I wrote this review of Claudine Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric two years ago for school. I think you really should read the book. Meantime….
At the end of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, she answers a question in reference to her time on the tennis court that day: “Did you win?” with, “It wasn’t a match…it was a lesson.”
And that’s what Citizen was for me, and, I think, for anyone willing to engage it as fully as possible. It’s a lesson. It’s a lesson in what it is to be a Black Person in these United States.
And yet it is also more than a lesson. So much more.
I’m writing this review as if Citizen were written for me because, I think, by writing in the second person Rankine intends it to be read that way. Limited only by the limitations of my imagination, reading it in the second person made it possible—to the extent that it is possible, and it is not possible—to see through the eyes, to walk in the shoes, to think with the brain, and to feel with the heart of a Black Person living in these United States.
Rankine’s use of the second-person point-of-view is not only effective, it is brilliant.
Rankine’s use of “you” added a new level of consciousness to my experience as a reader—and as a person. We white people can’t empathize with the experience of Black People in these [divided] United States with only our minds because being Black in these [divided] United States is not just an experience of the mind. It is an experience of one’s whole being. Therefore, all parts of us must be engaged to really get the insidiousness by which racism rails upon the psyche, sucks life out of the soul, and decimates the Self. Systemic racism is both subtle and Not At All Subtle. And Rankine’s way of revealing the Black experience in the United States mimics this so well: her revelations are subtle and Not At All Subtle. Through her choice in voice, style, methods, devices, words, images, and format she crafts both a conscious and an unconscious experience. The reader feels racism’s assaults on the Black person’s body, psyche, and soul.
Though Citizen is a fat-fonted book, it’s still only 160-pages thin. But don’t be fooled. Citizen is neither a quick nor an easy read. It’s a poetic rendering of the U.S. Black experience that, from page one, is exponentially greater, heavier, and vaster than an encyclopedia’s-worth of entries describing the toll of white supremacy could manage to convey. It gets your attention and then requires every cellular bit of it.
I read this book once.
Then I read it again.
It required rereading. And even rerereading, though I’ve yet to do that.
It is worthy of all the attention it requires.
It’s a work whose work continues long after the pages are read and reread. Long after the bookmark’s been removed. Long after it’s been lent, returned, then lent out again.
The second time I read it I was able to “get” more of its messages more clearly and I was able to clear up some of my confusions unresolved from my first pass. And yet questions and confusions remain.
But let me be clear, these confusions are not the result of any shortcoming or oversight on Rankine’s or Rankine’s editor’s part. Not at all. They persist because I have not yet accomplished what reading this book is capable of accomplishing. I still have blindspots preventing me from seeing what’s to be seen. White Privilege causes a kind of blindness. Color blindness perhaps.
Rankine’s work is done. Mine is not.
I have been frustrated that I have not had more time to devote to writing this review because I can’t do justice to what I would describe as a masterful work.
The amount of my attention it took sometimes to read her words, to try to see through her characters’ eyes, to think with her characters’ brains and feel with her characters’ hearts provided me a felt experience of being a person for whom so much of society is designed to not see, not notice, not permit the existence of. She helped me see and feel deeply that being Black in the United States is a constant fight to merely exist and be permitted this less-than-desirable existence (you read that right) by so many others—and even, most tragically, sometimes by one’s own Self. It’s true, Citizen’s characters sometimes participate in efforts toward their own nonexistence.
And, as she writes, (I think I’m paraphrasing): Merely existing should not be the goal, should not be what a life is pursuing.
Some experiences of which Rankine writes feel familiar to me and are not experiences I can merely empathize with, but are experiences I know firsthand. But what I can’t relate to is how it must feel to exist in a society that systematically and systemically accepts, usually prefers, and often participates in or, worse, works to manufacture my nonexistence. (Think about it. Not even a ten-cent Band Aid is willing to acknowledge brown skin.)
Indulge me for a moment, will you?
We all agree that human beings require oxygen to live, yes?
So let’s say white people live on earth and Black people live in outer space—I bet it feels that way to them sometimes.
