Citizen: An American Lyric
Considering Schiller and Arnold Through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
To consider the social function of art is to endeavor to contemplate a question that has haunted great literary critics since the Greek philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Two minds that both considered and offered explanations to this question in the 1700-1800’s were the German Friedrich Schiller and the English Matthew Arnold. Both Schiller and Arnold offer explanations that are heavily focused on presenting literature as the pinnacle and model of self and societal harmony. Schiller’s suppositions from Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man argue that art is the medium through which humans can defy the fractious nature of specialized society by presenting literature as a mode of balance that interweaves society’s factions. Arnold’s arguments in “On Poetry” and “The Study of Poetry” suggests that poetry, itself, is of the utmost significance in the way it harmonizes human ideals above all other facets of study and consideration. Although Schiller’s and Arnold’s theorizations on the social nature of literature are intertwined in explaining the paramount value of literature in society, Arnold’s arguments suffer from exactly the fragmented systems Schiller warns against.
The second chapter of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric depicts Schiller evaluation of art being able to transcend fixed occupational categories as being supreme to Arnold’s commentary where literature functions as both an expansion and a source of division. In summary of the second chapter of Citizen, it is a provocative evaluation of race and gender through the juxtaposition of Serena Williams against tennis, or black against Zora Neal Hurston’s “sharp white background” (25). In this chapter, regardless of blatant and systemic racism, both of which Rankine explicitly points out, the overarching critiques expose blatant white racial and cultural superiority through microagressions, which run rampantly on a societal scale much larger than the international tennis setting. Rankine’s critique continues by questioning the predetermined behavioral molds institutions inflicts on minorities, and how Serena, a black female who is the best tennis player in the world, is expected to act like “smiling blond goodness” by tennis commentators (36). Throughout this chapter, the most poignant moments are the one’s that rhetorically consider language, once by pointing out that when Serena was an aggressive tennis player she was characterized as “insane, crass, crazy” and having “bad sportsmanship” (30). Ultimately, Citizen ponders the question of societal harmony by pondering societal and social injustices, guiding readers to consider the hurtfulness of language and the systems in which it operates.
Citizen is then engaged deliberately with a component of societal division, and is also a work both Schiller and Arnold would argue brings the self and society closer to harmony through the poetic address of fractious society. The multidimensionality of the work, though, would be more greatly and fairly appreciated by Schiller than Arnold. The dimensions that add artistic layers to Citizen are found in the presentation and visuals Rankine includes. The presentation of the work functions as an extended metaphor for precisely the tennis-sphere Serena finds herself in, as the chapter itself consists black lettering against a stark white background. Through this chapter’s presentation and visuals, which artistically delve beyond words, letters, and prose, the paradox between invisibility and hypervisibility for black “citizens” can be addressed in multiple formats and in the multitude of societal formats in which it exists. This paradox is in the way black citizens are marginalized in general representation spanning from education to government, yet, ostracized or differentiated when in the forefront of whitewashed backdrops.
Arnold’s arguments in “On Poetry” suggest that “poetry is more intellectual than art” and more interpretive (183). While Arnold accepts literature in an expansive variety, he still argued that it is “in closer correspondence with the intelligential nature of man” and that “poetry thinks and the arts do no not” (183). Arnold’s expansive literary canon, then, may accept the second chapter of Citizen in its’ evolved dimensions, but it would discount the integrity of the visuals a standalone and equal component of the piece. Whereas Schiller’s work denotes the importance of not fragmenting human knowledge forms, arguing that when divided “the inner unity of human nature” would then be “severed too and a disastrous conflict set its’ harmonious nature at variance” (486). The open mind of Schiller, which lacks the literature-focused hierarchy of arts of Arnold, is a more practical approach to how the arts might elevate self and human harmony.
Another aspect Schiller and Arnold can be compared critically is by discussion of the differential or commensurable qualities between literature and the rest of major human knowledge forms. In terms of history, Schiller doesn’t directly discuss it as a medium, but uses ancient Greece as a historical example of harmonious society and calls for a lack of division in human knowledge forms. Using the Greeks as both an example of the harmonious society and a “fallen” society, Schiller notes that the “Greeks were wedded to the delights of dignity and wisdom, without falling prey to their seduction,” but warns that the eventual separation and singular specialization of human knowledge forms create division within “the inner unity of human nature” (485, 486). However, in “On Poetry,” Arnold specifically delineates the human knowledge forms of literature, art, science, philosophy, and religion. Rather than a harmonious society that calls to commensurate between these modes of knowledge, as does Schiller, Arnold creates a hierarchy with literature at the pinnacle, in part because “it is the most adequate and happy of the modes of manifestation through which the human pours its’ force (183). Rankine’s work is a work of poetry, but being poetry is not just what makes this work so powerful.
