Privilege Blinders: a reading of Rankine’s “Citizen”

As an introvert, I like to think of myself as someone who sees more than other people do–and by “other people” I mean the extroverts. As a white person, however, it is books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that make me question how much I actually see. And while the early years of college filled me with white guilt after coming from a very white hometown, I see it more now of my blindness being more attributed to privilege than any sort of willful looking-the-other-way.

Still, despite my privilege I do count myself as someone who sees people, unlike the man on page 77 of Citizen, “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.” What struck me most on reading this was the man’s ignorance of his not seeing her as equally–or more–rude as cutting in front of her would be. He confirms her invisibility. And I have seen that. I have been that cashier.

Shortly after this short account is given, the book transitions into a series of prose-poems that are titled after the dates and names of black men involved in controversial crime. Out of the five specific cases, only one involves a white victim, and the white victim wasn’t killed. How close is this ratio to actual statistics? How opposite is this ratio to the white people who assume danger and shudder when their kind is doing most of the shooting?

We have talked about literature giving us knowledge. This book of poetry and essays gives that knowledge; the kind that drags you further out of the hole of ignorance that you have either dug yourself into or were born inside. And not wanting to slip any further back, I googled each of these five dates and the names of the victims, because I didn’t know any of them. And I read the descriptions of the crimes, the timelines of the cases, and the sentences of those accused or acquitted before reading the poetry. I have often prided myself over the fact that I do not have a television in order to have seen the news. But what does it mean when I recognize the name “Ferguson” but none of the ones in this book?

Amidst these entries is a personal account much like the short snippets earlier in the book. Throughout Citizen I had grown accustomed to the second person address and the “you” more often than not identifying as the voice of an anonymous black person. In “Stop-and-Frisk” it begins with an “I” and the “I” voice is pulled over and the “I” voice is told to get out of the car and keep his hands in sight. And here and there are the words, “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” And I don’t know why but it wasn’t until this section’s second page that I realized I had been reading it wrong. I thought the “I” was a white man who had injured or killed the “you” innocent black man thinking the “you” was a criminal, thereby the “I” taking the law into his own hands. I thought the police had pulled over the right person.

When I realized my mistake I went back and read it over, now realizing that the “I” and the “you” are the same–the “you” being the man reflecting to himself. And I read with disgust as the man who was just driving home from work was pulled over, dragged away, and made to walk home from the station. I am by no means completely ignorant of this kind of thing happening, but privilege hides its frequency from me. What can I do to truly see? I cannot scrub this privilege off myself but I have no wish to be blind. What can I do besides simply finishing the rest of this book? As of yet, I don’t know.

Felski: Enchantment & Knowledge

It is easy for Lit majors to turn to each other and readily admit that sometimes the best way to learn about the world is through reading fictional books. Take this to pretty much any other setting and the idea somehow becomes laughable. If fiction is made-up and the mere creative whim of an author, how can it be any source of credible knowledge?

What I think puts this pursuit of knowledge–whether someone is reading for study or for pleasure–on such shaky ground is this imbedded presence of enchantment. Theorist Rita Felski delves into several claims about literature in her book Uses of Literature, among which are both knowledge and enchantment. In a rush of history, theories, and groups of critics left and right that leaves the reader a little baffled, the pervasive idea of the “Enchantment” chapter centers on this “need” of stripping enchantment so that literature becomes credible in studying it. “If enchantment is to be rendered a plausible concept for literary and cultural theory, it needs to be pried away from such romanic-messianic vision and acknowledged as part of modernity rather than antithetical to modernity” (67). Like many other statements in her book, swimming through her text makes it difficult to tell whether Felski is affirming this argument or just giving it for history’s sake.

Still, Felski seems to find enchantment important enough to devote an entire chapter to it. She lists an unbiased(?) definition of enchantment near the beginning, saying it “is characterized by a state of intense involvement, a sense of being so entirely caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter” (54). This response to the appearance of someone having “lost themselves” in a book is not just typical to critics but also teachers, parents, and virtually anyone who demands a reader’s attention. Anyone who has been gripped by a book has felt this and been irritated by it.

