This Wednesday, April 25, I will be co-facilitating a campus-wide discussion with Dr. Ching-In Chen (SHSU Department of English) on Claudia Rankine’s (2014) book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric. The College of Education and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sam Houston State University, with our partners from the Division of Student Affairs, have been offering a “Diversity Reading Series” on campus for the past four terms. We put in front of students, faculty, and staff texts that challenge us to engage in critical conversations around societal issues and that focus on justice and equity. We are committed to and unapologetically center voices of color, queer voices, and those from other societally marginalized social identities.
Here are some thoughts I have on Rankine’s superb, powerful, and deeply moving book.
Racism is making us sick. We ingest racism everywhere. There are passive remarks. Racial jokes. The slights, cuts, and ignorance of ‘friends’ whom we thought we knew, but who use coded language, overt language, or perhaps most disturbing: silence (the failure to disrupt clear or blatant racialized aggressions). There is the media. We try to turn it off. We can’t.
The poison of racism we ingest must come out of us in some way. Our bodies become sick. We vomit – either literally – or, word vomit. We live in a state of persistent disbelief. There is an oft-repeated set of questions in Rankine’s Citizen – the repetition reminding us of the power of disbelief [“the fiction of the facts” (p. 83] [“aestheticized distancing” (p. 85)] that we are still dealing with the poison of racism.
Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed? (p. 63).
Rankine is writing from the perspective of a Black woman. Yet, as I was reading the text, I had to keep thinking about my own positionality as a white man – what is this book saying to me, and how does my positionality influence my reading of the text?
Racism is not only ingested by people of color. In its most insidious forms, it is constantly ingested and expelled from the white body. One means by which Rankine performs this message is through the actual layout of the book. There is a lot of white space in the text. This is done purposely, and it sends a message to the reader. Whiteness permeates. It is all around us. Whiteness literally takes up space. The book is performative not only through words, but through design. Poetry is powerful in the ways it evokes these messages.
While Rankine clearly centers how racism poisons bodies of color, she also clearly unpacks how white bodies ingest racism and spew it back into the world. Racism poisons white people as well [“You take in things you don’t want all the time,” Rankine asserts (p. 55)]. We don’t want to ingest racism, but we do. There is no escape. And white bodies pretty regularly expel racism from our bodies into the ether of society. This is done through silence – when white people see, hear, or feel racism happening but say nothing [“Your friend refuses to carry what doesn’t belong to her” (p. 55)]. When white people appropriate the culture(s) of people of color. When we use language – coded or overt [“Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present” (p. 55)]. When we are physically violent toward people of color [“Was the pickup constructing or exploding whiteness out of you” (p. 94)].
Cultural Moments of Racism
Rankine juxtaposes this seeming disbelief about racism with explicit cultural examples of racism against Black bodies. It is to ask – how can you be in disbelief? It is so evident. Racism is our American Lyric: “Before it happened, it had happened and happened” (p. 116). In Section II, and particularly in Section VI of the text, she documents these happenings.
- Serena Williams (Section II).
- Hurricane Katrina: Rankine even incorporates a quote from the late Barbara Bush: “What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas” (p. 84).
- Rutgers Female Basketball Players
- Trayvon Martin
- James Craig Anderson
- Jena Six
- Stop and Frisk: “Because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description” (p. 109).
- The long form birth certificate (pp. 112-113).
- Mark Duggan. Juxtaposed with Rodney King. Did we export or import racism? Does it matter?
- The 2006 World Cup Final.
- Domestic Terrorism at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Racial Battle Fatigue and Microaggressions
As one reads this litany of happenings, we are also keenly aware of the
everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target people based solely on their marginalized group membership. (Sue, 2010, p. 3)
These are called microaggressions, and Rankine (2014) superbly litters examples throughout the book.
It so happens that I have just finished a series of lessons and dialogues with master’s students in one of my courses about microaggressions and racialized aggressions (Minikel-Lacocque, 2012). Some of Rankine’s examples of microaggressions come directly from the academic environment and higher education.
