Photo via UBC
By Vanessa Lee
In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine deconstructs racism and reconstructs it as metaphor (Rankine, 5). Her formally and poetically innovative text utilizes form, figuration, and literariness to emphasize key themes of the erasure, systemic hunting, and imprisonment of African-Americans in the white hegemonic society of America. The structure, which breaks up the poetics with white space and visual imagery, uses space and mixed media to convey these themes. Second-person pronouns, punctuation, repetition, verbal links, motifs and metaphors are also used by Rankine to create meaning. By examining the ways the themes are created in the intersection of art and language, Rankine illuminates the constructed nature of racism in her politically charged, highly stylized and subversive Citizen.
The erasure of Black people is a theme that is referenced throughout Citizen.Rankine describes this “erasure of self as systemic, as ordinary” (32). It happens in the schools (6), on the subway (17), and in the line at the grocery store (77), where the non-Black teacher, everyday citizen, or cashier looks straight past the Black person. This erasure would also happen on a larger scale, where whole Black communities would be forgotten about, abandoned in the crisis that was Hurricane Katrina (82-84). Rankine writes: “we are drowning here / still in the difficulty…the water show[ed] [us] no one would come” (85). These two different examples illustrate various scales of erasure.
Rankine does more than just allude to the erasure—she also emphasizes it through her usage of white space. Rankine describes these everyday events of erasure in small blocks of black text, each on its own white page. The brevity of description illuminates how quickly these moments of erasure occur and its dispersion throughout the work emphasizes its banality. By choosing to give space to the white space on the page, Rankine forces us to pause and sit with these moments of everyday racism. In an article discussing the “Black Lives/White Backgrounds” of Rankine’s Citizen, Bella Adams states: “the blank and typically white backgrounds on which Rankine’s words and images appear” (69) is representative of the “hierarchical racial formation that is rendered nearly invisible by its colour (white) and positioning (background) in the contemporary, so-called colour-blind or post-racial United States” (55). The dominance of white space in the text (Rankine 3, 12, 21-22, 45, 47, 59, 81-82, 93, 108, 125, 133, 148-149) illuminates how this erasure of the black body takes place in white spaces—where the environment is “white” or dominated by whiteness. Rankine wants us to look and pay attention to the background of the text, the landscape where these everyday moments of erasure occur. Here, the form and figuration of the text, which emphasizes white space, works to illustrate this key theme of erasure through visual metaphor.
This erasure (Rankine 11, 24, 32, 49, 142) or invisibility (43, 70-72, 82-84) of Black people is also illuminated in the use of second-person pronouns, which displaces the “I”—the individual—and replaces it with a “you”—a subject. While this style of narration “positions the reader as [a] racist and [a] recipient of racism simultaneously” (Adams 58), therefore placing them directly in the narrative, the use of “you” also speaks to the invisibility and erasure of Black people (Rankine 70-72). Rankine writes, “[T]he first person [is] a symbol for something. The pronoun barely [holds] the person together” (71). From this description, it is clear that Rankine sees the “I” as a symbol for a human being, for she later states: the “‘I’ has so much power; it’s insane” (71). Racist language, however, “erase[s] you as a person” (49), and this “furious erasure” (142) of Black people strips them of their individuality and the rights that come with an “I” that are given during citizenship.
This decision to use second-person also “draws attention to the second-class status of black citizens in the US’” (Adams 58), or “blackness as the second person” (Sharma). In their fight against “the weight of nonexistence” (Rankine 139), Black people do not have the authority of an “I”. They have become a “you”: “You nothing. You nobody. You” (Rankine 142). Scholar Mary-Jean Chan argues that the power of the authoritative “I” lies in the hands of the historically white lyric “I” which has diminished the Black “you”: “to refer to another person simply as ‘you’ is a demeaning form of address: a way of emotionally displacing someone from the security of their own body” (Chan 140). By subverting lyric convention, which normally uses the personal first-person “I”, Rankine speaks to the “inherently unstable” (Chan 140) positionality of Black people in America, whose “bodily existence is threatened on a daily basis by microaggression which treat the black body either as an invisible object, or as something to be derided, policed or imprisoned” (Chan 140). They are black property (Rankine 34), black subjects (70), or black objects (93) who do not own anything, not even themselves (146).
