JANUARY 7, 2016
On Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric
A Symposium, Part II
ON THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Citizen’s publication, I organized a roundtable at ASAP/7 (the seventh annual Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present conference) in Greenville, South Carolina. Since Citizen had been in print for a year, we all felt that the time was right to reflect on the book — its politics, its aesthetics, its notoriety, its complexity. The essays in this two-part symposium, which develop talks delivered at the roundtable, take seriously (and in taking seriously sometimes contest) Rankine’s poetic and political achievement.
This second installment features essays by Catherine Zuromskis, Kenneth W. Warren, and Lisa Uddin. The first installment featured essays by Evie Shockley, Maria A. Windell, and Roderick A. Ferguson.
Before even opening Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the reader is confronted by an arresting image. Against a stark white background hovers a black hood, cut (or torn?) from a hooded sweatshirt. The image evokes a cluster of associations — inner-city youth fashions, the hooded anonymity of the KKK, prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib — but perhaps most pointed is the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The hoodie Martin was wearing at the time of his death became a symbol for the racial profiling that figured Martin, and countless other young black men, as “suspicious” or “threatening,” justifying their violent suppression. The hoodie was quickly appropriated in rallies, marches, and vigils. It graced the cover of the New York Daily News on the day of Zimmerman’s acquittal. It was worn in a show of solidarity for Martin and his family by members of Congress and the Miami Heat basketball team. And, it was rumored to be sought after by the director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
The cover image’s association with the Martin tragedy is compounded by the structure of this torn piece of clothing. Upon close inspection, one sees the ends of a thin wire threaded through the channel that holds the tie for cinching the hood against the cold. The effect is to produce a dark empty space within the hood, a ghostly presence where a head should be, or was. The ragged scrap of cloth at the base of the hoodie and the dangling hoodie ties accentuate the violence of the hood’s separation from the rest of the garment, hanging like torn entrails from the empty space above. It is an arresting image, to be sure, as well a recognizable one, as evident when Johari Osayi Idusuyi, in a wry act of political critique, held up the iconic cover while reading it at a Donald Trump presidential rally.
Citizen is filled with arresting images. Mined from the realms of mass culture and fine art, these images seem intended to provide a vivid visual counterpoint to Rankine’s episodic, meandering, and often ambiguous prose on the social and affective terrain of race, racism, and American history. Rankine has written tellingly about the way that she feels video images, for example, allow her “to slow down and enter the event, […] as if [she] were there in real time.” Similarly, the images in Citizen (interspersed throughout the text without captions) seem posed as a more direct experience of the thing that prose (or language more broadly) can only circumscribe. In this context the empty hood on the cover seems intended to confront us with the unequivocal truth of Martin’s (and others’) death, unhampered by rhetorical spin.
As potent as the evocation of Martin’s death is, however, the image on the cover of Citizen is, in fact, a photograph of David Hammons’s 1993 sculpture In the Hood, in which the hood (which is in fact dark green) is mounted on the gallery wall, as one critic described, “like a hunting trophy.” And while many have noted the uncanny resonance of In the Hood in the aftermath of Martin’s murder, the work has a complex narrative of its own. As evidenced by its inclusion in the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s recent exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, In the Hood is not just about race (though it is, certainly, in part). It is also about engaging the audience’s associations and prejudices, and about negotiating the historical shift from postmodernism to contemporaneity, aesthetically, economically, socially, and politically. There is something stunningly reductive, then, in using Hammons’s In the Hood as yet another example of the Trayvon hoodie meme. Leaving aside the issue of anachronism and the (deliberate or accidental) reduction of the green hoodie to a starkly black-and-white image, what troubles me here is the way that the placement of this image on the cover of Rankine’s book seems to steamroll the potential complexities of this work within Hammons’s larger oeuvre.
