The Buildup of Erasure
By Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press, 2014
Claudia Rankine’s fifth book, Citizen: An American Lyric, defies categorization. A hybrid (and well-designed) work of literature which catalogs the disrupted and personal experience of blackness in America, Citizen is written almost entirely in prose blocks and punctuated with uncaptioned images from art and news media. By using the second person singular throughout the book, and a few key phrases as refrains (“Yes, and” begins fourteen of the book’s sentences, and the question, “What did you just say?” recurs in various forms), Rankine offers a hybrid mode of making meaning as the ostensible accessibility of her prose’s anecdotal mode makes room for the more gesturally difficult poetry that arrives toward the book’s end. Or perhaps the poetry makes room for prose (Rankine is known primarily as a poet). Either way, Citizen represents a formal place within literature for the thorny conversation, chronic grief, (yes, and) anger surrounding race in America, all of which require something of both prose and poetry to be fully integrated into a single work of art.
The first of seven sections are written in an intimate, dejected conversational tone that signals a need for another mode of sense-making simply to avoid the “high physiological costs” of racism. After hearing from a university colleague that “the dean is making him hire someone of color when there are so many great writers out there,” the ever-present “you” is left with nothing but silence:
Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to the stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
This is where poetry comes in. Section V feels like the book’s crisis, if it is to have only one (and the book is made mostly of crises, each acutely felt): the attempt to express experience about race only in poetry falls short. “Tried rhyme,” she writes “tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried. . . Anyway, sit down. Sit here alongside.” Poetry alone cannot accomplish what Rankine is after—prose is needed because it is how we speak to one another. Different modes of sense-making vie for traction. The section moves between fragment, aside, complaint, and the lyric, or music, into which she slips only briefly:
You could build a world out of need or you could hold everything black and see. You give back the lack.
You hold everything black. You give yourself back until nothing’s left but the dissolving blues of metaphor.
Rankine’s suspicion of the “lyric” makes plain why she chooses prose more often to make her points: as Carolyn Forche wrote in her now-canonical prose poem about an atrocity she witnessed in El Salvador, “The Colonel,” “there is no other way to say this” (it is the only poem in prose in Forche’s book). Citizen maps out an experience of blackness that is repetitive, preoccupied, painful, dissociative and highly vulnerable in a hybrid, illustrated book-length work that must be considered as a book if its full impact is to be appreciated.
Graphically, Citizen is a work of minimalist art, and that design is representative of the book’s overall style—to lay something very plainly before you, and to let it speak for itself. The choice to silhouette the hood of a black sweatshirt on an otherwise white cover allows the hood to become a hyper-charged sign, recalling both the uniform of the archetypal Black criminal and the hood of the prisoner in the most famous of the Abu Ghraib photos, as well as the executioner’s hood, as Dan Chiasson has pointed out, and the linguistic shorthand for a thug. Entire neighborhoods are collapsed into the “hood.” To remove the hood and show it empty, ripped from the rest of the garment or the person who wears it, also performs the metonymic act that any of us practice when we allow one aspect of a person to stand in for their entire being. To secure the point, Rankine works in the illustrative words of Zora Neal Hurston as a kind of touchstone returned to again and again in the book: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (the book’s type is black, and its pages are bright, bright white).
Pages often run short, as they did in Rankine’s breakaway 2004 book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which sparely and carefully articulated the way the world repositioned itself following the 9/11 attacks. A representative page from Citizen:
In the next frame the pickup truck is in motion. Its motion activates its darkness. The pickup truck is a condition of darkness in motion. It makes a dark subject. You mean a black subject. No, a black object.
To set a few sentences of prose high and alone on a page is to imply there is more to say, to allow room for the silence required by articulating things of great difficulty. The above paragraph is an illustrative use of page breaks in Citizen—it appears alone on a page facing the work’s dedication to James Craig Anderson, the 49-year-old black man who was run over and killed by an 18-year-old white kid in a pickup in Jackson, Mississippi in 2012. The pickup truck becomes the vehicle for violence, anonymity, brute power, and an occasion for the conversation the narrator has with herself. The piece could have been in memory of James Byrd. Our attention is not directed toward the identity of James Craig Anderson, but to the way in which the pickup truck becomes the power-wielding weapon. The black “object” was, not incidentally, the (literal and syntactic) subject of Ronaldo V. Wilson’s 2009 collection of poems, Poems of the Black Object, which used the pronoun “it,” to complicate the first person, as Rankine complicates it with “you.” The “black object” is here established as a product of hate, just as the pickup truck is, in Rankine’s words, “a figure of speech.” Once the brutal act has been performed and the man is dead, we are left with the object of the pickup truck, and the object of the body of James Craig Anderson:
Then the pickup is beating the black object to the ground and the tire marks the crushed organs. Then the audio, I ran that nigger over, is itself a record-breaking hot June day in the twenty-first century.
The pickup returns us to live cruelty, like sunrise, red streaks falling from dawn to asphalt—then again this pickup is not about beauty. It’s a pure product.
