Saturday, January 10, 2015


You have just been called by the name of the only other black person in the room.
We all look alike.

You were just told by a friend that her husband didn't get selected for the fire department because a certain number of blacks has to be hired.
It couldn't be because he failed the test for the second time?

You have been told your are smart ( articulate, clever, ambitious, add you own adjective here...)
Unsaid... for a black woman.

You have just been told a racist joke.
Why did this person feel comfortable saying this to you?

As we go about in this world, we rub up against everyone else going about in this same world.
As we encounter each one, each two or three, each larger community, we are changed.

Each encounter builds the me, and the we that we are.

The effect is cumulative and observable.
The effect is undeniable, but often times indescribable.

Claudia Rankine defies the elusiveness of defining  these encounters.

She enumerates her encounters, those that remind her that her race sometimes arrives before she does, those that remind her that her race is, indeed, an encounter changer.

 Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, a  2014 National Book Award Finalist, is the treasure I have found to help me regain my sanity as we all process the encounters of a familiar, yet horrifying kind that we experienced this past year and the first few days of the new year.

Her poems/prose call us to look again and again at isolated incidents, that taken one by one might be hurtful or dismissive or disrespectful, but because of their familiarity, perhaps not given a second thought.

Her poems/prose hold up a  magnifying glass to those encounters that we have experienced, yet not truly registered and processed fully because they happen every day.

What happens if we pile  them all together creating a landscape we can't escape?

Incident after incident, comment after comment.

The powerful subtleties and toxicities of living black in America-- every day.

Rankine examines not only her personal life, but also public life and current events,

Over and over I nodded in both recognition and consternation at everyday occurrences such as the following:

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The  girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what Iexpected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. ...
...When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
... And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
Incident after incident, comment after comment.

The powerful subtleties and toxicities of living black in America-- every day.

In Section II she tackles  encounters of  Serena Williams, looking behind what we see, to the encounters that shaped her public persona. How do such encounters play out for all public figures?

Reading Citizen requires pauses to process that which we don't daily take the time to fully ponder and acknowledge,  pauses to turn the fabric of our lives over to examine the nap and knots, and ridges and loose threads on the reverse side.

So powerful and revealing was this genre-defying book that as soon as I had come to the last well chosen word, I began at the beginning and reread the entire book-- this time slower, savoring each image and each sentence.

I was also hungry for more.

After a quick search, I immediately bought another of her works,Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric  ( Yes, the subtitle is the same for both books.)  In the same genre- bending form as Citizen, Rankine gives us an autobiographical work that articulates our dark and lonely time--honestly tackling intimacy, death, politics and more.

And I  also wanted to know more about the writer.

I discovered a wonderful interview with Rankine at Dive Dapper.

And Rankine's own website offered a veritable buffet of food for thought, including audio readings of her poems, interviews and reviews, listings of her books, two plays, and  a series of short video essays or situations, as she calls them, which she has created with her husband, John Lucas,

In section VI of Citizen, there are scripts for several of these situations, touching on topics such as Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, Jena Six,  and Stop-and-Frisk,

Incident after incident, comment after comment.

The powerful subtleties and toxicities of living black in America-- every day.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

For one day (or more if you choose),  be intentional in observing daily encounters in which you are involved, as well as encounters between others which you are privileged to observe.

Make notes about the context, text  and subtext of each encounter.

Make notes about the spoken words, body language and facial expressions, as well as the seemingly unspoken and assumed.

Write a short prose poem about several of these encounters.

Taken together, what insights do these encounters offer?

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