In his book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Darby English offers an incisive critique of the art world’s compulsion to reduce artwork by contemporary African-American artists to what is perceived to be a coherent and singular “black experience.” In his chapter on Glenn Ligon’s work, for example, English describes Ligon’s aesthetic of “dislocation” as one that reflects, only in part, on his blackness, but also on his homosexuality and his negotiation of the painterly style of abstract expressionism (both its formalism and its politics) in the age of postmodern experimentation. Rankine includes Ligon’s work in Citizen as well, yet she evokes it mainly for its graphic palette and his use of a quote from Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” By throwing this and other artworks by predominantly artists of color — Carrie Mae Weems, Jayson Musson, Wangechi Mutu, and others — “against a sharp white background,” Rankine’s text eclipses the variety of artistic points of view (racial, but also gendered, sexual, economic, cultural, national, political, affective, and aesthetic) that populate these works and inform the various experiences and ideas they represent. As such, she reduces the conceptual richness of these works, both metaphorically and literally, to graphic black and white.
In a BOMB magazine interview, Rankine considers the possibilities and limits of contemporary art in representing a historical black experience. In a revealing moment, she describes her exhaustion upon viewing A Subtlety, Kara Walker’s celebrated 2014 installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Observing the crude and racist audience responses inspired by Walker’s massive, hyper-sexualized mammy/sphinx, Rankine wonders if the point of the work is to illuminate the immaturity of its white spectators. Still, Rankine’s emotional and intellectual frustration is palpable; “the scandal of Walker’s A Subtlety,” she writes, “is its refusal to contextualize or educate beyond what can be seen.” And yet, when employing the far more nuanced and complex works by Hammons, Ligon, Mutu, and others, she seems content to let the image be, shoring up the false assumption that an image on its own is passive, comprehensible, and straightforward, where text is complex, ambiguous, and nuanced. It is often in these moments, where images remain uncomplicated, that racist tropes persist. Only by teasing apart the many layers of the image can we begin to examine and eventually dismantle those tropes.
Rankine’s Elite Status
I will begin my commentary on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen by floating questions that at first may appear hostile, but which are meant as ways of thinking alongside of, and ultimately against, Rankine’s book. Among the fundamental questions Citizen poses is why we need poems about, for example, everyday acts of “ordinary” racism, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the murder of young black men by police officers or by white individuals? If such events are — and they are — fodder for the daily news cycle and the ceaseless flow of online commentary, why have poems about them? And what, after all, constitutes a good poem about such things?
These questions are hardly new. They merely repackage perennial questions about literature and art’s relation to politics and morality. And for a work like Citizen and a poet of the stature of Rankine these questions perhaps seem even more impertinent if only because of the success that Rankine has enjoyed with Citizen. Had hearing the news about such events been enough, a book like Citizen would likely not have made a ripple among those who make up its audience — it would have seemed a redundancy.
By way of answer to some of these questions, I’d like to highlight Rankine’s own description of her project from an interview published in BOMB. In this interview, Rankine speaks of her
conscious decision to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book in the sense that the middle-class life I live, with my highly educated, professional, and privileged friends, remains as the backdrop for whatever is being foregrounded. Everyone is having a good time together — doing what they do, buying what they can afford, going where they go — until they are not.
In other words, these poems are quite aware of their status as class emanations. Whatever shows up in them shows up, as Rankine says, against the backdrop of the privilege of their settings and their author. By way of example, one could pick any number of instances from the book, but the following should suffice:
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible — I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
As the vignette works to make clear with use of the words “elite status,” the racial slight registered in the poem depends on a precise calibration of something like class position. That the speaker’s elite status has derived from a recent year’s worth of travel would identify her as someone for whom such privilege derives not from long-held wealth or even from a significant amount of accumulated wealth, but rather from her job. It is a collateral perk of having recently achieved a level of status in her profession that has yielded enough invitations to read and give papers that she can pile up the miles that confer status. Her view, then, is that of someone for whom “elite status” has not faded into the background as something to be assumed and not noticed, which is all the more reason that it can be enjoyed. She knows all too well (as we do) what the increasingly cramped seats and meager amenities that come with coach seating feel like.
