Citizen as a book of Twitter Poetry

Rankine’s Citizen provided challenges for me, as someone who is not as familiar with poetry, but what was particularly interesting to me was Rankine’s use of images on the page. These visual breaks on the page seemed to reflect the experience of the speaker, in which these situations are interruptions of her lived experience in sudden and unexpected ways. What I mean by this is I could not find a pattern to when Rankine placed images on the page, nor could I always figure out why she placed a particular image between particular poems. However, this I interpreted to mean that the visual breaking up of text is a reflection of the breaking of the speaker’s experience from one of being to one of being written upon. In the same way that the speaker experienced these encounters with her friends and colleagues, who either gave “well-meaning advice” or tried including them in their racism, the reader of this book encounters these disruptions of the reading experience with visual representations. There was also the use of stills in the poems paired with the situation videos, which was another interesting use of translating movement and moving media onto the unmoving pages of a book.

This also seemed quite interesting from the perspective of someone who is active on social media, as it seemed reminiscent of black use of social media, in particular twitter. Black twitter’s use of pictures and gifs to accompany the text they have written to express a full range of emotion seems reflected here in Rankine’s book. It is also interesting to see how a very versatile, mobile medium is expressed on the static page of a book. In other words, twitter provides active discourse and actual movement (with the use of gifs, for example), which Rankine, who is using a printed book, is limited by what a page can display. The formatting of the poems on the page also seemed to me to be reminiscent of the twitter display, as viewing the tweets on a phone screen reflects the set up of Rankine’s poems. It is a rectangle of text on the upper half of the page (or screen) which may or may not be accompanied by images and which is often without a title (and often even without the space for a title). The book, then, uses a very visual medium that is recognized as a black space for communication and translates it to print.

Non-standard English and the Blank Page

What was particularly interesting for me about Brathwaite was idea behind the project of capturing sound on the page. Now, as someone who has mostly grown up with access to computers it is not as strange to me to think of translating non-standard English from sound to writing. It’s still complicated, and incredibly difficult, but it was not something that occurred to me as a huge problem. However, upon reading the Brathwaite and Kirschenbaum, and seeing Brathwaite’s poems, the plurality of this issue became clear to me. It’s quite fascinating how Brathwaite captures rhythm and dialect on the page, but when it was read in class it did not read as smoothly as one might have expected. This issue of oral to written to oral again piqued my interest.

The problem, then, spans several levels. One is that of authenticity, and here I think in particular of Chesnutt and his use of the black voice to be “authentic” (though he is, of course, only one of many). Capturing dialect on the page can be distorted and abused in many ways, particularly as English is such a tool of empire and any English that deviates from the “standard” or “proper” form is seen as inferior. To capture dialect on the page, then, could be seen as offensive given that the author felt the need to portray the character’s “broken English” on the page. As often happens, the dialect on the page does not accurately reflect how a person of that background might speak and ends up being a mangled, caricature-esque representation of what that dialect was actually like. It also make the text incredibly difficult to understand, as the author often mangles English so much to create a brokenness on the page that it no longer becomes legible, which leads to the impression that non-standard dialects of English, even in the spoken form, are unintelligible to the speaker and writer of standard English.

Another level is that of truth. If it is someone who actually speaks a certain dialect of English, then it makes for a more nuanced representation of what that form of English is like, as Brathwaite does for Caribbean English. As a speaker of that form of English, he understands the conventions of it and does not mangle, in the same way a white or non-Caribbean author word, the dialect itself. For prescriptivists, he could be mangling the English language, but he is staying true to the dialect.

But then there is the question of whether or not dialect should even be presented on the page. On one hand, to not show dialect on the page and merely say the character had a dialect would allow the reader to forget that the character speaks a different form of English. On the other hand, to show the “broken” qualities of non-standard English would be to improperly represent this form of English. It then begs the question of whether it is worse to have representation, if it is of poor quality, or to not have any representation at all. A solution to this, though it has its drawbacks, is to allow authors from underrepresented communities write the stories, rather than those who are white, but it unfairly puts all the work on the shoulders of minority authors. There is no easy solution to this, but it is a problem I find interesting nonetheless.

Should Bigger Have Been Innocent?

