CLAUDIA RANKINE’S EXTRAORDINARY book of poetry, “Citizen. An American Lyric” is a prose/poetry meditation on the state of modern American race relations in seven chapters. There are traces of Robert Lowell’s confessional style…but in a form that’s an exciting structural rethink on the nature of poetry; essentially each ‘stanza’ is a series of short prose paragraphs… anecdotes or a train of thought of events that took place…or could have; and the poet/persona’s accompanying ‘explanations’. They’re anecdotes that offer a perspective on the all-encompassing insidiousness of (American…but also quite easily English) race relations. And they communicate not only how black people are perceived by the white society (where, at its extremes, you’re either invisible or a proto criminal) but how this perception shapes the black person’s sense of self and identity…the sense of anger, outrage and personal inadequacy.
Rankine (or the poet persona of the book) is light-skinned enough to ‘pass for white’. She’s a chameleon, a camouflaged spy in enemy territory. But these aren’t poems of protest; while they principally focus on the dark nature of living in an indifferent, often unconsciously racist society, their insights into how memory, the past and perception shape your response to the world are human in color, not just black or white.
Invisibility or overt bias are easy enough to identify.
In the first poem/chapter, she recalls her younger self in one Sister Evelyn’s class:
…and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean on the right during exams so she can copy what you have written…The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair…you never really speak except for the time…she tells you…you have features more like a white person. You assume… she feels better cheating from a white person”
We know the little girl in the seat behind (the poet can’t remember her name) is white from the description of her hair. And hair, is as much (more so?) a signifier of ethnicity as is skin color. This first visualization of the poet is via how she is perceived (features more like a white person). Neither of these two, presumably innocent, little kids make any effort to see beyond skin color. It’s as though from the get-go, black/white relationships have been poisoned. To the poet, her recognition as a person (not just a racial entity) is further compromised by the teacher, God’s representative, this Sister Evelyn:
Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there
Race as an unwanted cloak of invisibility!
In another poem, a man knocks over her son in the subway. He does not stop. It’s as though… [he] did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself. Or as she adds in another poem, …no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived” (President Obama will for a third of Americans always be perceived as some unwelcome African born interloper)
She quotes James Baldwin: Baldwin says skin color cannot be more important than the human being. Alas, not so in this lyric. So much for recognition…acknowledgement as a person.
Many of the stories she tells us are presented as distant memories, the poet having given herself the permission to … linger in a past stacked among your pillows
These are the multiple memories, multiple incidents, that shape her – one’s – public sense of self, her idea of how she is seen by her society. Perception is all.
She narrates one incident in which she has asked a friend to babysit her child while she’s out with another friend. Her neighbor calls in alarm. He’s watching…
a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy…seems disturbed”. He reassures her that the guy is not her friend who he’s met, “…that nice young man. Anyway he wants you to know, he’s called the police… you hear the sirens…
Even to a ‘friendly’ neighbor, to eyes that view the world through the lenses of race, you’re either invisible (probably all races are guilty of this…it’s the “all Chinese look alike” syndrome) or a potential menace (only white people view non-white people like this).
As the poems (and her thinking) evolve, she is more than invisible, which at least results in a kind if passive indifference. Rather she, the black person, is what she terms “hypervisible”…which makes the invisibility ‘your’ fault:
When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty- fifty chance of getting it right.
Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to “our mistake”. Apparently, your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion…
But, the poem shows, there is another, perhaps more pernicious layer of the racial perspective. It’s not the obvious one where the wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth.
Rather there is a layer of the racial perspective that shades into racism. It is often hidden behind walls of decorum, often unintended, and can slip suddenly, unbidden into sight. This may be racism at its most most hurtful, most revealing of its author who remains ever blissfully unaware that he or she is being racist:
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
A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus…she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something- she is not sure what they’re calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it? – her son wasn’t accepted…The exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive
The poet tries to rationalize and find a reasonable framework for these experiences; she quotes…
A friend who argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’… 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…arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths…And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant
These so effortlessly narrated anecdotes are all remembrances of things past. And therein lie their sting. That past stacked among your pillows carries its dangers. She speaks of her fears that all these little incidents become locked in and coded on a cellular level. For …The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow. These little incidents all add up. You cannot …learn to absorb the world…you can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you. The memories add up to an angst, an anger.
