The Never Ending Story: The Power of Format in Black Literature in 2017

In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine approaches the difficulties facing black Americans. However, this is no ordinary literary racial commentary.  When writing about a sensitive subject like race, often writers must be creative in their approach, in order to allow for discussion and interpretation. For example, Beatty approaches race issues through absurdist humour in The Sellout, and Whitehead creates distance by using an historical setting in The Underground Railroad. In contrast, Rankine uses the lyrical format to foster discussion and interpretation of racial attitudes. The text combines personal anecdotes, discussions of race in the media, scripts and poems, all of which contextualise photographs, film frames and art to deliver an effective, emotional discussion about race in America. Due to its troubling perpetuity, racism has existed in many forms, from early colonial settlement slavery, to its twenty-first state as a, generally, more covert form of prejudice, exemplified by Rankine’s white mother who purposely separates her daughter from the black community by “sit(ting) in the middle” (Rankine: 12) of her child and the black speaker on a ‘United’ Airlines plane. These unsettling outward manifestations of racism are presented alongside internal musings over the ‘otherness’ of the black race as termed by white speakers, for example Rankine ponders on how police officers are bias towards black men who will always “fit the description” (Rankine: 105) of the criminal.  As racism changes form, so does Rankine’s approach to its discussion, symbolised by the changes in literary formatting throughout Citizen.

Where Beatty has used absurdist humour to draw attention away from the man behind the curtain, the author, Rankine draws on her own deeply personal life experience, amalgamating the author and her life with her subject matter. Through dozens of personal stories, Rankine shows that it is not one great moment, but a great many moments that have developed her sense of identity as a black person in America. These moments, mostly held in the first five sections of the text, are constructed in the prose poetry form. Many read like stage directions, telling the reader that “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street swallowed by speed” (Rankine: 10). The poems are written to control the reader, seating them in a situation of Rankine’s choosing. By asking us to observe the situation from this point of view, Rankine forces the reader to feel these many uncomfortable instances first hand.

This use of prose poetry reads in antithesis to Rankine’s more abstract pieces. A large part of their effectiveness in conveying Rankine’s feelings is their unique and interesting formatting. For example, on pages 134 and 135, Rankine creates a striking visual by coupling anaphora of the phrase “In memory of” (134) with the typographical feature of the print fading down the page. The repetition displays how these victims are remembered, as simply a list of names. As it grows longer, the public will become increasingly desensitised to this type of crime. Alternatively, by leaving room for more names below, Rankine is criticising the action being taken (or lack thereof) as insufficient in stopping this type of crime from happening again. On the right hand page, there are only three short lines referencing the inability of white men to control their “imagination” (135). Visually, the stark contrast between a page filled with mourning text and a page of just eleven short words, between black and white, victim and perpetrator, demonstrates how the many deaths within the black community have one root cause: the bias suspicion of white men. This message is effectively conveyed through her careful formatting.

Not only does Rankine deal with American race relations, but certain sections also cover international and European events, like Zidane’s headbutt at the end of the World Cup in 2006. Rankine has chosen quotations from many different places and people, though their very relevant and similar ideas makes for a difficult read on the “insidious” (122) nature of racist language. Rankine shows the true power of words by amalgamating the quotations of many authors and unifying the rage felt by those on the receiving end of them. Printed in large letters across the fold of the two pages is the phrase “Black-Blanc-Beur” (122). This racially inclusive french phrase being stamped on the pages perhaps shows the hypocrisy of the french’s own ideas of inclusivity. Rankine does not write any of her own words in this section, simply making a collage of the words of others. Perhaps in giving the piece many voices, Rankine shows that many share this same feeling of restrained yet volatile outrage against racial injustice.

The format changes again in the section concerning athlete Serena Williams. Rankine’s language becomes more prosaic, the layout more traditionally reminiscent of a novel as opposed to a poem. The usage of “you,” as opposed to “I” as seen in the prose poetry previously continues throughout this section. The speaker and, through this use of “you”, also the reader, are watching Serena Williams’s career unfold through televised events, and watching the prejudices against a black player unfold in a sport with a “white background” (32). This viewpoint emphasis the scrutiny Williams is under, portraying her as an other, as someone who does not belong, facing criticism for more than just her on-court fowls. Rankine successfully harnesses Williams’s experience, and how that effected her, feeling these slights come “out of history, through (Williams), onto (Rankine)” (32). As a fan, the speaker watches Williams swallow her anger and wonder why. Rankine uses Williams’s strife as an example of of the troubles all of the “black bodies thrown against” her “American background” (32).