Rankine takes a clinical-poetic approach. When we allow ourselves to become products of hate, we are capable of treating others as inconvenient objects. And when we seek beauty in everything, as some expect poetry to do, we are missing the point. It is Rankine’s intimate and relentless litany of uncomfortable, mania-inducing examples of everyday breaches in the social agreement, coupled with her acknowledgment of her list itself as a kind of trespass, that marks Citizen as a step toward the kind of deep engagement that truly reckons with the pain caused by racism in America. But her gaze is not entirely limited to the American experience of race.
Rankine includes a piece written for Mark Duggan, whose death by the officers of Scotland Yard was the seldom-mentioned catalyst for the 2011 London riots in Hackney, because the (presumably white) English novelist who compares, in Rankine’s piece dedicated to Duggan, the Hackney riots to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots will not write about Mark Duggan himself. Even in educated, artistic communities like the one she describes in the piece, racial differences often prevent us from writing about each other, let alone developing meaningful relationships. In the interest of giving the writer (the “English sky” she calls him) an exit from what has become a difficult conversation, she offers,
One could become acquainted with the inflammation that existed around Duggan’s body and it would be uncomfortable. Grief comes out of relationships to subjects over time and not to any subject in theory, you tell the English sky, to give him an out. The distance between you and him is thrown into relief: bodies moving through the same life differently. With your eyes wide open you consider what this man and you, two middle-aged artists, in a house worth more than a million pounds, share with Duggan. Mark Duggan, you are part of the misery.
Only once we have seen the process of objectification occur can we recognize the process of disappearance that objectification allows to happen. This may be old hat to some—W. E. B. Du Bois covered this ground in 1903 with The Souls of Black Folk. But Rankine’s prose is highly contemporary—this is a book about right now, when Du Bois’s veil and double-consciousness are as relevant as ever (which speaks directly to the failure of white attitudes to do away with the objectification of blacks over the course of the hundred-plus years since Du Bois published his book). The book is not merely timely; with any luck—because works of literature can enjoy a slower burn than current events—the conversation surrounding it will have more staying power than the most recent familiar tragedy. In an act of anticipatory relevance, subsequent printings of the book have included black Americans who have been killed by police since September 2014 (namely Michael Brown and Eric Garner), along with a series of lines reading, “In Memory of,” followed by blank space, awaiting the names of the future dead. The page is facing a single statement:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying.
The conversation surrounding Citizen will probably be markedly different between black and white readers of the book, and that is part of Rankine’s point: to draw attention to the ways race is encountered on a personal level, especially in educated circles, where most of the events she narrates take place, especially between black and white citizens. White readers may find the book a look into a world they have never seen so intimately (and this is a credit to Rankine’s ability to nail down the emotional experience of racism), and readers of color may simply find their own experiences reflected back to them, which is one of the literature’s s most comforting abilities: to provide company. Although the book sidesteps accusing white readers of being bystanders, they are at the very least spectators, gawking at the pain of others, which comes with its own painful moment of recognition. Rankine offers a spectrum of stakes: in one instance, a (presumably white) woman, having checked out successfully at a supermarket without incident, says nothing when her (presumably black) friend, next in line, is asked by the clerk, “do you think your card will work?”
As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she?
Later on in the book, a photograph of a lynching appears toward the bottom of a page. The lynched black body has been cropped out of the photograph, and instead our gaze is redirected toward the crowd of white faces below, some of whom are smiling, some look up, some are distracted, in their own worlds. The Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote that “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men.” Citizen bears this out, shifting the scales to even the weight between private experiences of racism and the violent racist events in the center of national attention.
Rankine’s prose style in Citizen moves between the deliberately dressed down, and the repetitive, architectural style of formal poetry. Words recur because they must be revisited, must be further examined, exploded, rehearsed. Or their recurrence is a performance of the way racist interactions happen, happen, and happen again. “Have you seen their faces?” repeats in the piece about Hurricane Katrina, comprised partially of quotes collected from CNN.
He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come.
He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.
“I didn’t see you,” repeats in the piece about the drugstore. “Goodbye” repeats in the piece about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old shot by a 31-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012. Each refrain leaves us with an absence, an emptiness, like the hood on the book’s cover.
But the most significant repetition in the book is “you,” the multivocal actor in each of the present-tense narratives, creating a single, simultaneously occurring story with multiple chapters. The uncertainty as to who is speaking is itself somewhat disorienting, but this intentional rhetorical disorientation allows readers to approach the subject experientially, as each will do according to her own experience. Rankine chooses an epigraph from French filmmaker, poet, and book designer Chris Marker’s 1983 film, Sans Soleil: “if they don’t see the happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” Representation of an expansive subjectivity always falls short, but we must accept this about literature if we are to write it. Rankine offers no explicit argument—instead, she offers relentless experiential trauma, its power as rooted in vulnerability as it is in the revelation of chronic grief.
Mary Austin Speaker is the author of the poetry collection Ceremony (Slope Editions 2013), four chapbooks and a play, I Am You This Morning You Are Me Tonight (Bridge 2012), written with her husband, the poet Chris Martin. Her critical work can be found in Painted Bride Quarterly and Pleiades. She lives in Minneapolis where she runs a small design studio, and is currently writer-in-residence at the South Minneapolis Society Library.