Claudia Rankine’s Citizen blew me away a few years ago and I recently stumbled onto a mention of this 2004 work, essays mulling over a post-9/11 world, a post-2000 election world, a world where Saddam Hussein is pulled humiliated out of a hole in the ground, a world where Amadou Diallo is shot 41 times while holding a cellphone, a world where Louima was sodomized with a broomstick in police custody, a world where her sister lost her husband and children in a car accident, a world where prescription drugs are available for anything and everything you need. She goes to the Museum of Emotion in London and plays a game that asks yes/no questions, as long as you answer correctly you can keep playing. The first question asks if you were terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died. Rankine truthfully says no and is booted from the game. “Walking out, I couldn’t help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive to anyone outside of her friends and family—truly?”
The power of this book is unmatched in anything I’ve read. After each section, I had to close the pages, toss it from me like it was aflame, and sit smoldering as I thought through what I’d read. I’m not sure I’ve lingered so long over so few pages before. This excellent work is categorized as poetry, the only class of work whose boundaries are fluid and expansive enough to contain it.
**** Interlude wherein I go down a rabbit hole to research who the dedication is to, which leads me to John Lucas’ film Cooler Bandits, that follows a group of 4 boys who grow up in prison, one of whom receiving a 500 year sentence for a series of armed robberies in Akron, OH area in the early 90s.****
Every page has an impact and she intersperses her words with images from other artists, coaxing stories out of friends, family, self to expose the reality of omnipresent racism in our culture. Paraphrasing one of the stories: A friend is babysitting for you and your neighbor calls to complain that a menacing black man is walking back and forth between the houses talking to himself; you explain that your friend (whom the neighbor has met) is babystting and the neighbor claims it’s not him, that he’s called the police. You call your friend to ask if there’s anyone walking back and forth in front of your house and your friend says if anyone were, he’d see him because he’s standing outside. “You hear sirens through the speakerphone.”
She details these thousand tiny (and large, significant) acts, how they build and build and yet there is no release, blacks are supposed to fade into the white culture to behave and act proper. She introduces me to Hennessey Youngman, mentioning his YouTube video about how to become a successful black artist, a terrifically ironic video suggesting that blacks cultivate anger and repackage slavery to sell it back to the bourgeois white folk who love anything exotic. Rankine calls attention to the unforgettable racism experienced by the Williams sisters on the whitest of white backdrops, the tennis court. “She has grown up, another (announcer) decides, as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions of others.”
And when the woman with multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.
In her script for Situation video about Zidane’s 2006 World Cup incident, she layers in quotes from Ellison, Baldwin, Blanchot, Franz Fannon, Shakespeare, Frederick Douglass, Homi Bhabha, and accounts of lip readers responding to the transcript of the World Cup. I identified most strongly with the Baldwin quote in trying to understand the rage I feel at confronting the oppression of sexism:
And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance… to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no black who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment… yet the adjustment must be made – rather it must be attempted.
Companion piece: great interview with Rankine in the Believer, where I learned that the cover is a hoodie that the conceptual artist David Hammons made in 1993, 2 years post-Rodney King but pre-dating Treyvon Martin by over a decade.