Living Requires Forgetting, but Citizenship Demands Remembrance
Poet Claudia Rankine believes that accountability is a key element of community building.
Stephon Clark is Sandra Bland is Philando Castile is Jessie Hernandez.
Is Rodney King.
And before the Rodney King beating happened in 1991, “it had happened and happened,” Claudia Rankine’s poetry hauntingly echoes in Citizen: An American Lyric. The endless killing of black people in America is one Rankine has called an “unending spectacle.”
It keeps happening and happening.
The public’s reading of Citizen’s cover art is symbolic of this unending spectacle: Audiences commonly believe that the black hoodie, foregrounded on a stark, white background, is an homage to Trayvon Martin, the black teenager gunned down for simply walking while black, holding a soda and candy, in 2012. However, the artist David Hammons created the piece, titled In the Hood, in 1993, shortly after the King beating in Los Angeles that year. The audience’s misidentification is one of profound revelation—the killing of black Americans is not rare but chronic. Perhaps this is why Rankine followed the cover art with an epigraph from Chris Marker’s film Sans soleil: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”
And they do. They see one black body atop another. The hoodie functions as a palimpsest of black life in America.
“We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings,” Rankine writes in the New York Times Magazine. “Dead blacks are a part of normal life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons.”
Citizen, winner of multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Open Book Award, is an interrogation of how racism inheres in the very foundations of America. In this volume, too, Rankine uses poetry and the rhetoric of address to deliberate the ethical question of what it means to be a citizen: How are we citizens by virtue of holding ourselves accountable for both our actions and the way we treat other people in our society? We are all the “you” of Citizen. None of us are not a part of the conversation about race and racism in America.
But, are we accountable?
“As a witness to her life, work, and actions,” writer Sarah Schulman reflects on Rankine, “my perception is that her concepts of accountability far surpass citizenship, which is a literal category used to expel, exclude, and scapegoat large numbers of people all over the world.” Schulman, a friend of Rankine’s for over twenty years who serves on the board of Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, has written about the societal imperative of accountability in Conflict Is Not Abuse, which she discussed at a Stanford Live event in 2017. Like Schulman, Rankine believes that accountability is a key element of community building—it is also the first step to overcoming the systemic dominance of whiteness.
“Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and her writing and thinking around the Racial Imaginary [go] right to the interiority of what racism does to us, how it harms us in specific ways that accumulate and thereby become systemic,” says Jeff Chang, executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, who will join Rankine onstage at Bing Concert Hall. “People can’t begin to build community if they aren’t telling stories to each other about what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. When we hear Claudia’s stories, we can’t help but reflect and then feel compelled to tell our own. In that way, her art catalyzes community building.”
Rankine places a spotlight on whiteness by making it the object of inquiry. Whiteness is thematically threaded through her five collections of poetry, her plays, and her public lectures and writing. In her first book of poetry, Nothing in Nature is Private, from 1994, as in her later publications, Rankine utilizes the white space on the page to magnify the pervasiveness of whiteness and how it encompasses and strangulates the black body: “Everywhere is dark… I am beyond recognition. // Rest in my body / and know no / amount of living / will cure / the color on our race.”
The cunning rhetorical inversion of whiteness—as darkness—explodes twenty years later in the pages of Citizen. Blunt language is married with stark visual imagery throughout the book, a juxtaposition which reveals how the aesthetics of whiteness reinforce the power of whiteness in culture. The use of images bespeaks how racism operates visually. “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Rankine quotes one of her influences, Zora Neale Hurston, in Citizen.
Flipping the script on whiteness, by converting it from the subject of authority to the object of inquiry, is the mission of Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, which she founded with the MacArthur “genius grant” money awarded to her in 2016. “Given that the concept of racial hierarchy is a strategy employed to support white dominance,” reads the institute’s mission statement, “whiteness is an important aspect of any conversation about race. We begin here in order to make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable so that we can move forward into more revelatory conversations about race.”
Making whiteness visible—also the modus operandi of Rankine’s new play The White Card—means calling out the practices that perpetuate its dominance. This not only includes deconstructing a culture of nostalgia that erases tragedy—slavery, genocide, and other forms of systemic oppression—from American history but also entails addressing a similar ethic of forgetting that enables a broader culture of unaccountability.
This ethic of forgetting could otherwise be known as the privilege of willful—and sometimes downright aggressive—ignorance. One way this ignorance manifests is through what Rankine, in the introduction to the book The Racial Imaginary, refers to as “white anxiety”: the paradoxical knowledge of, but deliberate refusal to acknowledge, one’s whiteness because talking about race feels uncomfortable.
[T]hey know that they are white, but they must not know that they know. They know that they are white, but they cannot know that such a thing has social meaning … for to do so would be to acknowledge its force. They must instead feel themselves to be individuals upon whom nothing has acted. That’s the injury, that their whiteness has veiled from them their own power to wound, has cut down their sympathy to a smaller size, has persuaded them that their imagination is uninflected, uninfiltrated. It has made them unknowing. Which is one reason why white people take recourse to innocence: I did not mean to do any harm.
This white anxiety is also articulated in other ways. The indifferent, “I didn’t know.” Or the brazen, “I didn’t know you were black!” Or the faux-shameful, “I didn’t see you!”—all lines repeated in Citizen that punctuate the difference between the hypervisibility of the black body and its continued erasure as human. To be a real and present black body in America is to be immediately cast as real and present danger.
A people cannot be chained by the past if they are to live in the present moment. Yet, as Rankine notes in Citizen, the “past is a life sentence.” It cannot be discarded or suppressed. “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
American nostalgia is the attempt to suppress the country’s racist past in order to dismiss the racism that still persists today. The underside of this nostalgia is the politically and socially sanctioned killing of black bodies—as if America as a nation is trying, desperately, to get rid of the evidence. Rankine points to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, as an example of this deadly nostalgia: “Dylann Roof did not create himself from nothing. He has grown up with the rhetoric and orientation of racism…He, along with the rest of us, has been living with slain black bodies.” American nostalgia is the product of the imagination of whiteness that resides at the bedrock of the nation itself, as Rankine writes: “because white men cannot / police their imagination / black people are dying.”
The historical, systemic denial of life is felt on an elemental level daily by black people in America, which is why, according to Rankine, there is “no living while black.” Instead, shocked and numb, black people are “slave-ships in shoes,” to quote Hurston again. The black body is a memento mori. The American legacy of the black body is one of slavery, incarceration, and “three-fifths” dehumanization.
Living, or fully existing in the present moment, requires the ability to forget. Yet black people simply cannot forget—memory is essential to their survival. Neither are they allowed to forget, as the culture of whiteness produces a steady stream of images depicting their oppression, brutalization, and death.
A privilege of whiteness, for those who are not brown or black, is being allowed to forget—forget the trauma that America has been built upon through the cultivation and telling of a history that has been whitewashed to pillow ignorance.
Living may require forgetting, but citizenship demands remembrance. For Rankine, remembering enables us to hold ourselves accountable, because it is only then that we are able to imagine a new and better world for all its citizens.
Related Event: May 16
Bing Concert Hall
In Conversation with Claudia Rankine