Feministing Reads: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

On the night of the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown and again the night after, marching the length of Manhattan with a few thousand others, trying and failing to find some place sufficient to accommodate our anger or our grief, our newly or long-broken hearts, our need to feel responsive or responded to, a line from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen floated on the surface of my full skull: “To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone.”

All who marched were angry or grieving, but of course those sensations did not feel the same to each of us; we were not all the same someone with the same full skull. We are not all Michael Brown, and to claim as much, to steamroll the necessary specificity of #BlackLivesMatter with the abashed “me too” of #AllLivesMatter, is to commit a further violence, to deny what Rankine describes as the singular experience of being “trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief—code for being black in America.” As a white protester, writer, citizen, I am indignant, saddened, even still occasionally disbelieving, but never subject to that particular violence, never that kind of trapped.

And marching again the following week, after another grand jury (this time in New York) failed to indict another police officer (this time Daniel Pantaleo) for the murder of another unarmed black man (this time Eric Garner), chanting “shame” at cops who answered with pepper spray, again I heard Rankine: “Call out to them. / I don’t see them. / Call out anyway.”

citizenRankine’s book calls out to each of us in this moment, this country, this nightmare; I’ve read and reread it since it published in October, relied on it as model, motive, consolation. Citizen is a book-length poem that takes as its subject the daily experience of racism in and on the bodies of black people. It’s subtitled An American Lyric, and American here must mean fractured, undone, exhausted beyond the pretenses of lyric form: Most of the poem consists of prose paragraphs written in a floating second person, punctuated by the artwork of Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Wangechi Mutu, and others. “Tried rhyme, tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried,” Rankine writes, as if describing her own poetic practice. If this sounds difficult to read, it isn’t; besides a few visionary interludes, her style is unnervingly direct.

The volume was finished before the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and so does not touch on them. But Rankine has visited Ferguson in the previous months and is already engaged in the difficult work of processing Brown’s death through language. She recently told Guernica that standing at Brown’s memorial in Ferguson made her think of Antigone, in which the eponymous heroine defies a royal edict forbidding the burial of her dead brother: “And so that’s what I’m working on—a rewriting of Antigone, as a way of discussing what it means to decide to engage. The dead body’s in the street. What do you do now?”

Citizen is full of such moments of forced reaction and engagement, its scenes often culminating in defensive postures, instinctual responses, or rehearsed disbelief: “She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what?” Underwriting the more spectacular instances of racism taken up by national news outlets is a daily stream of microaggressions and casual confrontations, the “quotidian struggles against dehumanization” that beset black life in America.

The bulk of Rankine’s book reads as a compendium of such encounters: A trauma therapist yells at a first-time patient for trespassing because it does not occur to her that black people might need counseling; a cashier doubts that a black customer’s credit card will work; a man remarks that “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” These intimate dramas turn on the decision to bother or not bother, to mount a defense or ignore the provocation. (“Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.”)

Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, and Hurricane Katrina are all treated powerfully in Citizen, but Rankine’s foregrounding of the more persistent noise of everyday racism is itself a protest against the demand placed on black artists to perform familiar forms of “commodified anger.” Public anger is “sellable,” writes Rankine, whereas “anger built up through experience… in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.”

Rankine’s focus on embodiment, too, is a kind of protest: “your own weight insists / you are here, fighting off / the weight of nonexistence.” In so doing she resists the white supremacist denial that black bodies are as vulnerable and real as white ones—“the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer”—as well as the simultaneous burdens of invisibility and hyper-visibility born by black women, about which black feminists and womanists have testified for decades.

After watching a woman refuse to sit next to a black man on the train, Rankine’s you feels compelled to fill the space: “You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.” Black women (trans* and cis) are themselves underrepresented victims of state violence, and they have put their bodies on the front lines of recent actions in Ferguson and across the country. “Women often attempt to embody an archive or to be it,” Saidiya Hartman has noted. “They are willing to make the body a vehicle; courage and recklessness are required to be a host of history.”

Throughout Citizen, history manifests as memory—as something wild the skull must hold. In a brilliant passage on Serena Williams and the racist slights that have plagued her throughout her career, Rankine confirms, “Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.” She cannot leave it courtside; her black rage is unruly, not the kind that sells. “Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.”

Most reviewers have commented on the fact that Citizen is written predominantly in this second person, and in interviews Rankine has stated her intention to court the reader’s presumption about the identities of the individuals involved, to force readers to reckon with their own relationship to the text: “Who was talking about whom? Where do you stand relative to the information that’s being communicated?” Her you is also a deeply moving attempt to confront and counter erasure. “A body in the world drowns in it— // Hey you—” she writes, summoning the drowning body back out of the waters. Rankine’s you acknowledges and preserves as often as it obscures; it is a way of recognizing her protagonists as their white interlocutors will not, a way of taking black selves seriously as subjects that demand and deserve address.

One of the scenes to which I return most often was written in memory of Mark Duggan, a black British father and husband whose 2011 murder by police sparked unrest that reminds Rankine of the Rodney King riots and reminds me of the ongoing demonstrations in Ferguson: “Before it happened, it had happened and happened.” Speaking to an English novelist about the riots, Rankine’s you forces an accounting for which the novelist is unprepared: “Will you write about Duggan? the man wants to know. Why don’t you? you ask. Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.”

As Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo walk free, none of us can feign unpreparedness or assume that some other you will respond on our behalf. The hinge of that question mark—“Why don’t you? you ask”—is the challenge Citizen poses, its invitation and demand: “The opening, between you and you, occupied, zoned for an encounter, / given the histories of you and you— / And always, who is this you?”

“Why don’t you? you ask.” These last few weeks I’ve been asking it of myself; I’m working on a better answer than that irritated “Me?” Citizen is both an imperative and an opportunity to hazard an answer, to wrestle with your you, to position yourself—myself, ourselves—and to bridge the question mark, to be both questioned and questioner. “No one is free,” she writes. Call out anyway. Try and try.


New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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