PRINT February 2015


Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

John Lucas and Claudia Rankine, Situation #6: Stop and Frisk, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes 32 seconds. From the series “Situations,” 2006–.

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. 160 pages.

THE SPLIT-SCREEN IMAGE from November 24, 2014, already seems iconic. On one side, the president speaks from the White House about law and restraint and progress. On the other, smoke rises from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, as armed police officers face protesters with their hands up. When I saw that image, I turned off the news feed and began to reread Claudia Rankine’s new volume of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric. I kept reading in the days following, when the failure to indict a police officer who shot to death an unarmed black teenager was followed by the failure to indict a police officer who choked to death an unarmed black man. That killing was captured on video. So was the shooting of a black twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun at a Cleveland park. As Rankine herself explained in an interview in the New York Times, Citizen shows how these “bigger, scandalous aggressions” emerge from a culture of smaller, often-overlooked “micro-aggressions”: mistakes with names, skepticism about qualifications, the declaration “I didn’t know black women could get cancer,” from a woman with “multiple degrees.” Citizen exposes the ho-hum racism of everyday encounters that makes the killing of Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice tragic but not surprising. Yet Citizen also wants to know how such exposure itself works. Its words and pictures excavate racism as a failure of vision that becomes a failure of understanding.

In fact, the best remediation for the past several months of news might be the words and pictures of various video-art “Situations,” 2006–, texts of which appear in Citizen, made jointly by Rankine and John Lucas (a photographer and video artist). Some of these are available online. Find Situation #1: Zidane, 2010: a slow-motion video of the great French soccer player’s ejection after head-butting another player minutes before the end of the 2006 World Cup Final. Accompanying the blurry-bright i mages is a sound track of percussive reverberations and Rankine’s voice narrating passages from Shakespeare, Homi K. Bhabha, Frederick Douglass, and others. Whereas Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait, the 2006 film by Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon, is meditative, Rankine and Lucas’s Zidane seems analytical, using juxtaposed words and images to both expand and focus the meaning of the World Cup incident. The game on the pitch moves to an excerpt from Frantz Fanon on the “frenzied character of the oppression” in Algeria (enunciated with anything but frenzy) and to a quotation from James Baldwin about black “anguish” in the US (read just as calmly). Also to the phrase “big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger,” quoting what lip-readers understood the other player to have said to Zidane; and “What he said ‘touched the deepest part of me,’” quoting Zidane in an interview. The piece ends with a Baldwin sentence about struggle; the final word is “beautiful.” Just as beautiful and strange is Situation #7: Making Room, 2014, which Lucas and Rankine created for the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and which is also available online. Or Situation #6: Stop and Frisk, 2014, which layers video of a group of boys shopping with the lights of squad cars and the sound of sirens.

Citizen extends these pieces, not only in its mixture of words and images but also in its tone of measured hush. Few quotation marks mar the pages. The sentences are not dramatically varied in syntax. The language is not extreme. “The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work,” Rankine reports. “If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. . . . She says nothing. . . .” Reading this book, which includes color reproductions of art by David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, and others, feels like the grave progress of walking through an exhibition (and in fact it was designed by Lucas). “A kind of art gallery,” says Lauren Berlant in an interview with Rankine in Bomb.

Or a series of case studies, exhibitions in a different sense. The book’s relentless use of “you” is one tool of its investigation. The pronoun hovers between particularity and generality, accusation and identification. “You take in things you don’t want all the time,” Rankine writes, but also, “What did you say?” and “Have you seen their faces?” “You” is precise in its very ambiguities: “One” would provide too much remove, too much exculpatory diffidence, while “I” would assume too much assertion, too much impossible agency. “Who do you think you are, saying I to me?” Rankine writes at one point, and then: “You said ‘I’ has so much power; it’s insane.” Rankine knows the insanity of such power, and she distrusts it. Her evenhandedness manifests an uncertainty preceding any claim to individualism.

