JANUARY 6, 2016
On Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric
A Symposium, Part I
PUBLISHED a little more than a year ago, in October 2014, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric remains a timely, even urgent meditation on race, violence, racism, art, and mediation. In a moment when police brutality and killings of African Americans have spurred widespread anger, protest, and debate, and when the world of poetry has been focused on issues of race and privilege, from Rankine and Tony Hoagland’s 2011 exchange at the AWP conference to more recent controversies around Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, Citizen must be read as both a poetic work and a political work, a meditation on activist struggles and literary aesthetics.
The book received the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the 2015 PEN Open Book Award. It was also named a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and was cited as a major achievement when Rankine received Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize. At a moment when we have become accustomed to hearing from figures like Jonathan Franzen that experimental or “difficult” literature is no longer relevant, and that poetry, especially, is almost doomed to reach a small, coterie audience, Citizen’s wide success is impressive.
On the one-year anniversary of Citizen’s publication, I organized a roundtable at ASAP/7 (the seventh annual Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present conference) in Greenville, South Carolina. This roundtable was populated with scholars from a variety of disciplines and areas of expertise, including a poet and scholar of 20th-century American poetry, a historian of photography and visual culture, a prominent scholar in African-American Studies and American Studies, a leading critic of African-American literature, a scholar of 19th-century American literature, citizenship, and ethnicity, and a scholar of the human/animal interface and visual representations of radicalism. Since Citizen had been in print for a year, we all felt that the time was right to reflect on the book — its politics, its aesthetics, its notoriety, its complexity. The essays in this two-part symposium, which develop talks delivered at the roundtable, take seriously (and in taking seriously sometimes contest) Rankine’s poetic and political achievement.
This first installment of the symposium features essays by Evie Shockley, Maria A. Windell, and Roderick A. Ferguson. The second installment will feature essays by Catherine Zuromskis, Kenneth W. Warren, and Lisa Uddin.
Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s “American Lyric”
IT IS SO OUT OF THE ORDINARY for a work of poetry — as opposed to a Great American Novel, breakout television show, or chart-busting CD — to be the artistic representation of the American zeitgeist that many readers of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen seem barely able to think of the book within that genre. It’s not like poetry, said the students in my Black Poetry course last semester. It’s not (just) poetry, asserted the judges of the National Book Critics Circle Awards’s “Criticism” category, in which Citizen was a finalist in 2014. Reviews of Citizen tend to call its components “essays,” “lyric essays,” “prose narratives,” “stories,” and “prose representations” significantly more often than “poems” — even “prose poems” — even when the volume as a whole is referred to as “poetry.” This ambivalence in the book’s reception is perhaps best captured in a reference to it, by poet Ruth Ellen Kocher, as “the poem, […] the language that is perhaps poem or not poem.” No sooner does Kocher deem Citizen a poem than she walks the designation back, leaving Rankine’s work stranded — for better or worse — in genre indeterminacy.
Kocher’s noncommittal terminology, however, is not merely a pivot for moving into a consideration of the volume’s “content”; rather, she uses it to signal what she feels is the urgency of “ask[ing] about the role of form and invention, within a discourse of the body, of identity, maybe even of the self and Other.” By contrast, while the various labels I culled from Citizen’s reviews also gesture toward form and genre, they do so in ways that ultimately set aside formal concerns. That is, they draw attention to the book’s unconventionality as poetry largely to signal its accessibility as prose.
What do we do with the fact that the qualities that mark Citizen as “experimental” poetry are precisely the qualities that make it inviting, despite its disturbing subject matter, to a generally poetry-phobic public? By the same token, what makes this poem’s presentation of white supremacist ideology — as manifested in racist speech and behaviors (and internalized racism, too) — so much clearer, more shocking, or more unavoidable, even in the eyes of poetry’s devotees, than the legions of poems that black poets have composed in this vein during the century of the color line and in the decade and a half of this new century? Of course, the contemporary social climate figures in. Hitting bookstores last fall, within the five-month period that saw Staten Island’s Eric Garner, Ferguson’s Michael Brown, and Cleveland’s Tamir Rice all killed at the hands of the police, Citizen entered a national conversation already politicized by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the formation of Black Lives Matter a year earlier. Given this context, we might say that a poetry book becomes a New York Times bestseller by appearing on the nonfiction list. What my Black Poetry students responded powerfully to in Citizen, in comparison to the many other works we studied together last semester, was an unmediated access to a recognizable truth. And though more sophisticated readers understand both “unmediated” and “truth” as contested terms, easily dismantled, the book’s reception seems fundamentally linked to its perceived transparency — as exemplified in this headline from an Ontario, Canada newspaper: “‘Citizen’ — Claudia Rankine’s Poetry Opens Window into Race.”