The answer (for me) is yes, Bigger should’ve been innocent. The reason why the novel didn’t resonate as much with me was because of the fact that Bigger was actually guilty. I understand that the novel is supposed to show how it is society’s fault that Bigger ended up in the position of killing two women, however, I think the injustice of the system shows more efficiently if Bigger is innocent. That’s not to say that Bigger’s worth is lessened because he committed those crimes, but it feels like protesting the system when you’re actually guilty just seems less efficient. It would also be more effective because it’s the reality. Black men are far more likely to be incarcerated regardless of their innocence, and perhaps, arguably, in spite of it. A black man is afforded less doubt when it comes to the crimes he has allegedly committed. It is true that Wright was trying to draw attention to how the system is flawed and how exactly it is rigged against black men, but it seemed to fall flat given that Bigger actually committed the crimes he was accused of. Not only was Bigger guilty, but the crimes were incredibly violent. It wasn’t just that he’d murdered two women, but also that he’d hacked one to pieces to hide her body and he raped the other. These were extremely violent, extremely graphic crimes, and it just felt like trying to protest the system with a character as flawed as Bigger just didn’t work. Bigger was also too flawed; to protest the system it wasn’t necessary to have a perfect character, a saintly martyr, but I felt that Bigger was too far on the other side of the spectrum.

Perhaps I am also clouded by the perspective of someone living in 2018. There is far more focus on the Prison Industrial Complex, as well as the brutal killings of black men at the hands of the police. Black men are assumed guilty even when proven innocent. Therefore the discourse surrounding Bigger in the novel seems untrue. It is not entirely that Jan and Max are trying to prove that Bigger is innocent, but they are absolving him of the responsibility of having committed the crime and placing the blame on the system. Now, I’m not arguing that the system wasn’t against Bigger, because it was and is, but Bigger, especially in the rape and murder of Bessie, was the sole agent in brutalizing this woman. Bessie’s assumption that the system, that people will assume Bigger raped Mary before killing her is actually proven true because Bigger raped and killed Bessie. That is to say, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Bigger did not have to rape and kill Bessie. Mary’s death was an accident, but the brutalization of Bessie was not. It is this brutal treatment of women, this incredible violence which makes me believe that Bigger is not as effective as Wright wants him to be as proof that the system is prejudiced against black men.

Blog 4: Brathwaite and Noise

In “Nation Language” Edward Kamau Brathwaite explains the many languages that came about when Africans were imported into the Caribbean. Brathwaite talks about nation language, which is “the submerged area of that dialect which is…closely allied to the African aspect of the experience in the Caribbean” (311). Nation languages are total expression, part of that means that sound is very important. Brathwaite explains,
It is based as much on sound as it is on song. That is to say, the noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise, shall I say) then you lose part of the meaning. When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning (311).

  Carribbean writers use sound and noise because that is what encompasses their nation language and speaks to their oral traditions. Their writing is not flat, rather their words are almost 3D. Total expression is what Brathwaite considers to be part of the nation language.

The sound and noise that Brathwaite talks about in “Nation Language” can be directly seen in his poem “X/Self’s Xth Letters from the Thirteen Provinces.” He writes,

it have key
board &
evva
ting, like dat ole
remmington yu have pun top de war. drobe up there ketchin duss
only dis one yu na ave to benn down over & out
off de mistake dem wid white liquid paper. de papyrus

ribbed & soff
before it dei up flakey &
crink. Like yu was paintin yu house (80)

It is important as an English reader to take the poem and the words for what they are and not try to translate them. For example, when I first read “yu have pun top de war. drobe up there,” in my head I translated it as “you have to put it on top of the wardrobe up there.” I did this in order to draw meaning from the line. However I understand that this is a language where, like Brathwaite says in “Nation Language,” the meaning comes from the sounds, syllables and noise. Thus translating it would lose that. There are no capitalized letters in his poem. If it was intended to be spoken, which it was, there is no need for capitalization. Every line break is intentional because it adds a breath or pause, which is a sound. For example, “it have key/ board,” sounds very different from “it have key board.” The line break adds a break in the speech pattern. The poem in general is noise and sound. Brathwaite writes, “Only dis one yu na ave to benn down over & out” and “ribbed & soff.” There are syllables and stress patterns, such as “dis,” “yu,” “na,” “to,” “over,” and “ribbed.” All the stress sounds change up the rhythm in unexpected ways. The words are not flat and on the same tone line. They rise and fall and have power in the many rhythms of the language.

Blog 4: Claudia Rankine & bell hooks

“Killing Rage: Ending Racism” by bell hooks is a collection of 22 essays which opening and provocatively addresses blatant racism in American society. The essays discuss how black women have questioned feminism because the recognition of race is always absent — feminism has a tendency to leave out black women while simultaneously put white women against black women.

Rather than writing about black rage on scrap papers and forcing herself to swallow her anger and frustration as hooks does, Rankine transforms that emotion into a passionate work of poetry.  We have talked extensively in class about the text as a lyric, a classically white art form. Knowing she was probably writing for a predominantly white audience, Rankine knew she couldn’t write something provocative and angry, and have it translate in the way that she wants. [This, of course, speaks to the censorship of black writing.] Rather than writing a series of essays embellishing the one-sentence stories she tells, she keeps it short and simple. The simplicity of the writing, combined with the beauty of the lyric, keeping the white reader engaged. The sophistication of the writing style also allows the white reader to feel like Rankine is at the top of her intelligence.

