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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Summary of Work
This work is a series of letters to his son about what it is like to be black in America and how his son, Samori, should strive to live his life in order to both survive and be aware of the world around him, and yet at the same time have joy in his life and take the opportunities that he can. He begins his work by telling his son that race is an invention that is not new, but just continually rehashed with each new country and nation. It used to be Jews and Germans and Irish and English, etc, that would discriminate against each other; now, in America, it is “black and white,” with many of the previous groups mentioned being eventually combined into a class of white, even though they had not previously been branded as such. And it is this myth of whiteness that allowed for slavery and exploitation of black bodies. Coates is very concerned that his son know that the struggle they are dealing with is much more than racism: it is the struggle for black embodiment and empowerment. Racism is a cover term for the destruction of black bodies, progress, and livelihood.

He remembers back to his time as a child growing up in West Baltimore, feeling trapped because he had to go to school but saw no purpose to it and at the same time had to live the laws of the streets for survival and yet had no desire for the violence that went on in the streets. His father would punish him regularly with the idea that it is better that he beat him than the police, and he didn’t understand what it was about until he grew up and had a son of his own. In his desire to get out of the system, he went to college at Howard, where he spent most of his time in the library reading in the stacks and the archives. His father worked as a librarian and archivalist there, so he had always been happy to read and get knowledge from books. His parents never gave him easy answers but always referred him to books. He became very fond of Malcolm X’s writings and ideologies, and sought to have those ideas reinforced and verified as fact from history books. But he found so many different perspectives, and his history teachers gave him so much information, that he had to dispel the illusions that he had built for himself. He says he is very grateful for those historian professors who taught him the issues with grandiose ideologies. For white people, he says that the ideology is the American Dream, and the Dreamers blur faces and forget trespasses and injustices against black people in order to maintain that dream, and they continue to commit crimes against blacks in order to keep the dream.

He learned a lot at Howard, which he calls The Mecca, and met many people there. It was a haven for him where he could see what his people and his culture could be and do. He met his wife on the Howard Campus, but he could not stay long enough to graduate, feeling restrained by the courses he had to take and not caring for the things he could graduate in. He started writing, which was the one thing he really liked. When they moved to New York City, they struggled. He was not making money as a writer, and she got a job and was nearly sole support. Their son was a toddler at the time. He recalls the layout of the city both structurally and racially, and discusses how when they went to a movie on the Upper West Side one day, his four year old son got pushed by a white woman, and he turned around and yelled at her, and other white men came to her defense and told him that they’d have him arrested. He got even angrier. He explains to his son that this moment is a moment of shame for him because he forgot the code of the streets and where he was. He should have been able to call out her behavior and move on, he thought.

He also takes a lot of time to discuss police brutality, shootings, and judicial injustice to his son, who was very upset after hearing the verdict in the Michael Brown case. he talks about Prince Jones, who he knew at Howard, getting shot by the PG policeman in Virginia. He describes his feelings of anger, because Prince was an upstanding citizen, with a fiancee and a daughter on the way; he was a very intelligent man, a prodigy, who valued experience over things; he had it all, and had seemingly beat the system of the ghettos and projects, and yet his life was still taken from him. Coates started writing about the injustice of the police system after that, full of anger. He offers no real relief or respite for his son about these injustices, but tells him that they have always happened, and will continue to happen, without consequences for those who commit the crimes. He talks about how Prince’s killer was put back on the streets to patrol without even a trial. He talks about Prince’s mother’s amazingly strong and calm reaction to the whole affair, even as she grieved for the loss of her son. Toward the end of the book, he describes sitting down with Dr. Jones and learning of her story of success, becoming a doctor and then the chief of radiology and being able to offer her son and daughter everything she didn’t have growing up. To talk about Prince comforts her, but at the same time, the pain never goes away.

Coates reflects on these shootings and injustices and how they are dealt with within the community. He says he knows that he is somewhat disconnected from them because they can speak of forgiveness and turning to God, but he does not believe in their God, but instead believes that this life is all we have. He tells his son that perhaps he could have taught him more if he did believe, but that he cannot offer that comfort.

His wife’s life had been very different than his growing up, and she had been afforded opportunities to travel when he hadn’t, among other opportunities. She lived in a more well off area in a more well off home. He never understood his wife’s need to travel, thinking back to his French class days and thinking that France was as far away as Jupiter. But his wife went to Paris and came back with stories and photos, and he went by himself later on and got to see a new world, one that was not underpinned by the same superficially-created racial divides of black and white. And yet he also noticed that there is simply a different system of oppression in place: France, like every other European country, was built upon colonizing and oppressing other groups of people. Being aware of that, he thinks, is important so that they don’t lose perspective on how systems of oppression function. He also goes back for a time with his whole family to explore France, and further comes to this conclusion.

He tells his son to live his life, to enjoy it and live it fully, and to fight for the struggle to equality, but to not fight it in hopes that the Dreamers will convert their thinking and ways and come down from their mountain. He says that also to think that gods or ancestors will come and reap revenge and justice upon the Dreamers’ heads is also unrealistic. Instead, he says, Dreamers will always keep exploiting black people, but with technological improvements, they are also exploiting the Earth, which is no respecter of persons. The Dreamers, he says, will eventually destroy themselves.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme of this work is the exploration of what black embodiment means, and Coates does this through an exploration of his own experience with life and watching people engage with the oppressive superstructures forced upon them. Understanding what it means to be racially embodied versus simply a human being is the main message that Coates brings to his son and to all that read the book: there are different rules and codes imposed upon those with darker skin, and even if the rules are followed, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good life free of violence and terror. And yet there are still spaces that allow for black communities to share in joy and the power of owning their own bodies, of living as a community and an individual.

There are two spaces outside of the Mecca of Howard University that he describes this happening: religion and dance. Religion offers comfort in a higher being and in the spirit, a relationship he doesn’t understand but can appreciate in the community it brings to people who are feeling broken and are oppressed. For dance, he describes it saying that he “would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies could do anything, and their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice on the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies . . . . But in the clubs, under the influence of two-for-one rum and Cokes, under the spell of low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot” (62). Movement, then, becomes a form of joy and communal engagement and solidarity; it is unique in its function for the community and the individual, as it affirms control over the body in a way that is not possible outside of the shared communal space.

This book also contains photographs periodically throughout the book: of Coates, of his wife, of his son, of the doors in France his wife describes to him, and more. It is worth considering how the photographs enhance the narrative. Is their purpose merely personal, to show his son? Or are they meant to emphasize important messages contained in the text about black embodiment and black bodies?

 

Brief Note on Dissertation Uses
For purposes of my dissertation, this book is going to be very useful in helping me to understand how the power of dance is a way to assert control over one’s own body and to be embodied in a communal space. In literature, then, dance could be discussed in terms of embodiment and communal and public messages of personhood. I have seen this discussed in lectures before in context of blues: it was one of the only ways black people, during enslavement and after, could assert control over their bodies and their lives, not dictated to by white people.