To fully consider this chapter of Citizen is also to consider the modern and historical context of the work as it is intertwined with history, popular culture, science, and art. To argue, as Arnold does though, that literature is all-inclusive of the best of these categories, while the individual categories themselves are limited and mutually exclusive is an unfounded conclusion. For instance, Rankine’s use of the line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” is originally from Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it feels to be colored me.” Hurston’s essay was published in 1928 during segregation and Jim Crow oppression. To unearth this is to not only consider Hurston’s work, which partially discusses racial tensions from a childhood perspective, but to draw parallels between hidden historical and blatant ongoing forms of racial inequality. In terms of knowledge forms, again, Arnold’s lack of clear reasoning and evidence to support literature as the elite culmination of knowledge forms render Schiller’s open minded approach more feasible as an explanation for literature’s role in achieving societal harmony. More difficult to explain are Schiller’s and Arnold’s arguments for how literature would actually play a role in societal harmony. Perhaps Schiller’s theory is easier to grant approval because it is rooted in the claim specialized society is fragmented. Thus, it is easier to accept “Fine art” is Schiller’s key to address disconnected society because the true artist and true art “gaze upwards” with high moral and free standards that stray from the market and “fortune” (491). The artist and the observer are both shown the freedom of artistic experience that is beyond the confining faculties of fortune, and this free artistic model of art is then the harmony- standard for the faculties it has released from the grip of market driven specialization.
By contrast, Arnold argues that “the reasons why the human spirit feel itself to attain a more adequate and satisfying expression in poetry than in any other of its modes of activity” cannot be fully pinned down (183). However, in “The Study of Poetry” Arnold does specify that poetry provokes “a higher truth and higher seriousness” than all other human studies (185). Then, the lasting seriousness and truth that poetry offers are the keys to the actualized self and a harmonious society. Aside from mentioning that that the truth and seriousness are “inseparable from the diction and movement marking its style and manner,” Arnold’s theory does lack a clear role and path for the poet outside of simply being innately good because great poetry inspires the greatest harmony. Therefore, Schiller’s argument again, pairs more fluidly with Citizen because of the clarified stipulations for the artist and description of how this harmonious society would look. In Citizen Rankine engages with the injustice of racism and artistically meditates on the mentality and institutions which foster its’ continuance. About art, Rankine criticizes an artist that speculates black artist need to act white and the separation of black, “slavery,” art from the expansive arts, saying that “any relationship between the white viewer and the black artist immediately becomes one between white persons and black property, which was the legal state of things once upon time” (34). In doing so, the prose is addressing the fractiousness of race in society by holding a higher moral standard for art, with the end goal of a society not separated by the fractiousness. A reason that this may further Schiller’s point for the artist functioning as the mediator, is addressed in the chapter as well, stating that those who call out racism in society are “called insane, crass, [and] crazy” (30). While this point might function also to prove Arnold’s point that poetry is truly superior to achieve harmony, the weight of the argument Rankine is making about racism escalates the moral standard Rankine is subjecting society to above the skilled writing. The freedom of the artist to make this point, even though in normal conversation it cannot be said sides most with Schiller. Therefore, although Arnold’s argument does connect with the second chapter of citizen, Schiller’s arguments connect more fluidly with Citizen by addressing the high moral standard necessary to foster discussion of how society becomes less fragmented.
In conclusion, Schiller’s arguments about the role of literature in fostering a harmonious society by way of an open-minded approach with a clear specification for the purpose of the poet and clarification of what justifies a harmonious society make it superior to Arnold’s argument. Arnold’s argument lacks a clear role for the poet and a description of the harmonious society. Citizen is ultimately a good work of literature to serve as a test between the theories of Arnold and Schiller, partially due to its’ modernity allowing for a comparison which stands the test of time, but most importantly because it engages with a disunity of the individual and society. A weakness of this analysis might be that Citizen is a lyric overly engaged with fractiousness in society and is therefore catered to render Schiller’s argument supreme. If a work less engaged with the societal division were presented, the skillful diction and style of good poetry could be argued as the source of inspired self and communal harmony. Although, this argument would still suffer from a lack of evidence due the self-acknowledged absence of explanation Arnold offers for poetry being able to trigger this harmony. In the end, though it seems, both Schiller and Arnold desire an environment fully accessible to the individual to actualize their harmonious self within their greater world environment.
Arnold, Matthew. “On Poetry.” Eds. Singer, Alan, and Dunn Allen. Literary Aesthetics: A Reader. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 2000. 182-85.
Arnold, Matthew. “The Study of Poetry.” Eds. Singer, Alan, and Dunn Allen. Literary Aesthetics: A Reader. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 2000. 185-86.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen : An American Lyric. 2014. Print.
Schiller, Friedrich. From Letters on the Aesthetic education of man. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2010. Print. 483-490.
Reading Between Lines of Citizen
In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the blank white space occupies more area than all of the black text and pictures combined. As a relatively short American Lyric, one must assume that this half of the book – the parts where nothing is said – has great meaning and is equally as important as what is said directly. This great amount of white space blurs the lines between what the subject is – the words or what is around them. It makes it unclear where emphasis should be drawn, and where your eyes should go. The monochromatic representation of black inked words surrounded by blank white space can be used to reflect on the hyper-visibility we place on people of color in today’s society. Additionally, the juxtaposition of images and text compared to the surrounding white space reflects on decontextualization we create in current media.
Hyper-visibility is an observation based on a sensed difference which leads to a sense of deviance around the subject being observed. This concept is exemplified heavily throughout Rankine’s lyric, but I’d like to draw specific attention to an excerpt that quotes Judith Butler’s response to being asked what makes language hurtful: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness is carried by our addressability…” (Citizen 49). Butler emphasizes the attentiveness we pay to a subject when we address them. The method in which the subject is insulted has everything to do with themselves as a being, and “all the ways [they] are present.” Racial comments towards an individual are not meant? to wipe out the person, but the opposite. They are used to put the spotlight directly on them, and hence, they become hyper-visible. Rankine recreates this sort of of hyper-visibility with dark ink on a white page so that the audience can take more notice of where we do and do not look. Our eyes gravitate and our minds wander towards what is being emphasized which, in the case of a book, is the words, even though white space takes up much more space than the words do. This concept leads us to question how the arrangement of image and space can change the meaning of the section.
