So many of us reached a tipping point this past summer with racial tension, innocent death, and the important work of Black Lives Matter. I knew it was time to take more tangible steps toward knowledge and reconciliation. Where does my power live? What is my work to do? As I addressed in a previous post, I recommitted to reading really great stuff, and there is some really great stuff out there right now about race. In addition to work I am doing with youth, my neighborhood, my family and myself, I’m focusing on race in my reading this year. There is so much to learn.
Like my spouse, my son is not a big talker in the morning. He likes to look at the cereal box, stare off into space, sing, get his bearings. One morning, after he had requested Raffi music and his fourth bowl of Rice Krispies, I picked up Citizen: An American Lyric. Well into it, I was reading an especially poignant passage about Rodney King when Simon interrupted me with a Raffi lyric, “Momma, plumbs twiddling thumbs! Funny!”
“Yes, baby. Isn’t that silly? The plumbs were twiddling their thumbs!” I smiled, connected with him, and then he went back to his Raffi and Rice Krispies and I went back to Rodney King. When I decided to read about race this year, I pictured myself pouring over these books slowly with an open notebook and ready highlighter for hours at a time. Reality looks like chipping away between joyful bouts of playing. This is where my life is. Embracing the juxtaposition. It’s better than waiting for the perfect time and never reading these books at all. The work is too important to wait. Look for some posts from my year of race reading, starting here and now with Citizen.
What did you say?
Claudia Rankine’s repetition of the phrase, “What did you say?” in Citizen is hauntingly effective. She conveys the taste and aftertaste of the daily, real-life micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions she is forced to ingest and reluctantly absorb as a woman of color in the United States. “You take in things you don’t want to all the time,” she writes. “You will go to the gym and run in place, an entire hour running, just you and your body running off each undesired encounter.”
Did you just say that?
With her brilliant, lyrical, poetic prose, Rankine crafts stories heavy with disgust, dripping with ignorance. Everything—the piercing word choice, the thick, glossy paper, the chant-like repetition, the clean black font, the intriguing artistic visuals peppered throughout—works together in this highly artistic multi-media piece of truth.
What do you mean?
It is a book about bodies. About how exhausting it is to absorb discrimination. Our bodies are not created to expect hatred. Every small offense is a bit surprising, unnerving, and dehumanizing. It gathers, simmers, percolates. Time and bodies and context store hatred up. It is the white man who creates the black man, she says. Racism is when randomly the rules don’t apply to you. It stops her body short.
Aloud. You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Our bodies have memory. “The physical body hauls more than weight.” The moments build, find space, take up residence. The past has turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Women like Serena Williams are expected to act more white, to calm down, not react to the career of built up offenses. They do until they don’t, until it is too heavy.
Hold up, did you just see, did you just do that?
I did not expect to find myself in the book, but the embodied female in me was there somewhere. I’ve been told to calm down, to choose another tone in voice, to not let the offenses build up in me. But my body is a cupboard for the past. I can talk about bodies and memories and micro-aggressions. I was not created to be second-class. It is surprising every time. Sexism, too, can feel like randomly the rules don’t apply to me.
There is only one guy who is always the guy who fits the description.
I am equating experiences. My family chose to be here. I do not fear for my son. “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.” For the time it took me to devour her work, I too, took things in that I didn’t want to. She asked me to really witness moments that she experiences as a woman of color. I did. Then, I put the book down. My body is changed. There is work to do.