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. (p. 10)
Here, the implication of the microaggression is two-fold. First, that there are no great writers of color; and second that hiring people of color somehow diminishes or takes opportunities away from white people. This is followed a few pages later by another example:
A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the café you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because 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 are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it? – her son wasn’t accepted. (p. 13)
This book is a documenting of microaggressions and racialized aggressions across a lifespan. These assaults happen everywhere: in the subway; in Starbucks (p. 16) (there is no irony lost on me here that earlier this week 2 black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia); in commentary on your photographs (p. 46); through joking (p. 48); in real estate (p. 51). There is a pervasive feeling that your body is not wanted in spaces, or that you aren’t quite sure how to interpret people’s verbal and nonverbal language: “Can feelings be a hazard, a warning sign, a disturbance, distaste, the disgrace? Don’t feel like you are mistaken. It’s not that (Is it not that?) you are oversensitive or misunderstanding” (p. 152). When white people (and others) do not believe people of color and their experience, this too is a microaggression.
This returns us to the body – the poison, ache, and illness of racism. Racial battle fatigue is at least partially manifested in physical illness – exhaustion; depression; inability to sleep; lack of appetite (Fasching-Varner, Albert, Mitchell, & Allen, 2014; Sue, 2010; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009). These manifestations are present throughout the book. There is the ache – a consistent theme that comes up throughout the text. There is the loss of appetite: “Appetite won’t attach you to anything no matter how depleted you feel” (Rankine, 2014, p. 79). And thus, by invoking the physical illness of the body, Rankine is also making a commentary on racial battle fatigue throughout this text.
Art, Literature, Memory, Identity, and Subjectivity
There are many additional themes and ways to examine this text. This is a multimodal text, for example. There are visual images throughout; references to literature and art; and even mixed media, such as David Hammons’ Concerto in Black and Blue. So, to get the full breadth of the poetry, one must be immersed in the text. Sit with it and allow yourself to wander from the text to the outside references. Do not gloss over the invocations of James Baldwin, Homi Bhaba, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass. If you know not who these people are, then you are missing the important points Rankine is making about art, history, culture, bodies in space, race, and the persistent presentism of memory.
Compelling to me was also the theme of identity and subjectivity. This is particularly present in Section VII of the text. Here, Rankine plays with the tensions of who controls our identity and subjectivity. Are we an “I” without a “we?” Is there no “I” since our identities are constantly written upon our bodies by others? How do we write others? What happens when we escape the flood of the world to our own inner recesses? How does language play into all this? These are all questions taken up by Rankine’s poetry throughout the text.
Continue to Center the Lyric
Since racism is our American Lyric, we must continue to center it – and all of its manifestations. The text responds to the critics that might say things such as, ‘talking about racism only makes it worse.’ This attitude, present in many parts of society in the United States, is poetically articulated throughout the text: “Feel good. Feel better. Move forward. Let it go. Come on. Come on. Come on” (p. 66). This idea that people of color, or anyone who is oppressed in our society, should just ‘let it go’ is also part of the American Lyric: “This is how you are a citizen. Come on. Let it go. Move on” (p. 151). Rankine encourages us as readers not to let it go. To keep centering the injustice manifest historically, and presently, in our society. To see, hear, feel, and recognize how this ongoing lyric infiltrates our very humanity. Only through recognition can we begin the healing of our individual and collective social bodies that is clearly called for throughout the book.
If you are a Sam Houston State University student, faculty, or staff, join us on Wednesday, April 25 from 4:00 – 6:00 PM to discuss Citizen: An American Lyric.
Additional Reviews of Book
Fasching-Varner, K. J., Albert, K. A., Mitchell, R. W., & Allen, C. M. (2014). Racial battle fatigue in higher education: Exposing the myth of post-racial America. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.
Minikel-Lacocque, J. (2012). Racism, college, and the power of words: Racial microaggressions reconsidered. American Educational Research Journal, 50, 432-465.
Rankine, C. (2014). Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press.
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions, marginality, and oppression: An introduction. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact (pp. 3-24). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Yosso, T. J., Smith, W. A., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D. G. (2009). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659-690.