On earth, where white people live, oxygen is abundant (though, dear god, its days seem depressingly fewer by the minute). And on earth, where white people live, it’s a rare day that this everpresent oxygen is less available. And if there is a day when it is less available, it’s not a surprise. You knew to expect it. It’s because of a trip—usually a vacation. Maybe you’re ascending a Himalayan-peak where the air is thin and therefore breathing is difficult—even though the sherpas you hired have carried all your belongings. Still, breathing is more labored. Until you’ve acclimated. Or maybe you’re in an airplane on the way to your second home in Aspen and the cabin pressure drops. What’s to be done? Hardly anything! An oxygen mask drops down and dangles within easy reach. And not only is it there for you, it’s your prerogative to use it on yourself before even thinking for a second about helping any of your dependents. Your worst crisis is an oxygen mask that doesn’t work great. But if that’s the case, don’t worry, white person, ring for the flight attendant and help is available and on its way.
Now let’s go back to the atmosphere in which Black people are living—dark and cold as outer-space, where oxygen is scarcely available. In this cold, hard-to-breathe-in environment—adding insult to so many centuries of insults, injustices, and injuries—these-struggling-to-breathe Black people are blamed not only for their lack of oxygen but for needing oxygen in the first place. How dare they have oxygen-requiring lungs. How dare they think they deserve an equal supply. Who brought them here in the first place?
Are you getting it? Do you see how unfair? How wrong? How criminal? Black people are being killed for breathing oxygen, for needing oxygen.
I remember something I think Al Gore said that goes something like: ‘You can’t miss what you never had.’ And that holds a lot of truth. But it also holds a lot of untruth, too. Because it’s one thing to never have something and therefore never miss it. But it’s an entirely other thing to see others who do have a thing—let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, of course, Equality—and you know this thing, Equality, is your birthright, and yet you are denied it by others who have it and think they are the owners and transmitters of it.
You do miss that thing you never had. Because you know in your heart and your soul and your spirit and your mind and your body that you deserve it. And you know that those who think they can control its access are ill, and wrong. Yet they have power. I’d be terrified if this were the structure in which I existed. (Oh wait… Oh fuck.)
And then that missing is mixed with so much else because not getting it begs the question, ‘Why don’t I have that?’ and ‘What about me?’ The unfairness of it leads to anger, sadness, grief. Those feelings, depending upon the internal and external circumstances in which they are felt, can devolve into rage and violence. Makes sense to me. Amazingly, because of the resilience of this people, it’s not where it usually ends. Creativity, self-expression, resourcefulness, community, and strength are the power of this people.
So back to Citizen…the incidents of racism Rankine cites are so well rendered.
She tells them as straightforwardedly as if they are just common everyday kinds of occurrences. Because when you are Black in these [divided] United States they are common everyday kinds of occurrences.
But they are not straightforward. And they are not just occurrences. They are acts of aggression. Acts of abuse. Acts of psychic—and sometimes, nay often, also physical—violence.
At school; in a car; at lunch with a stranger who’s your colleague; at your home; in your neighborhood; at Starbucks; on the subway.
For Black people in America, these acts of aggression and abuse and violence are common, everyday, everywhere kinds of occurrences. Almost as common as breathing.
Incident after incident after self-eroding incident, I came to realize that when you’re Black in the United States, ‘There is no safe place.’
And then Rankine drives this realization home.
It’s in a scene with the therapist.
It goes like this:
You get to the house where you’re going for an appointment. Following the directions the therapist gave you, you are going to enter through her side gate, just like her directions instructed. But just before you get to the gate, this therapist—who specializes in trauma counseling—sees you and responds to your Black presence like you’re a criminal come to torture and murder her.
And that’s when you get it.
And that’s when I got it in an even deeper way. Because if a therapist who specializes in TRAUMA COUNSELING goes bananas over your Black presence—the presence of your educated, nicely-dressed Black self—at her gate even though she is expecting you—someone new—to be coming to her gate, then there’s just no way to do anything else but conclude, There is no rest from this fight for existence.
It’s like at every turn you are fighting fighting fighting just to breathe. Like you always need an oxygen mask and none are available, like so many white people are pushing and pressing and banging on your lungs with the weight of their fear and guilt and self-hate and rage.
It’s like you are dying just to live.
Rankine writes, “…just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” (p. 55)
And you completely agree.