Of Time and Tennis: The Contemporary in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric”

It is the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Singles Final. Playing is Japan’s Naomi Osaka, and opposite her is perhaps the most famous tennis player of all time: Serena Williams. A friend of mine speculates, perhaps redundantly but not incorrectly, that this must be an important match to Williams: on home-soil, returning from a complicated child-birth and a series of health concerns, a victory here would be her answer, perhaps, to those detractors that claim she has no place in the sport. This is how the match begins.

But what does this have to do with Claudia Rankine, and her bestseller ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’?

Well, put simply the connection lies in the match’s end: Williams does not win.

Image by Andres Kudacki via ABC.net.au

During the second set, she is ushered three code violations by umpire Carlos Ramos: for alleged coaching, for racquet abuse, and for verbally abusing the umpire. That her “abuse” hardly compares to the behaviour of unpenalised male players does not matter, and for Williams’ violations, Osaka is first awarded a point lead, and then the next game by default. The match does not continue for a third set; Osaka skilfully wins the current set, and with it the match.

And for Serena Williams, as media coverage once again sets about questioning her conduct and behaviour, the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Single Final becomes yet another mark on her record which, on some other court, in some future Open, will be remembered by speculating commentators as yet another reason she’ll feel obliged to win. Yet another transgression demanding she prove herself. The latest, in a trend that Rankine’s Citizen documents, of repeated attempts by others to criticise Williams both for her body and for the emotions that her body expresses:

For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background.” (Rankine, 32)

And one gets the impression, as she is heard in exchanges with officials, that Williams is all too aware of this:

Unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems.

This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair. This is not fair.

“I get the rules, I get the rules but I’m just saying it’s not right. And it happened to me at this tournament every single year that I play. It’s just not fair.”

Williams recalls, and Rankine reminds us, of past events where we have seen this before: the 2004 US Open Women’s quarter-final. The 2009 semi-final. The 2011 final. The 2012 Olympics. In other words, we witness in the 2018 US Open an event that refuses to become history, and instead seems to insist upon continually re-occurring and re-establishing itself in the here-and-now; a state of the world that has stagnated in it’s inability to flow, and so has persisted as a feature of our present. And in concerning itself with these events, we have in Citizen literature that tries to engage with and express that present in a way that is not quite poetry nor prose, but a similarly ambiguous blending of the two, as Rankine presents to us vignettes that are not bound to any chronological ordering. Ranging from accounts of microaggressions, to meditations of what it is to be trapped in one’s own body, to manifestations of that body’s discontentment, we are extended an invitation by Rankine to engage with these moments not as isolated occurrences, but as parts of an unspoken tradition that some are all too happy to ignore and contribute to.

Claudia Rankine – Image by John Lucas via Wikimedia Commons

She asks us, in other words, to act as Contemporaries of our time, and to recognise from within it events that are characteristic of our age – in a way very much in keeping with Giorgio Agamben’s definition of who ‘the Contemporary’ is: one who “is able to read history in unforseen ways, to ‘cite it’ according to a necessity that does not arise in any way from his will, but from an exigency to which he cannot respond.” (Agamben, 53). The Contemporary does not to treat history as a closed book, but rather recognises that the past is in no way isolated from our present, and so cannot be read in search of conclusions – only for indications of where we are now:

We never reached out to anyone to tell our story because there’s no ending to our story.” (Rankine, 84)

It should be acknowledged that William’s does not attribute Ramos’s treatment of her to race; rather, she considers it a matter of ingrained sexism within tennis. To confuse issues of race and sex, or treat the two as interchangeable, would do discussions of either a severe disservice, if not outright harm. But as Rankine’s vignettes show, there are some events that seem to transcend the context in which they take place, and take on meanings that, though unintended, are nonetheless carried in powerful ways:

…if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body […] is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels regardless of context – randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out […] is to be called insane, crass, crazy.” (Rankine, 30)

Perhaps this is what it means to be “Contemporary”: to find that the context of time ceases to have meaning where wider contexts develop; to find the confluence of other factors (of one’s lived experience, of what one sees in media, of what legacies one inherits) can imbue moments with signifying powers that they wouldn’t otherwise have; and, by extension, to find moments can be transformed into what we can’t help but read as emblematic of our world today.