That puts Rankine at an ironic distance from what seems like her primary genre. She is a poet, after all; Citizen is subtitled “An American Lyric,” and lyric has traditionally been taken as the form most suited to personal, first-person speech. To modify this word with American, though, points out the incongruity of a concept like personal in a time and place where some citizens cannot be safe in their own bodies. “The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much / to you—” Rankine writes. Citizen refreshes the problem of double consciousness (“this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” writes W. E. B. Du Bois) as a provocation for genre. No poem can be properly lyric, perhaps, that is written in and of American history. Rankine’s work intercedes in recent critical debates about the lyric “I” by insisting on just this history. “It all comes from the world to be stored in you,” she writes. It cannot be ignored—by “you” or anyone else.

This brings us back to vision and understanding. “Looking and seeing and perceiving is . . . what I’m asking whiteness to do,” Rankine explained in another recent interview. Yet Citizen suspects that “no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” Perception remains the goal and the problem. Rankine is aware of the metaphorical link between seeing and knowing, as well as the political assumption that a thing seen is a thing solved. She recounts an impromptu supposition, during protests after British officers shot a black man in 2011, that “if there had been a video of [Mark] Duggan being executed, there might be less ambiguity around what started the riots.” And much of the mistreatment in Citizen comes from blindness: “Oh my God, I didn’t see you,” says the man cutting ahead in line. “No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.” But some of the mistreatment in this book comes from an all-too-powerful vision. Darren Wilson’s testimony saw Michael Brown as a “demon,” remember; the officer who called in the shooting of Tamir Rice thought Rice was “maybe twenty” years old. “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description,” Rankine repeats in Stop and Frisk. Racism is always watching, always recognizing. The recent call for all police to wear cameras, asserting greater systemic surveillance against accelerating systemic racism, only heightens the paradox. As Sydette Harry asks in a recent essay about racism, sexism, and the surveillance state: “What is the solution for being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?”

Citizen wants to know, too. It finds part of an answer by shifting the phrasing from see to address. When the term brings together looking and speaking—perception and greeting—it forbids the fiction that vision can ever be objective or innocuous. “We suffer from the condition of being addressable,” Rankine explains, quoting Judith Butler; racism, then, strives to make its object “hypervisible . . . to exploit all the ways that you are present.” The vulnerability of presence: This identifies racism as a problem of epistemology and aesthetics. It includes in both of these problems, moreover, the need for a susceptible fellowship, a responsibility that is truly answerable. Racism—as well as its potential reversal—depends on the position you take and the positions into which you are put with your fellow citizens. Rankine’s book suggests that true citizenship is continued attention to imperfect address—in a culture that tells you to “let it go,” to “move on.” “Wait . . .” Rankine writes. “Time opens out to you. / The opening, between you and you, occupied, / zoned for an encounter.”

The encounter includes “the histories of you and you.” It asks, “Always, who is this you?” The best sort of encounter, then, is something like Rankine’s poetry, with its dangerous history and slippery identifications. Rankine seems to have formed this conception of the poem in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), her earlier “American Lyric,” which also uses images and text in complement and which ends with the picture of HERE—all capitals, on a billboard. Rankine relishes the word, she explains, because here indicates presence and abdication: “I am here” and “Here you are.” A handshake does the same thing; quoting Paul Celan, Rankine argues that a poem and a handshake are one. Citizen—a more concentrated and yet more comprehensive book—puts this idea into practice. Its passages of narrated experience both assert and invite. Fitting, then, that while Lonely divides its sections with the image of a blurry television set, Citizen uses only, occasionally, titles with the slash mark of a line break. Move away from the spectatorship of the television, Citizen tells me. I’ve seen that split screen already. Move into the address of the poem. It will teach me better how to take responsibility for what I hear and see as well as what I say and know.

Siobhan Phillips’s essays and poems have appeared in Boston Review, Harvard Review, Southwest Review, and other journals. She is an assistant professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.