Having “lost ourselves” sounds like being too enthralled in a text to make judgments and uphold beliefs and opinions while reading it. But Felski does seem to argue against this idea. “Readers and viewers…are always involved in translating signs into imaginary scenarios, responding to subtle textual cues, filling in the blanks, elaborating and expanding on what a text gives us” (75). Everything else aside, Felski using “us” sounds like she’s more on board with enchantment than her critical peers. And this is what I think adds more weight to how she continues to talk about literature in the next chapter: Knowledge.

Again Felski goes through multiple perspectives, most of which see nothing like credible knowledge to gain from literature. But then she goes into this idea of negative knowledge. While I couldn’t quite get a firm grip of what she means, she does equate negative knowledge to the opposite of mimesis–imitation or mimicry–which appears to be backing up literature as something of worth in and of itself, and not just as a narrative’s adaptation of real life.

She then says that “Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder our sense of how things are” (83). I loved that term “reorder” because it’s true, sometimes literature doesn’t give us new knowledge or facts, but it can reorder how we see the world. So does enchantment delude this, so that a reader might see things as “reordered” that are only fictitious manipulation?

I can certainly see an argument for that, but surely in this day in age manipulations–or mere poetic license–of a decent size would be debunked. Jane Austen’s books can pull a reader in and teach about the history of an era while we have in the back of our minds that the Napoleonic Wars were going on at the same time and aren’t mentioned. Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” informs a western reader of recent events in the Baltics while  entertaining an old man’s supernatural stories as “truth.” It may be impossible to sway some stoic people into the realm of literary enchantment and knowledge’s compatibility, but these two forces are, more often than not, the very drive that cause readers to become Lit majors in the first place. We are personally engrossed but always searching for personal growth.

Falling in love with literature

For the bulk of my life I would have considered myself a pacifist. Having a heart that cares but going the long way round to avoid any kind of conflict. But that was before I fell in love with books. And I fell hard.

One of the things that struck me most as I nurtured this love through grade school and into college, was the notion I had had that to love books meant to love all books. I distinctly remember finding it the most painful thing in the world to trudge through Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Here was this great book, considered a classic, and I couldn’t stand it. I felt like I was betraying all of book-kind! Those were the elementary homeschooling years when my parents, as my teachers, were able–to my great astonishment–to take that book off my hands and place another in its stead. As the institutions of high school and college became less forgiving, it stuck with me that I was not expected to feel every book–or even most books–on such a deep and personal level.

But feeling and emotion are not quite credible legs to stand on when you tell people that you are going to be an English major. So what was I really going for? What use did I have for literature and writing?

Injustice. That is what sets fire in me and people with my Myers Briggs personality (INFJ) which I have found to be pretty enlightening in my self-awareness. And looking back, injustice–and its hopeful counterpart–is the global issue at hand when deep in the depths of a book. Here is what I mean. Reading a book means that someone has to have written a book. Writing a book, whether fictional or otherwise, is a way of materializing the voice of a person. And it’s no surprise that the bulk of the literature consumed in the university setting tends to lean towards authors and characters who have faced injustice and have now gained some justice by having a part of their voice be heard (that is, all people who are not white, male, straight, and having some kind of wealth). Reading literature throughout my years in institutional education, I’ve had the privilege of looking through a window that grows larger and larger, the classroom disappearing behind me and the world, large, green, beautiful, and desperately crying out to be heard seems to be staring right at me until I realize: I am not an observer of the world but a part of it. What is written was not lived out to be charted down to be read for mere emotion and pleasure alone. It is getting to know the world, getting to know humanity, without necessarily having to devote a lifetime to travel.

I remember loving Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit, not having to take a history class to learn about just one of the innumerable periods of oppression of America’s native peoples. We know the ugly truth behind the saying that “the victors write the history books.” But where am I to not only learn what that truth is but also what that means to that group of people without hearing it directly from them? I remember hating Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project for no other reason but that the injustice was sometimes too much. Pointing critical fingers at Chicago’s treatment of Jewish people, specifically, and shedding light on present day Bosnian people and the war that divided families.

We don’t have to want to reread books for them to affect us. That these books were written to get people thinking, while also being entertained through literature’s narratives, is the beginning of hope that something of a common good is being worked towards. Maybe no objective truth is being revealed. Maybe readers cannot come away with knowledge that they can measure. But there are reasons why books are banned. Or burned. Books can start social revolutions, pushing for justice and a platform of visibility within this enormous global human experience. And through this kind of reading, the pacifist must be gone.