excerpted from: Susan Ayres, Claudia Rankine's Citizen: Documenting and Protesting America's Halting March Toward Racial Justice and Equality , 9 Alabama Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Law Review 213 (2018) (286 Footnotes) (Full Document)
After the first election of President Barak Obama in 2008, there was a sense that the United States had reached a post-racial phase in its history. That sentiment was relatively short-lived because by 2013, when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, it was clear that President Obama's election was not transformative. More recently, during the presidential campaign and after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, undisguised racism in the United States reared its ugly head. From protests by groups such as Black Lives Matter and by individual NFL football players, to President Trump's racist tweets and threats to “build that wall” and to ban Muslims, society is again reacting to undisguised racism. Activists such as the Reverend Al Sharpton have been outspoken in their criticism of President Trump; Sharpton commented,
A half-century ago King led a movement - a movement that was predicated upon securing voting rights, job opportunities, fair housing, educational opportunities, an end to racial discrimination and ending income inequality. ... Today, in 2018, we find ourselves at a crossroads: Everything King fought so tirelessly for is under attack once again.
Similarly, poet and activist Claudia Rankine sees “white terrorism” as a “failure of the imagination,” and she considers it very likely that “whiteness is irredeemable” in the United States because “whiteness and white supremacy [are interlocked], ... you cannot untangle them, ... this country was founded on white supremacy.” Rankine adds that throughout the history of the United States, “white terrorism has brutalized the Native American community, the black community, and others.” Rankine criticized racism during the Bush Administration (for the administration's chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina), and also during the Obama Administration (for the Birther Movement). She considers the Trump Administration to be “about the primacy of whiteness,” and that as citizens, we must discuss the concept of white privilege, or white dominance, which undergirds our society. Rankine asks, “how do you move forward?” One answer she provides is that one can move forward by recording and confronting racist moments and attitudes, which she does in Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), and which she continues to do in her research on whiteness, the creation of the Racial Imaginary Institute, a gallery space and institute that examines whiteness and “investigate[s] themes of injustice, inequality, and accountability.”
This article analyzes Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, which is a National Book Award finalist and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other literary prizes. It is a multi-genre work that combines visual art, poetry, prose, essays, and video scripts. In Citizen, Rankine describes or responds to moments of racism--both public moments (such as Trayvon Martin's fatal shooting) and personal quotidian moments or “microaggressions” (such as the remark by “the woman with multiple degrees” that “I didn't know black women could get cancer”). The public moments range from sports events (tennis matches of Serena Williams), to Hurricane Katrina, to the Jena Six. Her acknowledged debt to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is apparent in the volume, especially in vignettes such as “In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” which is an elegy for “these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart,” imprisoned and subject to a history of “Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities ....”
As a work of art, Citizen can be considered documentary poetry or protest written in an epideictic rhetorical mode. Part I of this article analyzes how Rankine's vignettes “invite us to renew public perspectives on institutional legitimacy, disciplinary practice, and citizenship” through the use of a rhetorical epideictic mode. Part II discusses Rankine's views of racism in Citizen as an example of critical race theory and also examines the documentary strategies Rankine uses in both visual images and vignettes to confront and record the private and public moments of erasure and of hypervisibility. For instance, one vignette describes a speaker being cut in line at a drugstore by another customer. The vignette ends with the following exchange: “You must be in a hurry, you offer. // No, no, no, I really didn't see you.” In addition to recording such moments of erasure, Citizen includes instances of hypervisibility, such as the story of her attorney friend's unfounded/illegal arrests for driving while black. Throughout, Rankine theorizes these moments by paraphrasing Judith Butler's philosophy about vulnerability and “what makes language hurtful”: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another ... We suffer from the condition of being addressable.”
Part III considers how Citizen weaves together memory, desire, and trauma. Rankine repeatedly describes these vulnerable and hurtful moments, along with her desire for “connection, community, and citizenship,” and the desire simply to belong. This desire to belong is an example of the “cruel optimism” Lauren Berlant has written about in her book by that same title. Rankine has said, “I find [Berlant's] work invaluable, because she has allowed me to sort of understand and also appreciate our own aspirational desire to belong, even when the belonging is knocking us down.” As the vignettes show, being knocked down is not just metaphorical, but includes physical violence and the accumulation of slights that may result in the medical condition called “John Henryism,” alluded to in one vignette, and detailed in many others that recount examples of stress's effect on the body. As Rankine writes, “You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
A stunning and powerful work, Citizen's documentary poems and art gallery of images may not trigger a revolution, but Rankine's use of epideictic rhetoric encourages new perspectives and critical reflection and inspires the “possibility of social transformation.” Rankine personally hopes for transformation, as she says in an interview: “I believe in the possibility. I believe in the possibility of another way of being.” In another interview, Rankine comments, “The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.” Rankine's belief in possibility and her tenacity inform a reading of Citizen.
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Despite the detrimental effects of racism on the body politic and the personal body, Rankine understands the desire to invest in things that hurt us through Berlant's Cruel Optimism, and admits that she realized “that thing that I am invested in that is hurting me would be this country.” When Langston Hughes's poem, “Let America Be America Again,” was viewed more than 25,000 times after Michael Brown's death, and Rankine visited Ferguson to honor Brown's death, she commented that Hughes's important message was that “‘American never was America to me.”’ Despite the catalog of microaggressions and macroaggressions in Citizen, Rankine also documents the sense of longing to be treated as an “American” or “citizen,” and sees this as a common desire of blacks. The much quoted phrase in Citizen--to “breathe ... a truce with the patience of a stethoscope”--refers to a longing for “connection, community, and citizenship” that makes one “forgive all of these moments because you're constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen. As an equal. As just another person. As another first person.” In other words, a citizen.
Professor of Law, Texas A&M University School of Law.