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There is a cartoon circulating right now of two people holding protest signs — one is black, the other white. The black figure holds a sign that reads "I Can't Breathe;" the white figure holds a sign that reads "I Can't See." Recently, I have encountered many discussions reflecting the subtle wisdom of that cartoon: It's often white citizens who demand that citizens of color provide evidence that injustices exist — and sometimes, I'm the teacher in these moments.
As shorthand, I refer friends, allies and enemies to Claudia Rankine's National Book Award-nominated Citizen to help them navigate the complex waters of how racism is lived, seen and felt by black Americans. Reading her, you come out with a sense of knowing what it means to fill these shoes, this hoodie, this body. Rankine wants us to understand how one can become "invisible and hypervisible" in language and life — as she has.
Years ago, unknown to many people outside the particular universe that is modern American poetry, there was a very public debate between Rankine and Tony Hoagland, about Hoagland's 2002 poem, "The Change." Here's a sample:
But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite --
What I can tell you of this dialogue is that Rankine approached Hoagland, asking him — as colleagues in poetry do from time to time — what his thinking was when he crafted this poem with language that bore the trappings of racist tropes, language encapsulating a very particularly biased imagination.
Hoagland was, according to this story, ungracious to Rankine's initial query, saying his poem was "for white people." Rankine, a gifted and considered thinker, did what most of us hope to do in the face of this kind of interaction: She wrote him a letter, explaining how she received the poem and how she was troubled by his flippancy and condescension. In response, Hoagland called her "naïve" about the realities of American racism.
Hoagland's poem, in many ways, is the manifestation of white supremacy and class anxiety, and my response to it remains complicated. "The Change" is both "racially complex" (Hoagland's words) and racist. I don't know if that's an achievement — but I find it indicative of an aspect of the culture wars we're witnessing today.
I think about this as I consider Rankine's precise accounting of white discomfort in proximity to black anger. In Citizen, Rankine explores the intersection of Serena Williams's ascension as a great athlete with public critiques of her body, her demeanor, her confidence, her periodic expressions of outrage and joy against the gaze of her white audience.
"What does a victorious or defeated black woman's body in a historically white space look like?" she asks. "Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston's 'I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white sharp background.'" Rankine's close study of how the world receives Williams — and by extension black bodies — reveal what was so troubling about Hoagland's 2002 poem: Its racism is casual because it lives in the language.
There's the persistent seduction of collective amnesia, our desperate wanting to embrace a mythology that we've evolved. We want to erase the nightmarish truth that at one time, we were the kind of people who would inflict unspeakable cruelties to another human being.
We're afraid to confront the racism that is embedded in the very marrow of our systems and institutions. We look everywhere to negate that fact. But Rankine's clear and direct accounting of mundane yet fraught interactions between races — what some categorize as microaggressions — accumulate and magnify, revealing the stultifying biases that inform structural racism.
"For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person," she writes. "Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and as insane as it is, saying please." Rankine, who recognized the quiet violence in Hoagland's words and others, makes this struggle visible throughout the book.
Rankine's Citizen demands that we not look away.
Syreeta McFadden is a columnist for Feministing, and a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US.
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