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus?. Stanford University Press: 2009

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

News Coverage Cited:

“US Open 2018: Serena Williams fined over outbursts during final” BBC Sport. BBC:  09/09/2018 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/45463752] Accessed 11/10/2018.

Healy, Jon. “Serena Williams’s US Open final breakdown blow-by-blow” ABC News. The ABC: 09/09/2018 [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/serena-williams-us-open-breakdown-blow-by-blow/10218962?section=sport] Accessed 11/10/2018.

Images Cited:

Kudacki, Andres. “Naomi Osaka walks away  covering her face as Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos” via ABC.net.au, 09/09/2018: [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/naomi-osaka-walks-away-as-serena-williams-argues-with-the-umpire/10219032?section=sport] Accessed 13/10/2018.

Lucas, John. “Author Photo of Claudia Rankine” via Wikimedia Commons, 2014: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine.jpg] Accessed 13/10/2018.

6 thoughts on “Of Time and Tennis: The Contemporary in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric”

  1. Hi Hugh,
    Excellent post. You write compellingly and concisely without reducing the heavy themes that appear in Citizen. I especially enjoy the focus you’ve put here on Serena Williams because, as you’ve pointed out, Rankine’s implications about Williams’ treatment have been made evident in recent news. The Serena Williams ‘chapter’ interested me the most because I felt irresponsible for never recognizing the pattern before. Although, you put it powerfully, that these ‘patterns’ are “parts of an unspoken tradition” that Rankine invites us to recognize.

    I wonder, had Williams’ not been penalized in the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Singles Final, would Rankine’s argument appealed as strongly as it does to us? Or, like the other vivid pictures she paints, would this image have remained a small part of a large illustration of injustice?

    I also appreciate the explanations of contemporary that you explore. It is often difficult to define, but you offer an interpretation that feels especially potent in the context of Citizen: to be a contemporary is to bear witness and understand the interconnectivity that governs experiences.


    1. Hi Kendra, thanks very much for the comment.

      You raise an interesting point on how our interpretation of the situation might have been different had the Open played out differently. Would it still carry the same resonance with Citizen that we find now? Or, as you suggest, would it have lost that appeal? And if some appeal was lost, would that have undermined Rankine’s argument at all?

      For what it’s worth, I think that Rankine’s points wouldn’t have been compromised at all – I think the final still would have found itself taking on a certain significance and contributing to certain traditions, but that significance likely would have resonated with other parts of Citizen than the ones that strike us now. For example, let’s say Serena Williams played perfectly, there had been no accusations of coaching, and no penalties were given. I can’t help but feel that we’d see a scenario similar to what Rankine describes on pg35:

      “Serena would go on to win every match she played between the US Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament, and […] she would do this without any reaction to a number of questionable calls. More than one commentator would remark on her ability to hold it together during these matches. She is a woman in love, one suggests. She has grown up, another decides, as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others.”

      In other words, I think the actual controversy of the 2018 Open is really only a part of the issue, because even before the penalties were given, even before the match had begun, commentators, reporters, and audience members were already speculating about Serena’s mindset and behaviour. Even if the match had been entirely unremarkable, I suspect the media would have decided “to take up the mantle” (pg36) of finding other ways to question her, in the same vein as the examples that Rankine supplies.

      And I think that’s the “unspoken tradition” that Citizen asks us to identify: how some attitudes and behaviours (like those of Serena’s harshest detractors) are considered acceptable, while others (such as Serena’s attempts to defend her conduct) are given disproportionate attention and condemnation, for reasons stemming ultimately from prejudice.

      I’m interested in hearing whether others disagree though. It’s an interesting “What-If” scenario to think about.

      – Hugh

  2. Hi Hugh,

    I really enjoyed your blog post, particularly when it comes to defining the Contemporary with a capital C. Your concluding point makes for a thought provoking consideration of how histories both large and small and our current condition are never quite inextricable from the contemporary moment.