The cover art of Rankine’s lyric also puts the concept of hyper-visibility and decontextualization into question. The cover art shows a black hoodie placed against white background. There is nothing behind it to take your attention away from the central vision of the empty hood of a cotton jacket with dangling strings and wire. It seems to begs the question: what is the context of this image? The rest of the jacket is not in the picture, the setting is not in the image, the face of the individual to whom this article of clothing belongs is not even included. Every detail seems to implicate something- even down to the wire poking out of the hood to represent danger. This image seems to reference directly to the death of Trayvon Martin, but the image is cited as the work of David Hammons in 1993. It slightly unsettling to learn that the image that we just assume is about Trayvon Martin predates his death by 20 years, and it seems to reflect on the repetition of seemingly identical grievances against people of color across many decades. The cover art titled “In the Hood,” and it suggests racism even with its homonym: the white imagination readily turns hoods into ‘hoods. The implication of this association is that suspicion and its associated endeavors are connected directly to the “ghetto/ bad parts of town” where people of color often live. The white backdrop recalls the quotation from Zora Neale Hurston, “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white sharp background” (Citizen, 52-53), that keeps cropping up in “Citizen.” This use of white space seems to mimic the way American society takes the words and actions of people out of context. The image we associate with Martin is a black boy in a black hoodie. This image was used to criminalize him: to say he was inherently suspicious.. He was black, he was suspicious, he was shot. No background information concerning the fact that he was just a boy going to buy a box of Skittles is included, and his race and his article of clothing are taken out of context, much like the hood of the jacket is on the cover: seen with nothing behind it but a sharp white background. This white space and positioning around the hood create parallels between formatting and perception of the message of decontextualization and hyper-visualization of people of color in today’s society.
The format of the words and whitespace alter the perception of the message being conveyed. Rankine incorporates graphic representations and space into her writing to reflect on the hyper-visibility of people of color in today’s society. There is certainly a theme Rankine incorporates that describes Zora Neale Hurston’s quotation, “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white sharp background,” (Citizen, 52-53) which is one of the two full bleeds found in the book. The text is clear and coherent at the top of the page, and as you go down the page becomes smudged with black ink and no longer easy to read. The movement from clarity at the top of each column toward disorder at the bottom alludes to the ways in which what appears to be a simple statement is, in fact, tangled in a complex web of associations. In isolating fragments from longer texts- “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” — with no suggestion of their original contexts, Ligon transforms language into a kind of abstraction, repeating the text until it is insignificant by its own repetition. The text seems most distinguishable with a solid white background behind it, comparable to Rankine’s general statement that we tend to compare the two races as separate mediums– the ink and the blank space. This specific use of space and color creates a subconscious focal point on the deep shades of ink. Such a stark contrast between monochromatic shade and light convey the message of hyper-visibility by visually representing how a sensed difference of ink and color leads to a sense of deviance and focus around the subject Hyper-visibility is also reflected upon by the juxtaposition of images and text during the world cup script.
Rankine changes the style by putting the main content only on the left pages of the book, and the right pages are saved for indicating the speaker. It would ordinarily seem unorthodox to only place words on one side, but Rankine told the entire story on one side to reflect the fact that Materazzi was painted as a victim and the media listened to only his side of the story. We have two sides to every story, seen very literally on a book with pages on both sides. This example cries out the one-sidedness of today’s media—we are bias and selective in the ways we choose to investigate and find information. While both parties were in the wrong (one for physical and one for verbal abuse) only Zidane was held accountable and the media would not confirm what was said to him. It was only “lip reading” – an ironic statement reflecting on the doubting of many of the racist acts in today’s society. This irony stems from the fact that officials refuse to rely on the information Zidane provides and instead go through the less accurate and time consuming process of watching the movement of Materazzi’s lips.
Furthermore, the notion that the quotes from individuals at this soccer game are placed directly below one another with no indication of who said them without looking at another page also recreates the sense of decontextualization. Rankine is taking quotes and instances out of context and placing them by themselves – surrounding them with white space – to mimic the media’s tendency to do this to people of color in today’s society. It is peculiar, however, that Rankine places a certain amount of context – the names of the individuals – near the quotes, yet if the reader is seeking further context, they must flip to the very back of the book to the “works cited” page to see the correlation of the images to the text, as well as what this information even came from. This form of page-flipping to locate the true meaning of the argument also creates a sense of disorientation and confusion around the subject at hand. By putting the onus on the reader to do the extra work, Rankine’s message of taking something clearly out of context is conveyed.The abrupt endings of profound and to the point statements followed by a blank page allows the allows the mind to wander and create its own meaning to the subject at hand without the bias of an explanation of the author on the same page. This blank slate below the thought-provoking subject of the writing thus forces the readers to fill in context for themselves. “Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy. / What do you mean? / Exactly, what do you mean?” (Rankine 47) The statement is not self explanatory and forces the reader’s mind to wander to connect the dots, before the next subject is abruptly introduced after a quick page turn. It also allows the reader to contemplate how the following statements on a sequential page will be connected to the seemingly isolated ideas. The effect of keeping individual instances on separate pages is also reflective of a message Rankine is attempting to create: when will we connect the separate instances and admit we have a problem with racism in American society?
