Thursday, February 19, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric
Race is something we Americans still have not gotten right. Rankine’s small book of essays tells us the myriad ways we consistently misinterpret others’ motives, actions, skin color. She writes in second person: "you." It is agonizing to display our flayed skin to the salt of another day. You take to wearing sunglasses inside.

I call these essays while Holly Bass in the NYTimes calls them poems. They are fragments, scripts or screenplays for video or film, shards of thought, sharp and able to pierce one with remembered pain. Bass's review (12.24.14) explains the floating and disembodied hoodie on the cover, black against a field of white: an art installation made in 1993 by David Hammons, long before Trayvon Martin died; before he was even born. Rankine shares a line attributed to Zora Neale Hurston: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background."

Rankine talks of tennis, of Serena and Venus, of foot faults and bad calls. I didn’t know these things: I don’t watch tennis. But foot faults and bad calls are happening on our streets, not within the civilized constraints of a rule-bound tennis game. These I do watch. The agony of the small daily slights crescendo, collapse, avalanche when the police become involved. No wonder people run away from police, our ‘guardians’. We have all learned something these many years and it is not that police are guardians.

Overhead in the conference room: “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” Yes, it is a cultural difference. They got that right. But that’s all: Nothing more sinister or insoluble. And since we know that America is all about cultural differences, this should be something to celebrate. Or profit from.

My mind slides to Obama, and how I don’t think of him as black anymore. Have whites co-opted him? Or is it because black and white are not as different as we were expecting? That our differences really are only skin deep. I worry that we expected Obama to “fix the race problem.” How can he fix the thousand interactions we have every day between us? By denying any differences? Have we learned nothing, nor made any progress at all? Our divisions may have been exacerbated. Tell me it ain’t so.

Rankine’s essays reference the language of video, of film. My mind skims her short paragraphs and the indignities, the small and the large slights blossom. Together we imagine film, great films, films everyone watches and re-watches, praising the actorly restraint and real-life quality of the slurs...something European in slowness and length…that shows us, white and black and yellow and red…what we say, what we think, what we do…to each other. Catching those moments of misinterpretation, or interpretation, waking up to ourselves—this is what great film does.

There is so much work to be done, art to make, change to happen! The urgency weighs on me. "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers": James Baldwin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky agree on definition. The ingredients of art are all around us, fat and ripe and ready to be harvested. There is so much art to be made, so many lessons to learn. Hurry!

Citizen was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. Claudia Rankine is a poet.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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