A room full of citizens

Paul Constant

January 05, 2017

This is unprofessional for a critic, but I have to gush: I loved reading Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric. I love everything about this book: I love the look of it, the feel of it, the words and the design and the passion and the craft of it. Citizen, to me, feels like the future of non-fiction books: a beautiful, book-length essay delivered in raw, vital chunks of text, interspersed with color photos and relevant pieces of art. It is a book that would be diminished in e-book form. It’s a book that uses its very book-ness to enhance and illustrate its author’s point. I would like to read a dozen more books just like Citizen immediately, but there is unfortunately no other book like Citizen to read right now. It’s a magnificent book, one of the finest reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

The dozens of people who came to Third Place Books Seward Park for last night’s Reading Through It Book Club seemed to agree with my assessment of Citizen (or at the very least, no one made their displeasure known.) The beginning of the evening was spent expressing wonder at the sheer craft of it. People who never read poetry fell in love with Citizen from its very first pages. People would start talking about the book and then just stop, their jaw working a little bit as they searched for words to describe their reading experience. It’s usually bad news when a book club unanimously shares an opinion — what is there to talk about when everyone agrees, after all? — but Citizen transcended that rule. Once we stopped wondering at the art of the book, we could start discussing its subject.

In Citizen, Rankine makes a case. And she structures her case meticulously. She tells a series of anecdotes, framed in the second person, about race.

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

and

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

Taken singly, it’s easy to imagine a (white) person dismantling each of these cases with a series of pedantic, devil’s-advocate comments: the remark about the dean was awkward, to be sure, but must we always be on guard with our language? Can’t a person make a slip of the tongue? Perhaps the therapist had recently been burgled, and so was on edge about trespassers? Why does everything (insert an implied “with you people” here) have to be about skin color?

Well, it’s because in America, everything is about skin color. And Rankine builds that case beautifully, constructing these anecdotes out of “you”s and populating them with world-famous sports stars and placing them in comfortable settings like cars and suburban homes and upscale parts of American cities. Even the most eager devil’s advocate would surely grow weary at the thought of personally dismantling every anecdote that Rankine assembles here. It’s a huge body of evidence that builds and builds until Rankine is discussing the nationwide targeted extermination of young African-American men by police in very precise language.

(Another note here on the form of Citizen: the list of black people who were ritually killed “because white men can’t/police their imagination” has grown in later editions of the book, to reflect the fact that the murders continue. The addition of these memorialized names of the dead — “In Memory of Jamar Clark/In Memory of Alton Sterling/In Memory of Philando Castile” — makes Citizen a living text, a growing work, a book that, with each new edition, grows heavier with sadness.)

Last night’s book club delivered many insights and few solutions. Which is as it should be; the ardent embrace of an easy solution is partly what’s gotten America into this mess. I was impressed at the honesty people put forward in conversation. One man admitted that he always assumed Serena Williams was an arrogant celebrity until he read Rankine’s account of how Williams, the greatest athlete in the world, was continually forced into a crucible that her less talented (white) opponents never had to face. Another reader said that she wanted to send Citizen to her father but she worried that he’d view it as confrontational and cast the book aside.

A repeating theme was empathy. Rankine’s book inspired many of the white people at Reading Through It to vow to stand up the next time their friends made a racist comment, or to take a stand when they see racism in public. One woman of color said she found the book to be physically painful to read. A teacher talked about the vigilance required to ensure that her students — kindergartners! — don’t perpetuate the cycles of racism we see today.

One of the many brilliant touches Rankine embedded into Citizen is the amount of space in the text: each paragraph is followed by an empty space. Many pages are blank. They allow the reader to reflect, to slow down and pause. But those blank spaces also represent the other half of Citizen’s dialogue, the white perspective that has been the default voice of society for our entire nation’s history. Rankine doesn’t even need to write the other half of the conversation, to give voice to those concern trolls who pick at the legitimacy of every story until they cloud the narrative with question marks and assumptions of guilt. We all have that voice in our heads. We can write the other, unwritten half of the book without even thinking about it because it’s the voice of our culture, the voice that cried out for Donald Trump at rallies around the nation.

Donald Trump’s election is a sign that white America isn’t prepared for diversity. But make no mistake: that diversity is coming. It’s here. White Americans are overwhelmed by the fear that one day they will be treated as poorly as white Americans have always treated minorities. Like many fears, it’s a ludicrous concept unfounded in anything resembling reality.

And what Rankine is saying with Citizen is that white America can’t even fathom the injustice that they deliver into black communities every day. Though Trump supporters rail against political correctness and claim that they are now the persecuted ones (the War on Christmas, the preposterous affirmative action horror stories) they still haven’t yet acknowledged the depth and the complexity of the persecution they have leveled on black America. Rankine’s book — her beautiful, brilliant, indescribable book — is an honest accounting of that persecution, and a good-faith effort to start a conversation. You should answer its call.

Books in this review:
  • Citizen
    by Claudia Rankine
    Graywolf Press
    October 06, 2014
    160 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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