Rankine’s use of the second-person “you” also illuminates another kind of erasure, where dissociation becomes another kind of disembodiment that Black people are subjected to. By talking about her experiences in second-person, Rankine creates a kind of separation between herself and her experiences. Rankine sees this “type of ambiguity [that] could be diagnosed as dissociation” in Serena Williams, whose claim that “she has had to split herself off from herself and create different personae” (Rankine 36) speaks to the kind of psychological disembodiment that Black people are subjected to. Perhaps this dissociation, seen in the literariness of Rankine’s poetics and use of “you”, speaks to the kind of erasure of self that happens when you experience racism every day. You are forced to separate yourself from your body. Until African-Americans are seen as human beings worthy of an “I”, they will continue to be a “you” in America—unable to enjoy all the rights of their citizenship.
Rankine illustrates this theme of erasure and black invisibility in the visual imagery, whose very inclusion in the work speaks to the poetic innovation of Rankine’s Citizen. The artwork which is featured on the cover—David Hammons’ In the Hood— depicts a black hood floating in a white space. What is most striking about the visual image is the omission of a human subject. The emptiness—the lack of a corpse or a live body or face—is a literal representation of the erasure of African-Americans. The wearer of the hood no longer exists, and the now empty hood has been cut off or detached from the rest of the body. This imagery speaks specifically to the erasure of Trayvon Martin (Adams 59, Coates 130), while also highlighting the other disappearances of Black people. The fact that only the hood of the hoodie exists, with the seam rips still evident and the strings still hanging, alludes to the historical lynching of Black people in America, which has erased and dismembered the black body.
This parallel between erasure and lynching can be seen more clearly when we look at Hulton Archive’s Public Lynchingphotograph, whose image had been altered by John Lucas (Rankine, 91) (Figure 1). In the photograph, there are no black bodies hanging, just the space where the two black bodies once were (Chan 158). The purposeful omission of the black bodies highlights yet again the erasure of Black people, while also showing us that this erasure goes beyond daily acts of microaggressions or the systemic “forgetting” of Black communities (Rankine 6, 32, 82). Black people are being physically erased, through lynching and racist ideology (Rankine 135). The placement of the photograph at the bottom of the page is deliberate, as it makes the empty black space seem even smaller in comparison to the white figures and white space that surrounds it. The large white space on top of the photograph seems to be pushing the image down, crushing the small black space. This juxtaposition between black space and white space, body and no body, presence and absence, conveys the erasure of Black people on a visual level. Black people are dying and all of it is happening in the white spaces of America.
Figure 1. Public Lynchingfrom the Hulton archives. Courtesy Getty images (image alteration with permission: John Lucas).
By including Hammon’s In the Hood and the altered Public Lynching photograph, Rankine helps to “bring the [black] dead forward” (Adams 66) by asking us: “Where is the rest of… the lynched bodies in Lucas’ photograph, or the face in Hammons’ hoodie? Where have they gone?” (66). Rankine seems to ask this question again in a later poem, when she says: “Have you seen their faces? (84-85); “Did you see their faces?” (86). Her repetition of this question beckons us to ask ourselves these questions, and the way the question transitions from a focus on the lingering impact of the event (“haveyou seen their faces”) to a question of historicity (“didyou see their faces”) emphasizes the ways these black bodies disappear from life (presence) to death (absence).
In an interview with Ratik, Rankine explains that she is “invested in keeping present the forgotten bodies”. Rankine stresses the importance of remembering because forgetting is part of the erasure. Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist and author of Between the World and Me (2015),argues that:
The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. [White Americans] have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a centruy, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them thier suburbs. (143)
Black people are facing a triple erasure: first through microaggresions and racist language that renders them second-class citizens; then through lynching and other forms of violence that murders the black body; and lastly, through forgetting. By merging poetic language with visual imagery, and subverting lyric convention in pursuit of her own poetic structure and form, Rankine forces us to see the erasure of Black people in every aspect of Citizen.
InCitizen, Rankine does more than illustrate the erasure and lynching of Black people, for the image of a deer is also used as a metaphor to symbolize the dehumanization of Black people in America. The picture of a deer first appears in Kate Clark’s “Little Girl” (Rankine, 19), “a sculpture that grafts the modeled human face of a young girl onto the soft, brown, taxidermied body of an infant caribou” (Skillman 428). In the image (Figure 2), the deer’s body looks distorted—its legs are oddly bent, its fourth leg is obscured, and one of its legs is cut off by the margin of the page. What is more concerning than the injured, cut-off state of the deer is the fact that a human face looks “pinned” onto the animal (163). This odd and disturbing choice of imagery, which blends a human face with a deer, acts as a visual representation for the dehumanization that Black people are subjected to in America. The decision to place Clark’s image right after Rankine’s recount of a microaggression, where Rankine is yelled off the “deer grass” (Skillman 429) of a white therapist like some unwanted wild animal, shows us how white America views Black people: as pests and prey.
