Black on White
Citizen: An American Lyric
by Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press, 2014
reviewed by Seana Graham
I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
Zora Neale Hurston
On the cover of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, there is a black shape against a white background. As I opened and closed the book, I often saw this image, but I assumed it was an abstract work, which relieved me of the responsibility of deciphering it. When it comes to art, I can be lazy that way. It was only after finishing the book that I read someone else’s description of the empty black hood on the white cover. It’s easy enough to see once someone points it out to you. As with the rest of the art within the book, it’s a specific piece: In the Hood by David Hammonds, 1993. It has many layers of meaning, but it is not particularly hard to decipher at least some of them, once you know what it is.
With the many images mingled with its text, Citizen could easily have been taken on by our art critic here at Escape into Life, just as it could be reviewed as poetry. Taken as a whole, though, and however you want to categorize it, Citizen is an extended meditation on race in America (and the world) as experienced in the body of a Black woman.
For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering [Judith] Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that is hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.
I think everyone in my book group, which is how I happened to have come across Citizen, was glad to have read this book—the artists among us undoubtedly giving the images within their due in a way I often fell short on. But even after having collectively and separately read some of the required books on racism of our current moment, reading Citizen was a bit like finding the notes taken by a witness you never expected would write their experience down. White behavior, even by the well-meaning, is often shocking when reported back by the Black person who witnessed it or experienced it. And in Rankine’s rendering, it so often it seems to be unconscious, or compulsive:
I didn’t mean to say that.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Rankine is a devotee of tennis and one of the strongest pieces of the book follows the life on court of Serena Williams, both in her own behavior and what she has endured there in the body of a Black woman. One of the most shocking images in the book for me was one in which a white Danish woman player parodies Williams body by padding her own. The image is enough, but it is Rankine’s description of her “smiling blond goodness”’ posing as “the best female athlete of all time” that nails it.
There’s a mysterious aspect of this book as well. On a couple of pages toward the end there is an “In Memory of” list which slides down two pages until it fades out. We recognize most of the names because they’ve been in our headlines as more Black victims of police shootings. But this book was published in 2014. Why does it mention George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks toward the end? How does it? Since we must assume Claudia Rankine isn’t that clairvoyant, does that mean the publisher adds the new names with every printing?
Unfortunately, even with such a laudatory effort, this list in Citizen is already outdated.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology, Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.