Claudia Rankine’s Citizen opens with a sequence of anecdotes, a catalog of racist micro-aggressions and “moments [that] send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs.” Being mistaken for a black person by a realtor who expected the person she talked to on the phone to come to see the house; being mistaken for a black person by a co-worker who confuses the names of the two black people at the company; being mistaken for a black person by someone else on the plane. Of course, these aren’t mistakes, but they also are mistakes: Claudia Rankine is black, yes, of course, but being mistaken for a black person is the sort of mistake—the sort of “there must be some mistake”—which cannot be real, but is. It’s an accurate mistake, accurately reflecting the maddeningly absurd and impossible other world in which Claudia Rankine doesn’t exist, because she’s been replaced by a catalog of racist terrors. Repeatedly, her existence is mistaken for a person who does not exist.
Repetition is different than development or growth, a difference signaled
Repetition makes this first part of the book easy to read. Each anecdote is self-sufficient and self-completing. Most of the anecdotes in this first section are less than a page—many less than half of a page—and they could easily be detached from their context, to circulate individually, as individual stories. You could post them on Facebook, if you wanted. Occasional, they are not metaphors; they are quite specific. These experiences of intimate public space—the offhand remark, or the silence of hostility between strangers together, or between friends in a strange place—each one happens when and where it does. A different place, a different time, and the words would not have been spoken, or the silence wouldn’t have gaped open like a wound, in the way that it does.
It’s this, the occasional nature of the repeated anecdotes that needs to be worked through. The anecdotes in sections I and III are easy to read because they ask so little of us, as a group; each is an individual, each is alone. When you read one, you turn the page; you read another. Then you read another. You move forward and don’t need to look back. You don’t need to make any connections between one and the next. They simply repeat.
The book’s second section is an essay that could stand alone, and in 2011, parts of it did. Rankine doesn’t mention her “Open Letter” to the AWP, the poet Tony Hoagland, or his poem “for white people” about watching Serena Williams and wanting her to lose, but if you know that context, you can feel the way she is responding to his response to her response to his poem. This context is crucial: without it, we could personalize her fascination with Serena Williams, could even dismiss it as eccentric, tangential, or unnecessary; it could be interesting without meaning anything larger. Or if we know that context, we cold do exactly the same thing: she is dwelling on that grievance, still carrying on an argument with Hoagland long after everyone else has moved on.
Why she is dwelling in this repetition, however, is exactly the point. And after you’ve read Citizen, and are digesting it—and you should respect the fact that it will take some digesting—go back and read that original back and forth between Hoagland and Rankine, and feel the crackle of hate that sparks between Hoagland’s desire to write poetry “for white people” and his need to deny that “the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans and not white-skinned Americans.” Taken separately, neither claim is all that inflammatory; when connected to each other, however, a circuit forms, an old racist machinery. “For white people” becomes “whites only,” a sign for black people to read, even as racism becomes a text from which black people are excluded. Topics and poetry are for white people; the real injustice is when their monopoly is threatened.
The story that Hoagland tells about his dispossession, then, is the same crazy-making posture of victim-hood that white people adopt when they complain that they are not allowed to say a very particular racist pejorative, when they are impeded in their quest for free expression by the fact that this particular commodity has been monopolized by rappers and comedians or whatever. One wants to ask, to what use were you planning to put that word? What noble endeavor have the forces of political correctness run amok impeded you from pursuing?
For his part, Hoagland demanded the right to be hateful under the sign of “complexity,” as if a poem expressing a white hatred of Serena Williams for her black body can be something other than racist hate-speech, just because it’s also perceptive and complex. Let us be as charitable as Rankine is, and allow that it is perceptive and complex about the way the ugliness of white people expresses itself by seeing black female bodies as ugly. It’s a good poem, in that sense, if that’s what makes a poem good. But for Hoagland to be the victim, we must forget that no one ever stopped him from writing it. He expressed his thought, and published it, thereby accomplishing what his poetic muse had impelled him to do.
Hoagland, however, must be the victim. The topic of race has been taken from white people—who demand only the right to write racist poetry to white people, without needing to be bothered by what happens when “brown-skinned Americans” read their poem and have a reaction—so he reclaims it. He calls her “naive” about racism. He knows something about racism that she does not, he says: how beneath the posture of “apologetic liberal white person” lurks an ugly racist.
Again and again, over and over again, repetition after repetition, Citizen demonstrates that Claudia Rankine is well aware of the ugly racism lurking beneath the posture of “apologetic liberal white person.” A catalog of exactly this fact was the origin point for the book.
The third section of the book returns to the style of the first: a sequence of second-person accounts of being occasionally presented with the social fact of one’s black female body in America, and of the ways various white people make it her problem if she feels angry. Hoagland told her, implicitly, not to read his poem—it’s “for white people”—which makes it her fault if she feels hated. Yet when a friend tells Rankine that “you have to learn not to absorb the world,” that you have to refuse to carry what does not belong to you, it doesn’t help that this friend is speaking from a place of love. The suggestion is as naive as Hoagland’s peculiar belief that the topic of race “belongs” to white people. Of course it does! White people own the “topic” of race, because they have the privilege of abstraction, metaphor, and poetic conceits; they can pick it up and put it down when they please. But it is black people who are given shit to eat when America reminds them that race owns them, and that no matter what Serena Williams does on the tennis court, she will still be black, black, black. She knows this shit, because she eats it every day. But when she vomits it up, her “anger” shows her lack of sophistication, her lack of maturity, her inability to disassociate. Grow up, she is told; learn to be without race. Stop being so black. Don’t vomit at America’s dinner table.
