Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Against Identity

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Against Identity

Article excerpt

Join me down here in nowhere.

-Claudia Rankine


loss is token.

-Kay Ryan

And for ther is so gret diversité

In English and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God that non miswrite thee....

-Geoffrey Chaucer

CLAUDIA RANKINE'S CITIZEN IS A DEVASTATING BOOK-one every American should read.1 Is it poetry? I don't know, though the question is important. Provocatively subtitled "An American Lyric," the book is much more than conceptual art-genre bending at the very least. The helpless feeling it produces about how we read and misread each other might be called lyrical, but Rankine's methods are deliberately antipoetic. You could call it creative nonfiction with mixtures of journalism, anecdotal prose, verse and collage (including visual art that has to be read as carefully as the language). Whatever you call it, Citizen is an education in the micro and macro aggressions so often defining American race relations. Yet like many other books on the topics of race and gender, it is fundamentally existential. We usually understand identity in social terms-one is labeled by others, or one identifies with a group. Race and gender appear to make these group identities ineluctable, even if no individual feels fully identified in such terms. Yet even one's race and gender can be misread or misused in our assumptions. Some of us can't help feeling the self is far more fleeting or illusory than identity politics allow.

Rankine explores multiple sides of these dilemmas. The example and metaphor of tennis allows her to discuss not only the genius of Serena Williams in a central essay, but also ways in which the tennis great is judged as a black woman-skin color, body type, gender, fashion and language all have bearing on the case. Tennis is, like art, a field of play in which social assumptions and interactions are illuminated. Like literature it has had a certain clubbiness in its history, and the game is enriched when that exclusivity begins to dissolve. In a later prose anecdote, Rankine, who teaches at the elite Pomona College in California, returns from a tennis game of her own and is asked if she won. "It wasn't a match," she says. "It was a lesson." Her book is essentially didactic.

Claudia Rankine does not need to play judge and jury. Simple observation is enough to indict the layers of self-deception, falsehood, misreading and outright hate found in our social relations. She quotes filmmaker Claire Denis: "I don't want to be a nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an observer." But Rankine offers her observations in a relentless second-person voice, making readers identify as protagonists: "When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows." There is more indictment here, and the author does not present herself as being above such defenses as "devices" and comforting pillows, or a voice telling her as a child, "You smell good." There's an exhausted, hollowedout grief running through the book. "Tried rhyme," she writes, "tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried." It all feels more urgent in a time when Americans shoot first and ask questions later. A Katrina montage comprising quotes from CNN and another called "Stop-andFrisk" expose more of the macro aggressions blacks in America continually face.

The situation is dire, and the culture's violence-"America turned loose on America"-would seem to preclude any possibility of leavening humor. There's little or no comedy in Citizen, though for one brief moment there is laughter:

When the waitress hands your friend the card she took from you, you laugh and ask what else her privilege gets her? Oh, my perfect life, she answers. Then you both are laughing so hard, everyone in the restaurant smiles.

Rankine's deliberate ambiguity with pronouns often prevents us from knowing precisely who is talking and who is being addressed. …

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