The Neverending Story
We discussed last class about if people of all races and backgrounds could or could not access the feelings of indignation, hurt, and oppression from centuries of racism present in Citizen. As a white male, a lot of the book felt cryptic to me through my first read. It honestly took me awhile to understand what Ms. Rankine meant in some of these passages, particularly the ones that focused on the disassociation of the self with the use of the second person. “And still a world begins its furious erasure–/Who do you think you are, saying I to me?/ You nothing/ You nobody./ You./ A body in the world drowns in it–/ Hey you–” (p. 142). I had no clear idea of what that meant when I first read it, but I kept re-reading it, hoping something would click. For a good while, it didn’t. Then, I paid attention to all of the white space that separates most of the lines and pages. The words seemed engulfed in the whiteness. Then, I went back to a line that stuck out to me earlier and also happened to be in a picture on page 53, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white background.” It made me think of how society always tries to categorize cultural phenomenon that isn’t white in origin. For example, great poets who aren’t white are usually called “the great (insert race) poet” while the great white poets are just called great poets. It’s not to say that nonwhite poets do not write about or incorporate racial themes into their work, but those themes and tropes of race tend to eclipse the nonwhite author’s work for critics. In the instances in Citizen, Rankine makes it clear that the background is set by white people. “Come on. Let it go. Move on” (p. 151). It’s as if the people who use the barb of racism, purposefully or not, want the victim to act through their perspective: “Our race isn’t a problem for us; why should it be for you?” They even try to set when these hurt people should heal from an extremely profound wound. Ignorance breeds hate, and the “small” racial faux pas might not seem like a segregation from restaurants and buses but it has the same effect: it rejects the individual’s existence because of a color. That’s why “I” is more of an ideal to Rankine; she’s not allowed to be, for reasons out of her control. She and countless others are being forced to assimilate into the dominant white system, a system that is rigged against them (the war on drugs, stop and frisk, uneven sentencing) for no other reason than their skin color. It’s infuriating to have to succumb to something so irrational, belittling, and hateful constantly. To be reduced from your own self to the color of your skin, just a body with a color. Rankine uses the second person because that’s how she feels about her identity in this world where she has to fight to carve out a true identity in the land where you are supposed to have complete freedom to be who you want to be. “This is how you are a citizen” (p. 151). She also speaks for the other people that have undergone all too similar experiences. She uses “you” perfectly as singular and plural. So that is one way to approach this (for me, at least): to acknowledge the gaps and silent oppression; to realize fully someone’s race, not deny it and force it to fit my terms. We need to try and reflect that this world and its citizens should not strive for a world where race doesn’t exist but for one that embraces it as we should embrace each other. That’s easier said than done obviously as “I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending” (p.159). But, we have to keep hoping and trying because we have come a long way. We just need to keep going.