This headline’s articulation is especially telling when juxtaposed to the way Marjorie Perloff has characterized Language poetry’s influential legacy: as the “principle” that “poetic language is not a window, a transparent glass to be seen through in pursuit of the ‘real’ objects outside it but a system of signs with its own semiological relationships.” In his illuminating study Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, Anthony Reed’s analysis of Rankine’s two previous books, PLOT and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, connects her work to this legacy, showing how this work is grounded in “exposing and undomesticating the underlying assumptions of being and knowledge on which the fiction of the lyric’s expressive subject relies, including its singularity.” Deeming this mode of writing “postlyric,” he proposes that “Rankine voices the silenced, nonmonumental, ordinary experiences that fall below the threshold of the universal,” and that “their fragmented particularity makes it difficult to admit the degree to which they may speak for ‘everyone’ rather than those constitutively excluded from that universal experience.”
But even as Citizen must be read in light of these earlier works, it is also the case that Citizen pushes us to reconsider Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, with which it shares the subtitle “An American Lyric.” Erica Hunt sees Citizen as participating with Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in an in-progress “poetic project,” which “seems to be about the reinvention of lyric poetry, if by lyric poetry we mean song linked to the expression of internal states.” Whether we think of Citizen as “post-” or “neo-” lyric, finally, may be less important than taking stock of how thoroughly Rankine has upended the genre. With her “lyric-You,” she achieves a full-throated polyvocality — in the sense that Mae Henderson theorizes the term — that thrusts every reader into the position of speaker and addressee simultaneously.
You are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood of Santa Monica. This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho. What did you say? you ask, though you have heard every word.
The racial positioning of the two figures in this passage is at once clear and unspoken. African-American readers, invited to identify with this “You,” largely find ourselves slipping into a role all too familiar. By offering us the opportunity to read ourselves into this text as the second-person speaker and addressee of the slur, Citizen serves as witness to some of our most isolating moments and tends to affirm the subjective experience of many among us. Non-black people of color and members of ethnic minorities may be less predictable in their identifications. For example, a white-appearing student with a Latino surname spoke up in our class discussion of the poem that serves as a “script” for the “Situation video” entitled “Stop and Frisk.” Pointing to the number of times (at least eight) that she, as the owner of a vehicle with (legally) tinted windows, has been pulled over by the police, my student explained that, once she rolls her window down, they wave her along every time. She understands that, unlike Sandra Bland, she is not the “guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”
Most white readers, however, hailed by the text as a “You” who is being called a “nappy-headed ho” by a friend, will face quite a different psychic situation. In principle, a white reader must now either identify as a black you and, along with the speaker, refuse to “know what she [the friend] means” or reject the invitation of the lyric-You and remain white-identified (that is, identify with the “friend”) and be “perhaps physically” incapable of answering the speaker’s question: “What did you say?” Either identification brings this reader to recognize the “violent” nature of the language. Where Reed argues that the artificiality of “postlyric” writing in Rankine’s earlier works tends to refuse representation of “authentic” racialized experience, to short-circuit the kind of easy appropriation that often comes with white consumption of black cultural production, Rankine here seems to offer representational writing and to invite — almost demand — white cross-racial identification. What results may be less a challenge to the coherence of the lyric speaker than to the coherence of many readers. Rankine’s relational lyric-You may challenge us, as well, to retheorize the lyric genre.
Citizenship in Citizen
CLAUDIA RANKINE’S CITIZEN offers a searing critique of racism, taking on both the shocking violence of hate crimes and police killings and the micro-aggressions that pervade daily life. The poems show how these micro-aggressions form an unacknowledged norm: a hate that is in fact heritage, to rephrase arguments over the Confederate flag. Even as it writes that hatred, however, Citizen renders the history of US racial violence in a black/white binary. Much of Citizen’s power comes from its emphatic focus on black experience, but that focus also limits the book’s potential ability to spark a broader discussion of race and citizenship in the US today.
Citizen powerfully marks the incomplete nature of black citizenship through a well-known lynching photograph. The image depicts whites milling under a tree at night, one man’s arm pointing toward the branches at a space of, in this black-and-white photograph, blackness. The bodies were not always missing from this photograph; the citation notes, “Image alteration with permission.” By removing the lynched bodies, Citizen reframes the politics of (the) exposure by refusing to allow violence or the gaze to define the black body — literally rendering it invisible — and focusing on the perpetrators. In this Citizen follows Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings series (2000–2015), which digitally removes lynched bodies to make visible not only lynchings of African Americans but also an erased history of lynchings of Latinos, American Indians, and Chinese.
The lynching photograph is part of Citizen’s recurrent history of racism against African Americans, as is a poem about the Zinedine Zidane World Cup head-butt. The piece consists of a series of quotations including canonical moments from African-American literature. Attention to cultural difference fades throughout the poem (see, for instance, the progression of quotations from Frantz Fanon), while the piece turns on Marco Materazzi’s insult of Zidane, “Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger.” Rankine uses Materazzi’s third term to incorporate Zidane into a history of black masculinity, but in doing so leaves aside how “terrorist” and the n-word are linked after 9/11 — the militarization of the police, for instance, grows out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a situation video whose script is not included in Citizen, the camera follows a young black man as a voice declares, “If you see something, say something.” The phrase is, of course, an institutionalized demand to surveil Arab men in the US. In emphasizing the hypervisibility of the black man’s body, Rankine properly insists on the long history of surveilling African-American men. Yet she does not interrogate how post-9/11 policies targeting Arab men have reshaped the surveillance of African-American men.
