Cyrus Cassells

Issue #
February 28, 2015

Notes of a Native Daughter

My mother Isabel, a very light-skinned African American, once told me of a lunch stand she happily frequented as a 50s-era teenager in her North Carolina Piedmont town. She went there so frequently that the benevolent owners became akin to “second parents.” One day, she motioned to some students from her high school to join her at the stand, only to become horrified by the proprietors’ blunt refusal to serve her dark-skinned friends. In a dizzying instant, her beloved mentors had been unmasked as bigots, and my mother was caught in a terrible bind: she felt shaken that she had unwittingly trapped and humiliated her friends; she realized the lunch stand owners had always assumed she was white. Conveying this brusque and bruising incident half a century later, my mother could still feel the sting, and tears came to her eyes. It’s just this sort of long-cached pain that is at the core of Claudia Rankine’s remarkable new book, Citizen: An American Lyric, which was a recent finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a book I feel that I’ve been waiting for all my life—one that ably depicts bigotry’s subterranean toll on black and brown Americans.

Given the theater of excessive force we’ve been witnessing in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine a more timely or needed volume than Rankine’s in terms of its prowess in addressing the insidious nature of racist behavior and acts that don’t leave “visible damage.” We know the grim, unmistakable message of lynched bodies and lifeless teenagers left in the street, but what about the effect of relentlessly enforced hierarchy on our souls? In Citizen, racism (slavery’s legacy) is both the spell and the curse we must undo.

In prose poems that have the immediacy of a diary, Rankine deftly, steadily leads us through an everyday maze of psychic and emotional hazard, a social minefield where instances of racism and erasure erupt with little or no warning. The sections on blatantly racist incidents in the career of the irrepressible tennis great Serena Williams are especially pertinent, riveting, and revelatory in conveying what it means to be a black body, especially a famous one, “in a white space.” Rankine makes clear that a vicious territorial imperative is at work in the racist insistence that people of color be eternally ghetto-bound, city-bound, and earthbound; the poet limns how swiftly the racist mind can go into reflexive shock and delusion when it witnesses a black body in an “unaccustomed” place.

The poet’s consistently artful use of the second person brings the damage and spiky nature of racism close to us, close to the bone. She grounds these racial humiliations and slights (“Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks”), these shocking moments, in the abraded body and senses, so that we know how profoundly these “micro-aggressions” are driven into the flesh and memory.

To put forth its urgent social and ethical concerns, the book eschews some of the traditional tools of poetry, such as music and lineation, in favor of powerful juxtaposition, silence, and purposeful concision; the effect is immersive, experiential, and probing, intimate yet capable of rendering panic and a menacing, ever-present sense of violation and danger.

Rankine is drawn to conceptual and visual art, video, and film—mediums that can convey a sense of raw truth, emergency, and manifesto. With its dynamic, interspersed art, Citizen is very much a dazzling, savvy, and unsettling cross-genre work. Rankine provides cogent “scripts,” drawn from searing headlines, that use language like incantation or plaintive jazz. This book feels as up-to-the-minute as a fearless documentary might be in distilling the way we live now. Rankine has used the subtitle “An American Lyric” for the second time in her work, evoking personal testimony as both a mirror and an indictment of American life.

As we enter a period that feels like the Second Civil Rights Movement, I feel immense gratitude and wonder at Rankine’s achievement in confronting painful dimensions of racism (“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?”) that have rendered so many betrayed citizens confounded and speechless. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine becomes an inventive, heroic, and true daughter of James Baldwin; like the indispensable activist and writer Baldwin, her unwavering focus and articulate passion help us interpret the fever-chart of our current crisis of prejudice, projection, and cavalier violence. Everywhere on display is Rankine’s unerring moral fire and superb mind venturing into the unspoken, the poisoned landscape of our racially-charged past and present in order to find language that clarifies our wounds and leaves us clear-eyed and forever changed.

First published in the Washington Spectator –

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