January 18, 2016 § 1 Comment
By Sandell Morse
Sometimes a book comes along and I take it in like breath, filling my lungs, then letting it go, slowly, dispersing and touching every cell in my body. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was one of those books, as was Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. These books transformed my thinking and changed the way I saw my world. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric is one of those life-changing books.
I found the book talking with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, poet and friend, about his work, about my work, each of us stretching our genres in different ways, Gibson moving into prose poems, me turning my hybrid essays about Jews, War and Vichy France into narrative. I like to read as I write, the words of others stirring my mind and filling the well of my creativity. I asked Gibson what he was reading. “Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It’s hybrid, prose/poetry.”
Although the book was a National Book Award finalist, I’d never heard of it. “Good?” I asked.
Citizen is about race but so much more. Visibility, invisibility. I thought of the early eighties when I was at Dartmouth, matriculating for a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree, studying with visiting professor Ishmael Reed, novelist and satirist extraordinaire and with Bill Cook, poet, English professor and chair of African-American Studies. Ishmael published my first stories in Quilt, a journal he edited with Al Young. Bill staged a reading of a play I’d written; yet, I understood that neither of my wise, witty and generous Dartmouth professors could hail a cab in New York City, the cabbie seeing only the blackness of their skin. And today? Better, but are we willing to settle for better?
In Citizen, Rankine blurs the line between you and I, between prose and poetry, as she writes eloquently and stingingly of race in America. 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, a seat left empty on a train or a bus because the seat beside it is occupied by a person of color, a white person cutting in front of the narrator in a drug store line and then apologizing because he did not see her. In Citizen, racial slights are everywhere, at the supermarket, in a restaurant, at work, online, on TV, on the tennis court and at center court for Serena Williams. Visual imagery accompanies the text, and taking up a full page, a shocking photo of Caroline Wiozniacki, a former number one player, imitating Serena Williams by stuffing towels in her top and in her shorts, creating bizarre breasts and ass, mocking the black female body, Wiozniacki’s hand touching her own ass, her blond hair pulled back, her red lips smiling coquettishly, as she ridicules the best female tennis player of all time. All in good fun? A joke? Racist?
So many bad calls for Serena, serves and lines, so many bad calls for all black Americans, the cabbie who won’t stop, a neighbor who calls police because she sees a black person pacing in front of the house next door, police, killing unarmed black boys and men, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice…
Rankine’s mind is razor sharp, her prose clean, sparse and beautiful. She is a joy to read, but tough to bear as she holds up a mirror to who we are. We ask ourselves: what does citizenship mean? That we can answer a few basic history questions? Or that we share a commitment to equality? All of us, regardless of race or religion, are connected. The measure of our humanity lies in whether or not we will continue to tolerate injustice the injustice that surrounds us. In Citizen, Rankine is asking us to change the way we see. If we see, we will be able to act—if we choose.