Dear Ms. Rankine,
I am reading Citizen amid a whirlwind of a road trip, travelling from Florida all the way up to Wyoming, and everything about this book is apropos to this cross-country trip. Citizen has been the song I’ve had on my mind, this issue of race and perception and silence. It aids in my decision-making processes, like not stopping for the night in small towns in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Alabama. It makes me ultra-sensitive when I enter a Waffle House off the beaten path or take an emergency restroom break at a desolate gas station in southern Illinois.
I am reading most of this book in an affluent town north of Chicago, on a treadmill in an affluent college’s recreation center, and it is dead quiet because no student is up yet on a Saturday at 8am. This quiet crushes me the way Citizen crushes me. It’s a quiet that reflects what the speaker of the poems/essays observes in the culture. It’s the quiet that is contained in the white spaces of the book. In the silence in conversation when a woman bemoans affirmative action. In the silences between the white self and black self or the historical self and the self-self (a very Buddhist construct, by the way). In the silence as the speaker watches tennis. In the silences when the speaker wants to voice her discontent but instead swallows it and sometimes flees. In the collective silence as we try to squash history or invoke rhetoric that insists this country should be devoid of color. In the silences that try to erase memory. As you state, Ms. Rankine: “Memory is a tough place.”
“Feel good. Feel better. Move forward. Let it go.”
And it is this mentality that shapes the country. It is perpetuated day in, day out, and it is this mentality that Citizen is talking back to. Which, in essence, is us. We who are part of this culture, part of this country. We who are silent ourselves.
James Baldwin: “Since we live in an age which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can….”
The speaker in Citizen is us. She is me. An observer of culture. A scholar. One enacted upon and one who acts. Ms. Rankine, how you’ve cleaved different aspects of the self, giving us multiple examples of a crumbling culture, from various vantage points. You ask us to chew on these things. And we chew. We keep chewing.
Like me on this treadmill, in this affluent college, in this affluent town absent of color, except for the same Salvation Army bell ringer outside of the Jewel, who is black, who smiles and says Merry Christmas, wishing everyone, those who drop coins into his red bucket and those who do not, a safe holiday.
Thank you, Ms. Rankine, for voicing what needs to be voiced. Thank you for not keeping silent.