Has it really been nearly 20 years since I moved back to Canada from the United States? I read this short mixed genre book (poetry/essay) by Claudia Rankine and I feel thrown back into this not so distant past… From the stories she tells, the anger and frustration she portrays, and the experiences of discrimination she relates, little seems to have change in that culture. With all the talk to civil rights, equality, freedom and empowerment that were predominant in the early 90s, with the election of a black president, with increase visible diversity in the US population (more diversity and less “melting pot”), one would think some progress has been made. Yes, I watch the news, and see the stories about racial incidents, but I was still surprised that what I felt from the book is the same I felt encountering some aspects of American culture way back then.
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her say something – both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she? The man behind the register returns you card and places the sandwich and Pelligrino in a bag, which you take from the counter. What is wrong with you? This question gets stuck in your dreams.
She also tells of the kinds of discrimination that the Williams sisters were a victim of in the tennis world, such as wrong line calls, miscalled foot faults, booing from the crowd, as examples of what happens when some people are perceived as outsiders in a particular world.
You are you even before you
grow into understanding you
are not anyone, worthless,
not worth you.
Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.
The book also features artwork, a lot of it angry and dark, in search of belonging in a society that still denies some of its citizens full citizenship. We need to get the picture from a variety of sources, and art as well as news coverage to understand what is changing, or not, in the world around us.
Rankine, Claudia, Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2014.