Claudia Rankine’s Citizen consists of a series of aggressions against the Black body; both microaggressions and the macro. Microaggression, as I am using the term here, does not earn the prefix ‘micro’ because of their (lack of) impact or significance, but rather because of the frequency and environments that they happen in; occurring often, in passing, in any number of interpersonal situations.
Whilst the microaggressions of Citizen all navigate language and emotional response or bodily effect, most also deal with the collision of Black bodies in white spaces; in a predominantly white Catholic school, outside a therapist’s office, or in the world of elite tennis. In these racialised spaces the Black body may become invisible and/or hypervisible. At school, the speaker becomes invisible; “Sister Evelyn must think these two think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there.” (Rankine, 2015, p.6). This manifests again in “the “all black people look the same” moment”, and again in the most literal sense in a shop,
Oh my God I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.
(Ibid. p.7, p.77)
These moments of invisibility and hypervisibility are all mediated by the white gaze, how the white subject views (or doesn’t view) the Black object. George Yancy (2016, p.xxxiii) outlines that “[w]ithin the context of white racist America, whites inherited the privileged status of being the “lookers” and gazers, with all the power that this entailed.” White people adopt the status of the gazer, and inflict assumptions upon the black subject, assumptions that are intrinsically caught up in the history of America, and the history of slavery (Ibid. p.3). We see these assumptions played out in Citizen as Piers Morgan informs Serena Williams that yes, she does look “like a gangster to him” (Rankine, 2015, p.34). This is a history that is figured into the construction of the Black body and of white spaces.
American concepts of race can be considered as oppositional. Rankine, quoting Frantz Fanon, reminds us that “It is the White Man who creates the black man.” (Ibid. p.128). The Black, African, slave body, is one that has been possessed, objectified and displaced and Hume (2016) highlights that under these conditions, the connection to the land is a violent one, because “America as we know it is constructed out of the instumentalization of and violence against black bodies.” (Hume, 2016, p.96). She continues;
Rankine suggests that… the effects of discrimination accumulate in the body. History is like a tumour or a tree with roots and limbs, one that continues to grow and spread… African Americans cannot see nature without also seeing a history of incarceration and violence.
Under these conditions, in which the trauma and memory of instututional racism remain present in the body throughout generation, then all space in America is subject to become racialised, and all public space may be considered white space, claimed through colonial genocide and made profitable and prosperous through the labour and violent subjugation of Black bodies.
Rankine, in this hybridised lyric form, employs visual imagery and artwork. This piece, by Glenn Ligon, repeats a quote from Zora Neale Hurston “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” highlighting this concern of hypervisibility in white spaces. When defined in opposition, it is that very difference that draws attention to the Black body. Mary-Jean Chan (2018, p.148) suggests that Rankine is calling “attention to the materiality of black bodies,” here, and I see this exemplified by the repetition of this statement in this piece. The words become increasingly unclear and ill-defined as they become less distinct against their background, they become camouflaged among the black. This piece both brings to the forefront the affective qualities of race and the racialised, and also how Blackness and ‘colored-ness’ is constructed and reconstructed in white spaces, rendering the Black body hypervisible.
This hypervisibility can be experienced from both the white gazer and the Black body turned subject as the Black body is “othered” by and in white spaces (Yancy, 2016). The Black body can be rendered hypervisible and invisible simultaneously in racialised space;
And you are not the guy and you still fit the description because there is always one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
(Rankine, 2015, p.108)
Here, Black men end up a monolith, indistinguishable from one another, their individuality and personhood made invisible in the view of the state. Concurrently, they are made hypervisible, targeted and brutalised by the state who can only ever view them as threats, through “white ontological assumptions about Black bodies,” (Yancy, 2016, p.3). Their existence in the white space becomes unsafe under the white gaze.
Hypervisibility can also transform the Black body into spectacle. Rankine subverts this using an edited photo, removing the Black corpses, redirecting the gaze onto the white spectators. This is an important contemporary distinction when increasingly images of collective Black mourning and remembrance are turned into “a spectacle for white pornography”; pictures and videos of Black bodies brutalised at the hands of the state are readily available and easily shared (Rankine, 2016, p.149). This voyeurism once again transforms the Black body into subject. Under the continued racial trauma, living alongside the trauma inherited, inherent to Black living, Black personhood, citizenship and humanness are also pulled into question. This is only disorientated further when we look beyond the physicality of the Black body, with Fred Moten (2008) characterising blackness as a location and Rankine (2016, p.146), in a later work, suggests that there is, in fact, “no living while black.”. The bodily remains only one small aspect of the ‘citizen’ at the centre of this work; theorising and conceptualising the whole Black personhood is a much more complex task.
Chan, M.J. (2018) Towards a Poetics of Racial Trauma: Lyric Hybridity in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Journal of American Studies, 52(1), pp.137-163.
Harney, S. and Moten, F. (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.
Hume, A. (2016) Toward an Antiracist Ecopoetics: Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine. Contemporary Literature, 57(1), pp.79-110. Available at: doi:10.3368/cl.57.1.79 [Accessed 19 October 2020]
Moten, F. (2008) The Case of Blackness. Criticism, 50(2), pp.177-218.
Rankine, C. (2015) Citizen. London: Penguin Books.
Rankine, C. (2016). The Condition Of Black Life Is One Of Mourning. In: J. Ward, ed. The Fire This Time. New York: Scribner. pp. 145-155.
Sharma, M. (2014) ‘On Blackness as the Second Person’ Guernica. 17 November. Available at: https://www.guernicamag.com/blackness-as-the-second-person/ [Accessed 19 October 2020]
Yancy, G. (2016) Black Bodies, White Gazes : The Continuing Significance of Race in America. Lanhan: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Image 1 and 2:
(Rankine, 2015, pp. 52-53)
Ligon, G. (1992) Two of four etchings. In: Untitled: Four Etchings, Available at: https://mcachicago.org/Collection/Items/1992/Glenn-Ligon-Untitled-1992 [Accessed 19 October 2020]
(Rankine, 2015, p.91)
Lucas, J. after Beitler, L. (1930) Public Lynching . Hulton Archives. 30 August. Available at: https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/1813-great-american-press-release [Accessed 19 October 2020]