The reoccurring white space in Rankine’s Citizen is crucial to the message being conveyed. By letting a single sentence or image be the only content on an otherwise blank page, the reader can begin to experience the hyper-visibility that Rankine and many other people of color have experienced in the instances shared in “Citizen,” such as the world cup and Trayvon Martin. Additionally, the juxtaposing of these profound literary arguments beg the question of the underlying context from which it was pulled. There is so much white space in the text, as if to underscore the whiteness most of see, blinding us to the everyday slights of what it means to live inside black skin.
Poetry, Politcs, and Personal Reflection: Redefining the Lyric in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
The world of poetics often views, and uses, lyric poetry as a self-reflective tool because of its ability to engage the poet in a deep exploration of their inner self. Thus, the subject matter of lyric poetry is typically unconcerned with society and the political world, instead offering insight into the poet’s innermost thoughts and emotions. In her book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, however, Claudia Rankine redefines and politicizes the lyric form by using it to reflect on an overtly political issue: anti-blackness in America. More specifically, she mediates on the psychological trauma black people endure as a consequence of racial violence and microaggressions. Through her politically charged lyric, Rankine argues that, for black people in America, self-reflection and one’s innermost “private space” are often consumed by racialized thoughts and cannot be disconnected from the political world. Thus, Citizen’s lyric form offers all audiences—especially white audiences—a new perspective on anti-blackness in American society.
Through Rankine’s political interactions with the lyric form, she argues that to be black in America is to have even your most intimate self-reflections consumed by racialized thoughts. And though black people are perhaps the most marginalized group in American society—therefore the group most in need of a mental recluse from the political world—they’re unable to escape the aggressive world around them. Society’s aggression and abhorrence toward black people follows them into their innermost thoughts, often manifesting in exhausting and cyclical psychological trauma. Rankine even explicitly acknowledges this psychological trauma in the poem, referencing “John Henryism” a psychological condition in which victims of racism “achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure” (11). More often, however, Rankine indirectly references this psychological trauma through the racialization of the lyric. The speaker frequently uses their “private space” to question the motives behind racist acts, or to reflect on the pain it has caused them. In one instance, the speaker of the poem reflects on their daily fear of being pulled over simply because of the color of their skin, saying “I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I knew. I just knew. I opened my briefcase on the passenger seat, just so they could see” (105). Here, Rankine’s poetry displays the daily thought processes of an American black person. Instead of slipping into the relaxing recluse of simple, non-political, thoughts on their way home from work, the subject engages in the exhausting chore of once again confronting their blackness and the “full force of [their] American positioning” (14). The narrator must think The world doesn’t protect me like it protects others. I could die today because of the color of my skin. And so, though the subject may have just had an exhausting day of work, they must protect themselves from a death that has struck so many innocent black bodies. Whether the subject “opens [their] briefcase on the passenger seat” so a police officer would recognize that it doesn’t hold a weapon, or so the subject would be seen as a “professional” not a “thug,” is unclear (105). Regardless, the subject is overcome with racialized thoughts that “send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs” (7). The subject has no escape, and the lyric form works to communicate this ugly truth.
Another way in which the lyric form widens the reader’s perspective on anti-blackness in America is by inserting the reader into several racist scenarios—whether as the victim or as the aggressor. Rankine does this by copious use of the second person lyric, giving white audiences a peek into the suffering they don’t endure, and giving black audiences a new perspective on scenarios they endure daily—making them feel less alone in the isolating cycle of their racialized thoughts. In one instance, Rankine sets up a scenario in which you, the audience, approaches the house of a new therapist with whom you’ve only ever spoken with over the phone. And though the therapist “specializes in trauma counseling,” their racist assumptions ironically contribute to the trauma they’re supposed to protect you from: “At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry” (18). The second person lyric used in this scenario injects non-black readers into a scenario they may otherwise never experience—or even be able to imagine. Non-black readers are struck with the severity of the injustice going on around them—injustice they would be unable to fully understand or experience through other forms of political discourse. Specifically, non-black readers become aware of how it feels to be stereotyped because of skin color. American black people are too often pegged as thugs. They’ve done nothing wrong except for being born with dark skin, and yet society criminalizes them as “the guy always fitting the description” (105).
In addition to injecting non-black readers into the poetry as victims, Rankine also uses the lyric form to insert non-black readers into the role of the aggressor. In the above scenario, for example, Rankine isolates the aggressor’s apology in a single stanza: “I am so sorry, so, so sorry” (18). This isolation at the end of section causes the reader to change perspectives from the victimized lyric you to the aggressive lyric I. Once put into the role of the aggressor after feeling the pain of the victim, the apology from the aggressor seems insincere, insignificant, and inadequate. Definitely too inadequate to heal the pain of erasure or “the weight of nonexistence” felt by black people in America (139). Thus, the non-black reader questions their potential contribution to the crippling way in which American society treats its black citizens. And just as the black reader is struck with the “full force of [their] American positioning,” the non-black reader is as well. The difference, of course, being that the non-black reader is struck with the enormity of their privilege, rather than the severity of their oppression.
