Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

I know a person of Irish descent who tells me they have experienced varying levels of petty prejudice throughout their life but that it comes and goes. That person is white. I know a person of Jewish descent who tells me they have experienced petty prejudices at varying time in their life but that it comes and goes. They are white. Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I get the distinct impression that for Black people living in predominantly European societies, the prejudice never really stops because they are always, first and foremost, in the eyes of the European, Black.

I can’t say I enjoyed this work of prose-poetry. In fact, I found it damn frustrating in large parts. I would not readily recommend it. I would sooner point someone in the direction of Malcolm X. Citizen is just too tortured to be readily absorbed. Of course, not everything of worth has to be easy. Far from it. And if you preserve with this work the central theme is clear enough. The slights that Black people experience, both real and imagined, both personal and general, are absolutely real and they are ubiquitous, and they are never-ending. Every state sanctioned beating is a beating that every Black person feels blow by blow Every racial injustice committed, large or small, is committed on the entire Afro-American diaspora.

All European society and every citizen of European origin is weighed down by a terrible largely unspoken truth. It is a toxic truth that poisons everything it touches. It infects every interaction between white society and the Afro American community. That this should be so is entirely predictable. Europe’s wealth is Africa’s poverty. Europe’s pre-eminence is Africa’s destitution. European arrogance is Africa’s humiliation. Nothing is said directly but this uneven, colonial relationship permeates every human transaction; social, economic, political. In short, Europe’s rise to the top was built on a mountain of black corpses. It’s an ongoing genocide and an ongoing slavery.

But the ugly truth is even uglier. The European elites are still at it. Today, every day and everywhere. Colonial and post-colonial policies in Africa and a viscous silent repression in the European heartlands. Segregation, incarceration and wholesale judicial state murder. The deprivation, the hopelessness, the petty crime, the ghettos and of course the drugs all reminders of an unfinished slavery. Little wonder every innocent interaction between black and white feels awkward. It damn well ought to. And it permeates every socio-economic class.

The brutal historical truth is shocking. To justify the colonial empires and the genocide and slavery that went with it, a carefully constructed racism was unleashed on every European citizen. It was a poison so powerful that even the most ideologically aware European citizen today must labour continually to rid themselves of the pernicious toxin of racial superiority. It’s as good as in our collective DNA. And everything is still unresolved. The elites specialise in the age old tactic of divide and rule and we humans seem to fall for it every time.

Slavery of the mind as well as the body. Slavery by language as well as chains. Malcolm X confronted it. James Baldwin confronted it. Angela Davis confronted it. Linton Kwesi Johnson confronted it. Peter Tosh confronted it. I suspect some modern-day US rappers are trying to confront it. Dylan got mighty close with his Only a Pawn in Their Game. Claudia Rankine is clearly trying to confront this omniscient but unspoken reality in her own unique way.

Is it uniquely a Black/ White issue? I think not. History repeatedly throws up grim after grim examples of tribe against tribe, nation against nation, religion against religion and ultimately god against god. No culture seems to be immune. It’s as depressing as it is pathetic, but that is where we are. There can be no escaping into some idealised fantasy world. We are all, it seems, still locked into a primitive tribalism and the only thing to do is to lay it all bare. Call it for what it is. Unravel the whole sordid story. Rankine is playing her part. But for me her work is a little too convoluted, a little too theoretical and abstract for my taste. I think I’ll go re-read my Malcolm X collection and try and get myself re-grounded.

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