On Monday, September 27th, the CLA presented acclaimed author Claudia Rankine in conversation with SJSU Associate Professor Jalylah Burrell to discuss Citizen: An American Lyric. A month later, that evening’s discussion, both rich and complex, continues to demand reflection and processing. To some extent, that is what this posting is: a critical reflection on a specific topic explored during that reading. To give it a name, the topic is perspective and proximity - two terms that play a significant role in the day to day interactions of countless Americans, and, consequently, shape what it means to live in America and be “American.”
I: The Cover
One of the first places where perspective and proximity dally in a tumultuous dance is on Citizen's cover. While Rankine originally imagined the cover to feature Serena Williams, the work’s final cover art decision offers more in the way of galvanizing conversations about and concerning race. An artistic piece that comes from David Hammons 1993 work titled "In the Hood," Citizen’s cover is a sea of white with a dark, cloth hood suspended in the middle. It epitomizes Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” which are discussed in Rankine’s text.
However, to truly engage with the emotional weight and severity embedded in the cover image and through Hurston’s words, proximity to the lived experiences of that image, of those words, is of importance. For instance, someone from a marginalized and colored community might resonate with the image’s weight, the underlining stigma signified in the hood; and in this way, Hurston’s words become a sort of universal caption. For others who possess the capacity to empathize and participate, actively, in the deconstruction of racial hierarchies, will recognize from the hood that "racism passes freely among homonyms: the white imagination readily turns hoods into hoods". From there, the interpretation could range from the hood being a modernization of a medieval knight’s hood or a subversion of the KKK’s. From any of the positions, what is abundantly clear is that one’s perspective on the image’s meaning is directly impacted by the viewer’s positioning - proximity - to America’s full history.
Later in the evening, Rankine and Burrell discussed the role of humor in the text. While Rankine acknowledged that the presence of humor was lacking, she saw it all throughout the text. But for Rankine, "it depends on who's reading it" for it to be perceived. In Citizen, she cites Judith Butler who answers the question, “what makes language so hurtful?” Butler’s response: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another . . . We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness . . . is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” (p. 49). If we are addressable through language and that language play either invites, expels, gives, or deprives a person social access, then the humor - be it detected or not - unveils where one’s social investment lies.
To put it another way, "comedy is the genre of discomfort and contradiction" as it calls into question systemic structures often normalized and passively accepted. Through comedy, specifically humor, a clear delineation is formed: those who occupy the "we" feel addressed by the language, invited to speak and participate; while those outside of the language play become "them" - who might otherwise miss the joke or recognize inherent in the telling of the joke the upholding of problematic systematic structures. In this way, we see perspective and proximity at play once again, but through the symbolic occupation of a pronoun.
To extend this point back to the evening’s discussion, Rankine referenced a white comic who stated that "black people needed to be shielded from his jokes." From which point, Rankine acknowledges that,
"So much is done without black people being considered part of the we, and the collectivity that we think about as married to democracy does not include us."
If the larger American imagination’s “we” excludes black people and other marginalized groups, it is no wonder that language is hurtful. When people’s national identities are hyphenated or gapped (i.e. African American, Asian American, Mexican-American, etc.), language has been constructed to differentiate the we vs them. Language has provided a framework from which one’s addressability is associated with their identifying labels, and from that, speech is released accordingly. An example that comes to mind is inappropriate workplace “jokes.” Gender and position contribute to power dynamics, thus shaping one’s perception about the types of language someone may employ. Language is social, and the rhetorical spheres we occupy dictate the levels of speech propriety. It is in humor that individuals see the dichotomy of "us vs them" come alive - sometimes, with havoc -, and in this way, language operates as the basis of perception and informs proximity.
Throughout Citizen, one of its most impactful features is its employment of the second person, "you." In some instances, readers find resonance in “you”; other times, "you" is a direct address. In any situation, what occurs is movement. As a reader, we either become the "you," know the "you," or listen intently as the "you" becomes addressable. Language, then, presents us with another important facet concerning proximity and perception, which is motion.
Rankine equates this form of action to crocheting, informing the audience that language has the power " to be funny, to acknowledge, to see, to not see, to hold, to drop down . . . it is a bit like crocheting, where you're putting the right article, the right pronoun to make that [experience, that movement] happen." Subsequently, the construction of language on the part of the writer plays a critical role in a reader's ability to gain proximity to the subject matter at hand; however, how we move through the text hinges on how we occupy, resonant with, respect, misunderstand, or reject the numerous "yous" in Citizen.
By the end of the work, readers move from outside of the self back to the "I," having completed quite an extensive journey. For Rankine, her thinking was that
"In the final section, the more lyrical section, we come back to the self. We walked through all of the experiences . . . the worst of it . . . [and] on the seventh day, [you] sit with yourself. To understand how devastating, how impossible it is to really hold the subjugation and maintain an I, maintain a self that feels healthy and whole after all of this."
In many ways, Citizen encourages expansion. As readers, that movement is sometimes uncomfortable, foreign even. But that’s one of the greatest invitations of Citizen - to be moved beyond our spheres of familiarity, to see other worlds, and begin to connect the dots that are otherwise omitted in history.