Racism’s Metre and Rhyme: Kayombo Chingonyi on Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine
Penguin £9.99

Citizen, Claudia Rankine’s most recent collection, opens in understated fashion: ‘When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows’. This passage, redolent of relaxation after a long day, might, at first glance, read like narrative scaffolding but closer reading shows this to be far from the case. This is a past, after all, that often gets ‘reconstructed as metaphor’ and the anecdote that it introduces shows us the interior workings of blackness, and by extension white supremacy, through allusion to Ellison’s Invisible Man:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. (Ellison)

Sister Evelyn never figures out your arrangement perhaps
because you never turn around to copy Mary Catherine’s
answers. Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot
alike or she cares less about cheating and more about
humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there. (Rankine)

By telling the story of a classmate (whose whiteness is coded in her ‘waist-length brown hair’) asking ‘you’ to ‘lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you’ve written’ Rankine sets up the rhetorical framework of the book as interrogative of the reader who wishes to observe from a safe distance. The use of the second person not only invokes the lyric ‘I’ (since ‘you’ in this context can also be read as ‘I’) but also implicates the reader, claiming them as part of a communal experience of race. Had Rankine used ‘I’ this book could be dismissed as being a book for a ‘black audience’, but that capacious ‘you’ aims the book at everybody. Given that white supremacy holds whiteness as the general ‘unmediated’ position, the use of the second person allows Rankine to make a sophisticated point about how racism actually works.

The tiredness to which this passage refers is not only that of a long day but of a long life in which ‘you’ are always looking back on the actions of others trying to work out if racism figured in their behaviour. One of the book’s many achievements is to make this process explicit, to show how this hyper-awareness becomes a sickness:

Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are
reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical
term – John Henryism – for people exposed to stresses
stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death
trying to avoid the buildup of erasure.

The book as a whole illuminates the pressures of having continually to contend with micro-aggressions – those small acts of erasure familiar to anyone who does not come under the purview of the supposedly general lyric ‘I’. Throughout the book Rankine uses flashpoints in the discussion of race as framing devices: Hurricane Katrina, the deaths of black men in police custody, Zinedine Zidane’s retaliatory head-butt in the 2006 World Cup Final. All form part of the book’s complex exploration of ‘everyday racism’. In the second section of the book, though, Rankine uses the career of Serena Williams as a point of ingress.

Williams is a particularly apt muse since tennis – and its associated values – figure in Tony Hoagland’s poem ‘The Change’, to which Rankine wrote a critical response focusing on how the poem perpetuates racist stereotypes of the black body, and the black female body in particular:

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 –

Bigness and blackness are so often implied in discussions surrounding Serena Williams that it is fitting, in a book that could also be read as a comment on the whiteness of the mainstream literary world, for Rankine to unpack the problem that Williams’s presence creates for the white establishment – for whom tennis has so long been an aspirational sport. The fixation on Williams’s body takes away from her achievement since there is the suggestion of a ‘natural advantage’ or ‘raw talent’, which belies the hours of practice, failure, and disappointment that have contributed to Williams’s singular achievement. For Williams to have achieved all she has in a sport so bound up with ideas of white supremacy is doubly impressive and it is this that Rankine is particularly interested in:

Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls
More than its weight. The body is the threshold across which
each objectionable call passes into consciousness

This passage shows us how a player like Williams carries the pressures of being an elite athlete alongside the physiological and emotional strain of second- guessing the behaviour of others (Rankine refers to several problematic calls against Williams from umpires who may have just been mistaken but who, in their sheer numbers, point to a systemic disinclination towards Williams for which racism seems the only plausible explanation).

While you’d expect the trappings of success to insulate Williams, Rankine shows us that, even at the height of such success, structural racism persists. In some quarters the ‘objectionable calls’ of umpires might seem mere trifles when compared with acts of ‘overt’ racism, but across a lifetime those subtle moments that ‘send adrenaline to the heart’ add up until ‘you’ expect them and ‘you’ want to be proved wrong but ‘you’ are not. It is this resignation and the means of combatting it that are woven through the pages of Citizen. This is a book of poetry that relies on the cumulative effect of its constituent parts because its subject calls for such an approach. That the book makes use of short film scripts, ekphrastic collages, and visual images is no surprise as there is a sense in which traditional models of poetry publishing – which are also products of a structurally racist history – are insufficient for a project such as Rankine’s. These are not vignettes to be taken in isolation; they form a nebulous whole just as structural racism operates in myriad subtle ways. This is how the book’s effects as poetry take root. The poetry is in the way Rankine sets down the complex machinery of structural racism, its metre and rhyme.