We know a bit less about the girl and her mother, whose responses produce the drama of the poem, but Rankine gives us various clues. The girl and her mother are perhaps, likely, just like the speaker in also having recently arrived at the same status level as the speaker. Indeed, Rankine’s use of the word “arrive” may play on the double meaning of movement through physical space and movement up the social ladder. Someone habituated to elite status might by now be accustomed to the relatively few dark faces that show up in the rows set aside for the more privileged traveler and would not necessarily find the prospect of proximity at all unsettling.
The mother and daughter may be just like Rankine, and us, in part because, at this moment, the rapidly proliferating gradations of status invented by the airline industry often mean that perhaps no one, except those in the topmost categories, can claim long tenure in any privileged status category. It may indeed be the case that the girl’s disappointment has nothing to do with the racial identity of the individual in the window seat but with her expectation that for those of “elite status” there would be no middle seats at all. The poem, however, leaves these matters open. This may or may not be a racial scene, although Citizen encourages us to see it as such. It is, however, certainly a scene of class or status anxiety or disappointment and fear — the fear of being snubbed or declassed, the drama of the arriviste confronting the individual who fears becoming déclassé.
But this part of the story, as Rankine’s remarks in the epigraph make clear, is backdrop: “Everyone is […] buying what they can afford.” The poem’s antiracism shows up in some ways most sharply against a backdrop in which everyone buying what they can afford to buy feels a lot like justice, while injustice feels like not getting what you should be afforded, whether in terms of service or regard, in relation to what you’ve paid or otherwise earned. That is, the young men elsewhere in Citizen appear to us as victims not because (unlike you and me) they cannot afford to purchase — or are otherwise unable to earn — elite status tickets, but rather because they, like you, are on the receiving end of actions and gestures that stem from prejudice, racism, and bias.
Or, depending on how we read Rankine’s use of the second person, which is to say if we read some of these “yous” as addressing a white reader, these young men are victimized not by the structural inequalities that manifest as the difference between elite status and coach but rather because the ordinary racism you practice and tolerate on a daily basis mirrors and condones the attitudes that make it second nature to read black disaster victims as looters or young black boys in hoodies as hoods. If the novelist Richard Wright, reflecting on his first collection of short stories in the 1930s, believes he’d made a mistake in having “written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about,” for Rankine in Citizen the tears of bankers’ daughters might not be all that unwelcome. Or to put it slightly differently, in Citizen the feelings of a black banker’s daughter upon being slighted by a white banker’s daughter are kind of the point.
What then makes these poems “good” on their terms is their capacity to keep in the foreground the idea of injustice as a matter of how we feel about each other and how we make each other feel, and to keep our attention away from economic injustice, which is not at all rooted in our feelings toward each other.
The Matter of Black Life
July 2015: I write this reflection on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen zigzagging between two unfolding events: 1. Completing a review of Brian Massumi’s book about animality and politics and 2. Learning of 28-year-old Sandra Bland’s arrest, detention, and purported suicide in police custody in Texas. My nausea stems not only from the revelation of another rotten system of justice, this time in the Lone Star State, but also its possible affinities with euphoric theory on the political promise of activating that which is nonhuman. This is Massumi’s tone and wager, shared by many other thinkers in the strand of critical theory that some identify as posthumanism. Massumi in particular sees nonhuman animals pointing to alternate and more hopeful ways of being in and relating to the world. If only we could tap into that promise. If only we could figure out how to think with or as animals rather than at or about them. Our job — framed as play — is to embrace animal modalities that can expose the frailty and folly of the humanist subject, to practice subjectivity without subjects. Three weeks ago, I also zigzagged at an Environmental Humanities conference when a white PhD candidate offered another version of posthumanist thinking pitched toward the ontology of objects. He asked what would happen if we recognized amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement that life is matter. The question received murmurs of appreciation while I wondered why my stomach dropped. Was his pithiness pure privilege? Was it a valid inquiry? Am I asking the same thing?
