Monday’s Black Unicorn Book Club question of the day asked: What book shook you awake and made you feel seen? For me there are many, but Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is definitely one of them. In short, Citizen is a work of poetry, prose, and art examining the onslaught of racial aggressions and microaggressions black women and men experience in contemporary daily life. From examining encounters with racist neighbors, to exploring the life and legacy of athlete Serena Williams, Citizen is a dangerous and powerful piece of evidence against the idea that we are living in a “colorblind” society.
As a black woman who was adopted in the 1980s and raised by white parents, I am interested in Rankine’s exploration of how the black body experiences mircoagressions. The book does a remarkable job of capturing the seemingly mundane instances where black women find themselves at odds with racism, as well as those extraordinary moments when black women in the public light find their hard work overshadowed by bigotry. I felt seen by this book because I, like many women of color, have a collection of moments similar to the ones highlighted in Citizen. Moments where my black, female body has been stereotyped, appropriated, misunderstood, and of course moments where I have been utterly invisible as well as hyper visible in my blackness, all at the same time.
There was, for example, the middle-aged, white woman who stumbled upon me mid-August in New York while I was supervising a field trip of 20 elementary students as they worked a lemonade stand in the Flatiron to help raise funds for a cause. I stood at the front of the stand beaming proudly, handing out flyers, and laughing with my students. I was dressed casually for the occasion, in sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt, and in solidarity I wore the same silly hot pink hat as my students. I was having a blast until this woman approached and offered me some unsolicited advice about my body:
“How old are you honey?” she began “You know you’re much too old for that nose ring. Take my advice, you don’t want to look ghetto. You’re better than that, I can tell. And that ring makes you look ghetto.”
Or it’s showing up to give a feature poetry reading and going to sit in my reserved seat, only to have the older, white male poet who was also reading tell me:
“Oh no, you can’t sit there. That’s reserved for the poet who is reading tonight.”
“Yes,” I replied while sitting down, “That’s me.”
Or sometimes it’s just in the coded language we are all are guilty of using. It’s showing up to work in a new outfit and being told by my white co-worker: “Girlfriend, you look SASSY today!”
Being told by board members at meetings: “You speak so well, I’m always surprised by how eloquent you are.”
It’s sitting at the dinner table listening to some of my own family members complain about the “hard to pronounce” names of “black kids these days” and all the “unnecessary apostrophes” in the spellings of these names.
All of these moments and countless more have peppered my existence, but Citizen shook me awake because instead of just swallowing or surviving these moments, I can go to this book and find a reflection—a witnessing and uplifting of the resilience of the black body. Let’s put it this way: this book, in true #blackuniconrbookclub fashion, does not bow down. It is not interested in making people feel comfortable. It is not interested tip-toeing around the issues. It’s interested in survival, truth-telling, and visibility. It is interested in courage.
Citizen: An American Lyric is a text that does work, and by that I mean it’s a text that asks us to be brave and dive into a landscape that we may or may not be familiar with. It’s a text that asks us speak about, to debate, and to confront what citizenship looks like for people of color in this country. It asks us to consider each moment, each section, and question how the black body survives and the role our public gaze plays in this survival.
I like this kind of work, it feeds me, and I hope some of you do too. I invite women of all experiences and racial backgrounds to join me on June 25th as we discuss Citizen: An American Lyric. It will no doubt be a rich and powerful conversation. Register for the discussion by 5/27 to make sure you receive all the pre-facilitation materials on time.