Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry, the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, and winner of many other literary prizes. It is a series of reflections written as poetry on racism in its many forms, from childhood through adulthood, from everyday personal experiences to those that make national news. Rankine, with precise and evocative language, provides a series of images with words that demonstrate the relentlessness and predictability of racism in America as well as its longterm effects: dissonance, disaffection, erasure of people of color.
Rankine writes about the many daily ways in which racism shows up unexpectedly, although it really is to be expected. There’s the time a colleague complains to you that the dean is requiring a minority hire when there are so many “great writers out” there; or when, in your childhood, the white girl who copied from your tests compliments you by commenting that your features are like a white person’s; the times a white person can’t remember your name and confuses it with the name of their maid; the times a person jumps ahead of you in line because they “didn’t see you.” The reaction to these daily offenses is often something like, “did you just say that?” “Did that really just happen?” “Why does she think it’s ok to say that to me?” Even though you might not say that out loud, you feel it, and over time, the collectivity of these racist aggressions takes a toll. It might lead to a form of PTSD known as “John Henryism”:
They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure.
Or, understandably, it can lead to anger, an anger born of the daily dehumanizations that result from being a person of color. This anger is a kind of knowledge that
… responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.
If a person of color were to act on this anger, to express it, then
…witnessing the expression of this ordinary and daily anger might make the witness believe that a person is ‘insane.’
Serena Williams is an example of this. Rankine writes about the treatment of Serena at the US Open in both 2004 and 2009. In 2004, Serena was eliminated in the quarterfinals after a series of horrible calls by a line judge. Most commentators felt she had been robbed, but Serena reacted with calm, not anger. In 2009, at a critical moment in the semifinals, a line judge made a call that, again, commentators agreed was a terrible and unfair call. This time, Serena lashed out verbally against the lineswoman, was fined and lost the match. The backlash was immediate and lasting; Serena was judged to have exhibited poor sportsmanship, to be crass, insane, etc. Some lamented that Serena should act more like Arthur Ashe, who was “… ‘dignified’ and ‘courageous’ in his ability to confront injustice without making a scene.” Serena was criticized for boycotting the Indian Wells tournament in response to racist slurs from the crowd there. Rankine writes of this
… as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others.
To Rankine, it seemed in the years following the 2011 Open, Serena swallowed the anger as people of color are forced to do. I suspect Colin Kaepernick is going through the same thing. This internalization of anger, of having to present a different persona to the world, one that goes along to get along, leads to a dissociation, a division of oneself into two. This is inherently unhealthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet, for the person of color, failure to do so can lead to death. Consider what happens to the person of color, particularly males, pulled over by police. Consider what happens to young white men involved in crime for the first time and given leniency versus young people of color. Rankine writes powerfully about this in a passage related to violence perpetrated by whites against people of color, which ends with this:
Boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity heaving butting heads righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence charging forward in their way experiencing the position of positioning which is a position for only one kind of boy face it know it for the other boy for the other boys the fists the feet criminalized already exploding the landscape and then the litigious hitting back is life imprisoned.
The writing there and in other passages regarding the dissonance, the disconnect between what one feels and what one may show, the fruits of racism, is powerful. Rankine employs her extraordinary artistry in a way that feels bewildering and turbulent to the reader, as it surely must feel to the victims of racism. This is the reality for a person of color in America, and as much as those oppressed might wish to unleash their wholly justified anger in the face of these racist aggressions, large and small, they cannot, because …
…this is how you are a citizen: come on. Let it go. Move on.
Citizen is an extraordinary work. As a white person, I couldn’t help but think of situations where perhaps I did or said something similar to what Rankine writes about, or stood by and did nothing when injustices occurred before my eyes. How often have I seen these everyday racisms and done nothing? I recommend Citizen to anyone who thinks of him/herself as a “good person” and not at all racist. It might make you uncomfortable, but that’s a good place to start for meaningful change. I imagine this book would generate some profitable classroom discussions, too