Citizen While Black

By: Steve Howe on Monday, November 16th, 2015

Literature, politics, race, and viral Internet images came together last week in an important way. Many have seen the pictures and video of Johari Osayi Idusuyi, a black woman, being rebuked by white audience members for reading during an Illinois rally for presidential candidate, Donald Trump. She defiantly rejected their demands and remained steadfast with her book raised high and in full view of the cameras, as she sat on the stage behind Trump, a place, as Idusuyi maintains, she was invited to sit by the campaign staff for the color of her skin. The image of her defiance is what has been seen time and time again over the past week, but what cannot be overlooked is the book of poetry she was holding up so boldly. Hollywood could not have scripted a prop as relevant to this event as what Idusuyi was reading, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, released by Greywolf Press in October 2014.

The grainy, viral images show Idusuyi holding a small book with a white cover featuring only a detached hood cut from a sweatshirt. But the seeming simplicity of the cover belies the genre blurring design and visual layout employed inside Citizen. The structure of this work can prove to be as unsettling and challenging as the words on the page. A mix of poetry and prose, Rankine’s words are equally beautiful as they are impactful, drawing you in through a musical stream of consciousness, and then gutting you as the intent and feeling in her words becomes clear. Many of the passages are so layered that one must reread as one goes, just as the subject of pervasive and casual racism she covers in her poems and essays needs to be continually revisited in society.

The book itself, designed by John Lucas, who collaborated with Rankine on several pieces in Citizen, is as significant as the work it contains. As an objet d’art, it is beautiful to hold. The choice of 80# matte coated paper tells the reader, in no uncertain terms, that this work is important; now pay attention. The artwork, while sporadic, is vital to carrying the message of the many passages. From the surreal Little Girl by Kate Clark, which is a caribou infant with a human-like face, to the simple yet powerful Blue Black Boy silver print by Carrie Mae Weems, the artwork can be as compelling and confusing as the text. It, too, must be pondered in the broader framework of the book.

The subject of her work is grabbed directly out of contemporary headlines, spanning from the pervasive Trayvon Martin shooting and Hurricane Katrina, to lesser-known incidents in the world of sports, including an extensive essay on Serena Williams and her perceived position in American culture as the “angry black woman.” Midway though the book, a pseudo-script places into context the ejection of Zinedine Zidane from the 2006 World Cup Soccer final for delivering a head butt to an opposing player in response to a reported racial slur. Many of the incidents described in Rankine’s unique prose are the kind often explained away or completely ignored by the mainstream media – read: mainstream white America – as overreactions to isolated incidents. But the repetition of these events of institutional and societal racism hits Rankine like the drops of an unending water torture, and this book, like Zidane’s head butt and Williams’ unwillingness to remain quiet in the face of unfairness on the court, represents a break moment. A moment of “no longer.”

In the piece “Stop-and-Frisk,” one of the entries written in collaboration with Lucas, Rankine describes the law enforcement practice of police stopping African Americans simply because they fit a general profile. The practice and her frustration with it are well conveyed in the lines…

And you are not the guy and you still fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description

And from the same poem…

In a landscape drawn from an ocean bed, you can’t drive yourself sane—so angry you are crying. You can’t drive yourself sane. This motion wears a guy out. Our motion is wearing you out and still you are not that guy.

These words, to me, epitomize the tone and beauty of this entire work. The pain is palatable throughout. From the jaw-dropping, mass disregard for the victims of Katrina, to the almost imperceptible episode of individual disregard at a pharmacy counter, Rankine does not differentiate between the large drops and the small. The torture continues relentlessly, either way.

A short book of seven unnamed sections and 163 pages, many of which carry only a paragraph or a few lines of text, Citizen reads long, and should be read long. A single reading will not do. This is a work that will resonate with an African American audience, likely all too well, but should be required reading for all. When read in the context of the recent episode with Johari Osayi Idusuyi, one cannot help but think we are seeing a chapter in a future sequel to Citizen. Rankine successfully brings to light for each of us as Americans what it means to be an African American. And she makes it distinctly clear what it means to be a Citizen while black.

Steve Howe is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of New Mexico. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife and two teenage children. Follow him on Twitter at @HoweStevenD