One particular essay in hooks’s “Killing Rage,” entilted, “Militant Resistance” tells the story of hooks and her friend, K, and their experience with a racist stewardess on a flight. Despite the fact that the airline mis-printed K’s boarding pass to say the wrong seat, the stewardess was outraged at the idea of a black woman accidentally sitting in a white man’s seat. The white man apologized for the situation, after K was humiliated in front of the entire plane, but bell hooks wasn’t having it:

“In no uncertain terms I let him know that he had an opportunity to not be complicit with the racism and sexism that is all so pervasive in this society (that he knew no white man would have been called out on the loudspeaker to come to the front of the plane while another white male took his seat — a fact that he never disputed)” (1).

hooks created the title of her essays — “Killing Rage” — from this moment with the white man, as she proceeded to sit next to him on the plane. She goes on to explain that black rage is filled with the white stereotype of what it means for a black person to be mad. How when a black person expresses any sort of anger or emotion, they are immediately honoring what the white person wants her to be, an angry black woman. Historically, hooks continues, “we learned when we were very little that black people could die from feeling rage and expressing it to the wrong white folks” (2).

Rankine speaks to a similar moment in “Citizen” as well, as she talks of the men she encounters in public spaces, like on the train, bus, plane:

“You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.

 

You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you” (131).

This is a near identical moment when Rankine is forced to ‘kill her rage’ in order to preserve the ounce of patience she has left. Rather than writing “KILLING RAGE” on a piece of paper and intentionally placing it on your lap so it is on display, Rankine remains quiet and repressed. Rankine goes on to speak of the woman with her family, who asks the man to move for the sake of keeping her family together. While Rankine doesn’t say whether the woman (and family) is black or white, Rankine makes the mental note to ensure the family stay together, regardless of the man’s thought or action.  

Rather than expressing emotions, black people are taught to repress their emotions — hooks explains that this is easy considering the existence of separate neighborhoods, in which black people do not always have to face white supremacy. hooks talks about her struggles with her own rage, how her rage is a signifier of being a marked woman. At the end of the essay, hooks concludes: “Progressive black activists must show how we take that rage and move it beyond fruitless scapegoating of any group, linking it instead to a passion for freedom and justice that illuminates, heals, and makes redemptive struggle possible” (4).

Rankine’s “Citizen” does just that.

Blog 5: Kirschenbaum, inscription and content

Blog 5:

To Matthew G Kirschenbaum in “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” technical advances inevitably lead to writer’s playing around with tools such as word process. Writers, who write to keep their memories alive, start to overwrite, focusing on substance rather than style. There is a link between the medium of inscription and a writer’s ability to elevate their style.

Writers write to keep their memories alive or to store memories onto a page, even if they are writing a novel or a short story. It was inevitable then that writers began to play around with word process for their own gains. Kirschenbaum says, “writers spending so much time with a keyboard and mouse beneath their fingertips and the glowing pixels of a screen angled in front of their eyes, it was inevitable that they would begin exploring and exploiting word processing technology in their own literary language and technique” (185). Word process became a tool for writers to experiment on, play around with language and also to work fast, speeding up the writing process so much so that overwriting began to occur.

As a result of word process, writers began to overwrite. There is so much information that is available on the web, which, “encourages authors to overwrite because it is so easy for them to continue revising and embellishing their prose. The availability of thesauri…and…the Web itself-—with
the potential for uncovering extraneous detail lurking behind every search box—… exacerbates these tendencies” (188). Writing became efficient. There was also easy access to endless amounts of word choices and material for writing. Overwriting is part of the nature of living in a digital age. There are many literary texts, movies, and music albums that would not be so without technical advances.

However, overwriting encourages writers to focus on substance rather than style. Kirschenbaum describes a writer named Tengo, who decided to use word processor but intentionally writer for style rather than substance. He writes that, “Tengo soon finds that his efforts have more than doubled the length of the text” (193). In this example Kirschenbaum shows that there is a link between the medium of inscription and a writer’s ability to elevate their style. Tengo was able to because he intentionally sought out to use word process to elevate his writing, rather than overwrite and focus on content. Kirschenbaum teaches us that different technological advances have upsides and downsides. It is up to us to use them to or our own personal gains.

Blog 4: Who, you?

Claudia Rankine starts “Citizen” with a notion of shutting down:

“When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor” (5).

