Black Anger and “Post-Racial” America: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

The question as to whether contemporary America is “post-racial” has been widely debated in recent years, with many believing the United States is free of the tumultuous racial animosity which began plaguing the nation in the wake of slavery’s abolition. Issues of race are once again of vital cultural importance now the United States has twice elected a black president, leading to suggestions that American racism has ended or even that whites are now the victimised group (Cabrera, 768-784). Racial tensions have erupted in recent years, with issues rising in spite of the supposed equality: police brutality, hate crimes, and an ever-apparent economic disparity between blacks and whites (Wilson).

In her contemporary text, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine explores what it means to be black in modern America: outlining racial experiences perhaps not understood, and certainly not experienced, by many outside the African American community. Through use of her powerful text, Rankine has defined the black experience in postmodern America, drawing on the deep-seeded anger of African Americans forced to whitewash themselves in a supposedly non-racist society which is nevertheless grounded on whiteness.

 

According to Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube video, “How to Be A Successful Black Artist,” modern black men must adopt an “angry nigger exterior” in order to be successful. Youngman explains that this visage—which embodies internalised black rage, can be achieved through observing needless violence and reminders of African American oppression, such as pit-bull fighting, the Rodney King beating, or several examples of violence against African Americans and fallen civil rights heroes. Rankine draws upon Youngman’s YouTube video in her text, Citizen, noting his passion for educating viewers on contemporary art issues and his perspective that “black people’s anger is marketable” (23). She has utilised Youngman’s work in the opening of Citizen‘s second chapter, which moves beyond the simple examples of racist experiences outlined in chapter one, in order to explore African American anger, and the stigma attached to stereotypically black behaviour.

Although careful to avoid encouraging violence, Youngman clearly references black anger as a resource which African Americans can tap into order to achieve the “nigger exterior.” Citing anger as an intrinsic quality in African American culture, Youngman claims that this black rage can be owned and exploited as a means of entertaining white people, who want to observe the “exotic other” and view African Americans as a spectacle. In his description of black qualities, Youngman depicts black anger as a performance designed to attract and entertain white people, who have come to expect the “angry black nigger”—an expectation to which the performer must adhere. Rankine describes this as “commodified anger” connected to the “performance of blackness” (23). Moreover, she suggests that this artificial anger creates inherent difficulty metabolising real rage, noting the dehumanising nature of this interpretation of black culture as spectacle.

“But Rankine reminds us there is nothing black and white about black and white.” (Kellaway)

As is outlined by Kate Kellaway in her review of Citizen, titled “the ugly truth of racism,” contemporary America is far from escaping its racially-conflicted past. Drawing on several examples from Rankine’s Citizen, including a mother sparing her daughter from sitting next to a black person on a plane, Kellaway discusses the Rankine’s exploration into modern racial sensitivity, noting: “There is no first person here, just a “you” to keep things free. Once again, I am conscious of the friction between my wish to pin things down and Rankine’s to pull towards universality.” This supposed universality implies lingering racism in modern America, despite being centuries beyond the abolition of slavery and existing in the time of America’s first black president.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (Rankine, 53)

Littering Citizen with artwork distracting from her text is Rankine’s method of disrupting the flow of her own work, through use of images that reflect the mood of the racially-charged bestseller. Rankine has used Glenn Ligon’s artistic appropriation of Zora Neale Hurston’s statement: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” a phrase written in increasingly-indecipherable bold black lettering, standing in sharp contrast to the white background. The text is displayed is such a way that it reflects the words written, and the meaning conveyed through the text: black identity stands out against a white background, and American society is a perpetual white background, with black culture and mannerisms serving as a sharp contrast.

Rankine outlines this contrast between black and white in her explanation of Serena Williams’ experience of racism and responsive rage during her career as a tennis icon. Rankine asks: “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” Many of the hurdles Serena and her sister Venus have faced evidently have racist undertones. Rankine draws attention to a particular example, in which Mariana Alves, “distinguished tennis chair umpire,” made five poor calls against Serena, who responded in a notably dignified manner (26). Serena released her anger seven years later, prompting a visceral reaction from spectators, who observed the inappropriate response and behaviour of the black sportswoman, unaware or perhaps uncaring of her years of being judged harshly against the white background.

