Rankine and The Pronoun Dreamworld: The Creation of Compassion

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By Franklin Ma

(UBC Arts One, Toph Marshall Seminar)

 

In her series of lyric essays Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine employs the pronoun “you” in both an accusatory and uniting fashion. The feelings of Black people are often neglected and scorned, and Rankine’s direct address to the reader highlights the microaggressions they experience. While these pronouns are often ambiguous and lead to a blurred understanding of Rankine’s message, this allows for the abstraction of pronouns, and we journey into a dreamworld. It is a place where the peaceful coexistence among ethnicities finally becomes possible. The specific anecdotes become universal, the pronouns a metaphor for the whole; but this also comes at the cost of individual significance caused by the permanence of the past. This is resolved by our recognition that second-person pronouns require two people and cannot function in isolation. Rankine’s desire then begins to take shape: for the idealized, imaginative, yet intimate compassion found in her dreamworld to blossom into reality on Earth.

Rankine heightens the weight of discriminatory words by positioning the reader as the victim: “you” is often a Black individual. After the trauma therapist opens her door and screams at us, she spits out a demeaning “[y]ou have an appointment?” (Rankine 18). The absurdity of a trauma therapist deepening her client’s trauma is manifested vividly in our senses. We have become the victims of microaggressions. This happens again when the woman with multiple degrees says “I didn’t know black women could get cancer,” and “you realize nowhere is where you will get from here” (Rankine 45). With this, Rankine makes it clear that even you cannot escape the systematically racist education of doctors: “[t]o think that one group of people cannot get cancer is, essentially, to place them outside of the Human” (Palmer 2017, 42). You cannot help “[likening] yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind” (Rankine 60) after enduring this shocking remark. As a result, the non-Black reader also feels brutish and disturbed by the thought of inaccessible medical care. We are impacted by situations seemingly irrelevant to us, and the objectification of Black people is accentuated.

The sentiments of Black people are disregarded and viewed with derision by white America, which leads to their disqualification from being treated with human respect. Throughout the text, “you” is also frequently implied to be a white reader. When Rankine asks “[d]id you see their faces?” to an unnamed “he” (Rankine 86), her question about the victims of Hurricane Katrina is left unanswered. The silence that ensues affirms his position as an observer with no need to take action, which “indicates some privilege, and his inability to see their faces arguably renders this privilege white” (Adams 2017). This exemption from humanitarian responsibility then enables white individuals to openly violate the lives of Black people and deny them all respect. These brutalities cannot even be reprimanded because the reactions of Black people to the “gratuitous violence” inflicted upon them are “consistently characterized as inappropriate, exorbitant, and themselves gratuitous” (Palmer 2017, 33). Rankine recognizes this in her lyric when she expresses to have “[a] feeling that feelings might be irrelevant if they point to one’s irrelevance pulls at you” (Rankine 152). This promotes their objectification, as subhuman, by white people. Rankine regularly varies the positionality of “you,” and it now takes on another purpose: to represent Blackness as the second person.

Rankine magnifies the semantically objective role Black individuals are subjugated to by white societies, just as the object of a sentence is always determined by the actions of the subject. In an interview with Meara Sharma, Rankine finds it funny how Blackness is not the “first person, but the second person, the other person” (Sharma 2014). This supposedly other and monstrous being is treated like property when the speaker asks “whose are you?” (Rankine 76), which echoes the centuries-long enslavement and commodification of Black people. Palmer discusses how because the lyrical “I” arose from the Western poetic tradition and functions as the expression of universal subjectivity, Rankine’s decision to employ second-person pronouns then “marks blackness as a state of perennial objecthood—absolute affectability—unable to claim the subjective” (Palmer 2017, 49). Black individuals are seen as nonhuman and always the object to the racist white subject. Therefore, when “you” refers to a presumptively white reader, the interrogative accusations become particularly poignant, as if Rankine is demanding why this Black objectification still exists to this day.