In her review of Citizen for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway states that it “may or may not be poetry” and that “the question becomes insignificant as one reads on.” It is clear that for Rankine that subject matter is more important than poetic structure. It may be that Rankine’s unique “unsettled hybrid” is a much more relevant and thought provoking way to talk about race, and perhaps this is the first wave of popular and uncomfortable literature of this kind.

References

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

Kellaway, Kate. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine review – the ugly truth of racism. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/30/claudia-rankine-citizen-american-lyric-review Accessed on 15/10/2017

Images

http://www.msnbc.com/sites/msnbc/files/styles/ratio–83-34–830×340/public/articles/rtr318h0.jpg?itok=CfaWj-J8

https://cdn.newsday.com/polopoly_fs/1.12244995.1472615368!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/display_960/image.jpg

8 thoughts on “The Never Ending Story: The Power of Format in Black Literature in 2017

  1. Great blog Luke, I really enjoyed it and was particularly drawn to your thoughts on the forms within Rankine’s text.

    You draw specific attention to the juxtaposition of various styles of formatting inherent throughout Rankine’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’, having commented that previous authors dealing with issues of race and identity in the contemporary have intentionally cultivated techniques to open up such discourse, e.g. through humour, historical displacement and with Rankine, form itself. I am interested in the physicality of the text itself, which at times, lyrical, the ebb and flow of a wave washing us up on a shore of self awareness (hopefully!) of the racism so deeply rooted within the core of our society and therefore so endemic within our ‘selves’.
    Paradoxically, at other moments the text appears sporadic, episodic and aggressive, iterating short bursts of matter-of-fact truths, unveiling the inner rage caused by the perpetuation of ‘subtle’ injustice and racism coded throughout every aspect of society. In this way, the physical text itself seems symbolic of Serena William’s ‘restrained’ rage eventually leaking out with bursts of true outrage at moments which seem out of sync with her original reaction to the initial incident with the umpire; cataracts of our own ignorance to her ongoing struggle being to drop from our eyes.

    Williams falters in her ‘performance’ as ‘American citizen’ unleashing her inner fury, whilst Rankine constantly disrupts the narrative flow of her text, infiltrating it with distorted images, matter-of-fact scenarios and lists of individual deaths synonymous with the black community, which you referred to in your blog. Do you think, perhaps, that Rankine is suggesting that being an American Citizen in the contemporary is reliant on the suppression of internal feelings of rage, horror and dissatisfaction whilst maintaining a pleasant, unprovoked exterior?
    Perhaps Rankine is suggesting that the way to move forward in the now is to merge and expose both the internal and external senses of being (as she has done through combining various formats together in the one text) and break them down like pieces of the same puzzle, analysing them together to become more aware of who we are and how we came to be that way?

    I’d be really interested to hear what you guys think!

    1. Hi Rebecca, you’ve made some great points. I think that Rankine is talking about a very specific type of rage; one that comes from facing institutionalised racism as one of America’s most visible and racially abused minorities. However, her exploration of the internalisation of anger and passivity that the speaker shows is both inventive and effective. It is a startling representation of what any minority member who is institutionally discriminated against faces on a day to day basis. One of the things I found most effective about the piece was that the format in all it different forms gives a sense of variety, as if this could be happening day after day after day, in a multitude of different ways and in may different situations.

  2. Hi Luke –
    I really enjoyed your blog, it definitely helped me mentally unpick Rankine’s hybridized structure a bit more.
    I was really interested in your points about racism and language and the ways in which racism changes form just as language does. I wonder if the ambiguity of language enables a certain amount of manipulation or bending the rules when it comes to racist remarks?
    The idea of language holding such power as opposed to the physical power of police brutality is really poignant. After all, isn’t language the reinforcing structure behind every system of tradition…
    It would be interesting to look further at the ways in which language perpetuates law and patriotism in America as Rankine really shows these daily “micro-aggressions” as being an overlooked facet of black identity.
    Zoe

  3. Hi Luke!

    Really enjoyed this piece. I thought your points on the form were really interesting, especially when aligned with the framing mechanisms used to discuss racism by Beatty and Whitehead. I’m not sure, myself, which is the most effective method, or if (as some people have suggested about Beatty’s humour) the distance achieved by a narrative frame detracts from the impact of the text. Your blog draws attention to the critical reception of the text, with The Guardian’s comment that it “may or may not be poetry” – I wonder if Rankine’s insistence on various literary forms hinders her from presenting a message, and in what ways do the forms create an effect that couldn’t otherwise be achieved?