Rankine has used Citizen as a platform to discuss racial issues in contemporary America, drawing attention to the fact that the abolition of slavery, steps towards social equality, and the election of a black president haven’t resulted in the end of racism—a phenomenon which is deeply embedded in American society. Through universal examples offered in Citizen, it’s apparent that African Americans consistently experience racism as part of their everyday life. Moreover, in order to be successful, black Americans must either make a spectacle of their race, or embrace whiteness, in which case they will inevitably stand out as colored against the sharp white background of society.

Citations:

Cabrera, Nolan. “”But I’m Oppressed Too”: white male college students framing racial emotions as facts and recreating racism.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 27, 2004 – issue 6: Gendering Men in Qualitative Research. pp 768-784. Tayor&Francis Online. Accessed 27 Feb 2017.

“How to Be A Successful Black Artist.” Youtube, uploaded by Hennessy Youngman, Oct 7.2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L_NnX8oj-g

Kellaway, Kate. “Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine review – the ugly truth of racism.” TheGuardian, 30 Aug. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/30/claudia-rankine-citizen-american-lyric-review. Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.

Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin Books. 2015

Wilson, W.J. The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass and public policy. Chicago. 1987.

Photo Credits:

Image one: Waldman, Katy. “In Memory.” Found, Slate, 27 Feb 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/02/how_to_murder_your_life_by_cat_marnell_and_all_the_lives_i_want_by_alana.html

Image two: Lynell, George. “Citizen Book Cover.” Found, kcet, 27 Feb 2017. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/writer-claudia-rankine-on-white-blindness-the-black-body-and-the-freedom-to-live

Image three: Maerkle, Andrew. “ECRITURE/ERASURE/ECSTASIS.” Found, ARTiT, 27 Feb 2017. http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_ed_itv_e/BVeAxyvUtf2zjdpMko5W 

10 thoughts on “Black Anger and “Post-Racial” America: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

  1. Hi Chris, great blog post!

    I think the concept of anger in regards to the African American condition can be really fascinating, and your point about a marketable black anger as opposed to a reflexive personal whitewashing of African Americans harks back to the age old conundrum surrounding Civil Rights. Should African Americans “lay low,” so to speak, and “cast down [their] buckets,” as Booker T. Washington encouraged in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech, or should they stand up and demand the rights that they undoubtedly deserve?

    As you say, Rankine’s many examples of everyday racism (side note: check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdyin6uipy4) are illustrative, especially for those readers who are not African American and do not share in the experiences she captures. They certainly provide a wonderful platform for discussion. But do you think that Rankine is providing any commentary on whether or not black anger is appropriate for the ongoing fight for a true “post-race society”? If so, how do you think she would encourage readers to approach and hopefully rectify the situation?

    -Kayla

    1. I’d argue that the concept of black anger as “marketable” is something of a reflexive response–a reaction to existing as a black presence within a white world. “Laying low” is certainly the simpler reaction, however I feel that addressing these issues in such a direct form is Rankine’s own reaction, and her means of demanding equality through the identification of “post-racial” issues.

      Rankine’s examples of common racism, or “diet racism” as it’s labelled in the video you linked, certainly suggest an underlying racism in the supposed “post-racial” society. I don’t believe Rankine is advocating black anger–rather, she seems to be justifying it and giving it purpose beyond confirming racist stereotypes.

      In a genuine post-racial world black anger wouldn’t be necessary, however it is justifiable as a reaction. Black anger is a response to “post-racial” racism, a visceral reaction to a white society, with white social norms, that is convinced racism no longer exists. Simply, I would argue that Rankine’s intention is to broadcast these socially-ingrained forms of racism, with the hope of eliminating the need for responsive black anger.