Ultimately, Rankine’s arguments about the inescapability of racial politics come together in the final sections of the poem, where she uses sighing as a metaphor for survival. American society convinces black people that they’re anger is unjustified, teaching them at a young age to “hold [their rage] at a distance for [their] own good” (25). And so, discouraged from voicing their rage out loud, they hold it inside their inner, private space, until it suffocates them. Sometimes, they even convince themselves that they can move past this pain, or “learn not to absorb the world” (55). In order to survive the utter exhaustion of being black in America, they “sigh” which “allows breathing” but mostly functions as “self preservation . . . it is not the iteration of a free being” (60). This contrast, between mere survival and actually living, or thriving, is crucial to Citizen’s vital, and titular, argument: that to be a “good” black citizen in America, one must “move on” or “let go” of injustice, or at least deal with it internally, keeping their anger from the outside world. Unlike white citizens, who have the privilege of using their inner, private, thoughts as a recluse from the political world, black citizens must use their inner private space to confront the aggression they face daily.
Rankine’s reflections in Citizen: An American Lyric widen the ways in which anti-blackness is discussed in American political discourse. Where many forms of political discourse formulate a conversation around racism that solely focuses on violent aggression toward black bodies, the lyric form in Citizen expands the conversation to psychological trauma as well. And through the insertion of the reader by the second person lyric, Rankine offers white audiences a better understanding of the daily struggles of a black person in America, and their inescapable nature of their racialized and politicized thoughts.
Ethnicity’s Impact on Literary Experimentation
Literary experimentation has a tendency to alienate writers of color due parameters of experimentation privileging apolitical identities and valuing the inward voice. These avant-garde literary traditions arguably favor the white, male voice and create a hostile environment for minority writers to produce innovative poetry within. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen seeks to break all these supposed rules and circumvent the intrinsically racist institutions of the avant-garde. She does this by repurposing the form of lyric poetry, and centering it in the public sphere of politics and racial identity. Her subversion of experimental literary conceits of voice and language, her use of multi-media, is motivated by a desire to create a space in which the politicized self can exist within the traditions of the avant-garde
Avant-garde poetry has been criticised for failing to provide a space in which minority writers can flourish and experiment. Joshua Lam describes the genre as existing in a moment when conceptual and avant-garde poetries are being pilloried for their ‘delusions of whiteness’, and when writers of colour whose conceptual techniques are being called out for not toeing the party line arbitrarily drawn by an anonymous coalition. Experimental writings emphasise producing narratives and voices that are removed from the political sphere. Due to the avant-garde form being largely defined by individuals who were, by and large, straight white men, this inward, apolitical voice is universalised is thus implicitly white. This discriminates against writers of colour, whose identities as minorities are inherently politicised. Thus, the suggestion that poetry should not be utilised as a mode of expressing political discontent or exploring wider social issues, alienates a whole sub-section of individuals from using the writing style. Lam notes that even when minority poetry writers are celebrated, it is usually done by anthologizing them via their ethnicity, which “implicitly underwrites ‘whiteness’ as racially unmarked.” The expressive traditions of experimental writing are implicitly coded as white and thus the neutral poetic voice supposedly removed from dogma, upholds the white experience as universal. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen can be interpreted as a response to this “moment,” Lam argues that she seeks to “present black poetry outside the conventional bounds of ‘personal narrative’ and ‘MFA program verse’” and seek to disrupt the theoretically apolitical nature of avant-garde literature by “demystifying its white mythology.” Her decision to define her work as an ‘American Lyric’ highlights this disruption of the view that poetry should be removed from politics. The modern lyric poem is defined as an expression of the poet’s emotions and personal experiences in a highly subjective mode – a sort of intimate biography spoken in the first person and usually conveyed in short texts to capture with immediacy and authenticity. Initially this style seems unsuitable as the identification of Rankine’s form of political expression, due its fixation on the experience of the individual, while Citizen is centered around the experiences of the greater black American community. However, Francini observes that by defining her lyric style as specifically ‘American’” Rankine’s subtitle implicitly links her work to the great variety of uniquely American lyrical forms that have voiced political and social issues in the history of the United States, blurring the boundaries between public and private, prose and poetry – from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams… Moreover, the lyric poem’s focusing on the short moments of personal experience is conducive to Rankine’s central theme – the racial microaggressions experienced everyday by black Americans. Using elements of the lyric style Rankine valorizes these seemingly banal interactions, and dissect the motivations and societal pressures behind such interactions. By adopting a poetic style undeniably linked with both political discourse and the American poetic canon Rankine seeks to prove that ‘good’ poetry cannot exist in an anti-political vacuum, that to engage with poetic form innovatively she does not have a suppress her ethnic identity.