…the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.
The flash point of these quotidian struggles against dehumanizations are given full vent in a vituperative poem centered on Serena Williams:
Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world.”
The poem documents with almost legal precision the deliberate bad calls from multiple umpires; one of whom, Mariana Alves, had to be
…excused from officiating any more matches…after she made five bad calls against Serena” because “Serena’s black body…was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.
Yes, the poet concludes, …the body has a memory…The body is a threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.
Until all these bad calls, these coded expressions of the racist objection to this black woman in this white world, are unleashed into occasional vents of well-documented Serena fury. But the white world remains relentless in its refusal to comprehend the source of the anger. When, having learned how to contain or at least channel this anger, she won every match she played between the US Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament, the media suggests
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.
There’s a willful blindness to the way the white society, as if needing to shield itself from ‘anguish’ or guilt, responds to its own actions. In a poem about Mark Dugan, the innocent black youth gunned down by the police (and the catalyst for days of rioting that followed), Rankine observes:
As the rioting and looting continued, government officials labeled the violent outbreak “opportunism” and “sheer criminality”, and the media picked up this language. Whatever the reason for the riots, images of the looters’ continued rampage eventually displaced the fact that an unarmed man was shot to death
At the center point of the book, the voice changes. The easy flow of bitter anecdotes morphs into a more troubled, almost arrhythmic syntax (…because words hang in the air like pollen, the throat closes). It’s as if these memories, these years of encrusted slights, rejections, dismissals can no longer be contained in the shaping form of narrative. The poetry becomes more abstract, darker, as if pushing itself deeper into the poet’s consciousness. Here is a nocturnal encounter with the police:
In the darkened moment a body given blue light, a flashlight, enters with levity, with or without assumptions, with desire, the beating heart, disappointment, with desires –
Stand where you are.
The vignette suggests the synapse between the action (the police car with its blue light) and the emotional codification of the action (the beating heart, disappointment, with desires). The need to contain the emotion, as Serena occasionally fails to do, is almost mandatory. For these emotions are the carriers of memory…and not just the memories of yesterday’s slights…darker historical memories which have shaped the racial consciousness. The poem ends with a dark reverie
No, it’s a strange beach; each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads”
This is the memory of slavery, of the Atlantic crossing.
The second half of the book shifts from the itemisation of the mannered slights and dismissals to vignettes of physical violence. Centuries of aggression finally explode. A short poem that begins in a spirit of a Romantic idyll of a young boy walking in his school playground:
As he walked across grass still green from summer walking out of the rain a step beyond into a piece of sky all day for him in this moment a shelter as he sat beneath the overhanging branches of the “white tree”…
But the grass still green soon becomes
a darkening wave…a dawn sun punching through the blackness…” and the sheltering tree becomes a limb for a noose…” the rope looped around the overhanging branches of their tree.
The dawn sun turns into
a fist punching through the blackness…forming knuckles as they pummeled the body being kicked and beaten until knocked unconscious…
The violence so easily meted out is (like Mark Dugan) easily excused…
boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity…righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence…”
The invisibility with which the book began when you were either not seen or seen merely as a color, now takes a turn for the worst. The refusal to see beyond race is also a refusal to differentiate. Black is simply black.
She describes one of the many meaningless arrests…
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 the guy fitting the description”
The need is not simply to arrest, but to humiliate:
The charge the officer decided on was exhibition of speed. I was told, after the fingerprinting, to stand naked. I stood naked. It was only then I was instructed to dress, to leave, to walk all those miles back home
So where does this all end? These centuries of hurt, these needs that branch accommodation with anger? How does the scarred body of one race find benediction, if that is what it seeks, in the uncomprehending gaze of the other? The American lyric can only shift from its rhythm of blues to a song of joy through
…a share of all remembering… when …a measure of all memory is breath and to breathe you have to create a truce-
a truce with the patience of a stethoscope