The “Isness” of Being Black in America – The Black-American Poetics of Claudia Rankine and……

American Poet Claudia Rankine. Photograph: John Lucas

American Poet Claudia Rankine. Photograph: John Lucas















In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised. Oh my God, I didn’t see you. You must be in a hurry, you offer. No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

Claudia Rankine, from Citizen: An American Lyric, Graywolf Press, 2014

Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation. Because you will spend the next two hours around the round table that makes conversing easier, you consider waiting a few minutes before entering the room.

Claudia Rankine from Citizen: An American Lyric, ibid

from In Two Seconds

I believe it is part of the work
of poetry to try on at least
the moment and skin of another,

Mark Doty, from American Poetry Review May/June 2015

Poetry is an issness not an aboutness, says American poet B.H. (Pete) Fairchild. What does he mean? It means a poem re-creates the experience in lyric, in narrative, the writer was experiencing so the reader might have the same experience; feel it, not just hear about it.

Well, for me, to read Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine’s award-winning 2014 poetic, and illustrated, expose on being black in America, is to live inside an isness of being black, to feel it, each slight, each insult; and worse. to  feel the anger her words make me feel. She, a black American poet,  put me, a privileged white person, smack inside a feeling of being black in America and it felt lousy! It sucked. It is not my experience. Period.

Another poet, dare I say, the white American poet,  Mark Doty, captures the isness of this in his searing poem In Two Seconds, based on the life and death of 12 year old Tamir Rice, killed in a playground by a white policeman last year. I first heard Doty read this poem this past January in Key West, Florida. It was a knockout poem. It slapped me inside the skin of Tamir Rice before I knew what hit me. Part of the work of poetry as Doty says in the epigraph above. To read In Two Seconds click here.

In the past few years  the cost, the reality, of being black in America, is being shot out as names in headlines and hashtags like gunfire. These names and many more: Clementa Pickney, Trayvon Martin,  Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner and Jonathan Sanders. In this grim context Doty’s poem and especially Rankine’s poems in Citizen (most of them written in prose form) are more than timely, they are vital, necessary fierce grace, if the isness of being black in America  is to change for the better.

In a recent article in the Guardian a writer said this of Rankine and Citizen:

Claudia Rankine’s book may or may not be poetry – the question becomes insignificant as one reads on. Her achievement is to have created a bold work that occupies its own space powerfully, an unsettled hybrid – her writing on the hard shoulder of prose. She eavesdrops on America and a racism that has never gone away.

Rankine may not be a household name yet but her profile has exploded into prominence since Citizen was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry last Fall (2014) and won the National Book Critics Circle Award this past Spring (2015).

Just last week, her interview with the black American tennis superstar, Serena Williams, who features prominently in Citizen, appeared in the New York Times Magazine. To read the article click here. And just a month before, her article – The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning  – written in response to the Charleston church shootings (massacre) was also featured in the NYT Times Magazine. To read that article (please do read it) click here. For a recent interview in U.K.-based BuzzFeed click here.

I have been a reading a lot of poems by black Americans lately and feel a vitality in it that yanks me in. Something compelling. I am thinking of poems by Rankine, of course, but also Terrance Hayes, Patricia Smith, Jericho Brown, Roger Reeves, Tim Seibles, Carl Phillips, Lucille Clifton, Ai, Natasha Trethewey, Kwame Dawes, Lauren Alleyne and many others. If I was knowledgeable about hip-hop and rap this list would be even longer!

A comment  in the May/June American Poetry Review put my interest in black American poets in a new perspective. Or, at least, confirmed something I was thinking but wasn’t sure how to put into words. In a conversation in a column with Arielle Greenberg, Joy Katz,  American poet and art activist, said this about black poetry:

I was talking with poet Charles Legere about [Fred] Moten [black American poet], Charlie feels that because black poetry doesn’t put up a facade of contentment, it’s taking us to a place that really vital right now. I feel the same. I’m getting into a thorny area here, because I don’t want to essentialize black poetry, and no one has a monopoly on emotionally checked-out poetry, either. But I do perceive that a certain risk-free, affectless American poem seems most often to be by a white poet. And the work I find to be most alive, that I keep picking up and rereading, that has urgency, is so often by poets of colour.

