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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric

I felt like today would be a good day for this book post, seeing as what is happening in Baltimore is a hot topic. I have a lot of thoughts on it, but this post is about this specific book. Thanks for stopping by!

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book, so I was a bit turned topsy turvey in the first few pages. I was blown away by it when I finally caught on to the narrative, and I realized quickly that it's a book all men, women, and children should pick up. This is Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.

Racial aggressions, outright expressive or micro in leaning, are a daily part of living for many in our country. Whether it's the click of the lock on the car doors when a Black man walks by or it is the loud use of a racial epithet in a coffee shop, these aggressive actions of power toward others are defining and meaningful. Citizenship is torn down through these actions, and how they define the Black experience is the subject of this lyric.

The book opens with a series of vignettes that touch on the daily black experience, enumerating stories that we've heard but have maybe thought to be innocuous. "But you're not that kind of Black person." "I'm talking about the others." "You know, those people." Words that one thinks are mitigating the insults coming forth but instead are exacerbating the problem. Phrases that are beating down men and women who have spent their lives being beaten down. These are stories that we've heard, we've witnessed, and we have excused. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me -- how wrong that is.

I read this book right before joining my family for the spring holidays, and at a brunch I was speaking with a relative. It's fascinating to that side of my family that I live in New York; everyone has a story from a time they visited. Whether it's how they successfully avoided people begging for money on the subway (before going on a rant about "religious freedom" for Christians -- sit on that one!) or it's about the amazing experience they had buying fake purses in Chinatown. One particular relative was telling me about an experience she had on the subway.

She had bent over to tie her shoe when the train stopped and six Black men got in. She immediately became wary and her friend and her looked at each other, wondering what to do. Then one of the men said, "Do you know what time it is?" She thought to herself, "Oh, we're in trouble now!" Then the group of men started singing doo wop! How funny she thought that was! To go from thinking you are going to be attacked on crowded a NYC city subway train in the middle of the evening to enjoying an impromptu concert of mid-century pop! Hahahaha! How delightful! RACISM IS JUST SO FUNNY. 

The problem with this story is that she doesn't think she, like so many Americans, is racist at all. And there, my friends, likes the crux of Citizen. What this relative does not want to believe she is doing is exactly what is happening -- she has dehumanized black men to the point that they only serve one purpose, which is to make her so nervous when they arrive in groups of more than one that she is willing to suspend common sense to fear them.

Take some time to ask someone their story. It will sound a lot like this American lyric. 

For purchase below. 

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