Reading Claudia Rankine On Race

1 Jul

 

We white people have lots to learn about racism in America no matter how progressive our attitudes toward race. I realized this some years ago when I found Toni Morrison’s Beloved so grimly illuminating in depicting the cruelty experienced after the abolition of slavery by our African American fellow citizens left in a malicious shadow land of unknowing, a reflection of white indifference. It made me abruptly realize that I had never effectively grasped the intensities of hurt and pain of even close black friends afflicted or threatened with affliction as a result of societal attitudes of hatred and fear that lie just below the surface, behavior socially conditioned to be ‘politically correct.’ White consciousness was preoccupied with the condemnation of hideous events that capture national attention, but remain largely unaware of the everyday racism that is the price African Americans of talent and privilege pay for ‘success’ when penetrating the supremacy structures of society that remain predominantly white.

 

I recall some years ago being picked up at the airport in Atlanta by a couple of white undergraduates assigned to take me to the University of Georgia where I was to give a lecture. On the way we got onto the subject of race, and they complained about tensions on their campus. I naively pointed out that the stars of their football and basketball teams were black, and since white students were fanatic collegiate sports fans at Southern universities, wouldn’t this solve the problem. I assumed that these black athletes who won games for the college would be idolized as local heroes. The students taking me to the lecture agreed with my point, but claimed that the black athletes refused to socialize with whites, displaying an alleged ‘reverse racism’ that the white student body resented. In explaining this pattern of multi-culturalism to me, whether accurate or not I have no idea, these young Southerners did not pause to wonder whether this reluctance by campus blacks, including the sports stars, to mingle socially might have something to do with the history of race relations in the South, and not just the history but an of nasty earlier experiences of racism as well, and not just in the South, but throughout whole of the country, and that this was their reason for choosing to be racially aloof!

 

It is with such thoughts in mind that reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Greywolf Press, 2014) became for me a revelatory experience, especially against a foreground filled with such extreme reminders of virulent racism as lived current experience as Treyvon Martin, Ferguson, Charleston, and countless other recent reminders that the racist virus in its most lethal forms continues to flourish in the American body politic. The persistence of this pattern even in face of the distracting presence of an African-American president who functions both as a healing ointment and as a glorified snake oil salesman who earns his keep by telling Americans that we belong to the greatest country that ever existed even as it reigns down havoc on much of the world. On a more individual level, I can appreciate the extraordinary talent, courage, and achievement of Barack Obama, hurdling over the most formidable psychological obstacles placed in the path of an ambitious black man. Yet looked at more collectively, it now seems all too clear that the structures of racism are far stronger than the exploits of even this exceptional African American man.

 

What makes Rankine’s work so significant, aside from the enchantment of its poetic gifts of expression, is her capacity to connect the seemingly trivial incidents of everyday race consciousness with the living historical memory and existential presence of race crimes of utmost savagery. In lyrically phrased vignettes Rankine draws back the curtain on lived racism, relying on poetic story telling, and by so doing avoids even a hint of moral pedantry. She tells a reader of “a close friend, who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you be the name of her black housekeeper.” [48][*] Or a visit to a new therapist where she approached by the front door rather than the side entrance reserved for clients, and was angrily reproached, perceived as an unwanted intruder: “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” When informed that the stranger was her new patient the therapist realized her mistake, “I am so sorry, so so sorry.” [115].

 

Or when as a candidate for a university job she is being shown around a college campus by a faculty member who lets her know why she has been invited: “..he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” She shares her unspoken reaction that is the main point: “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” [66] The repetition of these daily occurrences in her recounting let’s us better understand why an African American cannot escapes the unconscious barbs of soft racism no matter how intelligent and accomplished a black person becomes in ways that the dominant society supposedly values and rewards. She invokes the inspirational memories of James Baldwin and Robert Lowell, not that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or even Malcolm X, as brilliant wellsprings of understanding and defiance, acting as her undesignated mentors. This experience of racism in America has been told with prose clarity and philosophic depth by my friend and former colleague, Cornel West, in Race Matters, a similar narrative of citizenship that Rankine conveys through poetic insight and emotion, allowing readers enough space to sense somewhat our own poorly comprehended complicity. Reading West and Rankine together is one way to overcome the body/mind dualism, with West relying on the power of reason and Rankine on the force of emotion.

