On Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Poetics of Racial Trauma
Mary Jean Chan
‘Then ﬂashes, a siren, a stretched out roar – and you are not the guy and still you ﬁt the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy ﬁtting the description.
Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren’t speeding. I wasn’t speeding? You didn’t do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up.
Then you are stretched out on the hood. Then cuﬀed. Get on the ground now. …
Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same. Flashes, a siren, the stretched-out roar – …
And still you are not the guy and still you ﬁt the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy ﬁtting the description.’
– from ‘Stop-and-Frisk’, Claudia Rankine, Citizen
As one of the most often quoted passages in Claudia Rankine’s award-winning volume Citizen, ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ has been performed by the poet on multiple occasions. At each reading, she adopts a voice that is monotonic, almost resigned, as if beleaguered by the act of having to utter aloud what has been traumatic to witness, remember and record. Citizen, after all, represents an urgent and timely attempt to sustain America’s conversation on race and racial injustice on a level of national grief as well as that of personal intimacy. ‘How’, she asks, ‘do you make a body accountable for its language, its positioning?’ Rankine’s answer is to create a poetics of racial trauma – palpable in passages like these – which meditates on the eﬀects of racial injustice as it manifests in the bodies of traumatized individuals.
Rankine’s readings of ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ bring to mind Pittsburgh-born poet Ed Roberson’s pieces from Lucid Interval as Integral Music, many of which have been split in two, visually, by a horizontal black line. The black line which slices the poem in half introduces a liminal space which allows what is being said between the poem above and its counterpart below to reverberate. Roberson’s deft use of repeated words on either side of the line creates a blurred reﬂection that embodies discontinuities in the traumatized speaker’s consciousness. In Citizen, Roberson’s black line is replaced by a gaping expanse of whiteness that intrudes repeatedly into the writing with the force of a ‘police vehicle [coming] to a screeching halt … like they were setting up a blockade’. The blank (white) space is a silence that speaks, for we are acutely aware of the violence that is taking place despite the speaker’s inability to talk back to the barrel of a gun: ‘You need to be quiet … You need to close your mouth now’.
Since language refuses to be purged of its trauma, what is said in the wake of trauma requires a form that, in one critic’s words, is ‘as complex as thought’. ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ takes on this post-traumatic form, as an embodiment of the lyric present:
‘Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same. Flashes, a siren, the stretched out roar’.
It’s diﬃcult to tell when the event begins or ends; indeed, it seems that the traumatic moment is cyclical, doomed to re-enact itself in the same manner as its predecessor, an eﬀect which trauma theorist Cathy Caruth describes as a ‘breach in the mind’s experience of time’. In order to convey this mental rupture, Rankine sets us up to expect a certain meaning, only to thwart it through a reversal of what has been said: ‘And still you are not the guy and still you ﬁt the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy ﬁtting the description’. Each rereading of this sentence thrusts us back into the whirling machinery of racism; it begins with ‘and still’ – a phrase that insists on itself despite any evidence to the contrary (‘you are not the guy’). Racism’s logic is necessarily tautological (‘because there is only one guy who is always the guy’), based on a legal system that deems blackness ‘a life sentence’ – a sentence which renders anyone ‘ﬁtting the description’ liable to be frisked, violated and jailed.
In another section, ‘In Memory of Trayvon Martin’, Rankine describes an exchange between a loved one and the American teenager moments before he was shot in the chest by George Zimmerman, a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, in Sanford, Florida. During the call, the speaker asks frantic questions that are met initially by silence: ‘Is it cold? Are you cold? … Is it cool? Are you cool?’ The proliferation of caesuras throughout this utterance is an attempt by the speaker at provoking conversation, at eliciting signs that her loved one is still alive. As such, the speaker is asking, Is where you are an unfeeling place? (‘Is it cold?’) Are you dead? (‘Are you cold?’) Is anything wrong? (‘Is it cool?’) Is what is happening right now alright by you? (‘Are you cool?’) Eventually, Trayvon replies: ‘it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down’.