What hit home for me most in her comment was: And the work I find to be most alive, that I keep picking up and rereading, that has urgency, is so often by poets of colour. This , too, has been my experience. The emotional urgency. And where, does it come from? This gets tricky. But it seems that suffering, the history of black racial suffering in America,  might have something to do with it, the way it makes black poets present, but more, the turning that suffering into rhythm and rhyme. Giving it lyric voice in emotionally intimate poems of praise and lament, joy and sorrow.

I too, don’t want to essentialize black American poetry. Suffering knows no colour, gender or racial boundaries. I am thinking of Mark Doty and Marie Howe, both exceptional white American poets with a huge urgency in their poems, particularly their poems of witness to the death of loved ones in the AIDS epidemic. But there is something in the black American experience that has created a poetry of raw vitality and urgency which inspires me to live louder and larger. And to be more aware of racism in all its guises. In me and others.

So much to chose from in black American poetry but here is an excerpt of a poem by Terrance Hayes, two excerpts from poems on the death of Trayvon Martin by Rankine and  new-comer Lauren K. Alleyne ( from Trinidad and Tobago) and a praise poem on the belly by Alleyne.

from  It Can’t Be Good Sitting Around Imagining Your Death:  

Remember when our three year old asked why we weren’t white?

To be black is to blacken a little every day, I should have said.
And how at the end of a life filled with music we all go without singing.

Terrance Hayes from Wind In A Box, Penguin Poets, 2006

from  February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin
Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.

Claudia Rankine,  ibid

Including Alleyne in my post feels like a bit of a cheat since she comes from Trinidad and Tobago but she has lived in the US for many years and now teaches at the University of Dubuque. I heard her read from her debut collection in Seattle last year where she was introduced and hosted by Patricia Smith. Smith says this about her: Lauren Alleyne’s voice is revelatory and formidable fusion of irrepressible music and uncompromising craft.

For Trayvon Martin

That day,  he was thinking
of nothing in particular.
He was quiet in his skin;
tucked into the shade of me,
he was an easy embrace
until an old ancestral fear
lay its white shadow
across us like an omen.

I can tell you his many hairs
raised in warning beneath me;
his armpits funked me up
with terror. His saunter slipped
into a child’s unsteady totter
under the weight of a history
staggering behind him
mad with its own power.

Lauren K. Alleyne from Difficult Fruit, Peepal Tree Press, 2014

Ode to the Belly
After Sharon Olds

You who I grab in disdain, your dark
dough spilling from my hands;
mark of the Buddha and Budweiser
– shame-maker, you. Belly,
you are the dictator of fashion,
demanding loose dresses, roomy
waistbands, rejecting swim suits
that expose. You are what I am measured by,
in your fullness, my lack. You, melon.
You, swallowed, unspinning globe.
In my dreams I am free of you –
I wear bikinis, do back flips, touch my toes;
but then I wake up wanting
to cram the world into my mouth
and let it fill you to bursting.
O, proud belly, you are the life-basket,
bearer of the thousand possible births.
You are birthday cake and wedding
toasts, fistfuls of buttery first-date
joy, you are pints of Dulce le Leche
scooping up the shards of my heart.
You are my father’s bread on Christmas
morning, potatoes slow-cooked in ham fat
marking the New Year’s plenty, you are
American apple pie, border burritos,
curried chicken with the skin on,
and Colonel Sanders’ eleven blessed herbs
and spices. You are each day’s necessary moon,
the house of singing, the cavern of bliss, the price.

Lauren K. Alleyne, ibid

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