Citizen: An American Lyric
(Graywolf Press, 2014)
Within the first pages of Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine establishes, through personal anecdote told in the second person, the themes that will be explored in the book: race, privilege, public versus private persona, memory and most ubiquitously, language, or, more specifically, the power of language both to construct and deconstruct personhood. "Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word," she writes. The book is a gorgeous compilation of essay, poetry, and image assembled so that each section, paragraph, image, and line adds a layer of texture and meaning to the next. The effect of this layering gives the sense of drilling down, a deep investigation into the real state of race in this country as constructed through different mediums of communication—private conversation, public spectacle, visual art, mass media, and popular music.
Citizen, shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award, attaches itself to the myth of post-racial America so as to obliterate it. We can no more exist in a "post-race" America than we can experience a collective amnesia with regard to the history of race in our country. Late in the book, Rankine quotes James Baldwin who says, "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers." Laying bare the question of what it means to be a citizen of this country then becomes the purpose of this book—a question that has been hidden by our assumption that we have moved past "the difficulty of all that," as Rankine describes it. It is precisely because we think we're beyond "all that"—racism, both old and new—that this meditation on the contemporary reverberations of segregation and slavery resonates so sharply. It is through this intense investigation of race that Rankine reveals our deep lack of empathy for one another, and the book is utterly successful in illustrating just how massive that void is.
What Citizen demonstrates is that society fails not only on the national level but also on the individual level. Throughout the book, Rankine writes in the second person, forcing the reader to experience racism as target, witness, and perpetrator. The choice also serves as a call to action. "The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you." As a white reader, it becomes clear that I am vastly ill-equipped to understand the precise and unjust ways in which the world is wrong. For example, Rankine repeatedly returns to the idea of erasure or the invisibility of the black body to the white viewer. "[He] has never seen him [the black subject], has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself." The point of this assertion is to both make me, the white reader, realize that I haven't seen "him" and also to force me to do just that. This is just one example of many where Rankine conveys the white individual's inability to comprehend the black experience. And it is in that lack of comprehension that empathy is lost—and it is in the lack of empathy that aggression and hatred are born. This is Rankine's goal—to show me the dearth of my own experience and understanding so that I can see outside of my narrow and privileged perspective.
While Citizen is illuminating, it would be inappropriate and reductive to call it didactic. Rather, the book's form functions metaphorically, using an abundance of white space that works either as a place for silence or for response—an invitation to a conversation (this is also another effect of the second person). Conversation is important for two reasons. First, it encourages active participation and thoughtful communication. Second, conversation breeds empathy through the pursuit of understanding.
Throughout the course of that conversation the reader is introduced to, or perhaps reminded of, a series of truths about the erasure of the black body and the hatred that is created through this erasure. Rankine says, "There is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred." The book's blended form—juxtaposing individual experience with public spectacle, visual art with journalistic photos—conveys the breadth of this assertion while simultaneously validating it. It also shows how that hatred has been commodified and thus largely disregarded. This is the conversation that Rankine wants to have.
Race has a deeply rooted history in this country and Rankine pulls on those threads of memory to highlight the disparity between how far we think we've come and where we actually are: "as if then / and now were not the same moment."
While Rankine poses the question of citizenship, it is not one that she answers because, again, she is not interested in answers but in dialogue. It is the questions and the conversation—the path to understanding and empathy—that are most important. Rankine takes this approach in part to engage a society that mistakenly believes we are past "all that" and in part because she doesn't quite have a solution. "I don't know how to end what doesn't have an ending. / Tell me a story, he says, wrapping his arms around me." Thus, her solution is to deeply investigate racism through art and it becomes our responsibility to come up with the answer. Or, perhaps the purpose of the book is to leave this lasting question: "How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?"
JILL DEHNERT is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.