Imagine playing with your friend as a kid. Seeing you out of the corner of her eye, she mistakenly calls you the name of her black housekeeper. The two of you never directly acknowledge this faux pas, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t remember it.
Imagine getting on the bus after a long day of work. You’re tired, it’s hot and you just want to sit down. Unfortunately for you, the only seat left is next to a man playing on his phone. A dozen new riders come on at the next stop, but they would all rather stand as well. No one wants to say why or how the seat is not filled, but it’s certainly not because of his skin color, right?
These stories of the little, passive moments when people of color are discriminated against are the blood and bones of Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric.” As a masterful collection of lyric poetry, essay, and mixed media, “Citizen” questions aspects of race relations and identities through an elaborate and haunting stint of truth-telling.
Rankine is a professor of poetry at Pomona College, so everything that can classically be recognized as “poetry” is what drew the first official waves of attention to this book.
Rankine uses the subjective form of lyric to bring a unique humanism to her work. From a certain perspective, poetry is too deeply personal to really speak to something as broad as race. From another, collections of stories from unnamed people are too broad to address issues that are so specific to the individual. The author finds a haunting middle ground in uniting the spectator and the actor in the scenario through the personal pronoun “you.”
“When you are alone and too tired to even turn on any of your devices,” Rankine writes as the first line of her book, “you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.”
This line is universal almost to the point of being generic; who doesn’t have a night when they’re too tired to consume anything? Yet just a few pages later, Rankine uses the grip she holds on “you” to touch at a more contentious issue: “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.”
The author’s academic experience made her writing on black athletes, specifically Serena Williams, equally captivating. Literature and media on how black male bodies are commodified in sports reporting is hardly new (remember, our city has embraced calling our star running back a “beast”). Rankine takes the unique angle of analyzing how the black female body is seen in a traditionally white patriarchal sport.
Meanwhile, the video scripts and photos fall to the wayside for the speed-readers, but are nonetheless incredibly important. The most famous at this point is an appropriated picture of a lynching with the black bodies removed. The focus of the image becomes the fascination of the white crowd gawking up from the bottom of the frame, forcing us to “redirect our gaze” toward the spectators instead of victims. Even though these acts are considerably less common now, the attitude of spectatorship carries forward.
So, why does this book matter? It’s almost a year old, a relatively short read and not even close to a light summer novel. Well, according to the results of Real Change’s Reader Survey, you are most likely white and educated. To put it bluntly in Rankine’s terms: “You,” dear reader, are the target audience. As progressive as Seattle and the Pacific Northwest may seem, systemic and societal biases and injustices lurk inches under the surface, even for you. Just because these are unconscious wounds does not mean they are not raw and bleeding, even in your enlightened life.
Rankine does not focus on the actions of events she writes about, nor dwell on them as spectacles to gape at. There are a thousand books that can be filled with the sensationalism of police shooting or concrete acts of violence, and a thousand more interested in the legal aftermath. “Citizen” isn’t just about gunshots or ruined communities, but about how people around you must react to keep living their lives despite the pain. “This is how you are a citizen,” writes Rankine in her final section, of a particularly embarrassing situation. “Come on. Let it go. Move on.” Neither an exposé nor a fix-all, “Citizen” is a show of solidarity and recognition.