 

As Rankine explains with subtle eloquence, what may seem like hyper-sensitivity to episodic understandable stumbles by even the most caring whites is actually one of the interfaces between what she calls the ‘self self’ and ‘the historical self,’ a biopolitical site of self-knowledge that embodies “the full force of your American positioning.” Such positioning is a way of drawing into the present memories of slavery, lynching, persecution, and discrimination that every black person carries in their bones, not as something past. And as Faulkner reminds us over and over again, the past is never truly past. On this Rankine’s words express her core insight: “[T]he world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you..” [307] Summing up this inability to move on she observes, “[E]xactly why we survive and can look back with a furrowed brow is beyond me.” [364] The mystery, then, is not the failure to forget, but persevering given the agony of remembering.

 

The longest sequence in the book is somewhat surprisingly devoted to the torments experienced by Serena Williams in the course of her rise to tennis stardom. Rankine, who in other places suggests her own connection with tennis, thinks of Serena as the “black graphite against a sharp white background.” She recounts her early career struggles with eminent umpires in big matches who made bad calls, trapped in what Rankine calls “a racial imaginary.” Serena feels victimized because black, and on several taut occasions loses her composure under the intense pressure of the competitive moment, raging and protesting, and then being called “insane, crass, crazy.” [193] While Rankine appreciates that Williams is likely to be considered the greatest woman tennis player ever, she still views her primarily as bravely triumphing over the many efforts to diminish her.

 

As a tennis enthusiast myself, it is the one portion of Rankine’s lyric that does not ring entirely true, or more precisely, that the race optic misses Serena’s triumphal presence on the public stage that has been accomplished with uncommon grace, joyfulness, and integrity. Unlike that other African American over-achiever, Barack Obama, Williams has attained the heights without abandoning her close now inconvenient associates the way Obama ditched Jeremiah Wright and even Rashid Khalidi and William Ayers so as to provide reassurance to his mainstream white backers. Williams has always continued to affirm warmly her Dad despite his provocative antics and defiance of the white establishment that controls the sport. She held out long enough so that the racist taunts she and Venus received at Indian Wells were transformed into tearful cheers of welcome on her return 13 years later after being beseeched by the sponsors. Williams, always gracious and graceful in victory on the court, with a competitive rage that is paralleled by a fighting spirit that puts her in the winners’ circle even when not playing her ‘A’ game, Serena is for me the consummate athlete of our time, doubly impressive because she does not shy away from memories of the Compton ghetto where she grew into this remarkable athlete and person and while still acquiring the wit, imagination, and poise to speak French when given her latest trophy after winning the Roland Garros final in Paris. Considering where she started from she has traveled even further than Obama, although his terrain entails a far heavier burden of responsibility and historical significance.

 

Somehow I feel Rankine perhaps absorbed by the preoccupations that give coherence to Citizen missed the deeper reality of Serena Williams as a glorious exception to her portrayal of the African American imaginary. I do not at all deny that Williams’ life has been framed from start to finish with the kind of micro-aggressions that Rankine experienced, and indeed a closer proximity to the macro-aggressions that the media turns into national spectacles, but presenting her life from this limited viewpoint misses what I find to be the most captivating part of her life story. And maybe a fuller exposure to Rankine’s reality would lead me to celebrate her life as also one that transcends race as the defining dimension of her experience. What is known is that in 1963 Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, raised in New York, educated at the best schools, and is enjoying a deservedly fine career as award winning poet, honored scholar, and rising playwright.

 

