Black Bodies/ White Spaces: Invisibility and Hypervisibility in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

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.

(Ibid, p.99)

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. 

Image 1 and 2: Rankine, 2015, pp.52-53

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.

Image 3: Rankine, 2015, p.91

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.

Bibliography

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.

Images

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]

Image 3:
(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]

7 thoughts on “Black Bodies/ White Spaces: Invisibility and Hypervisibility in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

  1. I thought this response to Citizen was especially astute and insightful Lerato!
    I really liked your analysis of the Hurston quote that was reprinted in the book and designed by Rankine to comment and demonstrate the hypervisibility of black bodies in white spaces. I completely agree, and I think that Rankine’s use of multimodal media throughout the book consistently serves to highlight the experience of being a black body in contrast predominantly white spaces.
    After discussing the significance of class in Citizen today in the seminar, I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on the significance of class in relation to sites where the microaggressions in Citizen occurred. Namely the “racialised spaces” of the school, a therapists office or in professional-level tennis games?

    1. I think class relates to a sort of racialised mode of ‘civility’ which dictates the rules of these spaces. The full knowledge (and indeed production) of these rules is only taught in white upper-class spaces and follow rules of logic that are often inaccessible and incomprehensible to those that are situated outside that space. These rules of civility (manners, politeness and etiquette) are designed to excluded on both race and class boundaries, however, the way racial microaggression work and are felt is, I think, different to the affect of class-based microaggressions and are navigated and negated in different ways. Also, there is an additional level of security and stability held by the white persons in each of these examples (the school, therapist’s office and tennis courts), which comes from that same mode of civility. By acting within that set of rules which they themselves produced and retain access to, they are incapable of wrong-doings, and incapable then, of recognising the harm caused by their actions.

  2. Hi Lerato, I think the topic of your blog perfectly encapsulates one of the most prominent themes of Citizen and makes clear the connection between the artwork used and the ideas behind them.

    You mentioned in your blog that hypervisibility was something that could be experienced from both the white gazer and the Black body which is turned into a subject. What is your opinion on the author’s decision to make that truth visible, not only through the narrative but also graphically? Is it to make the people aware if they have not yet been? Is it to make them active in the fight against it?

    To quote a passage by Frank Wilderson III: “As I write, I am more aware of the rage and anger of my reader-ideal, an angry mob of readers, than I am of my own desires and strategies for assembling my argument.” Who comprises this angry mob?”
    Do you think Rankine had an ideal reader in her mind when she wrote Citizen? That her intention was education, spreading awareness or a call to action, or was she trying to express herself in order to “put a mirror” in front of those guilty of such aggressions?

    Thank you for your answer and congrats again on a great blog entry!

    1. I think one of the wonderful things about the way Rankine uses and subverts the lyric form is that there is no ideal reader. The reader created by the text shifts and changes throughout the book, and is often multiple. I think we could go so far as to say that there is a resistance to the creation of an ideal or stable reader figure. There are multiple intentions held within Citizen and I wouldn’t try to reduce the work to simply education, or spreading awareness. Indeed this kind of narrowness ends up centring non-Black, and in specific white readership, missing out that there is, at least in my reading of it, a very strong connection with the experiences of other Black readers, and specifically with Black women reading this text. This kind of effort in solidarity and connection has its roots in the consciousness-raising groups of black-lead, intersectional, second-wave feminism that we see in America in the 1960s-1980s.

  3. This blog displays an in depth knowledge and understanding of both ‘Citizen’ and of the wider contextual information.

    This American lyric ‘Citizen’ opened my eyes to how racism can creep into every aspect of life and can be seen openly in the media if we only look for it. The tennis player who horrifically mocked another player for her black body left me very much offended and made me reconsider how I should view the media.

    One particular part in ‘Citizen’ that stood out vividly to me was the page were it kept repeating “In memory of… in memory of… in memory of…”, as if the author knew those spaces would be filled with more and more names of black men and women killed for the mere colour of their skin.

    This is a thought provoking and well written blog.

  4. A very insightful post Lerato. I particularly thought your references to the micro as well as the macroaggressions committed against the black body as well as the sense of hypervisibility for black bodies in white spaces, something that you mention George Yancy addresses as “whites inherited the privileged status of being the “lookers” and gazers, with all the power that this entailed.”
    This idea of hypervisibility is something that I picked up on early on in the novel when a couple goes to the movies only to be told by their neighbour that someone is casing their home, a situation that is further heightened by the description the neighbour gives of the perpetrator as a “menacing black guy.” This description proves to be terribly off track as it is just a friend who is babysitting, but it brings to light an important question in that in some minds the presence of a black body in a white space is something alien.

  5. Lerato, thank you for this really insightful and well-written article. I’m intrigued as regards the centring of ‘citizen’ in Rankine’s work – would you say that she is trying to highlight the inherent contradiction in American society that it fails to see black Americans as anything more than bodies, or objects, that are indistinguishable and othered – that is, it fails to live up to its own standards in the Declaration? I think this could be an effective political strategy. Further to this, is “the black body” (edit: in the way you use the term here) an object or spectacle for the white gaze, or an emphasis of embodiment as the bare foundation for black personhood in the vein of what Nina Simone expressed? Perhaps it is both?

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