unspeakable, unresolvable questions — form and function in Rankine’s Citizen

In anticipation of Claudia Rankine’s visit to Concordia University we are featuring writing that responds to Rankine’s works Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. This piece is by Concordia MA student, Chalsley Taylor. Rankine will be giving a public reading at 7pm, March 10, 2017 in the DeSeve Cinema in Concordia’s Library building on de Maisonneuve.

unspeakable, unresolvable questions — form and function in Rankine’s Citizen

By Chalsley Taylor

A body in the world drowns in it—

Hey you—

All our fevered history won’t install insight
won’t turn a body conscious,
won’t make that look
in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing

to solve

even as each moment is an answer

(Citizen, 142)

Citizen bears witness to the lack of resolution in the saga of black oppression & resistance by staging the uninterrupted violence to which black folks are subject (in America, though this violence surely exceeds borders), drawing together past and present iterations of anti-black state violence in a nonlinear fashion. Popularly compartmentalized historical violence is not simply layered upon its contemporary counterparts (whether spectacular or, as is more often the case, quotidian); rather, the two meld together and, at times, even align. This movement occurs between pronouns as well in the lyric—while Rankine most often employs the “You” to signify the speaker, there are moments in which the “You” shifts to another subject.

In these moments there is a distinct slippage between the “you” and the “I” and neither subjectivity can be located beyond doubt. From this we may begin a list of slippages: between past and present, but also between Rankine, Serena Williams, and the “I’s” and the “You’s”.

Oh my God, I didn’t see you.

You must be in a hurry, you offer.

No, no, no, I really didn’t see you. (62)

The speaker alerts us to a  temporal melding, asking, “What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?” is exemplary (Rankine 60).

ruminant (OSX Dictionary.app)

noun

1. an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.

2. a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.

“The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination.” (Wikipedia)

Characterizing the speaking subject as categorically “ruminant” conjures the transatlantic slave trade but also delineates the monotony of anti-black oppression, its banal iterations inscribed and re-inscribed upon the self. Yet still, its double meaning permits the “ruminant” their subjectivity. Moreover, if we consider the Wikipedia definition it seems to imply a coping strategy while also indicting this state by affirming the obligation to digest (process), again and again, what you have already swallowed. It would not be going too far to say rumination (as in rechewing) becomes a dominant modality of the text, one which “doesn’t include acting like…the before isn’t part of the now” (10). This connects to another slippage, one between text and image. Here the lyric form is stretched and pieces of visual art are included. Very early on, we are met with a benign-looking photograph of a suburban street, “JIM CROW RD” (Rankine 6).

Melding, however, is not always made so clear. 

Words work as release–well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing. What will be needed, what goes unfelt, unsaid–what has been duplicated, redacted here, redacted there, altered to hide or disguise–words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains. (69)

This passage holds an ambiguous, undefined object. Upon my first reading, what initially sprung to my mind was the routine appropriation of black culture (accusations of which are so often invalidated by an insistence that black culture is but a self-serving fiction); upon my second turn, I read therein the prison-industrial complex. As amorphous as the references are here–what goes unfelt, unsaid–it well demonstrates a major accomplishment of the text as a whole; here, as elsewhere in the lyric, the mechanics of oppression are distilled to reveal their pervasiveness, their persistence, their infinite applicability. This ambiguity side-steps the potential for didacticism.

The temporal slippage also manifests a rejection of, as previously mentioned, any claims of resolution inserted into narratives of what is known as Black History. In large part, materials on the subject which are promoted/widely circulated during Black History Month (i.e., through corporate media, educational institutions and state apparatuses) present accounts whose narrative rarely lacks a resolute conclusion, “as if then and now were not the same moment” (Rankine 86). Even some current efforts which push back, in part, against sanctioned BHM rituals seem to imply some form of resolution, if only cursorily. (See Jamal Joseph, activist and director of the film Chapter & Verse, talks to Desus and Mero about his early days in the Black Panthers) In this way Citizen refuses state commemoration as described by Achille Mbembe:

… states have sought to ‘civilise’ the ways in which the archive might be consumed, not by attempting to destroy its material substance but through the bias of commemoration. In this framework, the ultimate objective of commemoration is less to remember than to forget. For a memory to exist, there first has to be the temptation to repeat an original act. Commemoration, in contrast, is part of the ritual of forgetting: one bids farewell to the desire or the willingness to repeat something. ‘Learning’ to forget is all the easier if, on the one hand, whatever is to be forgotten passes into folklore (when it is handed over to the people at large), and if, on the other hand, it becomes part of the universe of commodification.

(“The Power of the Archive and Its Limits”, Refiguring the Archive)

This practice of civilizing the archive is evidenced at Arthur Ashe’s appearance in the text, the tennis legend who is (now) remembered as “‘dignified’ and ‘courageous’ in his ability to confront injustice without making a scene,” beloved in his field postmortem (Rankine 35, 31). (And here we may also think of the sanitized nostalgia proliferated following the 2016 death of Muhammad Ali.) Perhaps Citizen rejects its own entombing via this irresolution, if not preventing it. While this rejection does not only manifest in this strategy (the slippery pronouns also work to this end), irresolution appears, to me, the guiding principle: “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story” (Rankine 84).

Blog at WordPress.com.
%d bloggers like this: