“Every day I think about where I came from, and I am still proud of who I am”
—Claudia Rankine- Citizen: An American Lyric
As we celebrated this country’s Independence Day on July 4th last week, I thought about those of us who feel less and less connected to the flag and our own sense of freedom. We at CREAD acknowledge and celebrate Juneteenth. I am hyper aware of the fact that the 4th of July is something that I cannot fully buy into with the exception of crashing a cookout or watching the fireworks.
In her brutally and beautifully honest book of poetry, Citizen An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine explains what citizenship feels like for Black people in this country. She puts her foot in this work and every word on the page can be used to justify reparations (I’m just sayin.’)
To be a citizen in this country means to have all of the rights, respect and privileges that come with that status. But does it really mean that for errbody? I’ll let you be the judge after you read this.
Being a black citizen means… being paranoid.
Rankine highlights the extreme pressure that Blacks are put under to disprove racial stereotypes.
She put me on to this new term that I was unaware of prior to reading the book as she states, “you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term- John Henryism- for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.”
I have suffered from this, whether diagnosed or not and I know many people of color who respond to the world similarly. The old saying, “you have to work twice as hard for half the recognition” is something that all black and brown people have heard multiple times in our lives. We are always trying to counter the narrative that we are lazy and incompetent and in need of fixing so we have tried to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps even when we didn’t always have boots.
I remember being in college and missing three days of class in 4 years, never asking for an extension on a paper or assignment and always being the first one to submit my portion of a group project. I never wanted to be the one blamed for a grade reduction because my work ethic was not just a reflection on me but on any and every Black person who would come after me.
This is not new rhetoric for Black people. We are always concerned about recommending other people of color for positions because if they’re late one time, we are afraid that that lateness will cause all of us to be investigated. We have an unhealthy amount of paranoia because for us there’s no such thing as being too paranoid.
Being a black citizen means…you can only get ahead because of handouts.
Rankine shows how Black people’s citizenship is reduced on a daily basis. Black people have to constantly endure petty comments and be reminded that they are incapable of earning their success. Rankine shows how Black people are forced to be composed, keep their cool and keep from hookin’ off on White folks on a regular basis. She shows how a casual conversation about college turns into a “black people are an inconvenience” discussion.
…because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something- she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?- her son wasn’t accepted.
This ain’t the first time a person of color has heard this. I know people who were asked to their faces if they were accepted into a college or position because of a quota or because they got financial aid or because they played sports.
This is White privilege. Institutions of higher learning BELONG to them and not to us and if Blacks are allowed entry into anything prestigious, it is because they got a handout. This constant feeling that we are somehow incapable of gaining anything based on our merit is a constant insult we are confronted with. We then have to decide if we will respond or react. How do you even respond to something like this when these are comments usually made by well-meaning Whites? How do you check someone who may be friendly but at the same time sees you as inferior? (I’m still working on the answer to this.)
Being a black citizen means…ain’t nobody coming to save you.
One of the most powerful parts of the book is Rankine’s return to Hurricane Katrina. As we approach the 12th year since the devastating hurricane claimed so many lives of Black, Brown and poor people, Rankine ensures that America does not forget what happened to its citizens. She compiles some of the testimonies from the people and some of the most heartbreaking comments:
We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us…I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you that no one would come.
Black people alway have a fear that they will be forgotten, erased and history won’t even give them a page in the library. In Black living rooms across the country, we watched the poor response to this national emergency and we knew that the government would have never allowed such a thing to happen to anyone White and middle class. Before Kanye went into the sunken place, he went on national television and said that “Bush does not care about Black people.” Kanye was our hero for telling the truth. We figured out a long time ago that Black people’s deaths can’t matter because their lives never have.
Being a black citizen means…black heroes ain’t even sacred.
Not to be stereotypical (but I am) but although Black people overall ain’t fans of tennis, we are fans of Venus and Serena Williams! We will tune in if we know the sistahs are playing and when they win, we all have to celebrate, tweet, twerk and wild out. White America knows this and that is why they attack our sheroes. Rankine devotes a considerable section of the book to pointing out all of the ways that America has come for Serena especially when she didn’t send for America. After Serena won two out of three gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, Rankine talks about the way the American media attacked Serena as she celebrated her win:
And there was Serena…Crip-walking all over the most lily-white place in the world…You couldn’t help but shake your head…What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church…What she did was immature and classless.
Reading this, I just wanted to get in a time machine, go back to those haters and hand out a bag full of side eyes and girl byes. The real issue, which they didn’t want to say but might as well have said was- Serena was being too Black. She did the damn thing but as a Black woman in a White space, she was supposed to be humble, smile and shrink. She won for America and even as a winner, she couldn’t get any respect. She C-walked for her hood and maybe that victory dance had nothing to do with America but either way America benefitted from her as it has always benefitted from black people.
Being a black citizen means…still craving acceptance.
While Rankine talks about Serena’s middle finger to America, she also mentions her sister Venus’ need to be embraced by the country. Venus’ words are the words that most Black people want to be able to say:
I know this is not proper tennis etiquette, but this is the first time I’ve ever played here [U.S. Open] that the crowd has been behind me like that. Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the US Open. So I’ve waited my whole career to have this moment and here it is.
Why did Venus have to wait her entire career to be supported by her country? Why don’t White people ever feel un-American? Why do Black people have to be beyond exceptional before they can be acknowledged? Come on bruh. We build, live, die, sacrifice for and defend our country just for our country to ignore, kill, destroy, sacrifice and deny us.
Before I address my educators, I want to share my top three quotes using my sentence starter:
Being a black citizen means…
Because white men can’t,
Police their imagination,
Black people are dying.
…Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition
To my educators, especially my Humanities teachers:
- Given the political climate, ask your students what does it mean to be a citizen. What should citizens expect and based on that definition, would they consider themselves citizens? OR use the prompt in this blog. Being a black/Latino/Asian citizen means…
- They can create graphs and statistics of their responses and their families’ responses so that their communities are heard as well using poll questions relating to citizenship (Math teachers)
- Of course, ACTION!: Based on their findings, how are they going to address their findings and work towards a truly inclusive nation?
- Use this book to begin the conversation. It is a quick read but meaningful and allows for so many interpretations and responses.
Just a lil’ something to nourish your mind.