The White Card; or, Claudia Rankine's American conversations on race and citizenship

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy  fitting the description.” – from Stop-and-Frisk, script for a ‘Situation’ video created in collaboration with John Lukas and published in Citizen: An American Lyric       

Poet, essayist and dramatist Claudia Rankine (1963-), currently professor of poetry at Yale, was one of the local and international writers invited for interviews and readings from their work at the Louisiana Literature Festival 2019 at Denmark’s Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen, the capital, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary (two years ago there was African American novelist Colson Whitehead of The Underground Railroad, Doubleday 2016).

The author of three previously published volumes of poetry, Claudia Rankine is especially known for Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, 2004, (Robert Creeley: “It’s master work in every sense, and altogether her own”), and Citizen, 2014, both subtitled An American Lyric, Citizen receiving more than a dozen awards and honors, selling more than 300.000 copies according to her current publisher, Graywolf Press, and securing for her a 2016 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award.

Citizen is a careful mixture of poetry, essays and visual images (photographs and artworks) printed on glossy white paper – often in sharp contrasts to what the images show, like a photograph of an ‘idyllic’ suburban street called Jim Crow Rd, a 1930 photo of a Public Lynching, and William Turner’s 1840 oil painting The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On, so that insurance payment could be collected.

The example of Serena Williams. On August 22 at Louisiana Claudia Rankine read from section II of Citizen on the “best female tennis player of all time,” Serena Williams – a well known public figure Rankine identifies with, see her article The Meaning of Serena Williams: On tennis and black excellence, The New York Times Magazine, 25 August 2015 –, the following day taking the subject up again in an interview with Danish critic Synne Rifbjerg.

We turn again to one of the book’s images, artist Glenn Ligon’s Untitled, copying on canvas two lines from novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s ambiguous 1928 essay, How It Feels to be Colored Me: “I do not always feel colored … I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

And on the tennis courts, a historically “white space,” spectators and especially the tennis press corps being often overwhelmingly white, Serena Williams is indeed “thrown against a sharp white background,” a target not only of applause, but catcalls, boos (leading both Venus and Serena Williams to boycott the Indian Wells tournament for years, following what the British The Guardian calls “a harrowing racial episode” in 2001), press caricatures, and curious calls and oversights by umpires and line judges, accumulating and culminating at the 2004 US Open, when an angry Serena went “insane”  – the body perhaps remembering what was otherwise ‘forgotten’.

Whiteness and black (in)visibility.  (In)visibility is a theme returned to again and again in African American literature, most famously in Ralph Ellison’s prologue to his modern classic, the novel Invisible Man (Random House, 1952): “I am an invisible man … I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me … When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me,” invisible like the black male in the epigraph above and others, described in several incidents in Citizen.

To address this and other issues, Claudia Rankine has used funds from the MacArthur grant to establish The Racial Imaginary Institute “to study whiteness and to examine race as a social construct – a collaboration with other collectives, spaces, artists, and organizations towards art exhibitions, readings, dialogues, lectures, performances, and screenings that engage the subject.”

The White Card – her first published play – came out this year, beginning the necessary American conversation on white (male) privilege, the white card being played more often than the race card in a “Stacked Deck” – Alisa Solomon’s headline for her fine April 10th review in The Nation.

And Just Us: An American Conversation, a book of essays (an excerpt, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked”, was recently published in The New York Times Magazine, see 17 July 2019) will be forthcoming in 2020.

Race and citizenship.  African American citizenship has been contested from the very beginning of America, the original Constitution of the United States resolving that to the number of free persons – excluding Indians not taxed – should be added three fifth of ‘all other persons’ (read: slaves), not that they could vote, but to determine how many seats that Georgia, say, should have in the House of Representatives, slave states thus being overrepresented.

This even as the American Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1776 famously stated that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,a flagrant contradiction Langston Hughes address in the poem American Heartbreak

The ongoing ‘American Dilemma’, Rankine’s “years of (middle) passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow, segregation, of inner cities, poverty, (racial) profiling,” drugs and incarceration, now exacerbated by a current president’s increasingly racist rants, like the tweet asking four progressive Congresswomen, democratically elected American citizen, to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places (countries) from which they came.” What did he just say? Make America White Again? asks Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi .

Claudia Rankine is scared, she says. Perhaps we will be well advised to heed the words of Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), Martinican poet, quoted by Rankine in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”

UFI// 5 October 2019        

Appendix

The Langston Hughes poem American Heartbreak, first published in Phylon (3rd Quarter, 1951) and reprinted in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (Vintage, 1994) and elsewhere, runs like this:

 

I am the American heartbreak –

The rock on which Freedom

Stumped its toe –

The great mistake

That Jamestown

Made long ago.

 

The rock in the poem, although clearly a very different kind of rock, would seem somehow to also allude to Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims from The Mayflower landed and founded a colony in 1620, in search of freedom. 

Jamestown was the earliest settlement in Virginia, where the first twenty or so blacks brought from Africa, subsequently enslaved, were landed and sold from a 'Dutch man of Warr’ in 1619. 

Jamestown and Plymouth Rock twin roots of what would become the United States of America.

 

 

UFI | 10/05/2019