Rankine starts with placing the reader in this pre-life, pre-movement state. She asks the reader to be free of distraction, allowing the reader to be fully invested in her imagination. Being “stacked among your pillows” transports the reader back to childhood, and the use of the word “nestled” shows the comfort and security of being detached from the outside world and lost in the reminiscing of the past. The “empty” “house” shows the solitude and silence of being lost in your own thoughts — the quietness of a daydream. Zoning out. One notices that “the moon is missing,” which shows how one can be so detached that she is invested in the placement and visibility of the moon, something that she wouldn’t have otherwise recognized. Rankine transports the reader back to a time when she would build forts with pillows and blankets, and get lost in the moon and the clouds — this sort-of childlike, imaginary space. This is a moment in one’s life when everything is pure, untainted; a time when racism isn’t a word or metaphor. A place where there is merely “you.”

Rankine intentionally uses the pronoun “you” to place the reader in her place, while simultaneously distancing herself from the reader. The functionality of the pronouns complicates the text, creating a push/pull mechanic throughout the text. The “you” also serves as a double consciousness because it asks the question of ‘who is “you”?’ It was mentioned in class that the “you” could possible serve in relation to the public and the private, the personal and the political.

Rankine knows that her readers will find conflict or confusion with the use of the word “you”:

“A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with full force fo your American positioning. … Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant” (14).

Rankine is showing how there are layers to “you.” There is the present day “you” and the historical “you.” In this passage, she is showing how race is naturally a part of the historical “you” given both its consistency [consistency: in terms of the text, one’s race is at the core of all conflict] and its longevity [longevity: one cannot escape from race]. Because of this, the historical “you” will always be before now, and therefore plays a bigger role than the present “you.” It seems the “self self” for Rankine is the present-day “self” that transports us through the text — the self that deals with color blind white friends, filled with deeply personal ‘I can’t believe that just happened’ moments. While the text is meant to invoke that exact response from the reader [‘I can’t believe that just happened’], it simultaneously forces the “you” to move from the private self into the public self. In doing so, one is further distanced from the “historical self.”

The use of the imagery of the “devices” in the first passage also forces the “you” to become public — using “devices” immediately connects “you” with the public, the “self self.”The comfort of being “nestled” amongst the “stacked pillows” that we saw in the first passage is complete abolished, as we are no longer safe in the comfort of our own thoughts and imagination.

Bigger, racism, and sexuality

In Native Son, Richard Wright overly sexualizes the character of Bigger. Wright ties Bigger’s overt sexuality with his identity as young black man. To Wright, sexuality and race for black men are not separate. Bigger is overly sexual because he is a black man. In turn, Bigger commits violent acts. The book sheds light onto Bigger’s violent acts, rather than on the violent systems of white supremacy and racism.

Bigger’s name is the first suggestion that his character is overtly sexual. “Bigger” implies that a certain part of his body, his phallus, is big. His name is not “Big” but his name is “Bigger. He is not and will never be “big” enough. He always needs to be “bigger,” both in his physical traits and in his personhood. In the book, Bigger is accused of raping Mary. That passage can be read as consensual sex, however the supposed rape shows that Bigger’s sexuality cannot be contained and it is violently forced upon white women.

In one scene, Bigger and Gus are playing white and Bigger is portrayed by Wright as overtly sexual, which is shown through the fact that he is a black man. At one moment, Bigger says, “You know where the white folks live,” then he “doubled down his fist and struck his solar plexus” and says, “Right down here in my stomach’” (22). After trying to come up with a different explanation for what Bigger said, I keep coming back to my original reasoning. Bigger in this instance is taking on a women’s role as a giver of life. Not only is he a man with a “big” phallus, but he is able to grow and hold life in his stomach. This portrays Bigger as child-like and innocent to the actual laws if science. Also he is innocent to the laws of society which were made by white folks, who don’t see him as child-like and innocent but rather as a threat. Bigger’s body is a sexual vessel that is so because of his blackness. “Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em,” he says. “Naw; it ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s… Its like I was going to do something I can’t help” (23). This foreshadows Mary’s rape.

It is unfortunate that Wright overly sexualized the character of Bigger. Because of the violence that comes out of Bigger being overtly sexual, it is hard to read this book seeing Bigger as an innocent young black men who got caught in the many webs of racism and white supremacy. I know he is a victim of the system. However, I don’t think Bigger would be the same character if he wasn’t for his overt sexuality. Since Wright thinks that blackness and sexuality are intertwined, it would be a different book entirely if Bigger’s blackness were separate from his sexuality. Bigger might not even be a sexual character. Mary’s rape may not have happened, which is the main event that propels the novel forward. It is important to note that Bigger is not the violent being in this book. White people and the systems of racism and white supremacy are. Bigger commits a violent act because of the violence that is being acted onto him, that is racism. I don’t think that blackness and sexuality have to be separate. But both can be harmoniously intertwined where a black person has ownership of their sexuality and blackness, and it not a pawn in Wright’s chess game, or a spider in white supremacy and racism’s web.