In a biting bit of irony, there was a paper slip from a different library in our system hidden inside the copy of Citizen: An American Lyric that I was reading. In addition to listing the last name, check out and due dates, there was a fourth line that said “Desensitized: Yes.” I came upon it while reading about the constant criticism and injustice that are part of the baggage Serena Williams must carry in her tennis career.
The book first came to my attention with the brilliantly subtle activism of Johari Idusuyi who famously read Claudia Rankine’s book during a Trump rally. I don’t know why I missed it when it came out and I am grateful to Idusuyi for bringing it up in public in that clever, subversive way.
Citizen has won several poetry awards, though it is not poetry in the conventional sense. I think Rankine feels that racism is too urgent a problem to waste time with conventions and meter and rhyme. Her imperative is communicating with clarity and urgency the dehumanizing effects of racism and, in particular, that everyday petty racism that people of color are constantly told to ignore, to stop being so sensitive, to stop looking for offense, to buck up, to grow up, to become desensitized to…as though being less sensitive is the cure for other people’s inhumanity.
The most powerful elements of Citizen are the short one or two paragraph second person essays that place the reader on the receiving end of the small slights, the “micro aggressions” that are routinely mocked by those who defend the right to be offensive as the last bastion of free speech. The first or second one, there’s a bit of a self-check. By the fifth or the sixth, I am wondering how people of color keep their cool with the drip, drip, drip of insult, erasure, offense, dismissal and aggression all designed to erode their place in our society.
I think the most shocking moment, though, was when she wrote:
“November 23, 2012 / In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis
August 9, 2014 / In Memory of Michael Brown”
and on the next page:
“February 15, 2014 / The Justice System”
I had to look it up. That was the day the Michael Dunn trial ended in a mistrial, a mistrial for a white man who murdered a young black man and injured others over loud music. Desensitized? Yes, we are desensitized to the murder of black men. We seem to approve it, as though their lives mean less than other lives.
I was less moved by the more clearly poetry sections with the frequent mixing and exchange of pronouns. I understand the idea of shared experience, of merging and identifying with others. It was less powerful though, the poetic contrivance interfering with the powerful effect of her ability to crystallize in few spare and simple words, such profound experiences.
Don’t think, though, that those few spare and simple words in the prose essays were not each and every one chosen with the precision and artistry of a poet. There is a section describing a scene on a train.
On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.
The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it….
“The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill.” It’s beautiful, a fresh image that says so perfectly exactly what it is. “You let her have it…” a double entendre of epic beauty. While ‘you’ may be tempted to let her have it in full outrage and anger, ‘you’ merely let her have her fear. You don’t share it.
The real power here, though, is that she never says that man on the train is black, but she does not have to and because you know without being told, you are implicated. You cannot pretend that you are unaware of racism when you can paint the colors all by yourself.
I hope you will read Citizen, if you have not already. It is small but mighty. The writing is a revelation on multiple levels. There are also several illustrations in the book. They are interesting, but I did not find they added much. The core of Citizen is Rankine’s voice. The rest falls away.