With brief asides, coupled with a range of visual renderings that give parallel readings (Rankine is married to John Lucas, a videographer, with whom she writes notes in this text for possible future collaborative scripts on racially tinged public issues), she brings to our awareness such societal outrages as the beating of Rodney King that was caught on a video camera, and led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the racist aspects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or a series of more recent assaults, including the diabolic frolic of fraternity boys at a university who joyously recalled the pleasures of lynching or the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a security guard whose crime was followed by his unacceptable acquittal. It is this tapestry of experience that seems to be for Rankine the American lyric that provides the sub-title of her book, and silently poses the question, without offering us the satisfaction of answers, as how these awful tales alter the experienced reality of being a ‘citizen’ of this country at this time; that is, if the citizen is viewed as one who owes loyalty to the state and is entitled to receive human security, protection, and the rule of law in return, how does this relate to the black experience of human insecurity and inescapable vulnerability. Rankine leaves me with the impression that even if these entitlements of citizenship can be somehow delivered (which they are not to those struggling), the grant of loyalty in the face of persisting racism is suspect. Raising such doubts is against the background of Rankine’s surface life as mentioned is one of privilege and success, holding an endowed chair at Pomona College, someone who plays tennis and can afford to see a therapist. Rankine is telling us both that this matters, saving her from the grossest of indignities because of the color of her skin, but not sparing her from an accumulation of racial slights or relieving her of the heavy awareness that she could be a Rodney King or Trayvon Martin if her social location were different or that whatever she might do or achieve she is still haunted by the memories of a ghastly past for people with black skin. In the deep structures of composition and consciousness that informs Citizen is a brilliant and instructive interweaving of time present and past, embodying both the memories buried within Rankine’s being and the present assaults she endures as a result of headlines bearing news of the latest hideous racist incident. Despite Rankine’s own personal ascent she as citizen confronts these past and presents challenges to her being, as underscored by the everyday racism that cannot be separated from the lynchings, beatings, and jail time that the black community as community has experienced ever since being transported to this land in slave ships.        

 

Such displays of awareness are followed by more conventionally poetic reflections on what this all means for Rankine. In lines that epitomize her lyric voice, and that she might be choose for her gravestone:

                        “you are not sick, you are injured—

                        you ache for the rest of your life.”

And again:

                        “Nobody notices, only you’ve known

                        you’re not sick, not crazy,

                        not angry, not sad—

                        It’s just this, you’re injured”

The worst effect of such an injury is an acute sense of alienation that separates

the public self from the private self:

                        “The worst injury is feeling

                                                            you don’t belong so much

                        to you—“

 

Reverting one last time to my own experience from the other side of the mirror, I recall my first intimate relationship with an African American as a boy growing up in Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. I was raised by a troubled, conservative father acting as a single parent who warily hired an African American man to be our housekeeper on the recommendation of a Hollywood friend. Willis Mosely was no ordinary hire for such a position, being a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UCLA, with a desire to live in New York to live out his dreams to do New York theater, a big drinking problem, and an extroverted gay identity, but beyond all these attributes, he was a charismatic personality with one of the great, resounding laughs and an electrifying presence that embodied charm, wit, and tenderness, demonstrating his intellectual mettle by finishing the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in lightning speed, then a status symbol among West Side New Yorkers. Willis was a challenge for my rather reactionary father who could only half hide his racist bias and on top of his, was also unashamedly homophobic; added to this my dad was counseled by family friends that it was irresponsible to have his adolescent son’s principal companion be a gay man in his low 30s. I am relating this autobiographical tidbit because despite this great gift of exposure to a wonderfully loving black man in these formative years, who influenced me greatly in many ways, I was unable to purge the racism in my bones, or was it genes.

 

Years later while dating a gifted former black student, whose outward joyfulness acted as a cover for her everyday anguish and deeper racial torment, she let me know gently that I would never be able to understand her because, as she put it, “we listen to different music.” It happened, I had just taken her to a Paul Winter concert that she didn’t enjoy, and so I missed the real meaning of her comment until this recent reading of Rankine’s Citizen. In effect, it took me several decades to hear this dear friend because until recently I was listening without really, really being able to hear! Of course, the primary failing is my own, but it is a trait I share with almost the whole of my race, and probably most of my species, and is indirectly responsible for the great weight on the human spirit produced by low visibility suffering that goes unnoticed everywhere in the world except by its victims. To become attuned to this everday racism, as Rankine shows so convincingly, is also to become even more appalled by the high visibility racism that in our current societal gives rise to public condemnations across the political spectrum.

 

What Claudia Rankine shares and teaches is that every African American citizen must live with the existential concreteness of racism while even the most liberal of American white citizens live with only an abstract awareness of their own unconscious racism or, at best, their rather detached empathy with the historical victimization of our African American co-citizens. Just as blacks have the torments of racism in their bones, whites are afflicted with resilient mutant forms of unconscious racism. We learn through this extraordinary lyric that moving on, for either black or white, is just not an option! And yet it is a necessity!    

[*] The numbers refer to the lot #s on the Kindle edition. Citizen was a finalist for 2014 National Book Award in the Poetry category. The winner, ironically, was Rankine’s teacher at Williams College, who described her pupil as ‘a phenomenal student.’

