‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine

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By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2015

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium, a slender, musical book that arrives with the force of a thunderclap. It’s a sequel of sorts to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), sharing its subtitle (An American Lyric) and ambidextrous approach: Both books combine poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, words and images. But where Lonely was jangly and capacious, an effort to pin down the mood of a particular moment—the paranoia of post-9/11 America and the racial targeting of black and brown men in those years—Citizen’s project is more oblique, more mysterious.

For the book is, first of all, a surprisingly seductive object. Its pages are slick and pearly, and the full-color images—paintings, TV screenshots, photographs—give it the feel of a gallery catalogue, which, in a way, it is. Citizen guides us from spectacle to spectacle, from a consideration of Serena Williams’s career and the racist taunting she has endured to a beautifully reproduced photograph of Kate Clark’s Little Girl, a sculpture of a hoofed woman; from an elegy for Trayvon Martin to Carrie Mae Weems’s Blue Black Boy, in which three identical blue-hued prints of a boy are presented side by side, one labeled BLUE, one BLACK, one BOY. And in the book’s most powerful passages, Rankine reports from the site of her own body, detailing the racist comments she’s been subjected to, the “jokes,” the judgments. It’s what we commonly call microaggressions, what Rankine calls “invisible racism” for how swift and sneaky it is, how ever-present. It is the word uppity. It is the word strident; it’s “No, where are you really from?” It’s stop-and-frisk. It’s what Hilton Als calls “phantasmagorical genocide,” what Kara Walker calls the “perpetual reminder that in this culture a Black body is not safe and my humanity is not real.” It is death by a thousand cuts.

Increasing attention has been paid to microaggressions in recent years. There have been books like Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? (2011); social-media campaigns like “I, Too, Am Harvard,” in which students discuss comments that have made them feel marginalized on campus; even BuzzFeed lists (“21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis”). And there’s “Killing Rage,” a classic of the genre: bell hooks’s 1995 essay about the array of racism she encountered on a trip to New York, a scalding piece of writing that begins with the indelible “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” Rankine works in a cooler register. She renders her encounters in language rinsed of color, cant, and emotion. Her descriptions could be courtroom testimony: “The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you.” “You have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” “The woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer.”

It’s the framing that gives the vignettes their teeth: By telling us these stories, some of which she borrowed from family and friends, in the second person, Rankine builds her book on shifting sands—the reader is never immediately sure who in the story is black or white, whom to identify with, whom to trust or fear.

That indeterminacy, that unsettling openness in the text, recalls the paranoia racism evokes (“Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?”), and it’s an unusual feature of writing about race. From Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 memoir to James Baldwin’s essays to Teju Cole’s rereading of Baldwin’s essays, the dominant mode has been pedagogic, messianic: the writer trying to persuade white America of her humanity, trying to save its soul.

But Rankine keeps a different faith. In her work can be felt the opposing strains of wanting, and wanting badly, for her writing to serve some practical purpose (“I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness,” she writes in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely) as well as something more anarchic. When she quotes the filmmaker Claire Denis—“I don’t want to be a nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an observer”—it isn’t critically. Rankine is profoundly interested in witnessing how power and pain move through the body and the body politic—but without prescription. She doesn’t declaim. She rarely consoles. Instead she creates a space for readers to engage with their own preconceptions, fears, and hostilities. It’s the visual artists she seems most in conversation with, those who approach race at a slant—Weems as well as Kehinde Wiley and Yasumasa Morimura—with their reliance on repetition and juxtaposition, their ability to bring the viewer into the work. The plainness of Rankine’s prose, the deliberate flatness of her second-person set pieces, recalls Kara Walker’s silhouettes, those panoramic nightmares of plantation life mounted on bare white walls, on which the viewer’s shadow also falls. So do we enter Citizen. We are invited, we are implicated.

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Carrie Mae Weems, Blue Black Boy, 1987, toned gelatin silver prints with text on mat, 17 × 49″.

