Claudia Rankine is challenging our notions of what poetry should look like. Her latest volume, a mediation on race called Citizen: An American Lyric, has been variously described by critics as one “book-length poem”, a collection of “lyric essays”, and “like viewing an experimental film or live performance.” Having already won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, Citizen last night won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. “As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readers’ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object,” said Forward judge Carrie Etter. “So be it.”
Citizen questions the very idea that that a person can live as a full American citizen in dark skin, calling to mind Langston Hughes’s famous 1935 refrain, “America never was America to me”. “Americans,” she writes, “battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’”. For black Americans, this battle is a painful one.
Rankine herself moved to New York from Kingston when she was seven. Her parents both worked in hospitals, her father as an orderly, her mother as a nurse’s aid, and encouraged her education. At her Embankment hotel, Rankine tells me she spent much of her childhood in a predominantly white neighbourhood: “I was often in situations where I was the only black person in the room.” Did that mean she was particularly vulnerable to racism from her peers?
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“There were some incidents,” she says. “Only looking back do I gather up the moments.”
Citizen at times functions as a written exhibition of such incidents, exposing them under a stark glare. It opens by narrating, in the second person, a succession of microaggressions: layered moments of racism experienced by Rankine and friends she interviewed during her research. No one suspects the white schoolgirl who copies your work in every exam. A friend calls you a “nappy-headed ho.” You hear a woman with multiple degrees say, “I didn’t know black people could get cancer.”
“What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?” The reading experience soon becomes overwhelming.
“The intention,” Rankine says, “was to recreate the feeling of exhaustion, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the life that you’re living.”
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Citizen is often, and to great effect, written in a voice brimming with anger. In person, Rankine is warm and generous: softly-spoken and quick to laugh. She tells me that while Citizen was meant to be abrasive, she also aimed for it to be an inclusive work, that would allow people from all backgrounds to think about race.
“By using the second person,” she adds, “the reader has to inhabit the ‘You’, and make decisions about who is receiving the violence, and who is doing the violence; who holds the power, and who is the victim. It becomes a public space that you have to step into, and decide how you fit into it.”
This certainly suits the work’s radical, experimental form. As she collages different experiences and perspectives, her book adapts formally, weaving from essay, to short stanzas, to stream of consciousness-like prose, eroding boundaries of place or self.
“I’m really interested in this idea of community document and curating the space of the text. So many of these pieces were brought to me through interviews where I would ask a question like, ‘When were you involved in an intimate exchange with someone, and suddenly race entered?’ The question was what to do with these stories once you have them: you can’t take them as your own, because they’re not your own. And yet, I wanted to replicate the sense of having these stories come at you.”
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This string of smaller, racially coded moments is regularly interrupted by mediations on the instances of violent racism that rocked a nation: the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. The effect is to distort a traditional conception of micro and macro: suddenly, a new colleague’s kneejerk greeting, “I didn’t know you were black!” feels as catastrophic as physical attack.
“I think we’re used to thinking about race in terms of spectacle,” Rankine explains. In a piece for the New York Times published just after the Charleston massacre, Rankine wrote that by transforming the slain black body into a public spectacle, America is able to observe these atrocities from a distance, without comprehension or mourning. This, she tells me, enables us to continue living our daily lives under the illusion that, aside from these terrible, isolated incidents, they are not tinged with racism. “In fact, people like Dylann Roof are in our culture, hearing all of these microaggressions daily, and are being built out of that.
“I wanted to show that the consciousness is the same. Even if the person who says something like, ‘I didn’t think black people could get cancer,’ isn’t going to go out and shoot a black person, they may still go on a jury and not be able to prosecute a white policeman for the killing of black people, because they still don’t understand black people as fully human.”
Citizen is a work preoccupied by negative space. A white woman on a train stands rather than take the last remaining seat, next to a young black man. “The space next to the man,”Rankine writes, “is the pause in the conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill.” It’s the thin outline of a hypothetical suspect. It’s the awkward moment prompting what Rankine calls, “close-the-gap laughter”. It’s the split-second it takes to fire a gun.
These spaces always feel dangerous. “It’s the space of projection, basically,” says Rankine. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds, or in that empty seat, is all of white supremacist history building up. You end up on the other side of that with a dead body. Or a deadened body: deadened by understanding the self to be completely other, completely crimialised, completely demonised, within the imagination of whiteness.”
In one of the book’s most striking moments, this space visually intrudes the page. Three lines of poetry sit in isolation:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
In a long essay on Serena Williams, Rankine writes that the tennis star’s body is “trapped in disbelief – code for being black in America.” This idea of disbelieving black bodies calls to mind Eric Garner, the New York resident who, arrested by police, died in a chokehold after repeating the phrase “I can’t breathe” eleven times to dismissive officers. I mention that when Dylann Roof was arrested after the Charleston shootings, he told police officers he was hungry. They bought him Burger King.
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Rankine laughs. “The incommensurate experiences between how the police in the United States treat white criminals and innocent black people is insane. To be white and violent is not an equation that exists in the United States. Men like Dylann, to those policemen, are their sons. This is my boy, he made a mistake! And he happens to be hungry right now and so, he needs to go to Burger King. And ultimately, what did he do? Nothing. But kill some black people.”
The aftermath of the Charleston shootings saw a renewed debate about symbols of white supremacy in the US. The Confederate flag, which Roof proudly wore on his jacket, was removed from South Carolina capitol grounds. A discussion was reopened about roads named after confederate generals. Symbols like these permeate Rankine’s text at a visual level: one of the handful of photographs and artworks that pepper Citizen is an image of a road of whitewashed wooden houses with a prominent sign reading Jim Crow Rd.
“These symbols are huge,” she says. “They subliminally prop up the history of race in America even as people deny that the history exists in the present. They’re incredibly important in maintaining the fictions that whiteness subliminally exists around.”
These reminders of an America built on the backs of black people may be starting to come down. But Citizen resists the idea that Americans can ever escape their history: “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” If this is true, is Rankine still hopeful for the future of black Americans?
“I don’t think I would be talking to you, or writing what I write, if I didn’t feel hopeful. I do think we are making progress. Just not at the rate that’s saving lives yet.”
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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide