In early 2014, two of America’s best liberal journalists, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, engaged in a public debate about the history of race in the United States. Chait offered a tempered but optimistic reading of American racial history as a “progression” from slavery to Jim Crow to desegregation to President Barack Obama. To note that things have gotten better, Chait argued, isn’t to say that they are perfect (or even adequate). But, if we look at the country’s long racial history, we must see “halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement.”
Coates disagreed. Slavery went away but poll taxes and lynchings and redlining and police brutality rushed in to fill the void. Segregation and the mass incarceration of black males are different phenomena, but they flow from the same toxic place—a place that fears blackness and so seeks to brutalize and contain it. White supremacy, Coates argued, “afflicted black people in the past, continue[s] to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.” According to Coates, racial history isn’t “progressive.” It’s recursive.
Several months later, events proved this debate not merely an intellectual exercise. First, Eric Garner died after police put him in a chokehold in Staten Island. Then police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In both cases, the victims were black and unarmed. In both cases, the police were white and not indicted. Then, a black boy in Cleveland was shot to death while playing with a toy gun. Then, Freddie Gray was killed while in the custody of Baltimore police. In response, riots erupted in cities across the country and slogans were born: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”; “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s worth noting that, as with all things involving race in the United States, this is a messier story than it might appear to be. Michael Brown almost certainly didn’t raise his hands and say, “Don’t shoot.” Three of the policemen indicted in Baltimore are black, and the city has a black mayor and a black police chief. Poor black communities suffer from police brutality, but they also suffer from high levels of violent crime.
But these complications shouldn’t obscure the central fact uniting these incidents: black Americans suffer discrimination and violence from agents of the state at disproportionate levels. African Americans have always known this—sons receive “the talk” about how to conduct themselves in the presence of police—but the events of the past year have made this a topic of conversation outside the black community. The Chait-Coates debate seems more relevant than ever. Does the arc of American racial history bend toward justice, or does it just circle around to the same point? Is history improving or merely repeating itself?
Two recent books take up the problem of race in America. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful and strange work, looking—sometimes coolly, sometimes angrily—at how racism continues to speak in ways both quiet and loud. In The Fire Next Time (1963), James Baldwin wrote, “There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.” Chief among them is how racial hatred destroys both the hater and the hated. Rankine’s book makes the same point, and it seems likely to stand with the works of Baldwin as a canonical articulation of black experience in America.
Citizen is difficult to categorize. It blends short prose-poem sections, bursts of lyric poetry (“And still a world begins its furious erasure— / Who do you think you are, saying I to me?”), and pages of what read like cultural criticism. It features photographs of athletes and reproductions of paintings by J. M. W. Turner and art installations by Radcliffe Bailey. Put out in a beautiful edition by Graywolf Press, the cover displays a single empty black hood, torn from a hoodie sweatshirt and set against a white background. This is a photograph of David Hammons’s installation In the Hood (1993), and it’s a perfect entry point to the book’s main concerns: how blackness is defined against whiteness; how black culture—hip hop and hoodies, for instance—is imagined as menacing.
The book opens with a rapid-fire series of vignettes, each documenting an instance of “micro-aggression”—a sociological term for the unintended and unconscious acts of discrimination that occur in the course of everyday social existence. These are the quiet ways by which racism lives in a putatively color-blind society: when black politicians are unfailingly referred to, with an air of surprise, as “articulate,” or when a person of color struggles to get a taxi in New York City. (This isn’t just a problem with white cab drivers. Black cabbies confess to the same kind of discriminatory behavior—further proof of the insidious effects of racism.)
Rankine has the ability to make the incidents she relates seem both absolutely specific and totally generic, and she accomplishes this trick primarily through formal means. The opening prose sections are written in a style that is flat, spare, slightly off, occasionally infelicitous. In one, we hear that “a woman with multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer.” In another, a “man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before.” Read in isolation, these snippets can seem stilted. After all, “a woman with multiple degrees” sounds almost robotic, and the use of “routine” and “friend” in the same sentence causes the reader to pause: we sense that the “friend” is white, since his use of a credit card wasn’t questioned, but whose friend is he, the speaker’s or the clerk’s?
Yet the flatness is not, I would argue, a flaw but a conscious decision: the endless, draining nature of such incidents can only be represented in a flat, almost deadened style. Rankine, who has published five previous collections of poetry, isn’t writing expository prose but prose poetry, and this kind of writing works by accretion and repetition. At one point, Rankine writes, “When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t.” This trumping of the individual by his or her racial identity—one black person is just like every other black person—occurs throughout the book. From earlier, is “the friend who went before” the speaker’s friend or the clerk’s friend? In the end, who cares? What matters is that he is white and therefore can use his credit card without suspicion.
We’re never explicitly told that this friend is white, nor that the speaker in this particular vignette is black. Rankine is doing something subtle here. She’s forcing the reader to make assumptions, not telling us how to read the racial implications of the situation but showing us that we are always reading racial implications into such situations. Throughout the book, Rankine uses the present tense and the second person: “You wait at the bar of the restaurant”; “You are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood.” The effect of this is startling: the reader feels addressed directly and immediately. We aren’t merely looking at these situations. We are involved in them, whether we want to be or not. And that is one of the major arguments of Citizen: that to be American is to be involved in a complex, haunted racial story, one that you can’t escape by wishing it away.
Early in the book, Rankine describes the “anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.” Citizen relentlessly shows how the accumulation of such incidents—a slighting remark overheard here, a police stop there—provokes anger, and how expressing this anger provokes its own violent backlash.
In one section, Rankine looks at Serena Williams as a test case for negotiating the racial politics of anger. She imagines how frequently Williams must have bitten her tongue when faced with the casual (and not so casual) racism of the tennis world: the taunts heard from fans, the unconscious bias of referees, the praising of her “natural athleticism” over skill or strategy. When Williams on occasion has given vent to her anger, she’s been described as terrifying and barbaric. (A nice point of contrast with Jimmy Connors, whose anger was largely seen as a sign of competitive spirit.)
In Rankine’s reading, Serena Williams becomes an allegory for black experience. American culture provokes black rage and then demonizes it if and when it is expressed. When nine people are killed in a shootout involving mostly white gang members in Waco, it is treated as an isolated incident. When looters destroy property in Baltimore, they are described as “thugs.” Here is Rankine:
Again Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments, exist within a system you understand not to try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of the self as systemic, as ordinary. For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.
In later sections, Rankine remembers Hurricane Katrina—the government’s inept response and CNN’s “aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable.” She remembers the deaths of Trayvon Martin, shot dead in 2012 for looking suspicious in a hoodie, and James Craig Anderson, robbed and run over by a pickup truck in Mississippi in 2011 for being black. Inevitably, fatalism can set in. As Rankine writes, “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.”
This kind of thinking, Rankine suggests, characterizes and degrades American society. To be black is to be informed by memory—memory of the country’s long, horrible history of racism but also of one’s own shorter, still horrible, more intimate history of the same. Yet to be black is also to be told to forget it, to get over it, to move on, to suck it up. Toward the book’s end, Rankine writes, “Nobody notices, only you’ve known, / you’re not sick, not crazy, / not angry, not sad— / It’s just this, you’re injured.” The injuries continue to pile up, and they aren’t going away.
Jeffery Renard Allen’s new novel Song of the Shank—also from Graywolf and also excellent— makes for an interesting pairing with Citizen. Like Rankine, Allen writes in a jagged but beautiful style. Like Rankine, Allen includes extra-textual material: photographs, an old concert program, historical newspaper clippings. And where Rankine reads Serena Williams allegorically, Allen dramatizes how an earlier black star, the musical prodigy Thomas Wiggins, became a site of racial contestation in Civil War America.
Tom Wiggins, known as Blind Tom, was a real historical figure, though Allen’s fictional version frequently veers from the factual record. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1849, Tom was most likely autistic (in the novel, he’s described as “feebleminded”). Undoubtedly, though, he was a genius. Early in childhood, Tom went blind. In a gruesome scene, Allen imagines that Tom blinded himself, leaving his eyes, as one character describes them, “orbs [that] were completely blank and hard in appearance.” Tom’s blindness, as well as his fits of anger and shyness, makes him a mystery to those around him. “If our eyes are indeed windows into our soul,” one character thinks, “then Tom lacked windows. Hard blackness sealed off inward entry.”