Figure 2. Little Girl, courtesy of Kate Clark and Kate Clark Studio, New York.
This symbolism of the deer, which signifies the hunting and dehumanization of Black people, is emphasized throughout the work through the repetition of sighing, moaning, and allusions to injury:
To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about. (Rankine 59)
This sighing is characterized as “self-preservation,” (Rankine 60) and is repeated multiple times (62, 75, 151), just as breath or breathing is also repeated (55, 107, 156). While Rankine recognizes that sighing is natural and almost inevitable, “it is not the iteration of a free being [for] what else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?” (60). Skillman observes that, “Rankine’s pun on rumination in its zoological and cognitive senses (of cud-chewing and ‘revolv[ing], turn[ing] over repeatedly in the mind’ [‘ruminate’]) marks a strange convergence between states of dehumanization and curiosity” (429). Caught in these moments of racism, the Black subject is forced to “ruminate” on these microaggressions, processing how they have become reduced to that of an animal. In an interview, Rankine remarks that upon looking at Clark’s sculpture, “[she] was transfixed by the memory that [her] historical body on this continent began as property no different from an animal. It was a thing hunted and the hunting continues on a certain level” (Skillman 429). Rankine concludes that this social conditioning of being hunted leads to injury, which then leads to sighing and moaning (Rankine 42). Rankine believes that Black people “are not sick, / [they] are injured” (143). She repeats this again when she says, “you’re not sick, not crazy / not angry, not sad— / It’s just this, you’re injured” (145). This emphasis on injury, of being a wounded animal (59, 65), all work in conjunction with the first image of the deer.
This metaphor becomes even more complex when analyzing the way Rankine describes the stopping-and-frisking of Black people by the police. Rankine repeats: “flashes, a siren, the stretched-out-roar” (105, 106, 107) three times. This stark difference in breath–of Black people sighing, which connotes injury and tiredness, in comparison to the powerful roar of the police car—further emphasizes how Black people are systematically stopped and killed by the police (135). Furthermore, Black people like James Craig Anderson are killed on the road, squashed by a pickup truck (92-95). In this instance, the black body becomes even more animal-like. It is no longer a black subject, or black object (93)—it has been rendered road-kill.
The inescapability of their social condition and positioning, of their erasure and vulnerability, is also emphasized in Rankine’s highly stylised poem about the Jena Six (98-103). In this poem, which is the only poem inCitizen to have no commas, Rankine begins in the school yard and ends with “life imprisoned” (101). This trajectory from boyhood to incarceration is told with no commas:
Boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity heaving
butting heads righting their wrongs in the violence of
aggravated adolescence charging forward in their way… (Rankine 101)
Rankine’s deliberate omission of the commas is powerful. The lack of separation between clauses creates a sense of anxiety as there is no pause in our reading—Rankine does not allow us breath. Instead, our eyes are forced to complete the sentence, just like how young Black boys are given a sentence, a life sentence, with no pause or stop or detour. Rankine’s clear emphasis on form here enables us to not just see, but feel the inevitability and anxiety that is conveyed in the content. For Rankine, there is no escaping the path from school to prison.
The mass incarceration of Black people, which was made explicit in the content and emphasized in the form, is reinforced in Carrie Mae Weems’ Black Blue Boy (Rankine 102-103), which features the same young Black boy in each of the three photographs (Figure 3). The repetition of the same image highlights the racial profiling of Black men: “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 105, 106, 108, 109). What is even more striking about the image is that each photograph looks like both a school photo and a mug shot. Placed right after the Jena Six poem, the images allude to the trappings of Black boys in the two institutions of schools and prison shown in the image’s double entendre. Coates refers to these two institutions as “arms of the same beast…fear and violence were the weaponry of both” (33). By utilizing form, visual imagery, and poetry, Rankine enables us to see the systemic oppression of Black people by the state.
Figure 3. Black Blue Boy, 1997.Courtesy of Carrie Mae Weems.
