While Jamaica Kincaid’s books arrived in my life as lyrical and deep psychological company, coming from a Black Caribbean perspective like my mother’s, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric spoke more piercingly to me as an American Black woman. Rankine’s poetic recounts of experiencing seemingly endless white microaggressions feel as though they are mine—these are not about the virulent actions, beatings, and Black Death as spectacle, but rather, by rendering race hypervisible, they call up memories embedded in the psyche. David Hammons’s 1993 piece In the Hood, of a cutoff black hoodie, on Citizen’s cover easily connects to Trayvon Martin’s murder, in 2012, and to the millions of murders that preceded it, as well as those recorded that have followed. Microaggressions trigger trauma deep in the body, trauma repeated across generations and making a world.
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?
On Valentine’s Day, I went to downtown Los Angeles’s Hauser & Wirth and was very warmly greeted at both galleries, as well as the larger bookshop, by twentysomething white, Black, and Latinx assistants. At the entrance of the smaller gift shop of pricey items, such as Cindy Sherman’s skateboard decks, the 40-ish white woman behind the counter looked at me from head to toe with great disdain and resentment that she was expected to say hello. It made me want to turn around right at the threshold and walk out. But I went in anyway, feeling her eyes boring into my back. I left without looking at her, even though I am the kind of person who greets upon entering and says thank you upon leaving every shop.
When going to bed that night, I kept reexperiencing her looking me up and down and then said aloud to myself, “Why is that more important than the four others, who were so kind and welcoming?” Her looking me up and down was not an old white female friend, high on a chocolate edible over lunch, exclaiming, “You look just like Buckwheat!” (from the series Our Gang, which ran from 1922 to 1937). Nor was it last year’s Highland Park loft-apartment manager who wouldn’t look me in the eye when I arrived, announcing that he didn’t want to waste his time—if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to see. When I asked him if he would be the one collecting the rent and he said, “Yes,” I said, “I’ll leave now, then, because I don’t want to deal with a racist.” He looked at my face, then into my eyes for the first time. His mouth dropped open and he said with stripped-down surprise, “You are an empath!” This was in no way sarcastic, and as I walked out and off, he and two other men gathered to watch me, still looking utterly confounded, as if they had met a genuine psychic.
These microaggressions occur often. Last week, when I pulled up to my home and a white woman was parked in my driveway, I got out of my car, leaving it in the middle of the street, and said to her sharply, “I need to get in!” She responded, “I will just be a moment,” and more than vexed, I grew inflamed and repeated twice: “Move the car, now!” She became afraid and flustered, immediately jumping into her car, as if I couldn’t have been more unreasonable and aggressive.
Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out—
To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting—
When I don’t say something, I take in even further this thing I don’t want. So, yes, I do have a sharp temper from these accumulations that can go off without warning. But I also have the opposite: an overwhelming feeling of warmth and love when dealing with a stranger who is kind. I am very often told by strangers that I have “good energy,” and I think it’s likely because I’m overcome with gratitude for any everyday kind of decency.
You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.
This passage from Citizen is marked with stars in my copy, and I hadn’t even noticed that it was also the passage on the back cover of the book, since I oddly tend not to read the back cover till I’m done with a book. Even while I deal with these plaguing shadows that arouse the worst in my temper, I still have an unceasing optimism about life that overrides. Even in the midst of a world where misery and corruption seem to endlessly collide, I believe in the increments of progress in humanity. And so I tell myself to remember the future. I have been working toward a truth that James Baldwin describes in The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.•
Join us on April 201 at 5 p.m., when Rankine will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman to discuss Citizen: An American Lyric. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversationhere.