Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Full Disclosure: This is my first encounter with Rankine’s work. For anyone new to the site, I am a middle class white fella, and I will do my best to recognise how that impacts my reading of Rankine’s work.

Review: Okay, straight out of the traps, cuz I want to get this out of the way, this is poetry. It is a bunch of words arranged with painstaking precision. There have been any number of successful poetry books in these islands that use prose extensively or even exclusively (see Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars), and focusing on the form too easily elides the vitally important messages Citizen delivers.

The book is a collection of stories, essays and traditional lyric poems that (in part) attempt to expose and explain the harm caused by structural and microaggressive racial violence; its recurring use of the pronoun ‘you’ is partly an attempt to circumvent whatever defence mechanisms we might have against the idea we might be complicit in racial oppression. The social mores that enable the situations narrated in Citizen are so basic, so much a part of the wallpaper of daily life as to be near-invisible; as Holly Bass notes in her review, “this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit. What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others”. The bare facts of Rankine’s readership demographics are of no small importance: of the top ten hits on google search for ‘claudia rankine citizen review’, for instance, eight reviewers are white; three of the top four are white men working for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and Slate. A relevant question might be, talented though these critics are, why these authoritative sites decided that white writers were best positioned to discuss this particular work. If your response is ‘they just picked the best writers available’, you should read Citizen. ‘The best writers’ is not a politically neutral category.

Seeing as the autocorrect on this word doc doesn’t recognise ‘microaggression’, here’s a brief definition. Racism and other oppressions do not maintain their social dominance solely by overt, conscious acts of bigotry. Microaggressions generally happen below the level of awareness of members of the dominant culture (cf Hilary Clinton’s speech identifying the ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens in America who fear black men in hoodies; when our own Prime Minister decides that our Muslim friends, family and peers do not deserve to live in peace, how does that impact the way our own ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens think about each other?).

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In the US and the UK alike, the dominant culture means middle/upper class white people, like myself, and if I know poetry culture round these parts, very likely yourself too. And it doesn’t take much research (though Fiona Moore’s studies are extremely relevant here) to see that poetry in these islands have a serious problem acknowledging and supporting work by black and minority ethnic poets. The message runs: white people have won prizes and are taught on the curriculum, thus are culturally central, thus constitute the category ‘good poetry’, thus white people make the prize lists [ed – the Forward Prize has done sterling work in this regard as of late]. White people are the default and will be met with little/no critical objection; BAME poets are other, their presence requires justification. If they write in a way that does not fit within the existing poetic norm, they are very easily ignored, filed away in pre-made and ill-fitting categories that diminish their intellectual work; note how much easier it is for academic white poets to pick apart these aesthetic prejudices. I truly don’t imagine, however, that these decisions are made deliberately (that would be relatively easy to deal with); they seem to uncritically follow the kind of social imperatives that (at one extreme) make us call human beings seeking refuge from international warfare ‘swarms of immigrants’. It takes a huge and conscious effort to identify and expunge ourselves of the reflex prejudices our culture wants to imprint on us; note, for example, the way the term ‘identity politics’ has been appropriated as a means of dismissing the very discussion of those complex and fraught relations.

If the above shows anything, it’s how time- and energy-consuming it is to get around to talking about a book that questions and rejects basic social norms. In an interview with Radio Open Source in Boston (which is seriously worth listening to), Rankine describes the process of accumulating these stories from friends and colleagues, that the book’s early sections – the short, sharp, confounding accounts of language becoming violence – are a kind of communal witnessing or testimony. They are also, as Rankine explains, a means of talking back, addressing what in hindsight seems a blatant act of ignorance and/or violence, but in the moment is simply too unbelievable to address or even process: the phrases ‘What did you say?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ return and return in Citizen. The first act of resistance is believing that these things did, in fact, happen exactly as they appeared to, and part of the book’s challenge to white readers is to see ourselves in these interactions, at the very least to see how these interactions benefit or favour us by making us more comfortable, more firmly situated as trustworthy, welcome, central and normal. Whether or not we are the university employee complaining about how affirmative action meant her son didn’t get into the right prestigious school, or the man who ‘tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’, as white people we still benefit from these underlying messages and the normalised white supremacy that makes them acceptable. We need only stand by and watch to gain from them.