Rankine evokes the imagery of rain throughout Citizen to illustrate the relentless drip of racism as daily micro-aggression and physical harassment: ‘Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks … And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.’ The link between linguistic injury and physical harm crystallizes in the words ‘it is raining [down]’ – the idiom ‘blows raining down’ heard intermittently by the reader in the gaps between ‘the unsaids, the saids, [and] the spaces within a conversation holding up the encounter, both in the sense of sustaining it and of blocking it’. In the speaker’s memory, the traumatic moment is transmuted tonally into the downpour of rain, as heard in the obsessive repetition of variations on the same theme: ‘It is raining down’.
Across Citizen’s pages, Rankine recalls moments of racist injury as both linguistic and physical, with language morphing into a ﬁst or the barrel of a gun. The battered bodies left in their wake bear witness to her observation: ‘you’re not sick, not crazy, / not angry, not sad – / It’s just this, you’re injured’.
For the longest time, to even speak about racism seemed to run contrary to what we are told as citizens in a multicultural world: ‘Come on. Let it go. Move on.’ Through her powerful meditations on racial trauma enacted on the black body, Rankine proves that poetry is indeed as W.H. Auden deems it: ‘a way of happening, a mouth’. And yet she ends the book on a faint note of desire – involving a lover’s touch – a brief moment of reprieve amidst the daily onslaught of racism:
Tell me a story, he says, wrapping his arms around me.
Yesterday, I begin, I was waiting in the car for time to pass. A woman pulled in and started to park her car facing mine. Our eyes met and what passed passed as quickly as the look away. She backed up and parked on the other side of the lot. I could have followed her to worry my question but I had to go, I was expected on court, I grabbed my racket.
The sunrise is slow and cloudy, dragging the light in, but barely.
Did you win? he asks.
It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.
This last episode encapsulates the entire collection’s ethos, which derives so much of its emotional and intellectual power from the juxtaposition of racialized bodies as they encounter one another in the most mundane of situations: at the grocery store, a checkout line, or a parking lot. It is what we do or fail to do in these ﬂeeting moments of encountering another person that determines how we as national and global citizens contribute to this fraught yet crucial conversation on race, racism and racial injustice.
Rankine’s speaker choses to ‘move on’ in the immediate aftermath of this micro-aggression, even though she wanted to ‘follow [the racist woman] to worry her question’. The sunrise’s lack of enthusiasm injects a note of pathetic fallacy into the scene: the light is being ‘[dragged] in … barely,’ like the reluctant movement of the speaker’s body across the parking lot and onto the tennis court, emotionally injured but unwilling to collapse, trying to keep her composure in a world which consistently conspires to bring the black body to its knees.
The lover ﬁnally asks a seemingly simple question, ‘Did you win?’ To which the speaker replies, ‘It wasn’t a match … It was a lesson’. A match implies a back-and-forth, some kind of repetitive exchange between two willing bodies. Throughout Citizen, encounters between racialized bodies have often been unwilling, reluctant, forced – even dangerous or life-threatening – the black body historically enslaved or lynched to death, nowadays easily handcuﬀed or threatened by a police gun. Rankine’s speaker aptly notes that there has been no ‘match’ in America between people of all races, at least no match which functions on the premise of equality. The speaker follows this profound observation with an enigmatic statement: ‘It was a lesson.’ Does the speaker imply a lesson learnt by all parties, or simply one which the black body learns over and over, since she is always the one who has more to lose?
At times, a black American’s refusal to engage with another body (in the case of a policeman pulling him/her over) might result in imprisonment or sudden death. Other times, a lack of engagement (as when the white woman chooses to park her car elsewhere) leaves the black body bereft. Finding tenderness in the wake of trauma, Rankine’s speaker is, perhaps, giving us an intimate lesson about the black body’s refusal to give in – her own body always ready on the tennis court – willing us to pick up the racket on the other end, to ﬁnally learn what it means to abide by the rules of civility and citizenship.
Excerpted from ‘Towards a Poetics of Racial Trauma: Lyric Hybridity in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen’, first published in the Journal of American Studies, 2017.
Online publication: 2 May 2017; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021875817000457