Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Citizen: An American Lyric," by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s book of prose poems and essays, “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf, 2014), is wrenching and heartbreaking. It forces the reader to face the harsh realities of racial prejudice in the United States (and elsewhere), and the terrible, ongoing effects of that prejudice on every Black person. The poems, the essays, the artwork all connect and reinforce each other. Some of the work is elliptical and indirect, while other sections could not be more direct. Many of the prose poems refer to specific events and people. For example, there is a section about the great Black tennis player Serena Williams, and the blatant prejudice and discrimination she has experienced. I knew a little of this reaction to Williams, but not the extent of it, and Rankine makes sure we see it up close. One section is a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, when it became crystal clear that Black lives did not in fact matter. Other sections are also memorials, to Trayvon Martin and other victims of prejudice that destroyed these young men’s lives. Still other sections delineate the “small” moments of everyday life, when White people choose not to sit next to a Black person on a train, for example, or when they treat a Black woman differently than they treat her White friend in a shop or restaurant. Rankine shows us how these moments can wear a person down. This book will not let readers turn away from the evidence, so much evidence, of ongoing racism, devastating racism that plays out in large and small ways all the time. The author also shows us the obliviousness of many White people to this racism all around them. A small but telling example is of the White man who steps ahead of the (Black female) narrator in the line at a store, and when the clerk points out that the woman was there first, the man is genuinely surprised, and says “I didn’t see you.” I highly recommend this beautifully written and hugely painful but instructive book.
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