  2. Hi Chris – thanks for a really interesting blog post.

    You rightly draw attention to Rankine’s use of the second person pronoun – directly addressing “you” the reader – and how this creates a sense of universality, of collective suffering among black Americans. I too found the narrative voice to be one of the most striking and powerful aspects of Rankine’s Citizen, not only for the atmosphere of collective suffering it creates but also for the awareness it evokes in the reader of their own position in relation to the text. I, as a white reader, felt a profound awareness of my own disconnection from the various “micro-aggressions” Rankine describes – that I am not the “you” she is addressing. In other words, by offering us an opportunity to read ourselves into the text, I suppose Citizen encourages us to consider and account for our own position as individuals within the wider context of societal racism, as Rankine writes: “any relationship between the white viewer and the black artist immediately becomes one between white persons and black property” (34).

    Your discussion of Rankine’s references to contemporary media and art is also very insightful. Being such a multi-modal text, I find it very difficult to classify Citizen. It seems to be at once a graphic novel, poetry and a non-fiction essay. Then there’s the title and subtitle: what does it mean to be a ‘Citizen’, to write an ‘American Lyric’?

    I view Citizen as a bold assertion of the propensity of art and literature to effect social change, as a reclamation of the novel as vehicle for sociocultural revolution rather than a form of mere entertainment. Rankine seems to be exploring the serious vs. trivial purposes of art and encouraging us to consider our own role as citizens of society.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the ‘purpose’ of the text.

    As an aside: if you’re interested, Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” serves as a somewhat thought-provoking contemporary account of the age-old debate regarding difficult literature and what literature’s purpose should be.

    1. Hey Caitriona,

      Thanks for the detailed comment! I’ll do my best to address your points.

      I found your statement: “Citizen as a bold assertion of the propensity of art and literature to effect social change, as a reclamation of the novel as vehicle for sociocultural revolution,” to be particularly interesting. As you say, Rankine has made use of Citizen as a means of drawing attention to topics people may find it difficult to talk about, as a means of inspiring social change and a societal awakening. As I also address in the blog: there seems to be a thought that society is now ‘post-racial,’ and the ‘new racist’ is being unaware of one’s own racist tendencies. Especially now that racism is unfashionable, outdated, and socially ignorant.

      As to your comment on the “purpose of the text,” your answer mirrors my own: I believe the purpose of the text is to draw attention to subject matters which many of us don’t experience. You suggest that the “you” doesn’t refer to you specifically, as a white person reading an ‘African American’ text, but I disagree. Black people know what it’s like to be black: to experience everyday racism and micro-aggressions, to be singled out, made to feel different and to exist against a white background.

      Yes, Rankine may have written a text to appeal to a black reader, but if, as you say, the text is design to affect social change, then surely it is directed as those who must affect change – to those who must to made to understand this racism, rather than turn a blind eye to it or normalise everyday racism. Consequently, the “profound awareness” you felt – in addition to any discomfort, was likely an intentional addition designed to thrust you, the reader, into an uncomfortable position. At least, that was my reading of the text!

      Thanks!

      Chris

  3. Hi Chris,

    In the blog post you mention that “Rankine has used Citizen as a platform to discuss racial issues in contemporary America, drawing attention to the fact that the abolition of slavery, steps towards social equality, and the election of a black president haven’t resulted in the end of racism—a phenomenon which is deeply embedded in American society.” What really struck me when reading ‘Citizen’ was the style of it. She uses often short stories or excerpts of people’s experiences on a daily basis or even sections on Serena Williams’ experience to highlight racism in American contemporary society. Why do you think Rankine chose to present it in such a format? Why would she not write a novel that follows a single person? Potentially she may want to show just how widespread and casual it is for everyday life. I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.