Soon after this act of self-maiming, Tom displays an uncanny ability to mimic all manner of sounds. It’s as if the loss of one sense has sharpened others, with Tom able to hear how “in vibrations of grass earth records the sound and intensity of falling shafts of sun” and then to re-create these sounds himself. First, he uses his voice to imitate the twitterings of birds. Then, he sneaks into his master’s house, using the family piano to imitate the songs he has heard white folks play. Tom’s skill is remarkable: he can hear a song once and then play it back, without error and with complete facility. Tom’s master, the newspaperman and secessionist General Bethune, realizes that such a gift might be transformed into a “most profitable investment.” At eight, Tom goes on the vaudeville circuit. Within years, he has raked in a fortune for his owner—much of which goes to support the secessionist cause—and has become the most famous black person in America.
As such, Tom becomes a figure fraught with racial meaning. To white characters, his capacity for imitation shows that he remains, despite his immense gifts, essentially inhuman. As his first music teacher, General Bethune’s wife, rhetorically asks, “But can he do anything other than parrot what she does? Can any Negro be more than a parrot? True genius creates.” For her, Tom’s abilities don’t show up the problems of treating humans as property but confirm slavery’s rightness. He is not really, she imagines, a thinking being: “she concludes that Tom is fully of a piece with his race. Shut eyes and bulging forehead, he lacks the needed spirit…Yes, his details are exact, his description is accurate, but his interpretation and conclusions are random. Where is the conscious breath?”
For the novel’s black characters, however, Tom’s performances “put the lie once and for all to the vicious claims for the Negro’s lack of intellect and refinement, genius and culture.” Tom can recite Plato in the original Greek; he can play Beethoven and Bach and Chopin. Surely, then, he must have a soul. It’s a sign of slavery’s grotesque moral logic that such an argument would need to be made.
After emancipation, the debate over the meaning of Tom’s genius only intensifies. Tabbs Gross, a former slave himself, tries to convince Tom to begin performing again. (The boy has retired from music and is living with a white woman in New York City.) Gross, whose life has been punctuated by failure, sees Tom as a way to success, a means to “break back into the world of the alabasters on his own terms.” Even those black characters who would embrace Tom tend to treat him as a thing to be manipulated and used.
In a striking departure from history, Allen sets much of his novel not in the South or on the music circuit but in Edgemere—an imaginary island off the coast of New York City where a group of freedmen attempt to create a community after they’ve been emancipated but then rejected by white society. (Allen dramatizes the 1863 Civil War draft riots that targeted New York City’s free black population.) It’s a fantastical island populated by conmen and preachers, where violence alternates with kindness and where black history can finally be spoken aloud: “They put their song in the air, a sound not easily separable from their bodies and what moves within their bodies, usually kept under wraps, but not so now, skin curving back like windblown curtains to expose auction blocks, swinging gates, the whips, hounds, chains, crops, violations, and vulgarity.”
There are many things to love about Song of the Shank, especially its intoxicating, cadenced prose: “The human body dazzles the imagination with existence from crown to heel bone, from the brain riding in the head to the winding provinces of the intestines and the heart that branches with its wild arteries and the muscles of the back that somehow remain steady and strong under stress and strain.” But Allen doesn’t make it easy to love, or even understand, Tom himself. He is occasionally childish and regularly unpredictable. He speaks in gnomic utterances. In the end, he may not even know that he’s black. (Among the many things that Tom imitates so perfectly: white society’s hatred of blackness.)
Song of the Shank ends with a description of Tom in retirement: “But once he was back inside the apartment, they recall hearing piano music, a tune that none of them recognized. Soon thereafter, the music stopped. And no one ever heard it again.” Tom stops playing, and the music stops with him. But the song that Allen sings in this novel—the song of America’s long, painful relationship with race—continues to be heard, and the pain this song gives voice to hasn’t gotten any easier to bear.