Here is what I know, and what I suspect Rankine knows: that the American “conversation on race” is habituated toward liberal democratic sensibilities that begin and end with enlightenment-style human subjects flexing or denying what it means to be human; a profile that conventionally includes, for example, and possibly in descending order, rational-critical thought, morality, language, creativity, verticality, sovereignty, and compassion. Racial violence de-humanizes — as in, robs us of this profile — and racial justice re-humanizes. Nonhuman animals circulate as metaphors in the process — in the black American menagerie, think of crows, apes, and panthers — or as long shots in some other civil rights struggle that may or may not find solidarity with the struggles of racialized people. In other words, animals stay put as conceptual objects. Matter itself stays put as well, reduced to issues of composition and distribution, a resource for becoming human or missing the mark and assuming the status of other-than-human.
Citizen works within these habits, but complicates them too. Consider how we do not get to become human by reading this book. Rankine unravels our capacity to exercise reason, a normative hallmark of humanity. Its evidentiary forms and content only appear to reconstruct a panorama of micro-aggression that is available for scrutiny and judgment, but it is a panorama that lays bare its patchiness and repels much clarity of thought. Instead, we are reminded of, or get acquainted with, how racism goes down as lived event marked by slippages, accidents, double-takes, and miasmas of feeling. We are invited to endure it, not analyze it, and certainly not master it. We are thrown into it, asked to bear all of its disorientations and inconclusiveness. These are the states of unknowing that are required for any significant engagement with race. And while they might help cultivate empathy between different readers, such empathy is not a human practice as such. When Rankine asks, “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?,” I do not hear the customary call to an inalienable humanity. Bodies feeling other bodies is no discourse of humanity I know.
If we do not get to become human by reading this book, neither do we get to become animal, at least not in a way that orients us to a new politics. In Citizen, the animality that is co-present with and immanent to human life fails to eek out a better world. A therapist, for example, reacts ferociously to the arrival of a black body on her property as “a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd [that has] gained the power of speech.” She apologizes repeatedly thereafter. Opposite the page, a reproduction of Kate Clark’s taxidermied caribou fawn huddles. The sculpture features a girl’s face dotted with metallic pins that evoke tears … of a black client’s pain? Of a white therapist’s guilt? The ambiguity reminds us that cross-species connections and conflations are often racialized as much as they are shaped by gender, sexuality, and class. Other strands of animality are similarly troubled. We read: “to live through the days sometimes you moan like a deer.” This is not a welcome sound, nor is the sighing that alternates with the moans, which also align the writer/reader “to but an animal, the ruminant kind.” They are sounds of self-preservation, of getting by. Animality here flags endurance, not flourishing. A detail of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s horrendous seascape delivers the book’s final blow to any idealized politics of “becoming animal,” with a cacophony of fish devouring an African slave’s body and seagulls clamoring around the feast.
Black bodies are everywhere in this lyric, rarely coherent, rarely well. If they are not drowning in the Middle Passage, they are drowning in Hurricane Katrina’s media coverage, or the coal dust and oilstick of Glenn Ligon’s 2000 silkscreen Untitled (speech/crowd) #2. Here are more indelible images of corporeal disaggregation and/or impossible aggregation: flesh as a cupboard of itself, charged with storing a history of slights; organs crushed and marked by the tire of a pickup truck; and “the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.” Rankine’s inventory gives an account of blackness immersed in its own visceral materiality and enmeshed with other materialities, none of them stable despite their potency. The book design itself is part of the account, calling out to our nerves, eyes, and hands with its stirring, staggered visuals, its blinding white background, and the quiet, smooth density of the tangible thing; a design that reenacts the empiricism of racial science and tennis court verdicts, but also evades their grip.
Feminist Philosopher Karen Barad might call this experience “agential realism” for how it highlights the world-making practices of an always shifting materiality. Political theorist Jane Bennett might call it “thing power,” for how it accents the productive force of nonhuman stuff. But Citizen’s materialism offers the crucial qualification that black life is too often only a matter of matter; an uneven assemblage of physical parts and capacities that at times “can’t hold the content it is living,” that struggles with its objectness because objectness brings more constraint than promise, more death than vitality. “A body in the world drowns in it,” writes Rankine in a poem that rehearses blackness as a state of perpetual harm. No wonder Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, sumptuous with its fusion of velvet, beading, and botanicals, appears hunched over, as if the wearer was out of breath. The materials are vibrant, agentive even, and heavy.