This past fall, for a class in fiction “after modernism,” I gave myself the task of writing a paper on literary depictions of postmodern blackness as they stem from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (and how it figures in my own writing), but struggled to find a contemporary text that could entirely reflect the new 21st century erasure of blackness. I needed a text that would put into context the recent events that have been bombarding my own consciousness for the past few years. I wanted to find some way to talk about Trayvon Martin and how the media aftermath made me feel as a black person in America who thought herself relatively sheltered from racial encounters, but suddenly could not avoid them despite never being one of the bodies involved. I wanted to do this through the lens of someone else’s work because I needed to ground it in something literary and because it wasn’t something I had worked through myself yet. For weeks I was stuck—until I began reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which I had recently borrowed from a poet friend. What follows is an [edited] excerpt from that paper plus some quotes from Rankine herself for added context.
In 1952 Ralph Ellison coined the term “invisible man” as a way of describing the social position of black Americans. More than 60 years later, it is just as relevant.
As Ellison’s narrator explains in the preface, his invisibility is not the stuff of science fiction or “a bio-chemical accident.” It’s the refusal or inability of others to see him as a person, which “is sometimes advantageous” but often causes him to doubt his own existence. The effects of this invisibility on the narrator’s psyche is crippling and consuming; the pain of it makes him want to lash out, which he does, both physically and through his participation in protest movements. But in the post-civil rights era, for many blacks, met with micro-evidence of their own invisibility, there is no lashing out. There is surprise, confusion, and, if not acceptance or denial, a raging silence. bell hooks writes:
“The period directly after the black power movement was a time when major news magazines carried articles with cocky headlines like ‘what ever happened to Black America?’ This was an ironic reply to the aggressive unmet demand by decentered, marginalized black subjects who had at least for the moment successfully demanded a hearing, who had made it possible for black liberation to be a national political agenda. In the wake of the black power movement, after so many rebels were slaughtered and lost, many of these voices were silenced by a repressive state and others became inarticulate.”
The “black power” movement has since degenerated to the less ambitious notion that “black lives matter.” While many blacks have been able to achieve upward mobility in to the middle and upper classes, underclassed blacks are finding themselves in deeper holes. Class and racial segregation has remained alive through property-tax-based funding of public education, network-based employment opportunities, discriminatory drug laws, unjust policing activities, biased juries and judges who hand down harsher punishments for black defendants…and the list goes on. As bell hooks says, “For African-Americans our collective condition prior to the advent of postmodernism and perhaps more tragically expressed under current postmodern conditions has been and is characterized by continued displacement, profound alienation and despair…We are talking here about tremendous hopelessness.”
This is the context that I see as precipitating Citizen. However, though Rankine does explore institutional racism, she also focuses on smaller moments between people, moments that happen, not only to victims of institutional racism, but to the upwardly mobile black class as well. Rankine says, in an interview with NPR:
“I wanted to create the field of the encounter; what happens when one body comes up against another and race enters into the moment of intimacy between two people…On the one hand, I am talking about institutionalized racism. But on another and, I think, equally important level, I’m just talking about what happens when we fail each other as people.”
One such failure is detailed in Rankine’s “Open Letter: A Dialogue on Poetry and Race,” which she presented a few years before Citizen in response to a colleague’s poem that featured a seemingly un-admonished [racist] speaker who says things like “I couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.” Giving her colleague the benefit of the doubt, Claudia went to have a conversation with him about the poem’s aims and was met with the response that the poem was “for white people.” Everything in Rankine’s response (excerpted here) to the poem—particularly the friction between the “old black” and “new black”—is explored in Citizen. And towards the end of her address, we see the stark difference between Ellison’s 1950s invisibility and today’s—today, it’s not so much that blacks in America are not seen and acknowledged as people, but that they are seen or recognized as people who don’t quite belong (“one of my tribe”):
Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable, by which she meant, I believe, there is no avoiding the word-filled sticks and stones of others. Our emotional openness, she added, is borne, in both its meanings, by our addressability. Language navigates this.
For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him.
This overwhelming presence is deeply felt in Citizen, particularly in the book’s prose poems at the front—all true stories from Rankine’s personal experience and the experiences of some friends and colleagues. To mirror this “addressability” of which Rankine speaks, she writes these poems using direct address. In one such poem, the “you,” a black professor, is told by a white professor that the dean “is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” The “you” wonders, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” but never says so aloud, remains silent:
“…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. 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.”
In the supposed “post-racial” society, in order to maintain your position of having escaped being one of the black underclass, “you” must be silent to white micro-aggression that questions your place among them. That silence in action can be witnessed in this excerpt from Chapter 1:
More such micro-aggressions abound in Citizen: being called by the name of the one other black person in your workplace and subtly being blamed for it (“Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion”) (43), being told your photograph looks angry (“Do you look angry? You wouldn’t have said so. Obviously this unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable, and he needs you to account for that”) (46), or being asked beforehand by a cashier whether or not you think your card will work when your white colleague was not asked the same question. Themes of erasure and whitewashing continue, as blacks are expected to act as if the past has had no effect on their present: “You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice” (61).
Citizen, however, will not let us forget the past, particularly in its connection to the present state of our institutions. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Rankine explains how the chain of micro-aggressions, and the people behind them, can reverberate into more dire consequences:
“The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.”
This is exemplified no better than in the section of Citizen dedicated to Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old boy pursued and killed in 2012 by a man—later found “not guilty” by a majority-white jury—who thought Martin “looked suspicious”:
“My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget my name. What is that knowledge? Is it sadness?
Those years of and before me and my brothers, that years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, each a felony, boy, hey boy, accumulate into the hours inside our childhood where we are all caught hanging, 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.”
(Click here for video: “Situation 5, by Claudia Rankine and John Lucas”)
Here Rankine alludes to the startling statistic that one in three black men will go to jail during their lifetime, many of them for non-violent offenses. How can that be? Elsewhere, in her poem for the Jena Six, Rankine writes, “…the fists the feet criminalized already are weapons already exploding the landscape and then the litigious hitting back is life imprisoned” (101), detailing the way in which black male lives are sought out disproportionately by the current climate of the justice system, pre-determining their fates: “Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans” (151).
In that same interview with NPR, Rankine says the following:
“There are two worlds out there; two America’s out there. If you’re a white person, there’s one way of being a citizen in our country; and if you’re a brown or a black body, there’s another way of being a citizen and that way is very close to death. It’s very close to the loss of your life. It’s very close to the loss of your liberties at any random moment. And so I wanted that to be considered.”
But blacks are told that Trayvon Martin’s death was not about race. After Trayvon’s killer is let off, deemed “not guilty” for killing an innocent boy whose blackness made him “suspicious,” blacks are expected to respond: “Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.”