    I wonder is the why the piece given the title of lyric? Do the fractures, breaks and white space compact or affirm this analysis of the contemporary moment?

    I ask this because for me, I find the moments in which we are forced to stop by a white page or the fact that black bodies are placed against white backgrounds jarring. Maybe I hold this view as a resident of Northern Ireland because any bodies which are not white seem to stand out so much against the white background of other bodies.

    Whatever your thoughts on this you succinctly explored what for me is a crucial moment within citizen.


    1. Hi Lara, thanks for commenting.

      I also wondered about why the novel had been titled the way it was. “An American Lyric” is an interesting way of describing Citizen, and it could well be that it was chosen as a title precisely because it was memorable. I suspect there were other, deeper reasons at play as well, however.

      My own take on the title was that “Lyric” alluded to a musicality or lyricism to the book’s composition, in that it’s trying to highlight how certain manifestations of prejudice and racism have become a sort of “American” refrain, arising and repeating over and over again in slightly different ways – variations of the same sentiment that all “rhyme”, so to speak. The combination of differing forms of media (art, poetry, prose, youtube video, script), and as you say, the use of white spaces and sharp contrasts all serve to reinforce that, and impose a certain pace and timing to how the reader experiences the book.

      But that was my interpretation with reference to ideas of the Contemporary that I was also thinking about at the time – the idea of time repeating on itself, of moments of sudden resonance, of unprompted recognition – so I’m perhaps a little biased towards framing things in a musical way.

      Regardless, I found it a compelling way to read things, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who had theories as to what might have motivated the title.

      – Hugh

  3. Hi Hugh,

    This blog post was excellent. You write incredibly well, and you have identified some key issues in Rankine’s text that I had not necessarily considered. I am particularly interested in the following argument: “It should be acknowledged that Williams does not attribute Ramos’s treatment of her to race; rather, she considers it a matter of ingrained sexism within tennis. To confuse issues of race and sex, or treat the two as interchangeable, would do discussions of either a severe disservice, if not outright harm.”

    This is something that had crossed my mind when reading ‘Citizen’, but not in the context you have outlined. What concerned me was the photograph Rankine included of Caroline Wozniacki stuffing her bra and and tennis skirt in mockery of Serena Williams. To me, this represented a powerful intersection between issues of race and sex, because of course, Wozniacki focuses her ridicule upon the female body – and arguably, the sexualised female body at that. In the contemporary feminist moment, I was shocked to see a woman using the female body as a mode of mockery like this. But, of course, she didn’t intend her action to be viewed as ‘sexist’; it was more a comment on race. It would be interesting to know what would have been said if it had been a male tennis player stuffing his clothes, as opposed to a female – in that case, would we have deemed his actions sexist, racist, or both? Indeed, should our judgement be any different considering a female is the guilty party here?

    There is obviously a very knotty dialectic at play here between the both, and I am very glad you have drawn it out in your analysis.

    1. Hi Amy,

      I was also surprised to see the photograph of Wozniacki ‘impersonating’ Williams. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Wozniacki herself would characterise the act as mocking or ridicule – I think the intended tone is one of playful teasing between rivals.

      I agree with you though that even still, it comes across as somewhat tone-deaf, particularly when one takes into account how Rankine positions it in relation to the media’s treatment of Williams, and I think Rankine herself is aware of the ambiguity of the moment (“…there are a number of ways to interpret her actions…”(Rankine, 36)).

      With that in mind, I think what Rankine is interested in moreso than Wozniacki’s intentions, is how people could latch on to something like a photograph as accurately representing, whether they know it or not, whether they would be willing to admit it or not, their true feelings towards someone like Serena Williams.

      I also agree with you that it would interesting to see how that media/public reaction might have changed depending on whether some factors were altered (had a male been the one doing the mocking for example, or had the target of the mockery been another white tennis player?), to see how those contextual elements might have influenced its perceived meaning, but even still I find it interesting that the photograph as-is can take on the significance that Rankine has ascribed it.

      Thank very much for the comment!

      – Hugh

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