it had happened and happened. As a black body in the States, your response was necessary if you were to hold on to the fiction that this was an event 'wrongfully ordinary,' therefore a snafu within the ordinary."
First five star read of the year.
Once I started reading it, I couldn't stop. I read it walking to work and when I absolutely had to put it down I walked around aching and hollow, eyes half-seeing for a while.
I googled a lot of things.
There is a lot of Serena in here, and as I was reading this, there was a lot of Serena in the news again because Serena is amazing and a lot of damn fools in the world cannot reconcile her amazingness and her blackness.
As amazing as the poems are about Trayvon, about Eric Garner, about Michael Brown, it is the poetry about casual racism, about microaggressions that slays. The exhaustion in them is palpable. The exhaustion of "Did that person really just say that?" "Do they know what they said?" "Did they mean that?" "Is this reasonable?" "Do I have the energy/standing/emotional fortitude to call them on it?"
Brutal. And very, very necessary.
In some ways, it's like swallowing a mouthful of ground glass. You know it hurts, and it's not going to hurt less as it passes through (nor should it). Not since I first saw the production on PBS of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf" have I been as moved as I am today.
It contains, among other things, a long story about a series of bad calls made against Serena Williams in 2004, 2009, and 2011, all apparently involving racial bias. She discusses friends who have crossed the line with her when they feel entitled to joke about racial matters (i.e. "nappy hair"), or those who have spoken with her on the phone, who express surprise to discover she's not white when they meet her in real life, and other indignities suffered merely because she is black, such as the store clerk asking her if she's sure her credit card will work.
She takes a series of quotes taken from CNN after Katrina, and presents them as a poem, which includes Barbara Bush's unforgettable comment, "And so many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working out well for them."
There is a prose poem/script in memory of Trayvon Martin which ends with the following:
"because white men can't
police their imagination
black people are dying."
This was like a scrapbook of various meditations on race. Many of the individual pieces were moving and unforgettable. However, overall, I found it sometimes disorganized, and some of the pieces did not engage me. (Some seemed to be intended to be presented visually, as in a video). Still, I could see that it is an important work.
For me, the only way to read the illustrations in "Citizen" as apposite to the text is to think of them generically, as art, and not to notice, or to forget, their different careers, symbolism, and narratives. A few pictures are from the media, like the one of Caroline Wozniacki pretending to be Serena Williams (p. 36), or Hennessy Youngman (p. 23). Those fit the narrative perfectly.
I wonder if a more careful selection of images, and more passages in the text meditating on the images and their meanings, might not have raised the stakes for the narrative itself, by adding a level of reflection about what visual materials best give voice to the texts' concerns.
This book made me squirm. When I open my mouth, are my good intentions misunderstood? Pure intentions! In this day of amazing numbers of black men being gunned down by police acceptable?
As we used to say about men sexually harassing women, is this OUR problem, that they can’t keep it zipped up? Ranking now points out that white [men/policemen] need to control their imaginations when confronting unarmed black men.
I said aloud while reading that, “my mental misanthropy is presently blooming.”
I stumbled upon this book this morning, fully unaware. It was digested in a futbol half.
Rankine describes incidents ranging from the slights that friends and acquaintances make without realizing they are making ("What did you just say?") to the blatant racist language and violent stereotyping we see all too often in the media. All are treated in vivid prose and accompanied by provocative artwork - a image of a street sign designating Jim Crow Lane; a tennis star who stuffed her tennis outfit with towels front and back to imitate Serena Williams. Included in this volume are scripts she has written to accompany "Situation" videos produced with her husband John Lucas, a documentary filmmaker. Some of these videos can be viewed in various places on the internet. (Search for Situation video). Despite our history and the strides made in race relations, she insists we must continue to make strong advances.
Very powerful meditation on what it means to be a black citizen in America today.