The Black Hood of Citizen

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book of prose poetry in which many read as narrative essays and poetic memoirs. Rankine has a powerful style in which she conveys a heavy message about racism with a quick punch of one to two lines. The images interspersed throughout the book serve to add to Rankine’s content instead of distract.

Simply looking at the front cover image, a black hood, brings forth multiple messages about race and personhood. First, Zora Neale Hurston said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and there is word art of this quote in the book. The black hood stands out against a white background symbolizing how a black person feels most black when put against a crowd of white people. The black hood is singular, conveying the isolation felt by people subjected to racism. The black hood is empty showing how a black person is invisible. It is a hood that has the negative connotation of an uneducated, dangerous gangster. All of these topics are encapsulated by the image of the black hood and Rankine explores them in Citizen.

Rankine’s situation videos are among her most breathtaking work because of the layering of images, colors, sound effects, her voice, and her words. In Rankine’s situation video “Stop-and-Frisk,” a couple of young black boys are trying on hoodies in a clothing store. Police sirens pulse in the background, creating a sense of emergency, but the scene playing out is mundane, teenagers shopping for clothes. The police car lights flare and block out the boys’ faces representing how black people are not seen as people. Throughout Rankine repeats the line “And you are not the guy, but still you fit the description. Because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” There is the tension of the questions will these boys shoplift? And implicit in that question is race with the prejudice that some people “look” more likely to steal. The scene ends with the boys paying for their items and walking out of the store and into the possibility of fitting the description.

America as Hughe’s Hope

Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” works through three stories, the poor white man, the black man, and the immigrant, to address class, race, and borders. The American Dream is more than the house with a white picket fence, two kids, and a dog, which has been tossed aside as implausible. The American Dream is a search for a land that is safe from turmoil inside and outside. This Dream is not particular to Americans or even the human race, but all living beings. A desire for the ability to live and prosper.

America is “Tangled in that ancient endless chain/ Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!” The poor, the black, and the immigrant are divisions created by the exploiters to divide and conquer all. The problems of America are ultimately from greed. Of taking more than you need, more than you could ever use, for the sake of power, at the expense of other people. Of not seeing people as people, but animals to be taken advantage of.

Even though America has not been the land of the free, to Hughes America embodies the hope that one day it will be, with “The land that never had been yet-/ And yet must be – the land where every man is free.” Even though the American Dream of the white picket fence does not exist, the American Dream of the free and safe home still exists as a driving hope.

America is derived from Amalrich, meaning “work-ruler” (Online Etymology). Is America ruled by the working class or a ruler of the workers?

Hughes’ poem ends as a call to action for we the people to reclaim America from “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies.” Will America remain in the trope of “Gold, Glory, and God” or become a land of the free?

Between the World and Me Review

Ta-Nehisi Coates framed his non-fiction book Between the World and Me as a long letter to his son. Besides being non-fiction, this letter format gives the novel a personal tone, especially as it is addressed to a loved one. At first, I was uncomfortable with this level of intimacy because I felt like I was prying into another person’s life. At the same time, being first confronted with the straightforward salutation of “Son” I felt distanced because I am not a man and I am not family. As I was reading, I realized that “Son” is not simply Coates’ own son, who is not named until page 68, about half way through the book. “Son” is an address to all black men. It is Coates, a middle-aged black man, speaking to the new black generation about what it was like for him to live as a black body in America and how black bodies are still in danger.

Between the World and Me is gendered because it is written by a father to his son. Although gender does not fall under the scope of the novel, Coates recognizes it.
“The girl from Chicago understood this too, and she understood something more — that all are not equally robbed of their bodies, that the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know” (65).

The photographs are beautiful and give a raw human quality of a scrapbook or journal that I do not think could be wholly achieved through text alone. In the photos, you see Coates and his family and friends which makes his narrative concrete in a way that bypasses the inherent construct of text.

While the focus of Between the World and Me is race, there is a greater human idea of what the American Dream means and how it influences people, both the oppressors and the oppressed.

My favorite passage from Between the World and Me:
“The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror he outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. It was beginning to occur to me to question the logic of the claim itself. I had forgotten my own self-interrogations pushed upon me by my mother, or rather I had not yet apprehended their deeper, lifelong meaning. I was only beginning to learn to be wary of my own humanity, of my own hurt and anger—I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble” (50).