We are told not to judge books by their covers, though we inevitably do. This is precisely the metaphor Claudia Rankine invokes with the cover of Citizen. The hood of a grey hoodie, isolated from the its garment, shaped around a missing, invisible head, slightly pointy in the back, laid against a white background. This image encapsulates the whole premise of Citizen: the hoodie, that item of clothing so mundane and yet offensive it got Trayvon Martin killed; the symbol of blackness, of black resistance, shaped so it almost resembles the pointed hoods of the KKK, separated from its body, and surrounded by and understood in a white context. A black body invisible, fetishized, torn apart in a white world.
It’s an audacious move to place your book’s thesis, hidden in plain sight, right on the cover. Yet the cover of Citizen is hardly were Claudia Rankine’s audacity ends.
Rankine’s publisher has decided that the book’s genre is “poetry/essay.” Publishers like their neat genre categories and Rankine refuses to play by anybody’s rules but her own. Citizen is emphatically multimedia and multimodal. Its images span from the real to the surreal; it’s language draws from poetry, prose-poetry, narrative, and essay.
As a result, Rankine’s argument is all encompassing. Black life in a white hegemony functions in certain, patterned, doomed ways. The history of bad calls against Serena Williams on the tennis court. Being called pretty “for a black girl.” The media and government response to Hurricane Katrina. The names of the men and women killed by police. All of it is related, part the same problem. Citizen establishes a pattern of systematic, indifferent violence toward black bodies. By the end of her book, Rankine obliterates hope, hope that encounters between white people and black people can have a different outcome, a better outcome.
If there are depths to despair, 2018 has not yet found them. Citizen paints a hopeless world. If it is anything – and its unique multimodal composition emphatically states that it is something and something important — it must serve as a call to action. For white people to recognize their position in their environments. For white people to acknowledge others’ humanity and dignity in every moment in every day. For white people to check and to overcome their fear the dark.
Rankine is clear: it’s on us.
Coming Soon: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan, and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur