Written March 25, 2018
Claudia Rankine is a modern-day poet who sought to advocate the injustice in America done to her fellow African American people. Her poetry in Citizen: An American Lyric is an unusual yet powerful collection since it does not follow any typical poetry devices such as meter, rhyme or formal structure. All of the pieces in this collection flow freely and are compromised in sections that focus on either macroaggressions or microaggressions along with visual images. There in a contrast in language between her examples of microaggressions and macroaggressions, which adds to the impact of her poetry.
In section two of her poetry, Rankine focuses on the macroaggressions against Serena Williams. Serena is a famous black tennis player who had gone through injustices based on her race, which Rankine expresses through her unique poetry style in this section. Within this section is a quote by Zora Neale Hurston which reads “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white background.” This quote is incredibly significant because it encapsulates the theme of Rankine’s entire collection and is repeated multiple times throughout the collection. This quote expresses what life is truly like“for all black bodies” and allows any race to clearly understand the injustice.
The way that racism works is literally skin deep; Racism makes your skin color and body the only meaningful part of who you are. Rankine even expresses the admiration she had for Serena Williams during a macroaggression on the courts. Rankine identifies the injustice being done and seems even relieved that Serena finally speaks up rather than sit there and accept what is happening to her. Rankine continues to push the recurring idea of black bodies in America in section two of her book.
As offensive as her outburst is,
it is difficult not to applaud her for reacting immediately
to being thrown against a sharp white background. It is
difficult not to applaud her for existing in the moment,
for fighting crazily against the so-called wrongness of her
body’s positioning at the service line.
On page 35, Rankine includes a photograph of a statue by Nick Cave called Thick Skin. This image’s purpose is to intensify the message she is trying to get across; The image portrays how the statue hides gender, race and class which therefore prevents labeling. By preventing labeling, racism cannot exist in our society yet there is no way to prevent labeling outside of art. It also provides the idea that if there was away to hide our identity, there would be no individuality and we as individuals would lack purpose.
Serena Williams continued to pursue her dream of tennis even though many people “felt her black body didn’t belong on their court.” Serena’s hardships resulted in quick fixes for the future, including the addition of the Hawkeye. Rankine stated that this new technology “took the seeing away from the beholder”; A phrase which alludes to the common saying“beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Rankine phrases it this way because it takes away some of the power from the umpire and makes it more difficult for outlandish calls to be made against Serena Williams.
Rankine focuses on Serena Williams besides the fact that she is a Black woman but because she is an athlete. Rankine has an understanding that athletes were the ones who were able to break the boundaries of race to become famous and successful, regardless of the color of their skin or the background they are against. Rankine even alludes to the past when Black people were considered property:
While putting forward the arug-
ment that one needs to be white to be truly successful,
he adds, in an aside, that this might not work for blacks
because if “a n-gger paints a flower it becomes a slavery
flower, flower de Amistad,” thereby intimating that any
relationship between the white view and the black artist
immediately becomes one between white persons and
Lastly, Rankine includes one last photograph in this Serena Williams section: an image of a famous white tennis player who stuffed her bra and butt with towels to imitate Serena. This photograph describes how the public had wanted a white woman with the same amount of talent as Serena, yet Serena never stopped being her best and being one of the greatest Black women Americans have ever seen. The photograph encapsulates the injusticeSerena has had to face in her career and why she was “traumatized by the aggression” in the sport she loved.