The question is not what these occasions add up to, because they don’t. They don’t add up. They just keep repeating themselves, without accumulating: every occasion is new, but its newness washes away the newness of the previous one. And yet these occasions do keep happening. When do you start to see a pattern? Where do you find it?
A list of grievances could be explained away, and probably would be: when they become a list, an accounting, grief becomes grievance. And we don’t like grievances, because they could be rectified and addressed. So we tell you to move on, that you’re being too sensitive; you just have to get past it. Move on. Why are you dwelling on the past? Move on. Move on. Forget all that, the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives.
In Claudia Rankine’s second person, we are denied the dismissive glance that we might otherwise give to the lonely “I,” because there is no “I” to dismiss. We don’t see it; it isn’t there. You are invited, then, to feel, to experience, and no more. This happened, she tells us; then this happened. That’s all.
But it isn’t so easy to simply move on, you find, even when she invites you to do so. Even where there aren’t patterns, you’ll find them, maybe even imagine them into existence. This is how our brains work. In fact, even where there are patterns, you also know that they might not be there, that what you perceive might be just a trick of your mind. But what is everything we feel and experience except a trick of the mind? And it’s all real. I has so much power. But I is also insane.
These occasions are freshly felt each time. Serena Williams knows this in her bones, knows it with a knowledge that doesn’t need confirmation, and stops even wanting it. She sees a pattern, and feels the accumulation of experience, feels it in her body where it can’t get out. This, too, is how our brains work: we store what we cannot use. But when she explodes in anger, it’s unexpected, coming out of nowhere, even if it’s the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from her. She is predictably unpredictable; we are surprised anew, every time. She has surprised us. We didn’t predict that. We couldn’t have.
In the sixth section of the book, words like “Jena Six” and “Trayvon Martin” and “Mark Duggan” remind you of the moment in time when those words and phrases suddenly seemed to be omnipresent, talismanic, wherever it was that you heard them. In their repetition, their omnipresence became omnitemporal, everywhere, repeatedly… until they stopped. Now, those words are linked to a space of time, a context, the way Rodney King brings us back to the 90’s, or Emmit Till the 1960’s. They are stuck there.
At the same time, the name “Eric Garner” does not appear in this book; the name “Aura Rosser” does not appear, either. There are so many names. Tamir Rice. Aura Rosser. Dontre Hamilton. Other names do not yet appear, as well; other names will not appear, soon. There is no room for them, no time.
Rankine’s work with images and videos is an effort to refuse repetition, to disrupt the manner in which a picture or a video becomes extraneous, because we have already seen it. When we no longer look for the life which was taken—when we only see the image that traces its removal—the event becomes something that can and will repeat itself, and can only repeat itself. She traces backwards, then; slowing and warping the tape to defer repetition, reversing it.
She is lonely, in this work. At a party, in a house, in London, Claudia Rankine talks with a man, an English novelist, who does not intend to write about the latest thing that has happened (as it occasionally does, repeatedly). He expects her to write about it; it’s what he’s come to expect from her, from her anger that a black man has been murdered by the police. She is predictable this way, and although he asks her if she will write about it, he asks her because he has predicted that she will. He knows she will be angry.
“Apparently,” though, he won’t write about it; he is also predictable this way. Race is not a topic for white people. These patterns, these predictabilities; the man in the London house leaves them to her to observe, because her observations don’t make them real. The reverse. When she observes them, her angry response is hers. She is being sensitive, you see; she has absorbed these events, holds onto them. She has chosen to dwell on the past.
We can think that it’s good for her to dwell in the past, to repeat it in her work. It’s good that she’s eaten it all up, though we’d prefer if she didn’t vomit it up. We don’t believe her, of course. To believe that she believes is to believe that we don’t have to, and we never have to. Belief is not for white people. We are white people.
The word “we” occurs very few times in this book. That is because “we” is the problem.
Do we trust the patterns that Claudia Rankine sees? We do not. “We” does not, cannot, will not, not without not being “we.” To trust is to believe, and we do not believe her, because we must see it with our own eyes; only then will we believe her, but then it’s not her that we believe. It’s us. We see it because we see it. If she sees it, we do not need to.
“You” is a different matter. You don’t simply choose to see, or not to see; you know better than that, because you don’t have to speak. You don’t have to decide. You just see, and read, and move on. It’s easy. Just move on, read on. Each time you’re surprised, but each time, you’re a little more tired, a little more lonely. Because it’s just you, just you. No narrative. No life. You won’t find the comfort of the first-person plural, not here; you, like Claudia Rankine, will suffer from the condition of being addressable, a spiteful, venomous address. Hey you.
You will not respond. You will wait for time to pass. You will wait. You will not know how to end what doesn’t have an ending. You will want to interrupt. You will wait. You will sigh. You will ruminate.