FEATURE STORY: New American Anthem

By on April 14, 2015

Ahead of her valley debut, Claudia Rankine delves into Citizen, race struggles.

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“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” – Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

Jackson, Wyoming – Claudia Rankine’s latest book, Citizen: An American Lyric, opens with a series of prose-poem-style accounts of everyday racism. Written in the second person, these micro-aggressions, as Rankine calls them, force the reader to be a part of the exchange. As readers, we can’t make the narrator “other.” “You” are the target of the racist slur, casually uttered in line at Starbucks. “You” are the person whose white friend often confuses your name with that of her black housekeeper.

As the micro-aggressions accrue, “you” feel the effect:

“You take in things you don’t want all the time,” Rankine writes in Citizen. “The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off our throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”

The Planet sat down with Claudia Rankine in advance of her visit to Jackson next week. The nationally acclaimed poet and playwright will be reading from Citizen on April 22, and discussing “Race in the Life of the Writer’s Mind” with University of Wyoming creative writing instructor Beth Loffreda on April 23. Both events take place at Teton County Library as part of its “Writers at the Library” series.

Citizen is in many ways an unclassifiable kind of book, a hybrid of prose, poetry, visual imagery, elegy, song, diary and eyewitness account. Rankine includes numerous contemporary art images and references, as well as references to literature and philosophy. When was the last time you read a book-length poem referencing Zora Neale Hurston, Hennessy Youngman, James Baldwin, Judith Butler, Carrie May Weems, Nick Cave, Serena Williams, Claire Denis, Zindine Zidane and JMW Turner?

Blending self, history and culture, the book could not be timelier as it exposes the subtle and overtly violent ways white people attempt to erase black people. Published in 2014, just before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, Citizen thrums with prescience, rage and despair.

PJH: I’d like to start by talking about the title and cover image since they are where this hybrid book begins. Could you tell me a bit about your choice of the term “lyric” for this book?

CR: The subtitle, “An American Lyric,” suggests for me a way of interrogating affect — the feeling behind the feeling revealed in our publics. I wanted to get closer to the idea of a national anthem. A song that really accounts for the way we live and feel inside our citizenry.

PJH: For the cover of the book you reproduced David Hammons’ artwork, “In the Hood,” a disembodied, green sweatshirt’s hood. The image is so haunting, and it speaks to the major theme of the book, which is the erasure of black citizens, the erasure of black personhood. I “read” the images and artwork in the book as elements of text rather than as illustrations. Is that what you intended with the images? That readers consider them a part of the song, bits of language in themselves?

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CR: Yes, exactly. But I also wanted to engage sight because, from where I am standing, the mechanisms of racism get triggered purely because of what is seen — the body in the white imagination’s line of sight or peripheral vision. Perhaps one can also speak of the peripheral white imagination, the bias that controls but is not in the center of the thought.

PJH: Deer make an appearance in the book several times. There’s the image of Kate Clark’s artwork, “Little Girl,” in which a human face is attached to the hide of an infant caribou (that could easily be read as a deer). Later in the book, the narrator “moans” like a deer. I’m curious why you chose that particular animal for the narrator to identify with?

CR: If memory serves, I was at Ucross Foundation Residency Program in Wyoming. I was watching deer out the window as I was working on the book. I decided to go outside quietly, but the turn of the knob of the door alerted the herd and all faces turned toward me. I marveled at the alertness and the sense of self-protection that the herd exhibited as they were poised for flight. At that moment, I remembered Kate Clark’s piece “Little Girl,” which I had seen earlier at a show. The idea of incorporating a ruminant animal came because the book was an act of writing a meditation on a condition; it enacted chewing the cud.

PJH: The body is important in this book — the body as metaphor, the body as a site where racism is perpetrated, the body as storage for history. You included a photo of Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki imitating Serena Williams, specifically mocking and appropriating her black woman’s body. This photo made me seethe. I thought the look on Wozniacki¹s face was pure evil (even if, a la Hannah Arendt, Wozniacki didn¹t make up her mind to do evil.) In Citizen, black female bodies are generally sites for micro-aggressions, whereas black male bodies are obliterated by gunshot. In both cases, erasure occurs. I’m curious if that’s what you witness in America generally, that black men get killed and black women are simply not seen to begin with?

CR: Well, black women get killed unjustly as well and then forgotten immediately. But in general the number of incarcerated or murdered black men is higher.

PJH: The book exposes a paradox: that to be a citizen, one is expected to “Let it go. Move on.” And yet, simultaneously, the narrator knows, “You can¹t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you.” It was 1952 when Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published. Citizen was published in 2014. Sixty-two years in between and this issue of visibility is still front-and-center in African-American literature (and lives). I keep thinking about this, wondering, does history ever lose its grip?

CR: Sixty-two years is a long time. Maybe the better question is, what does whiteness gain or feel it is protecting if it holds on to racism? Our historical inheritance is powerful and racist attitudes are supported in the culture daily, so without vigilance and self-consciousness even well-meaning folks find themselves acting based on bias.

PJH: This book feels to me like a response to Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” — the answer being, in this case, what happens when a dream is deferred is that it turns into physical and psychological injuries. As a reader, in the beginning of the book I felt rage, but by the end, I felt despair. To what extent did you intend to take the reader inside the experience of invisibility or erasure?

CR: With the use of the second person I wanted readers to have to position themselves against the interactions. I wanted to enact the intimacy of racism, the closeness of these encounters, by erasing the distance of the position of witness, which the use of first or third person account would have occasioned.

PJH: I wanted to ask if you would comment on the 2014 National Book Awards, for which Citizen was a finalist in Poetry. Another esteemed African American woman writer was nominated and won in her category, Jacqueline Woodson in Young People’s Literature. The host of the awards, Daniel Handler also known as Lemony Snicket, publicly made a racist joke about Woodson’s allergy to watermelon. What was your response when you heard that?

CR:  I thought, “Oh, this is the beginning of Citizen Part Two.” The truth is these racist moments happen all the time, whether or not there are cameras, whether or not people of color are present. My white friends are always telling me stories of things that get said the moment the person of color leaves the room, and my brown and black friends are constantly telling me stories of what got said to them while they were in the room! And while this is happening, another unarmed black man is gunned down by the armed fear or sport of police.

PJH: If you’ve been to Ucross, you’re not a stranger to Wyoming. Also, you and Beth Loffreda are co-editors of the anthology, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. Have you been to Jackson before, and, what are you looking forward to about your visit?

CR: I don’t believe I have been to Jackson. Besides the people I’ll meet, I think I most look forward to the landscape. Its reputation precedes it!

Citizen, a Multimedia Poetry Reading with Claudia Rankine, 6 p.m., Wednesday, April 22 at Ordway Auditorium

Race in the Life of the Writer’s Mind: A Dialogue with Claudia Rankine & Beth Loffreda, 6 p.m., Thursday, April 23 at the Ordway Auditorium.

Both events are free and open to the public.

For more information, contact Teton County Library Adult Program Coordinator Leah Shlachter at 307-733-2164.

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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