Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s story begins his narrative in a basement space full of lights listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” He tells of his invisibility and how he is just now learning about how to deal with invisibility in his life, and goes on to tell his story from his college days to the present. At the end of high school, he writes a prize-winning essay, and is rewarded with a scholarship if he reads the paper to the powerful businessmen in town. However, instead of getting to read his paper, he is directed with other black boys to the front of a stage in front of a naked dancing woman, and after being humiliated in that manner, forced to strip down and fight blindfolded in a boxing ring at the front of the room. He ends up fighting one on one with one of the boys, and he loses. Afterward, in order to get paid, they have to pick up money, which turns out to not even be real money, off of an electric rug. After all of that, the narrator gets to give his speech, and with one minor slipup in wording about equality (at this time he is so bloodied up that it is hard for him to speak), he is given a briefcase and a scholarship.

While at an unnamed college that heavily resembles Tuskegee Institute, he aspires to be a great figure in the black academic community. He is assigned to drive Mr. Norton, one of the major donors to the college, to the college for meetings, but when he is talking to Mr. Norton, they drive past a poor black family. Upon hearing a little bit about them, Mr. Norton asks for him to stop so he can talk to the man. He leaves upset and ghostly pale and sickly, asking for a drink to help him. In a panic, the narrator takes him the only place he knows that he can get liquor: the Golden Day. It is in a poor side of town, and all the patients from the mental hospital are there. The bartender won’t let him take liquor out to Mr. Norton, so he has to bring him in. This makes the situation worse, and a patient who claims to be a doctor ends up helping Mr. Norton recover enough to get to the college. The incident infuriates the head of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, and after the evening meeting where a blind man gives a rousing speech about the Founder of the college (who is much like Booker T. Washington), the narrator has to go to Bledsoe’s office, and Bledsoe expels him but tells him he will give him letters of recommendation so he may get a job in the North and potentially be able to come back to the college the next year.

He heads to the New York City and tries to get a job using the letters, but is thwarted because the letters contain slander about him that disables him from betting a job. One of the powerful businessmen’s sons informs the narrator about it and offers him advice on employment, which the narrator initially rejects but then checks out. He attempts to work at a paint company, where he first mixes paint and screws up the job, and then gets sent down to the piping system to help there. The job seems to be going well but then goes South when his boss mistakenly thinks he has gone to a union meeting and they get in a fight, causing them to forget about the pipe pressure, which causes an explosion. The narrator is placed in a hospital, where the doctors perform electrical medical experiments on him and he forgets his name and who he is. When he gets out, he wanders the streets of Harlem until a woman named Mary takes him in. He struggles to find a job, but she doesn’t kick him out for not paying rent.

One day when he is walking the streets, he comes across an eviction and becomes involved in stopping the eviction as he stands up on the stairs of the apartment complex and gives a speech to the people outside watching. They overpower the policemen and the evictors and put all the things back into the house, but more policemen come and someone directs him to the rooftop to get away safely. Very soon after, he is approached by Brother Jack to join the Brotherhood and make speeches to get the masses to move against the unjust working and housing conditions in the city. At first skeptical, he is moved to accept the job when he sees Mary and realizes just how poor she is in her situation and how much she has done for him. He is initiated into the Brotherhood and given a new name and home, and he doesn’t have the gumption to say goodbye to Mary, so he simply leaves her money. At this time he also accidentally breaks a money bank (black man eating coins), and he takes it with him as to hide that from Mary as well.

The work with the Brotherhood initially goes well, but he works his way up in the system and the community so fast that Brother Jack and the white members of the group are upset and worried. The Brotherhood brings up false charges against him when a magazine article comes out that turns out to be more about him than the Brotherhood, and then he is reassigned to “The Woman Question.” He is upset, but chooses to do this rather than lose his employment. A rich, married white woman approaches him and talks him into coming to her house to talk more about the Brotherhood, but she actually wants sex. He is nearly caught with her one night, but he realizes the husband doesn’t care what she is doing. Later on, he is assigned once again to Harlem because Ras the Destroyer, the local agitator in the area, is gaining a fast following while the Brotherhood is losing theirs, and Brother Clifton has gone missing.

Nothing that the narrator does to regain Brotherhood support is working, and the black members of the Brotherhood are largely MIA. He spots Clifton on the streets one day selling Sambo dolls, and as he tries to chase him down, he watches as Clifton gets in a fight with police and gets shot. Devastated, he takes Clifton’s body and hosts a funeral for Clifton that everyone can go to, and he makes a moving speech. The Brotherhood are furious, as the speech and memorial are contrary to their plans for the area. It becomes apparent to the narrator that the Brotherhood are not actually out to help black people and black neighborhoods, but to exploit them and their voices when it is useful, but he decides to try “yessing them to death” and trying to be perfect and say whatever it is that the Brotherhood wants to hear to protect his job. He goes to Brother Hambro for training. However, on his way to Hambro, Ras the Destroyer sees him and is after him, and so he must disguise himself in a zoot suit to hide. Everyone mistakes him for Rinehart, the local preacher, rounder, and illegal businessman, and he realizes further his own invisibility and the dual nature of people in his community.