Yet, Rankine also seeks to distinguish her work from previous American lyrical poets and it’s also decisively white, male history. Gillian White notes that there is a sense of “lyric shame” surrounding the genre, as “a sense, now often uncritically assumed, that modes of writing and reading identified as lyric are embarrassingly egotistical and politically backward.” A key example of this is Whitman who, though espousing anti-slavery and egalitarian racial sentiments in much of his work, was a social Darwinist who believed “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not.” It is therefore unsurprising that Rankine, as a black woman, would seek a degree of distance between this literary ‘shame’ and her own work. One way in which she does this is through her subversion of the typical language of the lyric. While certain aspects of the lyric’s musical stylings are evident in Citizen, such as the repetition of the phrase “What did you say?” which functions texts chorus, or the in the exacting sound patterns she employs “Some years there exists a wanting to escape-/you, floating above your certain ache.” However, Rankine also favors a quality of language poetry with a distinct sense of anti-lyricism, with an awareness for the power that lies in accessible language over the flowery language of traditional Lyricism and the ‘new sentence’ of contemporary avant-garde poets. Instead Rankine chooses to present multiple interrogative accounts of experiencing racial microaggressions, using a cool and detached tone associated more with journalism or critical essays, than lyric poetry. You are in the dark, in your car, watching the black-tarred/street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is/making him hire a person of colour when there are so many/great writers out there. More recognizable ‘poetry’ can be found in the latter sections of the text, but it is presented as a signifier of a breakdown in communication. These linguistic choices are a “tactical frustration” and a method of “deprograming bourgeois readerly assumptions.” Lerner argues that as, the reader attempts to combine the sentences – which are grammatical into meaningful paragraphs…But the reader discovers as she goes that many successive sentences cannot be assimilated to a coherent paragraph, that paragraphs are organized arbitrarily…that no stable voice unifies the text By utilizing language whose surface meaning is more accessible to the average reader, Rankine is able to explore the breakdown of dialogue that occurs at the point of a racist micro-aggression through presenting a contrast between ‘stable’ language situated within an unstable form. It is significant that Citizen’s refuses “without in any sense being simple—to advance formal difficulty as a mode of resistance, revolution, or pedagogy.” By deciding to eschew the aesthetically challenging ‘new sentence’- a tool utilized to preserve an isolating and racist experimental tradition – and instead utilise a politically charged linguistic tradition, Rankine’s is able to express the frustrations of the black American experience with an ease poetry tradition would otherwise deny her.
Another technique that Rankine uses to distance herself from the traditions of the lyric poem is by replacing the first-person, intimate narration of the writer – the lyric ‘I’ – with a Greek chorus of black American voices relating to the reader an array of racial microaggressions. This substitution of the insular, individualistic lyric ‘I’ with either the associative you or the all-encompassing ‘we’ suggests the incidents that occur within the text form a communal body of experience. Rankine’s ‘you’ is a comprehensive addressee, any person one encounters or interacts with on a daily basis, just as her we is the voice of the American ‘body politic’ This literary conceit further lends itself to Rankine’s investigation of the moment of the racial micro-aggression. Moments that seem superficially ordinary and banal, become universalized. Rankine’s I, we, you interact, giving her work an anthropological scope mainly concerned with the public space a black body occupies. As a witness to American society, Rankine stages the moments in daily life when communication and interaction are broken and racial violence explodes turning the personal into a collective story As most of the micro-aggressions in the text did occur to either Rankine or to the friends and acquaintances she approached for their experiences with everyday racism. The racism detailed in Citizen occurs to many genders, ages, and sexualities. It isn’t limited by time, a transcript of a video project done in memory of Trayvon Martin – killed in 2012 – juxtaposed with an edited photograph of a lynching in 1930. Due to this breadth it is therefore accurate to characterize Citizen as just as much a case-study as it is poetry, a social and collective portrait of race relations in the contemporary United States that remains tied grammatically and experientially to the lyric subject. This focus on the reality of existing as a black person in America, and the collective truths of that experience, can be perceived as a reaction to the poetry that epitomizes Lerner’s “white male universalism”. To explore the scale of the America’s breakdown in communication, Rankine invents must take a form popularized by the singular white experience and subvert it so as to create a universal black voice. For Rankine, it is only a “a unifying fiction” that has the ability to express the severity of black America’s trauma.
Rankine further challenges the avant-garde divide between experimental form and politics by using multiple medias. Photographs, collages, painting, and video – specifically internet video – feature prominently. It can be argued that this further proves that Rankine is concerned with making her work accessible, by using mediums which the reader would interact with more frequently and easily than avant-garde poetry. According to Francini, this use of multi-media “brings readers inside the events they narrate making literary writing a fluid, hybrid and vivid activity in dialogue with external sources” Moreover, by using photo and video mediums Rankine is able to provide a degree of black representation, needed for her critical analysis of racial microaggressions, that the avant-garde poetic tradition cannot. Though, she references important figures in the history of black writing – such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon – they do not feature prominently and are situated within footnotes of her writing. Instead, when she does dissect the moments of the racist microaggression that are endemic to American society, she opts to use black figures from pop culture. She specifically focuses on Serena Williams. Williams is the most famous female tennis player in the world and more recognisable to the average reader than Frantz Fanon. Rankine takes several infamous moments in Williams career where the tennis pro associated with racism, most of which have been captured on video, and analyses them using the linguistic apparatus of literary critical theory. Rankine references to an infamous match in 2009 when Serena let loose an expletive-filled rant at a line judge who had made an incorrect foot fault call. Rankine then explores the societal and psychological pressures leading to the call and Serena’s reaction: Perhaps the committee’s decision is only about context, though context is not meaning…In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief – code for being black in America – is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play the rules. The phrases Rankine employs, “lost context” “code for”, evokes the voice of critical theory. Yet, this form so often associated with elitism becomes much more comprehensible when it dissects easily recognizable figures and moments. Furthermore, it can be argued that applying this critical scope to a visual medium, as opposed to a textual one, there is less ambiguity surrounding Rankine’s conclusions. Parallels can be drawn between the technique Rankine employs in using technology to bolster critical arguments, and the part technology plays revealing the of black Americans oppression. Love focuses specifically on how footage filmed on a mobile phone is often used as proof of racist oppression in America: …exactitude can be a political resource. That potential has been taken up with the use of cellphone cameras to record police violence in examples of “sousveillance,” or surveillance from below. Rankine touches on this relationship when she compares the deaths of Rodney King and Mark Duggan, and the different reactions to the riots that both deaths triggered in the US and UK respectively: In the United States, Rodney King’s beating, caught on video, trumped all other images. If there had been a video of Duggan executed, there might be less ambiguity about what started the riots… Rankine use a camera-like objectivity to her demonstrate her poetic micro-examination of American racism, through her use of the visual medium, which is inherently more objective the written word. Photos are a very effective tool to prove a point of view. For example, after Rankine details a brief history of the racial micro-aggressions Serena Williams has experienced throughout her career, she includes a photo of another tennis pro-player Dane Caroline Wozniacki imitating Serena Williams by stuffing her clothes to present a caricature of the black female figure. This full-color photo is arguably shocking in its own right, but in contrast with Rankine’s stark text the racist moment it captures becomes even more potent and erases any doubt the audience may have concerning Rankine’s critical examination of the Williams oppression. Using several modes of media to demonstrate the moment of the micro-aggression, Rankine expresses how American racism not only transcends demographics, it also transcends a singular mode of communication. Furthermore, the need to prove oppression through many mediums is endemic to the black American experience, to Rankine’s own experience, due to the continued view of many that America is a ‘post-racial’ society, and is why the motif of the camera and video features prominently in Citizen. Thus, Rankine’s need to reveal the racism experienced by herself and other black Americans requires many mediums.