8 Responses to “Reading Claudia Rankine On Race”

  1. Gene Schulman July 1, 2015 at 1:21 am #

    Richard, this post opens a whole can of worms of my growing up among blacks and Jews (and whites) in school, athletics, the military, business, each teaching me about racism. Given my great age of life, it is a saga too long to relate. But after all these years, having to still read books like Rankine’s for lessons, one can only wonder if racism in America can ever be “overcome”? It may be in the bones, but it’s not in the genes! So maybe some day…….

    • Richard Falk July 1, 2015 at 2:05 am #

      Gene, that’s my point, and glad on this you may be more hopeful than I am!

  2. Carlos July 1, 2015 at 2:00 am #

    Richard,let me tell you, racism is much worse in Australia. Our original people are still endeavouring to overcome the damage done by alcohol, shifted off to the sidelines and excluded. The jails are still the main way of coping with ‘difficult’aborigines. They are not even mentioned in the constitution. But then I generalize, several top schools open their doors to indigenous bright students, we even have opera singers and composers. Sooner we get rid of this ideologically driven government, a more humane approach can come about.

    • Richard Falk July 1, 2015 at 2:08 am #

      Carlos: I am not sure if ‘worse,’ but definitely different, with different histories, memories, expectations. Hopefully,
      a more humane leadership could help explore the boundaries of what be ethically possible for Australia, given the racism
      of the past.

      • Gene Schulman July 1, 2015 at 7:17 am #

        Richard is right. It is definitely different. The Australian aborigines were there long before whites came. In America, the black population was imported by whites as slaves. The Australian situation is more akin to the devastation of the indian tribes in America.

  3. rehmat1 July 2, 2015 at 4:56 am #

    Almost every colonial power has used racism against its victims, irrespective of color of their skin. Western colonist have used it as “G-d’s work” or “Apartheid” to their inborn racism.

    The White occupation of United States, Australia, New Zealand, India and Israel have survived on European racism against the local colored people.

    Last year, the organized Jewry succeeded in getting Jewish billionaire Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers basketball team banned for life and a fine of $2.5 million for telling the truth about Jewish hatred toward Blacks in Israel.

    http://rehmat1.com/2014/05/01/egged-israeli-racism-at-public-buses/

  4. Richard Falk July 31, 2015 at 11:42 pm #

    Although almost a month after posting, this response from Howard Winant, a world expert on race and close friend seems worth sharing for
    the insight it provides:

    Please forgive me for my prolonged delay in replying to your
    reflections on racism, “Reading Claudia Rankine On Race.”You should
    know that amidst the pressure of everyday activity and commitm ents, I
    have been thinking about what you wrote. I’m not sure how much I can
    add to your comments, but anyway….

    The core of your notes, and of Rankine’s writings too, is the
    _experience_ of racism.For her it is about being on the receiving
    end: black people are particularly there.They are subjected to the
    slights, the neglect, the invisibility, the incomprehension of
    whites, and of course violence and exploitation by whites. Rankine’s
    focus on experience in some ways contrasts with her ironic title, for
    citizens are supposed to belong, not to be “others,” but to be
    included.The body politic thus comes into the picture: the
    collective, the society, the state. Citizens should belong to those
    entities, and be part of that res publica; they are supposed to
    possess rights, as the Arendt formula suggests. If large categories
    of people don’t belong, if they lack rights, it is not they but the
    system that is in trouble.There are problems that are not only
    experiential but structural. Something is very wrong not only at the
    micro-level where Rankine’s focus is largely directed, but also at
    the macro-level of US state and society, and indeed the
    world-historical level that transcends the nation-state and even
    citizenship.

    Of course the experiential dimension of racism, whether seen from the
    receiving end or the “giving” end, is vitally important. Experience
    cannot really be distinguished from structure; we live in structures;
    we live in history.The state is inside us as much as we are inside
    it.”Othering and belonging” (which by the way was the title of a
    conference I recently attended) denotes a wide range of experiences
    and structures, of which racism is only one of the most pressing.

    But racism still has to be seen as something world-historical,
    world-making as much as it is person-making and experience-making.It
    is hard even to begin to understand the modern or postmodern world
    without it. Empire, plunder, war, labor, capital accumulation, all
    center on it.I can’t resist putting in the famous quote from Marx:

    The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation,
    enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the
    beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning
    of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins,
    signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These
    idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
    On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations,
    with the globe for a theatre.” (_Capital_ Vol 1, 351)

    There is that, and then there is what Rankine is discussing.And of
    course they are deeply related too.

