In last Thursday’s post, I wrote about the “historical self” and the “self self” that Claudia Rankine references in one of the vignettes in Citizen: An American Lyric. Today, I want to finish that discussion by looking some more at Rankine’s work, Lillian Smith, and concluding with Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place.
Themes of invisibility and hyper-visibility run throughout Rankine’s Citizen, and Rankine uses a quote from Zora Neale Hurston to underscore these themes. Writing about Serena and Venus Williams, Rankine states, “Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hustorn’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.'” Hurston’s quote draws our attention to the ways that whiteness operates, separating itself from others. This separation encapsulates our “historical selves,” creating the ways that whiteness operates and its privilege.
Hurston’s quote runs underneath the entirety of Citizen, and as Rankine continues, she writes about Glenn Ligon’s piece where he uses Hurston’s quote: “The appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.”
Lingon’s etching begins by having Hurston’s words directly contrasted with the white background. The words repeat, and as we move down the frame, he words smudge, rub, and run. The sharp contrast begins to blur, and the words become obscured. This movement highlights the recurring themes of hyper-visibility and invisibility throughout Citizen.
These themes appear prominently in section five, a section where Rankine looks at the murders of Trayvon Martin, the media’s depiction of Hurricane Katrina, the words that sparked Zinedine Zidane’s response during the 2006 World Cup, and other instances of hyper-visibility and invisibility. The section ends with a two page spread.
On the left hand page, there is a memorial list of murdered individuals. The list includes the names of Tamir Rice, Jordan Russell Davis, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Stephon Clark, and many more. Each line reads, “In Memory of,” followed by the victim’s name. As the list progresses, the list begins to fade into the white page, the words becoming ghost like. The last there lines read “In Memory,” with no names following.
The last three lines have space for more victims. Their presence signifies that more will follow, and when they do, they will become visible. In many ways, the hyper-visibility moves towards invisibility. The unnamed names are not yet visible, yet they exist.
The right hand page draws attention to the ways hat whiteness, and I would add the “historical self,” created the list of names on the left hand page. Rankine writes three lines, followed by a large white space.
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black people are dying
Since the “white men” continue to hold dearly to the myths they created, the historical myths that have separated their brains into two section–logic and myth–“black people are dying.” The historical constructions of these imaginative tropes causes murder, causes individuals to remain separated, causes us to remain removed from our “self self.”
In Killers of the Dream, Lilian Smith relates a conversation she had with a camper. The camper said she hated Smith because Smith taught her about the “historical self.” This hate made her afraid, and she told Smith, “I don’t know. It’s like waking up in the night after a dream–you’re just scared, you don’t know why. I just can’t fight people I love.”
Smith proceeds to tell her, “You have to remember . . . that the trouble we are in started long ago. Your parents didn’t make it, nor I. We were born into it.” The girl or Smith did not construct the “historical self,” they were born into it. This construction caused the young girl to hate Smith and to become afraid because if she adhered to the truth that Smith taught her, then she would go against those that she loved. Just as Rankine does in Citizen, the young girl shows how the “historical self,”and one’s acknowledgement of it, hinders intimacy, specifically with those closest to us.
We cannot begin to approach our “self self” until we acknowledge and deal with the “historical self.” At the end of A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid brings this up in the book’s final paragraph. Kincaid’s book shows the effects of colonialism on Antigua and the Caribbean. She shows the ways that racism, slavery, oppression, and subjugation have shaped and influenced her homeland. To do this, she addresses the reader, an invisible tourist, visiting Antigua. She commands us to see the citizens of Antigua, making the invisible inhabitants that tourists ignore visible.
In the final paragraph, Kincaid walks through Antigua’s history from 1493 when Christopher Columbus landed on the island. She calls the colonizers “human rubbish” and those that they enslaved “noble and exalted.” This reverses the colonial narrative. She concludes by writing,
Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.
Essentially, Kincaid points out the same thing that Rankine does. Our “historical selves” influence us, even subconsciously. When we confront and acknowledge our “historical selves,” the terms we have used to construct race will fade away, revealing our “self selves,” our human forms. We will no longer be tethered to the “historical self,” a self that denies true intimacy between individuals.
To eradicate the “historical self” is a process. It does not happen quickly, and it requires work. You have to look in the mirror. You have to be willing to critique your actions. You have to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to listen. You have to unravel a web of history that you did not create, that your parents did not create, that their parents did not create . . . You have to sever the chain, disconnect it.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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