After he gives reports to the Brotherhood that are complete lies but what they want to hear, he decides to go use the wife of one of the Brotherhood members to get ahead. But it turns out that when he gets there, she actually wants him to do a sexual role play where he rapes her. He gets her drunk enough that she passes out and can’t remember that it never happened, and then he tells her he did as she asked even though he didn’t. When he leaves, she follows him out, and she follows him to Harlem, which is in the middle of an all-out race riot. He gets caught in the fray and helps to burn down an apartment building, and afterward thinks of Mary and tries to find her. In his rush he falls down into a manhole, and he gets blocked in as some men cover it. He burns all of his documents so that he can find a way down the tunnel, and ends up in the coal cellar that he stays in, and where he is telling his story from.

Brief Note on Themes
Invisibility as a black person and what that means is the overarching theme of the narrative. Invisibility means being treated poorly, being denied opportunity, being outright discriminated against, and finding that no matter how hard a person works, they will never be able to rise above their circumstances. The theme of invisibility, therefore, intertwines with institutionalized racism and economic issues as well as issues of justice and segregation. If it’s a black political issue, it’s probably in Invisible Man. Music and sound are other themes, and ones that relate to my dissertation. Blues and jazz music are found in both the language and the plot, as are black vernacular dances: eagle rock, slow drag, dances done with knocking bones—those are the ones I can find so far. The music and dances are also often utilized in ways that either act as a freeing agent or a stereotyping agent. Since the book deals with the issues of stereotyping and limited ideological viewpoints and beliefs quite heavily, looking at those topics through music and sound can be a good entry point to discuss ways to comment on ideology and stereotypes.

Questions

  1. The narrator in Invisible Man states that he “discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well” (9). How do we derive meaning from things that aren’t uttered? How do we derive those meanings out of textual sounds?
  2. How are the sounds of cultural history made pejorative through racism in this work? And can that cultural history of music and dance be reappropriated? If so, how? Do we see that happening anywhere within Invisible Man?
  3. How do we describe the sounds of protest, and are those sounds racialized? Does white protest in America take on a different set of sounds than black protest in America, or only different results and consequences?

C.D. Wright, One Big Self

Wright, C.D. One Big Self. Copper Canyon P., 2007.

Summary of Work
C.D. Wright’s “One Big Self” explores the lives of people in three different prisons in Louisiana. Wright suggests that when we look at all the prisons in America—and the prison population, which is the largest in the world—we are looking in a mirror at America’s values and legacy. What makes up the prison population outside of the numbers and the listed crime or law broken? Invited by her colleague and friend to go to learn about the inmates while her friend is taking pictures of the prison inmates for a larger project, Wright sets out to learn about the inmates and their lives, both before prison, during their crimes and trials, and life in prison. She also contemplates what prisons do to the environments and communities they inhabit. She shows that these inmates are more than just numbers, they are people who have dealt with many difficult circumstances: poverty, difficult family situations, poor education and no job opportunities available, relationship woes, and more.

One of the main things I noticed highlighted was the difference in experience for men and women in prison. There was a large focus on women in context of their children, children they have before they go to prison, children they have while in prison, and what happens to their relationships with their children; there is even a poem describing the process of getting ready for an Easter party with the children in the main area of the prison. With the men, the focus is much more on their experiences in prison or getting to prison rather than on families. When children are mentioned, it is in context of the ages that they meet and where the children end up, usually in prison like their fathers.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The overarching theme of the work is incarceration; how does the American prison system function? Who are the people in the system? Since the makeup of the majority of the population is black males and black people overall, what does that say about who we incarcerate or crime? How does the prison system affect the communities in which they are built? How does it save or ruin city economies? What are the reasons people invest in such systems, especially private prison systems, and how does having prison on the stock market change the system as people view it, use it, and strive for its expansion and continuation? Wright’s work largely reflects upon what it means to look at people solely for their crimes when they are much more than that, and what that says about the American justice and incarceration system.

 

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
Written in a free form, the work is a mix of what would seem like prose, followed by poetry that utilizes caesura, line breaks, and plenty of white space to cue readers to changes in scene, narrator, situation, and discussion. The structure takes a minimalist attitude, where the situations are given in pieces rather than as one continuous narrative. The breaks in narrative and the mix of prisoners names, only ever briefly mentioned, give a sense of “everyman” for the prisoners, rendering both their invisibility and individuality clear to the reader. Certain phrases or poetic repetitive structures, such as the “Count the . . .” poems which are brought back within other poems, work to remind readers of the controlling situation in which the prisoners live.