    I’m thinking of writing about experimental narrative styles for my assignment, and think you’ve made loads of good points about the various forms Rankine uses. Thanks for the help! Great read.

    Oisin

  4. Great blog Luke, I really enjoyed it and was particularly drawn to your thoughts on the forms within Rankine’s text.

    You draw specific attention to the juxtaposition of various styles of formatting inherent throughout Rankine’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’, having commented that previous authors dealing with issues of race and identity in the contemporary have intentionally cultivated techniques to open up such discourse, e.g. through humour, historical displacement and with Rankine, form itself. I am interested in the physicality of the text itself, which at times, lyrical, the ebb and flow of a wave washing us up on a shore of self awareness (hopefully!) of the racism so deeply rooted within the core of our society and therefore so endemic within our ‘selves’. Paradoxically, at other moments the text appears sporadic, episodic and aggressive, iterating short bursts of matter-of-fact truths, unveiling the inner rage caused by the perpetuation of ‘subtle’ injustice and racism coded throughout every aspect of society.
    In this way, the physical text itself seems symbolic of Serena William’s ‘restrained’ rage eventually leaking out with bursts of true outrage at moments which seem out of sync with her original reaction to the initial incident with the umpire; cataracts of our own ignorance to her ongoing struggle being to drop from our eyes.
    Williams falters in her ‘performance’ as ‘American citizen’ unleashing her inner fury, whilst Rankine constantly disrupts the narrative flow of her text, infiltrating it with distorted images, matter-of-fact scenarios and lists of individual deaths synonymous with the black community, which you referred to in your blog. Do you think, perhaps, that Rankine is suggesting that being an American Citizen in the contemporary is reliant on the suppression of internal feelings of rage, horror and dissatisfaction whilst maintaining a pleasant, unprovoked exterior? Perhaps Rankine is suggesting that the way to move forward in the now is to merge and expose both the internal and external senses of being (as she has done through combining various formats together in the one text) and break them down like pieces of the same puzzle, analysing them together to become more aware of who we are and how we came to be that way?

    I’d be really interested to hear what you guys think!

  5. Hi Luke, – Time for my super last minute comment! This was a great blog, I particularly enjoyed your reflection on Rankine’s format. As part of our course, one of the questions that we are asking is, what can contemporary literature contribute to society’s injustices? How can the forms of contemporary literature reflect societal injustices in an alternative and effective manner? A point that you made in your blog referenced these questions: “As racism changes form, so does Rankine’s approach to its discussion, symbolized by the changes in literary formatting throughout Citizen.” I thought this was a very interesting point when considering Rankine’s multitude of different literary forms. As you’ve mentioned she uses different forms to represent different ‘types of racism’ so to speak. Prosaic, lyrical and visual cultures. Could it be said that Rankine’s purposefully mismatch of different formats to represent the obscurity of racism in a apparent “post race” era? Perhaps, it is meant to make sense at all, as racism itself does not make sense?

    Nat

  6. Hey Luke

    This is a great blog and a really fascinating look into the materiality of the book itself. I am impressed that you pay such attention and detail to the actual format and images that are used, as they play such a huge role in determining the interpretation of the reader. That the ‘In memory of…’ section is updated with the names of victims of police brutality each time the book is re-issued is a harrowing and prescient way of keeping the book ‘alive’, it never seems likely that we will see a time when the book is not being updated.

    Also worth reflecting on how you consider the book as a body and interpret it accordingly. In a book based around the theme of reading bodies and drawing conclusions from it, it is very fitting that you have created something in the same mode of analysis.

  7. Hi Luke

    I have to say, I really enjoyed your blog. Your engagement with Rankine is a great springboard for discussion.

    I particularly liked your point that “it is not one great moment, but a great many moments that have developed her sense of identity”. I think this is a statement that could be applied to most if not all of the works we have studied this semester. In Lorraine Connection Rolande’s dismissal and the death of Aisha drives her to flee Pondange with the stolen money. In Zeitoun Kathy suffers microaggressions from her family and the public. The contemporary then is not simply the time we live in, but our present immersion in the world around us.

    The works we have studied that are most experimental in form deal with race. I think this is significant – what can image and type do for this issue that words cannot? You point out the most scathing and upsetting example of this, the fading list. I think a connection to the section on Serena Williams could be made here. Both are at their most vocal in their quietening, but if this is the case then how do you make yourself heard?

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