John Pistelli

writer

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Citizen: An American LyricCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Citizen is a prose-poetry compendium of racial microaggressions aimed at a poetic speaker who nevertheless speaks in the second person, and who fills the middle of her book with museum pieces on the macroaggressions of police brutality (and behind them lynching and slavery) that are there to demonstrate what is at the other end of the continuum whose “lower” limit is the thoughtless remark and the offensive joke. Rooting taste, perception, and opinion in the automatic movements of the body in response to the identity the social structure forces upon it in the most intimate of addresses, Citizen reveals intimate address to have been ideology all along and bodily response to be truer than argument. Citizen is a book of its time, your time: materialist reductionism and sociological determinism are its twin claims, not unreasonably. To invoke reason raises questions, though. Because critique must come from somewhere, you have always found deterministic and reductionist ways of criticizing the world to instance a performative contradiction. Call the writers of the past naive, label them idealists, accuse them of mystification, but they were being scrupulous when they launched their salvoes against the world’s brutality from the imagination or from faith or from reason: the body can’t criticize, material does not know. Rankine, reduced to a body, reduces you to a body in turn. (Implicitly in the name, it should be said, of justice—the same reason another didactic poet populated hell with his enemies.) Your critique of her book is foreclosed by its critique of you.

Write about something else. A decade ago, you were teaching a composition class; the students were barely younger than you were. The most memorable paper, because of its social acuity and vital prose and (let’s face it) startling thesis, was written by an African-American female first-year student. It opened like an anecdote in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: in her retail workplace, a white woman had referred to her as “Shaniqua over there.” For two pages, the paper reads as you, with all sympathy, expect it to read: as a protest against the reductionism of stereotype, of white ignorance and casual brutality. Then on the third page, the student quotes liberally, or illiberally, from Bill Cosby’s “pound cake” speech. The remainder of the essay was a polemic against the black underclass and its cultural foibles for confusing whites as to the just hierarchies of class and status in the black community. The reason I should not be confused with Shaniqua, you are given to understand, is because I am better than Shaniqua. It is easier to deplore this position than to simply admit that you understand it, were educated into a version of it, watched your own family split itself along these faults to become “American” and “middle class” and ultimately even “white,” and in fact read something similar between the lines in one of the very readings you assigned for the class (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass). (In fact, around the same time you were teaching the class a future Oscar-winner was writing a similar philippic in much stronger language.) It was a very well-written paper, the best of the bunch, and you’ve remembered it for ten years, which is more than you can say for certain prize-winning novels or movies of the period; there could be no question of giving it less than an A. But did you write a caution in your terminal note, a gentle, genial warning that such views will have to be put with muffling circumspection in academe if they are to be welcomed (overtly) at all, despite their being the whole of the hidden curriculum? It was a long time ago; you don’t remember.

You remember the paper now because of the second anecdote in Citizen, which strikes you as, to be honest, less honest than the student essay:

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged the slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be your fatal flaw—your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?

Rankine leaves off the third question that even the unworldliest reader will be asking: “Or are you so wounded because your friend, who shares your class, has just compared you to the help, who does not share your class?” Maybe it’s because you prefer novels to poems, maybe it’s because you have been reading Morrison and Roth and especially Larsen, who are absolutely ruthless in seeking out intractable and self-implicating questions about race and class and gender rather than playing pronoun games that have facile victories. Citizen is an art-world book, a theory-world book, a “theoretical fiction” and a “conceptual artwork” in genre more even than it is, as it is labelled, a lyric. It quotes Blanchot and Butler, past masters of vatic sanctimony. Rankine also quotes Zora Neale Hurston via an art installation by Glenn Ligon:

Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.

Neither Rankine nor Ligon give the rest of the passage, nor do they seem alive to its possibilities (which are, you grant, not yours to enumerate), nor are they evidently troubled by the fact that it occurs in an essay-manifesto as different in tone and meaning from Citizen as one can imagine:

I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.

For instance at Barnard. “Beside the waters of the Hudson” I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea. I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.

Is this appropriation ethical? Is it not, in its way, “cultural”? Why put oneself in the business of reducing and traducing Zora Neale Hurston, not that she would care or think one could? You will win no friends by asking, but does this book need to be as black and white as what it resists, to be so single-minded in its drive to “transform the words into abstractions”?

Citizen‘s staggering success could be described cynically—to wit, as the hip white’s second favorite literary apotropaion against accusations of the structural racism you perpetuate merely by walking your street in your body, your awareness of the “justice” of—yet the simultaneous (you think) impossibility of—your own liquidation as a race/class the badge of your enlightenment, because after all a structural conflict by its nature ends, as the poet said, “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (This is what Anis Shivani, quoted a post ago, implies in his brief Marxist critique of Rankine, with which you could agree if you did not worry so much about Marxism’s seemingly endemic propensity to murder the poets: “to accept the body as it is is much less difficult than to address and alter the body politic—which really means political economy, social and class arrangements, the interpretation and dissemination of a history where everyone is a victim.”) Anyway, you could describe the success of Citizen humanely as well. The conflict it stages is explicable, the emotions legible. You/me/me/you. Black/white/white/black. Even the implications of the pronoun technique are in line with sentimental reformism rather than any theory of revolution: the labor of empathy necessary to see “me” in “you” and “you” in “me.” At one point, Citizen quotes James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” Yet it ends with Rankine’s recounting a final slight in the tennis court parking lot:

Did you win? he asks.

It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.

Lessons are never truly open-ended, but for reasons of pedagogical form the teacher may pretend that they are to enhance the students’ sense of having undertaken a journey. Even so, the teacher always had the destination in mind. Yes, yes, Rankine might agree with you, that is what I’m saying about the woman in the tennis court parking lot, about the lesson she taught. You nod but hesitate. It’s not your place to say this, you know, so you sweat, you blush—perhaps, if you were not a bit swarthy. But you ask anyway: Did you really want to become her? You want us, maybe, at least for the first draft, to go back to being first-year students, writing what we actually think, however monstrous, instead of what we are supposed to think, when we are, say, in museums and classrooms, because then and only then is there a possibility of rectification. Attempting to school you, Rankine, with the politesse of any good teacher or curator, seems to say less than she means or wants or, most especially, can.

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