Rankine uses second-person pronouns to blame the reader for the injustices she witnesses; ordinary utterances even feel accusatory. When the line judge says Serena Williams stepped on the line (when she clearly did not), Serena’s bewilderment feels directed towards us: “What! Are you serious?” (Rankine 29). Even if her emotional responses are acknowledged by the Grand Slam Committee, “they are done so in a distorted manner, which functions to further reinforce the purported abnormality of Black feeling” (Palmer 2017, 43). This effect is reversed in the readers, though, because the use of “you” allows us to feel attacked and accountable. We begin to grasp Serena’s anger. The lack of “you” consequently creates a sense of strangeness because no one is held responsible for the injustices that occur. The pages about the Jena Six (Rankine 99-101) make no mention of “you.” Rather, Rankine writes in the third-person and uses “he” or “the boys” (Rankine 99-101). The irrationality that “the litigious hitting back is life imprisoned” (Rankine 101) is indicated by the lack of an unambiguous offender, which suggests that the discrimination Black people face is imbued into the American character. Remember that “you” is also the second-person plural pronoun. Rankine is simultaneously accusing the reader and a whole collective—that of America. These pronouns are not always accusatory, however. Rankine asks us to “[s]it here alongside” her (Rankine 71), and this coexistence initiates a feeling of allyship.

Rankine brings us to her side by probing our imagination and allowing ourselves to personally experience her sentiments. The opening sentence states that “[w]hen you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows” (Rankine 5). By talking directly to us from the start of her poem, the rest of the text turns into an intimate message to the reader. The purpose of her verse becomes clearer as she encourages you to ruminate on the past found in your pillows, as if Rankine is immersing us into her dreamworld to establish mutual familiarity. She also positions the reader as a non-white person, no matter our ethnicity: “You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person” (Rankine 5). This allows her to appeal to speakers of all backgrounds. The opposite effect is achieved when the second-person pronoun is not employed. Although her verse in memory of Trayvon Martin is pained with nostalgia, the usage of “we,” “our,” and “us” (Rankine 89-90) complicates the reader’s ability to relate to her feelings. As a homage to an individual, first-person pronouns are appropriate to reflect the personal connection he has to his life, but when Rankine wishes to advocate for support from her readers, she returns to second-person pronouns:

It’s then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you’ll tell them we are traveling as a family. (Rankine 133)

We are called again to stand beside another and disregard our ethnic backgrounds. Rankine demonstrates the troubles Black people undergo daily through this allyship, but a true understanding is not easily reached.

Despite the effectiveness of second-person pronouns at creating empathy, Rankine puts the white reader into situations that are hard to comprehend. Although her words are clear in the analogy that racism is when “randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you” (Rankine 30), her treadmill metaphor that “your body [is] running off each undesired desired encounter” (Rankine 79) is confusing. Perhaps it is about your unreciprocated desire to meet other people, and so you stay in place, not knowing where to go. Because the voices of Black people are ignored by the public, it could also be about the private catharsis of silenced and suppressed emotions. Rankine offers to the reader many possible interpretations, and when compounded with pronoun ambiguity, these lead to a destruction of self.
Who exactly pronouns refer to is unclear, and individuality is compromised. The lack of a direct reference makes pronouns applicable to anyone:

Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed? (Rankine 63)

Rankine creates a sort of roundtable at which everyone and no one is talked about at the same time. Although “you” is assumed to mean the reader, the pronoun also proves to be ambiguous. The situation that the question “[w]ho do you think you are, saying I to me?” (Rankine 142) suggests is also impossible, because though “you” is the only proper way to address someone else, the speaker is addressed by the first-person pronoun “I.” This dissociation of self resembles Serena Williams’s claim that “she has had to split herself off from herself and create different personae” (Rankine 36). The whole self becomes fragmented, and pronouns can no longer fully represent the person.

Even so, the second-person pronouns have an all-inclusive nature. “You” evolves over the course of her pronoun work:

Rankine’s “you” is not primarily a kind of direct address, but rather a use of, or even a reference to, apostrophe: “A figure of speech in which a thing, a place, an abstract quality, an idea, a dead or absent person, is addressed as if present and capable of understanding.” (Clapp 2017, 177)

Although “you” often feels direct and accusatory to the reader, Clapp illuminates how it also functions as an all-purpose address. In English, second-person pronouns are also not gendered, and can apply to people of any age group or social status. All this ambiguity may seem to reflect how Rankine overuses “you,” but instead it speaks to the accumulation of emotion as we read her lyric, similar to the regular exclusion of Black people and their repressed ability to retaliate against America’s injustices. By inviting us to an imaginary space where pronouns are abstracted into conceptual forms, Rankine allows the reader to better understand her message. An individual, never mind their background or any of the traits that make them who they are, becomes represented by a singular existence.

