by Madhu Kaza
“Before it happened, it had happened and happened.” Anyone paying attention to recent events, specifically the failure of two grand juries to bring indictments for the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner will readily make sense of this line from Claudia Rankine's new book Citizen. In moments of crisis when we as a nation are explicitly confronted with the state-sanctioned, legal & cultural violence inflicted against black people in America, we recognize a long chain of such violence reaching back to the very foundational chains of this nation.
In Citizen Claudia Rankine not only memorializes key eruptions of racial violence in recent American life, she also documents the ongoing, ordinary, subtle (& seemingly innocuous) experiences that characterize the racism of everyday life; Rankine suggests that the racialized violence of daily life is also what happened before it (the moment of social crisis) happened.
Although Citizen is Rankine's fifth book, in many ways it is a follow up to her 2004 collection Don't Let Me Be Lonely. Both books are subtitled An American Lyric and both use language in innovative ways to convey deeply subjective experience while also documenting larger cultural and political situations. While Citizen might focus on black bodies, Rankine suggests that the positioning of the black body in our culture has to do with all of us, with the very construction of the culture itself. Rankine refers to artist Glenn Ligon's work, Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), who appropriated the line from Zora Neale Hurston, to show how the psychological, affective experience of race is always already in relation to the sharp, white background of American racism. This, too, is the American lyric.
Citizen, however, does not provide answers to the ongoing problem of race in America. It is neither a rant, nor a confession, nor lesson; nor does it offer a catharsis. At one point Rankine quotes James Baldwin's statement that “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” Citizen is a book interested in questions; it is open-ended and innovative in form. It includes numerous images, quotations from other writers, as well as several scripts for experimental videos, and what she calls a script for a “public fiction.” Rankine often documents incidents without much commentary leaving a great deal of space for the reader to make meaning. The images are not explained. At one point the narrator overhears a man speaking about Claire Denis' film Beau Travail. The reference to this film about the bodies of legionnaires, men from the former French colonies is rich with associations, but Rankine does not follow up on any of them. Instead she later notes that Claire Denis had wanted to be a nurse when she was a child, but “she is no longer a child. Years have passed and so soon we love this world, so soon we are willing to coexist with dust in our eyes.” This statement is rich in its own terms and like much in Rankine's book does not provide instruction or answers, but prods us to ask further questions.
Rankine's approach to language in Citizen creates an intimacy of interiority even as she uses distancing techniques and refuses allow the narrative voice to be confined to one fixed, knowable individual self. Certainly Citizen is a book in which the reader is made to feel what the narrator experiences. Several sections of the book contain short prose narratives that describe daily encounters with racism. These include moments when a young girl doesn't want to sit next to the narrator on a plane, when a friend mistakenly calls the narrator by the name of her housekeeper, when a stranger complains to the narrator about affirmative action, and when the narrator witnesses another stranger call a group of teenagers “niggers.” Much of the book is written in 2nd person, which demands that the reader also experience these slights and micro-aggressions. But the 2nd person perspective also creates an opening, a field of relation. The narrator recalls an event where the philosopher Judith Butler was asked about “what makes language hurtful.” The narrator reports, “Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” The 2nd person perspective of Rankine's book invokes our addressability as readers (and fellow citizens) not simply as a demand, but as an invitation to also be alert, present, open and potentially wounded ourselves. And then the internalized language of the narrator, who is ever alert to the way strangers, colleagues, acquaintances and even friends might say something that denigrates or erases her own presence and value as a human being, shifts so that we, too, begin to wonder, “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?”
What remains most striking to me about this extraordinary book is how deeply affective it is without resorting to the conventions of confession or affect. The language of the book is sometimes detached or even clinical; the syntax on occasion elaborate enough to need untangling. And yet what is being said is urgent. For instance, in contrast to a commodified and performative black anger that is easily digested by the larger culture, Rankine posits “an actual anger” which is “the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.” Rankine adds, “This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.” Once we make our way through the odd construction of this last sentence, its stiff words, what we are left with is loneliness.
Citizen is not a book which offers consolation. Racism writ on the personal, daily level as well as the national, historical scale has not only happened — it happens and happens. The narrator resists conclusion and writes, “And yes, I want to interrupt to tell him her us you me I don't know how to end what doesn't have an ending.” As readers we need to fill in the spaces of Rankine's book; as fellow citizens, we too are a part of what happened and what happens after what happened.