Citizen: An American Lyric
by Claudia Rankine,
Graywolf Press, 2014,
169 pages, paper,
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It is the late 1970s. Our family has recently moved to a four-bedroom home amidst the tree-lined community of Palmer Woods on the outskirts of Detroit, where doctors, lawyers, and college professors of color have resided for many decades. My father, a college instructor and real estate broker, uncharacteristically wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt, is seated on a bench facing the backyard gardens, smoking a pipe. Three middle-aged white men, who work for the company he has hired to repair the leaky lawn sprinkler system we inherited, are surveying the landscape. After they have made their assessments, one of the men walks up to my father, clears his throat and asks: “Could you find Mr. Donaldson and tell him we’re ready to give him our estimate?”
This is the kind of racially-charged verbal slight that Claudia Rankine, who was born in Jamaica, an island of varied nationalities, explores in her recent poetry /prose collection, Citizen: An American Lyric. The book is the first to be nominated for two categories for the National Book Critics Circle Award, poetry and criticism. Rankine’s literary style is indeed diverse and boundless, weaving poetry, essay, dialogue, visuals, as she creatively documents the psychic damage to people of color caused by daily life insults, unconscious or intentional, uttered by white people. Through her words, we learn how words, spoken in the classroom, in the supermarket, on television and the radio, and in corporate settings, define a person from outside the color of their skin.
“Poetry allows us into the realm of feeling and it’s one place where you can say, ‘I feel bad,’” says Rankine, who is the author of four previous books, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a professor at Pomona College. She elaborates:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the
tongue. . . . Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in
your friendship would call you by the name of her black
housekeeper? You assume you two were the only black people
in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this but she never
acknowledges this slippage. And you never called her on it
(why not?) and yet you don’t forget. . . . Do you feel hurt
because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or
because you are being confused with another after being so
close to the other?
Rankine’s writing about such painfully visceral situations is often beautifully fluid. Though primarily focused on racism against African-Americans, it is possible for, say, women, gays, the disabled and the aged to visualize themselves in similar scenarios. “These tales of everyday life . . . expose what is really there: a racism so guarded and carefully masked to make it all the more insidious,” wrote poetry scholar Marjorie Perloff of Citizen. Rankine describes ominously ordinary moments in her academic’s life:
You are in the dark, in the car watching the black tarred street
being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him
hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out
there. . . .
Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are
reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical
term John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses
stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death
trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. . . . You hope by
sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
This poem in its entirety takes us well beyond a simple awkward moment. These are experiences unique to black people and occur largely because of their skin color. It tells us that a racial divide persists in American culture regardless of how close relationships may be. Rankine also alludes to the psychological confusion and frustration created in the minds of the recipients by these seemingly thoughtless words and actions. She speaks of the accumulative stresses that bear on a person’s ability to speak out, perform, and maintain emotional health.
The media does their ample share of perpetrating color divisiveness. The acute insensitivity and obliviousness of many whites is illustrated in her essay about tennis players Serena Williams and the late Arthur Ashe, when sports commentators praised Williams for “growing up” and Ashe for being “dignified and courageous,” when they rose above the blatantly racist onslaughts they had encountered. The implication is that being angry about racism is somehow immature and ungracious, and that the best way to confront injustice is to do so without emotion, and certainly without making a scene that embarrasses white people.
The title Citizen: An American Lyric is not accidental. “Our addressability is tied to the state of belonging, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship,” Rankine argues. Her book is a muscular confirmation of the effects of racism on both the individual and our collective society in a so-called post-racial country, and yet it still exudes optimism for a better world. The cover itself, a 1993 piece of artwork by David Hammons, depicts a hooded sweatshirt reminiscent of the “hoodies” that became an iconic protest symbol of the Trayvon Martin killing. A black and white photograph of a suburban sub-division with the street sign “Jim Crow Road,” taken by Michael David Murphy, speaks volumes.
Though making sense of racism is not the goal of this collection, it does give us warnings signs about the danger of merely accepting racism as a given in American culture, to the extent of passively doing nothing to change destructive mindsets. “If that rude shopper finds himself in a position of power — i.e. on a jury, organizing Katrina evacuations, or if you arm that fear and call it policing — then you’re going to get these explosive events,” Rankine asserted in a recent PRI radio interview.
Her book of meditations on racially charged encounters reminds us of countless current events, including when politicians and other public figures have made outrageously offensive statements about people of color and, instead of acknowledging the tragic
history, as well as their own culpability behind their affronts, they
either dismiss the action or merely apologize for upsetting a perceived over-sensitive, politically-correct group of individuals who can’t take a joke.
When my father was confronted by the lawn sprinkler man, he turned and walked into the house, then later returned dressed more formally to go to his real estate office. “I understand you’re looking for Mr. Donaldson. I’m Mr. Donaldson,” he said. The expressions on those three faces made a perfect tableau of a wake-up call. Because of my father’s forbearance and sense of humor, those men would continue to work for him over the years. Together, they bridged an ethnic chasm. Citizen: An American Lyric is a collection of extraordinary social commentary that helps us see our lives more clearly through the suffering we both inflict and allow, thereby making it possible to see a path toward reform.
— Leigh Donaldson