“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” —Zora Neale Hurston
The cover of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric throws the hood of a sweatshirt against a sharp white background. The hood is threadbare; its symbolic weight is considerable: it immediately brings to mind images of young black life and its execution, as well as the deliberate, systematic imprisonment of millions of black citizens. And juxtaposed with the uppercased title — CITIZEN — this hood, torn from its body, is shot through with consequence: it becomes a metaphorical citizen, with alienable rights, ripped from the body politic and hanged — in a gallery. As a political maneuver that fronts a book of poetry, the placement of the hood beams with the contradictions of our historical moment — Trayvon Martin wears a hoodie and is ruthlessly murdered; Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie to the launch of his IPO and earns a billion dollars. So it’s all the more shocking when you realize that the hood is actually an artwork (“In the Hood”) by David Hammons from 1993, exhibited one year after the LA riots.
Citizen is not about systemic racism or police brutality — not directly. It instead charts the accumulation of racist moments in the lives of black citizens, and how these moments, over time, express themselves on black bodies. It also considers what is possible for black life — what can be seen, said, heard, tasted, or smelled — when its only options are invisibility or hypervisibility in a white world. With the turn of each page, it burns the reader with terrible intimations of racial hatred delivered in prose stanzas that appear to have been cut with a razor. It is simple, like a bruise. Yet it is as formally complex as Four Quartets.
The book opens with a necklace of small stories about casual racism told in the second person. Only, in a formal move that I’ve never encountered before, the “you” addressed by the speaker is fluid: it is often the speaker herself, but sometimes it implicates the reader or another character. The results are haunting:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?
Speaking to the New Yorker from Ferguson in August, Rankine describes her poetic form as an expression of the divide in American life:
That’s what I was trying for, the play on the idea of the second person, the idea that there’s another America. I started working on “Citizen” as a way of talking about invisible racism—moments that you experience and that happen really fast. They go by at lightning speed, and you begin to distrust that they even happened, and yet you know that you feel bad somehow.
Throughout the book, this “invisible racism” is made visible in flashes that you feel in your body:
When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in the Starbucks as niggers. Hey, I am standing right here, you respond, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you.
So it makes sense that Rankine transitions into a series of essay-poems and script-poems that deal with black bodies in space. She writes about Serena Williams and Zinedine Zidane, two athletes who are no strangers to racism, but who are also archetypes for the body’s expression of racism in an arena. She also wonders aloud about how racism has marked her own body. These passages are sometimes intercut with images: in one case an image of one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, which are meant to conceal race, class, and gender. These images, which are perfectly positioned in the book, reveal an unfathomably dextrous mind at home with a range of disciplines.
At some point in the book’s fifth section, in the heart of Citizen, I realized that the book itself, the thing I was holding, was black thrown onto a white background, text on a page. I became totally estranged from my environment. I started to wonder about how these small moments of casual hatred grow into systems that drown black lives, like waves or rain. But Rankine was far ahead of me:
No, it’s a strange beach; each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads.
Citizen is a major work of American poetry that deserves to win the National Book Award. More than that: it demands to be read and discussed now, in the current moment, when, in Ferguson and elsewhere, the daily struggles of black life are being thrown onto a background that is all too white.