    My work has been dedicated to explaining this particular crossroads,
    where experience meets structure, identity meets inequality,
    democracy meets slavery.It’s the not the only such encounter (there’s
    gender, labor, nation, etc.) but it is an important one.

    None of this is news.

    In the contemporary US though, racism is subject to new (or newly
    increased) attention. That is a good thing on balance, an interesting
    development too.Why now, when Obama is entering his seventh year? Why
    now, when police have been murdering black people (and other people
    of color) year-in-, year-out, for decades, forever? Why now do Black
    Lives Matter? Why is there a more effective movement against
    incarceration? Is it just because prisons cost too much? Or are the
    masses stirring in their sleep?

    Is the traditional obliviousness and complacency of whites finally
    coming apart?

    Well, maybe a little, but not much, judging from the out-front,
    explicit resistance of white males (mostly males), mainly in the
    South and in the Protestant heartland, but everywhere to some
    extent.What is behind the defense of the Confederate flag, for
    example? What is white racial nationalism? How does it relate to
    fascism?

    That form of white supremacy is not exactly what Rankine is pointing
    at.It’s there, especially in the violence she discusses.But mostly
    she’s concerned about the invisibility of black people, the disregard
    to which they are subject, and of course the ways that they can be
    plundered.That is what she is writing about.

    My colleague Tom Scheff says that the most powerful human emotion is
    shame.Shame impels lots of politics through projection and
    fear.”After what we have done to THEM,” what would they do to us if
    they ever attained the means?All the ways we are, all the things we
    do to them, we also project onto THEM: they are violent, they are
    criminal, lazy, backward, unrepressed, animalistic…Various racist
    discourses resemble each other: [THEY] are these things, the blacks,
    the immigrants, the Palestinians, the Kurds, the natives.

    In short race and racism are still tremendously central, not only in
    US life, but in much of the modern world.Antiracist white people like
    you and me have these realizations about how there was (and is) a lot
    of racism in our lives and in ourselves. We suddenly realize how
    white was the world in which we were brought up and how white are the
    circles in which we still live.The “otherness” brought about by
    slavery (and by conquest) serves as a template of sorts for social
    organization on a broad scale: Who lives where? Who has better and
    worse “life-chances” (as Weber called inequality)? Who goes to
    prison? Who gets advanced schooling?

    I resonate with a lot of what you say.I’m glad you can let your
    tennis freak flag fly with the rap on Selena Williams. Note: I have

    several students working on race and sport, one of them on Selena;
    there is a huge literature as you undoubtedly know.Selena and Obama
    is a frequent comparison.Your criticism of him (Wright, Khalidi,
    etc.) parallels Cornel’s in a way, and maybe mine too: the
    disappointment, the sense of betrayal…But isn’t this too a kind of
    projection?Not every decision Obama takes is an optional one; not
    every action he takes is something he can control.He is a “bearer of
    structures” as well as a self-active (in the pragmatist sense) human
    subject.Selena’s situation is very different; not even their
    backgrounds can be compared.What they have in common is their race,
    not their struggles.

    I’m sure that there are some blacks who like the Paul Winter
    Consort.Somewhere… But as I say the template still holds (Omi and I
    feature this idea of “the template of race” prominently in our book).
    That you end on an anguished note about the discordant “lyric” among
    black and white that cannot be joined, is also something that I
    resonate with. I find racism in myself all the time. Talking about a
    young friend who was just turned down for a wonderful job in
    broadcasting, Debbie and I said (this was just yesterday), “Of course
    they had to give it to a person of color.” Of course, indeed.

    But we must remember that the political cycles have ebbs and flows.
    Today I think we are seeing a gathering movement that will build
    black power (and nonwhite power) and will eventually force whites to
    make concessions. “On the ground” there is a lot of action, a lot of
    ferment.Whites are scared: getting older, getting fewer.Blacks need
    allies.If whites do not ally with them, they eventually get screwed
    themselves. This is the story of the US Civil War, in which more than
    half a million whites eventually had to die to end “American Negro
    Slavery.”

    We whites, by allying with blacks (and indeed by being led by blacks,
    as has happened sometimes in the past), can still contribute to the
    freedom struggle.

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