Divided into seven parts, comprising assorted written forms (prose poem, essay, quotations, free verse) and visual imagery, the book investigates, to quote the National Book Award judges' citation, "the ways in which racism pervades daily American social and cultural life, rendering certain of its citizens politically invisible. Rankine's formally inventive book challenges our notion that citizenship is only a legal designation that the state determines by expanding that definition to include a larger understanding of civic belonging and identity, built out of cross-racial empathy, communal responsibility, and a deeply shared commitment to equality."
The idea that citizenship involves empathy, responsibility, and a "deeply shared commitment to equality," it seems to me, is being seriously challenged both by recent events and by Rankine's own words. Indeed, she demonstrates, over and over—in an essay about Serena Williams, in short "Scripts" that blend text and image to create a kind of revisionist remix of major media coverage of racialized incidents (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, the Jena Six, stop-and-frisk), in internal monologues, in lyric prose poems that reference an unspecified "you"—the aggressions, whether overt or unconscious, that black Americans must daily endure.
"The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. . . . Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?"
In section II, an essay about Serena Williams, she speaks of "the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. . . . You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this . . . kind of anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived."
Many times in the book, she talks about seeing/being seen. Also about memory; and about sighing, breathing: "The sigh is the pathway to breath; it allows breathing. That's just self-preserva- tion. No one fabricates that. You sit down, you sigh. You stand up, you sigh. The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache. You wouldn’t call it an illness; still it is not the iteration of a free being. What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?"
Powerful, poetic, emotional, astute, wrenching. It is a book I will certainly read again. After only one reading, I feel washed with impressions, but still far from true understanding.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
61 Books: #61
61. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) (11/30/16)