By Catherine Keefe.
I’m reading Claudia Rankine‘s poetry book, Citizen: An American Lyric. I picked it up at the library because her play adaptation of the book is running in Los Angeles at The Fountain Theatre and I’ll be going to see it in September. Also, Claudia Rankine will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles in April; it’s the largest gathering of writers, editors, and literary journal publishers in the world. I’m going to listen to her speak and I’m going to pay attention.
I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because I once wrote:
I was Wonder Bread in a high school filled with pumpernickel…
I didn’t know black women had a monopoly on despising their reflections. I do know about the compulsion to try to look and act like the majority.
Many nights I braided my hair in stiff plaits, pulled so tight that my bedtime face wore a perpetual look of surprise. In the morning my hair stuck out all kinky and wild.
I tanned my body as dark as I could, so sun-fried that skin cancer has alread popped up on my top lip.
I told everybody I was black Irish, which I’d heard my grandfather say. I didn’t think it had anything to do with Negro blood, but that didn’t matter. I wanted wanted to be black. Of any kind.
I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because of #blacklivesmatter, and because of my new white grandson, and my old white hands, and because it’s exactly 20 years ago this month I that I wrote that article excerpted above. It came from an August 6, 1995 Orange County Register column titled, “Sometimes the issues aren’t black and white: A reporter asks a writer, ‘Does skin color make us different?” The column was about my conversation with Iyanla Vanzant about her book, The Value in the Valley: The Black Woman’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas. In that conversation I asked Iyanla, “why be racially exclusive in this era when colorblind is the buzzword?” At the time I really thought we were finished with racism and couldn’t understand why Iyanla didn’t know it.
I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because I know so little about my role – both real and perceived – in how our nation’s racial equality is still out of balance and I want to learn. I want to learn what I can bring to the table. I want to listen. I want to hear the hurt I didn’t cause and heal the hurt that I did. I want to realize that the struggle isn’t over just because I used to think it was.
I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because Claudia Rankine is a writer who grabs me by the throat and makes me believe she is an important canary and she doesn’t want to die, but oxygen levels in this mine of our country are nearly depleted. I first met her words when she wrote “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” for The New York Times in June, 2015 after the murder of three men and six women at a church in Charleston. She wrote:
Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.
The fact that I somehow missed Claudia Rankine’s important output of literature before this summer is a mystery, or a sign of my ignorance. Citizen: An American Lyric won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the NAACP Image Award. She’s written four other poetry books, edited several anthologies and written countless essays.
I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because Claudia Rankine matters and I want to pay attention; because her National Book Award reading begins with this excerpt from her book:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric. Are you?