However, it would be inaccurate to characterize Citizen’s focus on visual forms as evidence that the Rankine seeks to capture the objective frozen moment. Instead, the text presents American race relations as something constantly in flux. A key example being that with every reprint of the text, the list of individuals killed by police brutality “In memory of…” has more names added to it. Visual mediums are also used to signify this shift in perspective. In the final two pages of the text are taken up by two pictures of Turner’s seminal painting The Slave Ship. The first presents the painting in full dominated by its many sublime elements of sky, sea and ship. The second is a zoomed in picture of the painting corner in which we see visible the foot of a slave being eaten by fish. By focusing on such a small, but horrifying, detail within the painting, the viewers outlook on the image as a whole is altered. Rankine’s intention to adjust the readers view of the American macro-moment of racial oppression, by focusing on the micro-moment of racism.
In conclusion, Rankine’s ethnic identity causes her to seek and create alternative experimental forms in which to situate her writing, due to the traditional universal voice of lyric and avant-garde poetry upholding the white experience and denying the minority self. Thus, to create space for her inherently political self to exist, Rankine must subvert these traditions, and transcend the boundaries of a racist tradition. She does this by using a form closely associated to the personal voice, to express the universal experience of black America – the microaggression. The personal and public become interwoven, and defy the prevailing view that experimental poetry should be removed from politics. She finds representation of herself, and evidence of the oppression that this self is subjected by utilizing other forms of multi-media. These techniques result in Rankine leveraging her own ethnic identity, what she has experienced because of it and the similar experiences of others, into an experimental space where such things were previously rejected.
Francini, Antonella. “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, 177-181
Lam, Joshua. “Beyond the Norton: Anthologizing Innovation in Contemporary Black Poetics.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, pp. 169–176.
Lerner, Ben. “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. < https://lithub.com/beyond-lyric-shame-ben-lerner-on-claudia-rankine-and-maggie-nelson> [accessed 2/1/2018]
Love, Heather. “Small Change: Realism, Immanence, and the Politics of the Micro.” Modern Language Quarterly 1 September 2016, pp. 419–445
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. (New York: Appleton, 1908)
White, Gillian. Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014)
 Joshua Lam, “Beyond the Norton: Anthologizing Innovation in Contemporary Black Poetics.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, p.176  Ibid, p.170  Ibid, p.176  Antonella Francini,”Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p. 179  Antonella Francini, “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p.179  Gillian White, Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2014)  Ben Lerner, “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017.  Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman, p. 283  “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017.  Ben Lerner, “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017.  Ibid  Antonella Francini, “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p.178  Ibid, p. 179  Heather Love, “Small Change: Realism, Immanence, and the Politics of the Micro.” Modern Language Quarterly, 2016  Ibid  Ben Lerner,“Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017.  Ben Lerner, “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017.  Antonella Francini, “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p.181  Heather Love, “Small Change: Realism, Immanence, and the Politics of the Micro.” Modern Language Quarterly, 2016
Citizen: A Discourse on our Post-Racial Society
The subject of modern day racism is sensitive, loaded, and very real. Whether present in public realms, such as news headlines of injustice, or private spaces, like the hearts of those who burden bitter perspectives, the topic of race is a meaningful problem that merits disclosure and awareness. In this essay, we will examine the quality and value of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as an artistic discourse that aims to outline prejudice and injustice in our so-called post-racial America. Alongside Citizen, we will compare Rankine’s overhead message with the idea of double-consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois to further analyze its significance.
Rankine laces Citizen with loaded anecdotes of subtle racism in the second-person on how they cause uneasiness. In 2018, we live in a country a century and a half removed from slavery, a half century removed from the civil rights movement, but what still remains is the ramifications of racism. “Microaggressions,” or subtle slights of racism that communicate hostility, condescending thoughts, or derogatory attitudes that the narrator encounter reign through anecdotes in her work. The narrator experiences these slights from all kinds of people, ranging from strangers to friends, from the ignorant to the educated. Whether these people committed these microaggressions intentionally or unintentionally—the bottom line is that the narrator feels the discomfort and frustration of being subject to disrespect. The opening anecdote in Citizen describes a flashback where the narrator’s experiences this first hand as a child. A classmate in Catholic school copies her test answers and comments that the narrator “smells good and has features more like a white person” (Rankine, 5). Upon future reflection, the narrator realizes that her classmate might have said this comment in thanks, but also to make herself feel better, as a white person, for copying from an “almost-white person.” In another instance, the narrator is situated in the window seat of an airplane. A young girl and her mother arrives at the row, and upon seeing the narrator, remarks to her mother that “these are our seats” (12). Her mother responded under her breath, barely audible that she would “sit in the middle” implying that she would take the undesirable seat next to the narrator so her daughter would not have to.
These vivid episodes portray that microaggressions are not limited to those meaning harm—they can even affect the innocent and unknowing. With these quick and ugly examples, Rankine builds Citizen’s quality in providing realistic and relatable experiences. She also establishes value in engaging her reader in her struggles in the second-person. By portraying potential antagonizers as children, she elucidates the angst she encounters in recognizing that simple and wide-eyed kids can be bred into this culture of viewing people with contrasting skin tones as simply different. While children speaking with racist undertones may not be completely a surprise to her, experiencing this first hand is a haunting wake-up call to her reality.
Through confronting microaggressions in her life, the narrator represents much of her angst through a “double-consciousness,” a term coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay The Souls of Black Folk. This theory of a double-consciousness is a “sensation where one is always looking at oneself from the perspective of others” (Du Bois 1903). This is a helpless feeling, a hyperconsciousness of being prejudged, or “seen before one is actually seen” (Page, 2006). In one anecdote, the narrator is paying for her sandwich and drink with her debit when the cashier asks her if she believes her card would work. She is stunned, realizing that she was only asked this because she was black, and that her white friend who paid before her was not harassed such a condescending question. She looks over to her friend, who only watches the scene in silence. Not only are the perpetrators of microaggressions not aware of the double consciousness that the narrator experiences, but even the bystanders who do not address the wrong. In another instance, the narrator describes finishing a phone conversation with her boss, then meets in person to sign for her new job. Upon encountering her, the boss exclaims “I didn’t know you were black!” but his profuse apologies following his remark did not assuage the narrator at all (Rankine, 44). Whether ill-intended or the result of honest mistakes, these episodes torment the narrator and only serve to amplify her double-consciousness. When someone says something with an intentional or unintentional racist leaning upon seeing a different skin-tone, that person is not uncomfortable: “only the listener is” (Runyowa 2015). Rankine expands Du Bois’s theory into real-life experiences, exemplifying it as a substantial and very real ordeal that minorities that go through.
It seems easy to tell people to ignore these small occurrences, to let it go. It seems easy to ask, “What can one singular voice do?” However, “if these anomalies occur again” and again, an existential crisis may bloom (Dastagir, 2018). The narrator ponders about why language is hurtful, considering that racist language and implications was intended to denigrate and erase someone as a person. However, it is actually intended to “exploit all the ways that you are present” (Rankine, 49). Rather than used as erasure, it is actually used to make the target hypervisible. Nothing screams louder than a light in the dark than stereotypes, which highlight vulnerability. Microaggressions, though subtle in nature, are amplifiers contributing to an existential crisis in identity. Racism is intrinsically an obstacle to individual identity, as double-consciousness keeps one on edge. As people, attempt to order the world and our thoughts. However, this natural inclination is hindered in the chaos experienced in jabs of microaggressions and headaches of double-consciousness. Citizen is abstractedly demonstrating this chaos through language and relatable experiences of the narrator.
Alongside the chaos that accompanies double-consciousness, Citizen addresses issues of the public image of the black body. Serena Williams, one of the few black figures in tennis, dealt with different treatment in her sport since the beginning of her career. As described in Citizen, tennis umpire Hunter Alves made five bad calls on Serena Williams in the 2004 US Open that consequently costed Williams the quarter-final match. These controversial calls act in a similar way to microaggressions. In the 2009 US Open, another official made bad calls where she lost her cool. She explodes at the referee even when most people would have shied away from the prospect of being black on a sharp white background. Consequently, she faced an $82,500 fine and a two-year probationary period. Her anger, though extreme, can be justified as the unsaid rules of officiating in fairness become broken in the face of black imagery. The narrator ponders if the treatment against Serena Williams is how racism feels no matter the context—a game where the rules that everybody else plays by no longer apply to you.
Lastly, Rankine employs a seemingly ambiguous ending passage to Citizen. A woman pulls up next to the narrator in the parking lot, who happens to be getting ready in her car to play tennis. The lady sees the narrator, then goes on to park at another spot. The narrator did not have time to ask the lady why she decided to move away—she was expected on the tennis court, so she went on ahead. This ending connotes the underlying message that for modern racism, there is no end. Adversity is inevitable. But like the narrator’s sport, there is only room for one to bear through gruesome practices, be there for games, and continue to play. Applying this to her life, there is only room for her to boldly face microaggressions, lead her life as normally as possible, and continue on without allowing her double-consciousness to hinder her. Even in this world of infinite possibilities, this post-racial society, one would have to live with this division between black and white. Citizen as a whole, behind it being an insight and evaluation of post-modern racism, is an effective artistic representation of this tragic truth. With her anecdotes and prose, Rankine provides a disarming exposure to the predicaments black people face in our “post-racial society.” Even so, Rankine never specified a deep hopelessness in her work. In the last century, even in the last decade, despite the bumps in the road the black community has faced, we have come a long way in addressing racist attitudes. Society can change in time, and hopefully only for the better. But the fact of the matter remains: this is the brutal present black people must face today.