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In this regard Rankine’s voice is key to how the book expresses itself, and why listening to her read is so informative. Her voice remains flat, calm, reserving all possible energy for a rehearsal of what is, in actuality, one in a series of exhausting reminders of what her body means to a society hostile to its presence. Sections IV and V are dedicated to the poet’s management of her mental health brought about by a daily engagement with the kind of violence detailed earlier in the book. These later passages are difficult reading, elaborating on the impossibility of anything like safe mental space when ‘Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that.’ Perfectly logical emotional processes, like anger at having one’s individuality erased, are precluded by the world’s need to avoid addressing uncomfortable truths: ‘You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice.’

The sequence comes after an extended exploration of the career of Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a black woman. Rankine opens with a discussion of Jayson Musson’s (aka Hennessy Youngman) YouTube video encouraging black artists to commodify their anger, in a way that Rankine identifies as ‘tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations’. Musson’s ideal black anger that creates marketable personae and sells music does not make room for Williams’ real, unpalatable and ostensibly inappropriate anger, which ‘in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness’. Rankine aligns Williams’ story with Zora Neale Hurston’s line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”: that background includes the tennis venues Indian Wells and Wimbledon (aka the All England Lawn Tennis Club), and a professional sport that cannot or will not acknowledge its complicity in violence against an individual who refuses to bend or apologise for her brilliance. During Williams’ unbeaten run in 2012, Rankine describes the new narrative shaped by tennis’ commentariat: ‘She has grown up […] as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others’. Citizen makes it clear that no amount of success, achievement or contribution to the body politic can, under the existing cultural system, secure that individual love, respect or peace of mind.

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The essay also illuminates the extreme care and precision that characterises the book’s own use of language. Each sentence moves slowly, treads purposefully – there is little relaxation, little of the personability or openness that typifies lyric poets like Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. Rankine seems prepared for her ideas to be minutely scrutinised, intuits that only the most rigorously exercised thoughts will stand a chance of being heard. And hypothetical anger – dynamic, animating anger that for most lyric poets is a central weapon – will only be pigeon-holed with Williams’, labelled as ‘crazy’ (for a high-profile example, cf Taylor Swift lashing out at Nicki Minaj’s valid criticism of the music industry, and how swiftly that industry moved to frame Minaj as the aggressor). That Rankine creates both absolute clarity and valuable complexity is an incredible achievement, and deserves to be recognised as such. She is a writer of almost peerless skill, and in a better world this review would be free to discuss her talent with subtle organising metaphor, details that seem perfectly incidental until it emerges that they underpinned the entire endeavour. That she has proven the lyric form capacious enough to hold some of the most complex thinking on racial inequality I’ve ever read is worth celebrating on its own. For what that’s worth; lest we forget what countless awards and achievements have done for Williams’ emotional wellbeing.

Returning to her Open Source interview, Citizen is a book about the intimacy of racial violence, about how the body can be made into the locus of racial hatred, how that process becomes gradually corrosive in the most personal ways, and how resistance to these acts will be wilfully misinterpreted. The short sequence on Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi, after the latter called him a ‘Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger’, quietly but joyously reframes the episode: ‘The rebuttal assumes an original form’. Zidane, a brilliant and articulate athlete hitting back against a career’s worth of diminishment and abuse (‘what he said “touched the deepest part of me”’), was still unable to control the subsequent narrative which, like Williams, refused to contextualise his actions. Rankine’s book is a reminder that Materazzi, like the line judges at the US Open, like the employees at the university or commuters on the train or drivers in the car park, all act in the interest of maintaining white supremacy, from which people like myself benefit every day. As Rankine asks an English colleague regarding the death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots in London, ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?’ This is an important book, and hopefully the catalyst for a long and difficult discussion.

Tl;dr: Citizen is an astonishing work, an accusation and a call to action. Read it over and over.

Further reading:
Claudia Rankine’s Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry
Holly Bass in the New York Times
Nick Laird in the New York Review of Books
Interview with Rankine on Open Source
Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker
Shaelyn Smith in The Rumpus

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