because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is an important, critically acclaimed book about race, racial identity, racial politics and the way that larger societal issues intersect with individual experience. Citizen has won many awards, has been praised by many high profile people and is rightly considered a contemporary classic, a zeitgeisty1 work on a par with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly in terms of its relevance to the #blacklivesmatter movement and the continued, constant, ever-developing horror of race relations in the USA, and the rest of the world more generally.
As with my recent review of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I’m wary to discuss a text about prejudice due to my own accidental privilege as a white, cis, hetero2, male. I fear that I’m going to say something accidentally racist, yet by worrying about that and not engaging with the text in question, I’d be doing something equally as bad. To ignore the black voice, to pretend that black people are invisible, hidden, is prejudicial too.
I’ll be honest, I was so wary of saying something offensive, or discussing something in depth about which my opinion is irrelevant and uninformed, that I almost didn’t blog about Citizen. If I’d done that, it would be the first time I’d read a book and not blogged about it for almost four years. That would be sidelining the black experience within my own life, rendering invisible the black poet, ignoring her words and treating them differently to how I treat other men, other women, of whose texts I read and then explore and reflect. But am I already doing this, by writing so much about my own experience of reading the book? Am I sidelining Rankine? Perhaps, but only so much as I sideline almost every other writer I’ve ever written about on here. One of Rankine’s central ideas in Citizen is the idea of invisibility, that black people are ignored, unseen.
Citizen could be described as mixed media, for it contains verse, prose poem, essay, photograph, collage, transcripts from art videos and some of whatever the poetry equivalent of verbatim theatre is. It is a rich and closely felt collection of image and language that evokes the experience and the expectations of a life where skin colour negatively affects the way people treat you on a daily basis. Many of the pages of Citizen contain a single paragraph, retelling a short anecdote about experiences of everyday racism. “I didn’t know you were black,” says a manager in a shop the narrator had previously spoken to on the phone. A child doesn’t want to sit next to her on an aeroplane. A man pushes in front of her in the line at a grocery and says, “No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.” And numerous examples of people calling her by the name of another black woman the white speaker knows. It is implied, though not stated, that these experiences all happened to the poet. It is possible to read them, however, as a collated set of experiences drawn from many different lives. But I don’t think they were. And I don’t think that reading is a good interpretation of the text. To combine all black lives into one nominal experience is the kinda thing Rankine is encouraging readers to not do. In a prose poem about a man being stop and searched unfairly – not for the first time – she includes a refrain that echoes through the text as a whole:
and you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
“Black lives are identical, replicable, disposable.” This is the ideology Rankine is railing against, and the one that is played out in the sidelines of British newspapers as black men and women are killed every week over in America. This isn’t a sociological issue, a theoretical issue, as that quotation I’ve pulled from the text and opened this post with, racism is killing people, regularly. Towards the end of Citizen, Rankine has a page of memoranda to the victims of racist violence. Each begins, “In Memory of”, and near the end of the page, the names end and the phrase “In Memory” repeats until it fades away near the lower edge. People have died, people are dying and people will continue to die. And the response towards black communities and activists who protest this? Rankine tells us it is thus:
and this is how you are a Citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.
Forget about the oppression, forget about slavery, forget about lynching, forget about strangers making jokes about you being poor, about expecting you to be white because you’re successful, of presuming you’re a criminal because you “fit the description”, forget about you and your family receiving direct abuse, forget about being ignored and sidelined and told you were hired to cover quotas, forget about the racism you’ve seen famous, phenomenally success international athletes, actors, musicians and politicians receive, forget about it, let it go, move on. Because the system has been established that keeps black people poor and white people rich[er]. It is to the inherent advantage of white people to maintain the status quo, in not having their privilege questioned and society made better, fairer. Because of slavery, because of long term economic disempowerment and because of overt and constant racism, black people within America are statistically more likely to be poorer than white people, and poverty leads to ill health, criminality, addictions, etc – the fault is an imbalanced system, not inherent racial difference.
Rankine talks at length about sport, which is something I’ve only ever encountered in serious literature before in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football (review of that right here). Rankine explores the career of Serena Williams in some detail, focusing on two events where she was definitely the victim of racially-motivated mis-rulings by judges. In one of the events, Williams kept quiet, the second time she got angry and was maligned. “Don’t express that anger,” again. “Don’t feel it, it didn’t happen.” “White people don’t want to admit they’re racist and it’s mean to tell them that they are.” The second section on sports is about Zinedane Zidane’s final act as a professional footballer where, in the final of the World Cup two minutes before he retired, he head-butted an opponent in the chest in response to racist abuse. Rankine picks examples from the world of sports because they’re well known, because people who are hugely successful still encounter the effects of prejudice on a day to day level. No one is “beyond” race, and only dominant white people want the world to think anyone is. It suits their narrative, it keeps things easy.
Protests have been inspired by Citizen, protests have occurred using Citizen – a woman sat reading it in televisual shot behind Donald Trump at a rally. This is a powerful book. It made me cry, repeatedly, both times I read it (the respectful gesture I give all poetry), and it also made me angry. But angry at what? Angry at who? Angry where and how? And what can I, and what can a book of poetry do to change the world? I fear that no one who needs to read Citizen is ever going to read it, but as a piece of powerful, political, literature it is hugely valuable and should (and will) be read by many people. This will be read in high schools soon, if it isn’t being already, and I suppose that is the way books can change the world. I think the real argument to be had about the pointlessness of pre-University English literature syllabuses in the UK is how old-fashioned they are. At school I read Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, with Iris Murdoch’s The Bell being the only remotely relevant piece I looked at, other than – to be fair – some contemporary poetry at GCSE. Here I am, realising another of my own prejudices built up through society: I don’t believe that books can change the world because my schooling taught me that books were dusty old things that couldn’t have the word “fuck” in them and were always about “universal issues” like sex, love, death and pain. But books about contemporary, serious, issues can be powerful, they do have the potential to change minds and affect real life.
Books can be vessels to transmit ideas, pain, reality, they can evoke a changeable Now. I think, maybe, the way I read is wrong: I read to lock myself away, to hide from the world within a page. Maybe books are more than the refuge I think of them as, the island I can attach myself to for a few days so I can pretend my reality isn’t real. But my reality could be worse, it could always be worse.
I will end this with Rankine’s closing words, which sum up, and clarify, the fact that Citizen‘s anger and didactic tone are not misplaced, not at all. I recommend you all go out and read Citizen, the same way as I recommend you listen to To Pimp A Butterfly, but race as an issue is a topic I know nothing about, but I think engaging with it is important. Right? Or am I appropriating engagement with a struggle I’ve never felt? Honestly, I don’t know. Someone please tell me if I should stop reading books about race. I know I shouldn’t write one, but the other way around? A bit of help, please.
It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.
2. I’ve been wondering recently if “heterosexual” is itself a sexist term, knowing – as we all do – that the origin of the prefix is the ancient Greek for “other”. By defining male-female sexual engagements as an interaction with an “other”, surely we are implying that people of different genders are inexhaustibly strange from each other and thus not on a par? Eurgh, “they’re not like us,” is the heterosi cry, screaming as if hormone balance and genital style cast man and woman as “others”, apart, with all that makes us the same ignored. To define male-female sex as sex with an another is to draw deeper divisions between those within humanity. ↩