Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine

Reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen the same week that the news and social media were full of the mass murder at the historic AME Church in Charleston, SC, was actually painful. While the SC attack demonstrated the most horrific racism we can imagine, Rankine forces our attention to the more mundane aspects of prejudice--the thoughtless remark, the refusal to sit next to an African American on the bus, the easy judgments about prominent African Americans who, for one moment, lose their equanimity. She also talks about a number of the recent police killings of African Americans, but for me, most devastating was the reminder of the manifestations of deeply engrained racism that African Americans must confront every single day. As a major Serena Williams fan, I also appreciated Rankine's insights into why Serena reacted as she did when a referee made an indefensible call at the U.S. Open in 2009--I had never understood how the usually composed Williams completely lost her cool--but Rankine's explanation--that Serena had reached a point of utter exhaustion with the weight of a lifetime of bad calls and unfriendly crowd--has the ring of truth.

 The form of the book is unusual.  It is not exactly poetry--and yet it is definitely poetic. One of the jacket blurbers called her writing prose poetry, which is a form I've never quite understood--but it seems like a good description here. Meditations was another word that came to mind. The sections about police killings are written as scripts for Situation videos, which she produces with a colleagues (search YouTube to find examples).

Citizen is a slim but powerful volume that I recommend  highly.

Favorite passages:
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. 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 stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.

The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.

because white men can't
police their imagination
black men are dying

That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping. That's the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice.

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