    Caolán

    1. Hey Caolán,

      Simply, I would argue that utilising the format of a series of short stories, rather than a full novel, adds objective realism to the text. A novel can draw in the reader, suspend their disbelief, and actively engage them in a story – but ‘Citizen’ doesn’t require the reader to suspend their disbelief, because the tales are presumably true, and she wanted to draw attention to the cold facts. I believe Rankine wanted the reader to remain distant as they read – to be uncomfortable, which is why she fractured the story with art that doesn’t allow for rest. Moreover, a series of shorter tales and anecdotes is more effective than a longer biographical novel; I believe this structural format gets straight to the crux of the issue – showing dozens of common, everyday examples of racism. Many of them aren’t dramatic or eventful – they’re commonplace, and you wouldn’t base a novel on them. That’s the point I believe she was trying to make.

      Thanks!

      Chris

  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for a great blog!

    In addition to Caolan’s comment regarding the style of Citizen, do you feel as though, through the use of short stories and the experiences of others, Rankine is aiming to be the voice of a collective or as an individual? Personally, I find that due to the fact that Rankine omits her own experiences, it is difficult to perceive the voice of Rankine as being that of the individual.

    Also, you state that:

    “Rankine has defined the black experience in postmodern America, drawing on the deep-seeded anger of African Americans forced to whitewash themselves in a supposedly non-racist society which is nevertheless grounded on whiteness.”

    Do you find that Rankine’s text would be more effective if it also focused on inequality within the African American community or even other varying views within this community? Or perhaps this would take away from her polemic argument? Furthermore, by omitting these differing views, is Rankine inadvertently portraying the African American community as being one large homogenous collective?

    I would love to hear what your views are on this.

    -Laura

    1. Hey Laura,

      Your point on whose voice Rankine was trying to emulate is interesting. It isn’t something I’d previously considered, but I’ll do my best to answer it.

      I would argue that the use of the second-person pronoun, “you,” omits a voice entirely, which is a fascinating choice. By doing this, Rankine keeps the reader at an objective distance and forces them to adopt the stance of being the “you” of the story – being involved in the experience of an American American in a white society. I don’t believe Rankine is trying to be the voice of an entire community, rather, I think she’s trying to break through the normalisation of casual racism.

      No, I don’t think Rankine’s text would be more effective if she addressed issues of inequality or other political concerns; as you say, doing so would “take away from her polemic argument.” I can’t speak for the author, however, I’d argue that the average person generally understands inequality, but that many people are unaware of everyday racism as outlined in the text. Thus, by drawing attention to the ‘smaller’ concerns, Rankine is addressing a broader issue of racial insensitivity in a world where people are unaware of their own micro-aggressions.

      Hope that helps!

      – Chris

  5. Hey Chris, great blog! I really enjoyed reading ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’, it was a new experience as there are so many different elements to the text which enthralled me. Your blog certainly delves into many of the issues within the text.

    I agree with you that ‘Citizen’ explores central issues regarding what it means to be black in modern America, and I think that Rankine deals with these issues in an invigorating way. The text, for me, is quite mournful, and this is threaded throughout. It is poignant when we read lists of those black people who have been killed by the police in America, and highlights the ongoing struggle and everyday aggressions that people face in contemporary society. From my own further reading, I have found that Rankine was actually suffering from cancer whilst writing this text, and I am wondering if you think this had any impact on the text itself? I personally believe that Rankine’s situation would have caused her to have more emotional involvement in the events she was writing about, as she too was suffering. I think it would have caused her to reflect on the black body, and its continuing erasure in the modern social sphere.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your ideas. I look forward to hearing from you,

    Lauren

    1. Hey Lauren,

      Thanks a lot for the comment – it’s particularly thought-provoking, considering I was previously unaware of Rankine’s deteriorating health while writing ‘Citizen.’

      In response to your question: I imagine Rankine’s health did have an impact on the text – although it’s a credit to her that she kept the text the text from getting too dark while she was undoubtedly struggling through a period of reflection. As you say, Rankine’s deteriorating health likely had a serious impact on her emotional state while writing ‘Citizen,’ and it undoubtedly contributed to the mournful, emotional tone that underpins the work.

      Thanks for your insight!

      – Chris

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