The barriers between black, white, and all people of colour fade into a world of metaphor—existences interact, not individuals. In Rankine’s dreamworld, she breaks down the boundaries of race and nudges us to realize we are all members of the human race. As a Chinese-Canadian, I can now better apprehend the many years of agony experienced by African-Americans as Rankine impels me to exist through them. This allows the subjugation of humans by others to be viewed without any previous judgements or biases. A racist hierarchy no longer exists in her dreamworld. Now when Rankine asks “[h]ow difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” (Rankine 116), the truth behind her words is readily accepted. When a Black person is attacked the violation is often ignored, but Rankine forces the reader to think in terms of human wholes, and the specificities are universalized for the non-Black reader. Discrimination now becomes the problem of humanity: “I they he she we you turn | only to discover | the encounter | to be alien to this place” (Rankine 140). The piece “Uncertain, yet Reserved” by Toyin Odutola (Rankine 86-7) further illustrates how racism does not solely concern Black people. The ethereal gaze of the subject of the painting’s eyes penetrates the boundaries of colour, and any evil against “I they he she we you” (Rankine 140) becomes the experience and responsibility of everyone.

But is this abstraction of pronouns without fault? The ability of “you” and all these pronouns to embody anyone diminishes individual importance and meaning. Indeed, “[t]he worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much | to you—” (Rankine 146). The lack of individuality in “Untitled (speech/crowd)” by Glenn Ligon (Rankine 110-11) from the merging together of faces also points to the erasure of an independent you. For Black people, this erasure is a shared experience. Palmer explains this in reference to Serena Williams:

Serena essentially “stands in” for “any other black body.” This is due to the synecdochal function of blackness—the “part” (i.e., a singular Black person) always already stands in for the “whole” (i.e., the putative Black “community”)—and the impossibility of a Black claim to individuality. (Palmer 2017, 45)

The routine violence on Black individuals in any time period results in their loss of self. In Rankine’s dreamworld, you become the sum of your ancestral past, both haunted and defined by it. “Sleeping Heads” (Rankine 147) by Wangechi Mutu illustrates how the face, composed of several individuals, is warped sideways by a grey hand. The person is pulled by the blending of Black and white history and scarred by it, which signifies the universal persistence of Black suffering.

The continuation and permanence of the past reinforces the loss of individuality. Rankine writes that “[t]he past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow” (Rankine 72). The connotations of the adjective “blunt” convey the use of weapons that do not cut, such as knives, but rather ones that smash and distort people like baseball bats, hammers, or even guns. Though firearms are primarily used as ranged weapons, they can also be used as a blunt force at close range, and this reflects their prominent use as violence against Black people in the past and present. Even if white people do not want to acknowledge the white prejudice that plagues the present, the reality remains unchanged:

It’s disappointing to find out that the past is the present is the future … Maybe it’s a kind of surrealist move, to use language like “post-racial”—thinking that if you create the language for it, it will happen. I wish it worked that way. But that’s not our reality. (Sharma 2014)

Rankine expresses these thoughts when she asserts that “[y]ou can’t put the past behind you” and “it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard” (Rankine 63). The past lives in the domestic space, and has become a daily reminder of history. It may be hopeless to hope, but in Rankine’s verse lies a sense of companionship. This is the reconstruction of you and I in the pronoun dreamworld.

The existence of “you” requires the existence of me, whatever the cruel circumstances we live in. Second-person pronouns can only be used if two people are present, because “you” cannot be said if one is alone. At least two individuals, therefore, frame the entirety of Rankine’s pronoun work. This is most clear when “[y]ou | shouted you” (Rankine 145). The speaker addresses a “you” who shouts back at the speaker, and a connection is made. Judith Butler remarks that “[o]ur very being exposes us to the address of another … [w]e suffer from the condition of being addressable” (49), and Rankine validates Butler’s words when “you” is able to make the reader feel accused of wrongdoing (Rankine 10, 29, 43, etc.). “You” is hurtful in these cases, but Serena Williams exemplifies how “[y]our alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence” as well (Rankine 49). She exists in the moment by simultaneously affirming the lineswoman’s and her own existence by juggling between “you” and “I”:

I swear to God I’m fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God! (Rankine 29)

Once “you” was said, I am brought into focus. “You” is more effective than “I” because “you” attaches another individual to the life of the speaker, while “I” means “so little, | holds the little forming no one” (Rankine 143). The value of individuals cannot be perceived in isolation.