We are also disoriented. Rankine scatters elliptical, enigmatic images and poems throughout. Take Clark’s sculpture Little Girl, a beguiling creature with the body of a deer and the face of a wary woman. Along her face, something glints, like tears or jewelry. They are tiny nails drilled into the skin. She appears to be the victim of some enchantment, one of those women from myth punished for spurning the gods. She huddles low on the page, puzzled and puzzling—until we read on and the riddle seems to reveal itself.

Racist language is, after all, itself a kind of enchantment, a kind of spell. And Rankine stages her encounters so we can see, almost in slow motion, how it enters and lodges itself in the body, and what havoc it causes. There is first the shock (“Did I hear what I think I heard?”), the somatic response (“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs”). The taste it leaves behind (“a bad egg in your mouth”), that feeling of being marked, befouled (“puke runs down your blouse”). And confusion, even self-blame: “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. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.”

Rankine reminds us that racism is an intimate violence—its perpetrators are not just institutions or strangers who deny our humanity but friends, colleagues. It is language that renders one “hypervisible,” she writes, quoting the philosopher Judith Butler. The body is made a public place, subject to scorn, suspicion, regulation. Continue reading

Writers and the Women They Worship

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times April 17, 2013

These three delightfully deranging books offer alternatives to your staid biographies. They’re a bit dangerous, a bit rude — free from the tyranny of good taste. The authors, first-rate obsessives, riff on the women who’ve consumed them — bearing out Frank Bidart’s line, “What you love is your fate,” with mischief, feeling and a rare frankness. That’s the thing about obsession. It can’t be faked.

17jackie-articleInlineWayne Koestenbaum has written frequently and fondly about his favorite heroines, but there’s a Wildean clip and glimmer that distinguishes “Jackie Under My Skin” (1995), his take on Jackie Kennedy. “Writing about Jackie, I enter a terrain of embarrassment, error, excess. When I speak about Jackie, who do I become? A weirdo? A stalker? A fan?” He concedes that “the quest for self-realization via Jackie contemplation isn’t a standard male route,” but when he thinks about her, he’s at his “most collective and communal.”

Mr. Koestenbaum zeroes in on his subject with an unhinged intensity, Humbert Humbert fresh from a course on semiotics. “I am so hermetically contained by the perimeters of Jackie contemplation that I can only point to Jackie, and interpret her, from within the circle of terms that originate with her,” he writes.

Everything she touched becomes swollen with significance. Her laddered stockings. Her pink maternity shift. He practically swoons when he notices “the faint blond hair along her arm” in a photo. He mines the many meanings of her unpolished fingernails, her eyebrows that never looked “effortfully plucked,” her slimness. We feel his shiver of pleasure at Jackie’s memo to her staff requesting the curtain braid in the Blue Room be turned lest it be further sunburned.

And who else could shake out such a wealth of interpretations from Jackie’s shellacked bouffant? “From the hairdo we learn that she is composed and contained; like an armadillo or a turtle, she carries built-in protection,” he writes. “Her hairdos remind me of the bubbletop over the presidential convertible — the bubbletop that should have been lowered in Dallas.”

As a young man in the 1970s, the novelist David Plante had a talent for ingratiating himself with famous older women. “Difficult Women” (1983), his account of squiring around Sonia Orwell (wife of George), Jean Rhys and Germaine Greer, makes for fascinating if squeamish reading. Scenes of an elderly Rhys falling drunkenly into a toilet and getting stuck, or Ms. Greer accidentally flashing the author, are so uncharitable they make Truman Capote’s “Answered Prayers” look like hagiography. But there’s tenderness here, too. Mr. Plante is frank about what drew him to these women — their fame excited him, yes — but it was their misery that he fed on. “I was in love with the unhappiness in her, and yet reassured that, no matter what I did, what I felt it my duty to do, to lessen that unhappiness, I couldn’t,” he writes of Orwell. “I had been drawn to her darkness because she, who commanded a place in the world, was justified in her darkness, and justified mine.”

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