These structures which imprison Black people are referenced in Rankine’s poetics and seen in the visual motifs of frames, or cells, referenced in the three photographs of Radcliffe Bailey’s Cerebral Caverns(Rankine 119), John Lucas’ Male II & I(96-97), and in Carrie Mae Weems’ Black Blue Boy (102-103), which frame and imprison the black body:
My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison.
They have been imprisoned. (89)
This direct reference to systemic oppression illustrates “how [Black] men [and women] are a prioriimprisoned in and by a history of racism that structures American life” (Adams 69). This structure which seems to keep African-Americans in chains harkens all the way back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade (59), where Black people were subjected to “the most dehumanizing of white supremacy’s injuries, chattel slavery” (Javadizadeh 487).
This structure becomes physical in Radcliffe Bailey’s Cerebral Caverns(Rankine 119), which displays 32 plastered heads kept in a cupboard made of wood and glass (Rankine 165) (Figure 4). The disembodied heads of the Black subject does not only allude to lynching and captivity, as the 16 sections of the cupboard look like 16 prison cells, but it also represents “the way bodies are stacked on top of one another in slave ships” (Skillman 447). Rankine writes, “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard” (63). The heads in Cerebral Caverns become a visual metaphor for Rankine’s poetry, connecting the slavery of the past to modern-day incarceration.
Figure 4. Cerebral Caverns, 2011. Courtesy of Radcliffe Bailey and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Rankine’s visual metaphor and allusions to modern-day enslavement is repeated in John Lucas’ Male II & I(Rankine 96-97), which also frames Black and white subjects and objects in wooden frames (Figure 5). The separation of the Black and white subjects acts as a visual metaphor for the racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, as the Black and white subjects are separated—not only by the wooden frame of the image, but by the page itself. The frames, which create 35 cells on either page, also allude to Black imprisonment, as the subjects appear to be behind wooden prison bars (Rankine 96-97).
Figure 5. Male II & I. Courtesy of John Lucas.
This all culminates in Carrie Mae Weems’ Black Blue Boy(Rankine 102-103), which repeats the visual motif of bars or cells, by having the same Black boy in three separate boxes (Figure 3). The repetition of this visual motif highlights the existing structures of racism which has allowed for slavery to be born again in the “sprawling carceral state” of America (Coates 79). The same structures from the past exist today, but perhaps it has become less obvious, as seen in the almost invisible frames of Weems’ photograph. While Rankine did not create these photos, the inclusion of them in her work highlights the way that her creation of her own poetic structure works with the content. The visual motifs of frames and cells illustrate the way racist ideology, which endorsed slavery, continues to keep Black people in chains in modern-day America.
Rankine’s use of form goes beyond informing the content—the form is also political. Rankine’s deliberate labelling of her work as lyric challenges the historical whiteness of the lyric form. Rankine’s use of the lyric “deeply complicates the trope of lyric presence” (Skillman 436) because it goes against the “literary trope [that is often] devoid of any social markings such as race” (Chan 152). This makes Rankine’s use of the lyric form political in its subversive nature. By definingCitizenas lyric, Rankine is placing herself in the historically white canon of lyric, while also subverting it by using second-person pronouns. This disrupts the historically white lyric form even further because she is adapting and changing the lyric form to include her Black identity and perspective.
Even the paper that the text is printed on speaks to the political nature of Rankine’s form, for the “acid free, 80# matte coated paper” (Rankine 174), which looks and feels expensive, holds within it so much Black pain and trauma. By using such an expensive paper, Rankine seems to be commenting on the veneer of American democracy, which paints itself white and innocent in comparison to other nations. The use of such high quality paper could also be read in a different way, one that emphasizes the importance of Black literary and artistic contribution through form, as the expensive pages contain the art of so many racialized artists. By paper choice alone, Rankine seems to be commenting on the political, social, and economic position of Black life in America.
The highly formalised and constructed aesthetic of Rankine’s work is purposeful, for the almost heightened awareness of the form draws our attention to the function of form and the constructed nature of racism. Rankine’s use of form, visual imagery, and metaphor are not only used to emphasize key themes of erasure, disembodiment, systemic hunting, and the mass incarceration of Black people, but it also works to construct the history of Black “citizenship” from the time of slavery to Jim Crow, to modern-day mass incarceration. The text becomes a metaphor for the way racism in America (content) is embedded in the existing social structures of systemic racism (form). By rejecting previous poetic structures in favour of a new poetic form, Rankine forces us to think about the possibility and the importance of creating a new social framework—one that serves its Black citizens, rather than erasing them.
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