Rankine has critiqued Kara Walker’s A Subtlety for “its refusal to contextualize or educate beyond what can be seen. If you can’t or won’t do the math,” she says, “then the space must hold your reactions too.” Citizen, however, resists contextualizing beyond the black/white binary dominant within the US. Nick Laird argues this is because the volume “suggests that because white culture is prevailingly reductionist […] the poetry that responds should likewise be unafraid to adopt those modes.” By adopting this approach, though, Citizen resists the question of how US (American, as the book says) citizenship more broadly structures black experience. What makes Citizen such an effective title for the book is the term’s re-contextualization to African-American experience: for many readers it is a Latina/o framework that signals “citizen” as a fraught term and makes “citizenship” visible as a contested category. Citizen, however, does not cite this re-contextualization.
It is not that the book needs to be more inclusive, especially given how effectively it captures the feeling of being profiled. But Citizen has been taken as a broad statement about racial experience in the United States, “a general view of the country and race.” To cite the blurbs on the back cover, Citizen’s “genius … resides in the capacity to make so many different versions of American life proper to itself” (emphasis added). Or take NPR’s declaration: “this powerful collection is the perfect book to appreciate the racial dynamics at play today.” Even less expansive reviews rarely move beyond the book’s black/white emphasis. Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and some of her interviews certainly push these boundaries, as does The Racial Imaginary, which she co-edited. Citizen, though, generally does not — which makes it worth asking why this book has gained such a wide audience. In its relentlessness, Citizen does indeed “com[e] at you like doom,” as Hilton Als’s blurb states: “Its various realities […] are almost too much to bear, but you bear them, because it’s the truth.” Unfortunately, this truth has been taken as “the truth” in many reviews of the book.
Much of Citizen’s power comes from its intimacy: each event it recounts has likely happened. The book’s success lies in its ability to make “one body […] feel the injustice wheeled at another.” As a reader, I find this strategy compelling. As a Latina reader, however, I recognize but do not quite fit within Citizen’s binary racial landscape. As a scholar of transamerican studies and ethnic US literatures, I deeply appreciate how the book renders visible the incomplete nature of black citizenship. My concern is that Citizen’s hyperfocus risks obscuring the complex history of the nation’s category of citizen.
On Citizen: Ethics and Method
IN THE SPRING OF THIS YEAR, Claudia Rankine read from her work at the University of Illinois at Chicago where I teach. In addition to her work, one of the things that impressed was a refrain that, according to her, she uses a lot when people ask her about race and racism: “I don’t know.” There’s something intellectually productive here, in the way that for her the absence of knowledge compels the poetic inquiry around racial formations, an absence out of which a desirous and critical knowledge is born. She is, in many ways, the artist as critical amateur rather the confirmed professional of the establishment. Discussing this difference, Edward Said argued in Representations of the Intellectual,
The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies.
If we were to locate Rankine’s agenda within the sphere of African-American letters, we might turn to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 essay “The Negro Writer and His Roots: Toward a New Romanticism.” In it, she states,
I energetically suffer the view that, more than anything else, the compelling obligation of the Negro writer, as writer and citizen of life, is participation in the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere. […] No more than can the Negro people afford to imagine themselves removed from the most pressing world issues of our time — war and peace, colonialism, capitalism v. socialism — can I believe that the Negro writer imagines that he will be exempt from the artistic examination of questions which plagued the intellect and spirit of man.
Similarly, we have with Citizen a text that pressures us as readers and as writers to determine what it means to be in the world and in life.
In his 1948 text What Is Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote,
We may conclude that the writer has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the object which has been thus laid bare. […] Similarly, the function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it’s all about.
We see this aspect of literature in Citizen as Rankine writes, “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,” or “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.” Part of the brilliance of the work is that it manages to invoke in spare and supple language the cringing ugliness of racism as it is expressed across institutions and intimacies, using the second person pronoun “you” to unmask your embedded-ness and implication in racial discourse. This is, of course, not the universalist or deracinated world that Sartre invokes but a racialized world characterized by micro-aggressions and structural devastations.
Within Sartre’s comments about what writers do with their objects — clarifying them, complicating them, constructing them — is also an assumption about methodology. In this instance, the writer — in her method — uses the object to mediate a relationship between the reader and the social world, using language to coax the reader to engage that world, to see the blind spots, to hear the inaudible. In this maneuver, the writer attempts to produce the conditions by which the reader can become a witness not simply to the internal properties of the text but to the social world that locates the text, the writer, and the reader.
Notice here for instance:
Your friend is speaking to your neighbor when you arrive home. The four police cars are gone. Your neighbor has apologized to your friend and is now apologizing to you. Feeling somewhat responsible for the actions of your neighbor, you clumsily tell your friend that the next time he wants to talk on the phone he should just go in the backyard. He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course.