 

The imagery of the chapter heading on page three of Rankine’s poem further reveals the loneliness of the first-person pronoun “I.” This is the roman numeral for one, but it also appears to be a singular person standing by oneself. “I” is also the same as the first-person singular pronoun, which implies that “I” is inherently lonely. The white pages are also thicker and of a better quality than in most books, which proves that Rankine purposely engages with the physical text to deliver her message. The reader then notices how “I” is printed in black ink. Despite this practice being normal, the subject matter gives way to secondary meanings. Many white people believe that we live in a post-racial era in which racism only exists in the past, but “monochromatic texts help to make whiteness visible against efforts to obscure it” (Adams 2017). The black “I” now reflects a Black person who is entrapped by a dense whiteness that illustrates the subtle, yet sustained, fear that Black individuals have whenever they are alone and interact with white people. The singular feels to possess no meaning because of the endless objectification by the surrounding whiteness, so when you come along and stand alongside me, living is not as scary anymore. Rankine brings the reader into her dreamworld to urge us to create compassion and empower each other, through each other, regardless of our own identities.

Only in compassionate intimacy with “you” can “I” feel structured and here as the future unfolds. Rankine states that she does not understand existence without intimacy, because even if she does not know the other person, she is “already in a relationship with them” (Sharma 2014). Her life is dependent on other people, such as the stranger in a car who could run her over at any time, and in these anonymous ways, “we’re in relationships” (Sharma 2014): it does not matter who is who. The question-answer format of “… is this you? | Yes, it’s me …” (Rankine 75) provides a sense of comfort, and the final exchange in Rankine’s lyric reveals that despite the world being unfair, at least you are not alone:

Did you win? he asks.
It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson. (Rankine 159)

This fact can be abstracted into the collective experience of Black people, so that even as we may ponder the possibility of a kinder future, Rankine “want[s] to interrupt to tell him her us you me I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending” (Rankine 159). We are stuck in this abstract dreamworld of pronouns for an indefinite period of time, and currently can only make “a truce with the patience of a stethoscope” (Rankine 156). This truce is the idea of mutual belonging: until that future where individual heartbeats, motions of life, can truly be detected in everyone, you and I will continue waiting in solidarity. Rankine believes in the possibility of another way of being: “[l]et’s make other kinds of mistakes; let’s be flawed differently” (Sharma 2014). This reflects her wish for a universal empathy towards all humans—that is, treating everyone as first persons who have their own individual authority and importance. As James Baldwin states, “[t]his endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful” (Rankine 128): the capacity for humanity to evolve, not only in the optimistic dreamworld, but the real world as well.

Rankine employs second-person pronouns to universalize the microaggressions, disdain, and objectification Black people face to help the non-Black reader develop a true compassion for them. The pronouns become abstracted to present violence as not an issue of race but of humanity. Although individuality is lost in this process, the dreamworld Rankine brings us into is comforting because the indiscriminate compassion beings share with each other is beautiful. The current world never seems to change for the better, but hopefully one day, perhaps through the second-person pronouns that proclaim our existence, Rankine’s dream of empathy for everyone will come true. You and I are together, whoever we may be.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Bella. 2017. “Black Lives/White Backgrounds: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and Critical Race Theory.” Comparative American Studies, 15.1-2: 54–71.

Clapp, Jeffrey. 2017. “Surveilling Citizens: Claudia Rankine, From the First to the Second Person.” in Spaces of Surveillance, ed. Susan Flynn and Antonia Mackay (London: Pallgrave Macmillan) 169–184.

Palmer, Tyrone S. 2017. “‘What Feels More Than Feeling?’: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect” *Critical Ethnic Studies* 3.2: 31–56. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/jcritethnstud.3.2.0031. Accessed 21 Apr. 2021.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin, 2015.

Sharma, Meara. 2014 (17 Nov.). “Claudia Rankine on Blackness as the Second Person,” Guernica. www.guernicamag.com/blackness-as-the-second-person/. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021