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.
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.
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