The Poetics and Politics of Black Lives Matter
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
In extremis, I can’t breathe gives way
to asphyxiation, to giving up this world,
and then mama, called to, a call
to protest, fire, glass, say their names, say
their names, white silence equals violence,
the violence of again, a militarized police
force teargassing, bullets ricochet, and civil
unrest taking it, burning it down.
—Claudia Rankine, “Weather”1
Until the appearance of her new poem “Weather” on the first page of the June 15th New York Times Book Review, Claudia Rankine had not been particularly prominent on the many reading lists about antiracism that surfaced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Nonetheless, despite being published six years ago, Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric may be the book most representative of the current moment in terms of its possibilities and limitations. Indeed, Rankine’s insistence on the perduring nature of racial injury and her embrace of a politics that is at best what Cedric Johnson has called “a militant expression of racial liberalism” may qualify her as poet laureate of antiracism.2 National Book Award finalist, Citizen appeared in the year following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, which was also the event that precipitated the founding of #BlackLivesMatter. Although the poem and the organization emerged independently of one another, BLM couldn’t have found a more apt literary avatar than Citizen had they contrived to design one on an app. A mélange of personal vignettes, reproductions of images and photographs, observations on Serena Williams’s career-long battle against racist officials and competitors in professional tennis, and most poignantly, tributes to black victims of police and vigilante violence, Citizen lends poetic form to the rhetorical politics of Black Lives Matter (and the allied #SayHerName campaign, which emerged after the death of Sandra Bland) in which intoning the names of an ever-growing list of the victims and of instances of violence produces an expression that seems at once intensely personal and immediately collective.
Central to Citizen’s genius is the way it harnesses the rhetorical power of iteration, particularly in the context of memorialization. In some ways, the poem brings to mind Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose glossy black walls cleanly etched with the names of the more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing in action from that war express Lin’s hope that “These names, seemingly infinite in number… [could] convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals as a whole.”3 Faced with memorializing a controversial war, Lin sought to make a work that could affect any viewer regardless of their opinion of the war. Although her design was initially met with significant objection from some veterans, it has largely succeeded in displacing the problem of the war’s meaning with individual feelings of personal connection to the dead—in Lin’s words, “creating a private conversation with each person, no matter how public each work is and no matter how many people are present.”4 But where Lin’s recitation of names intended to evacuate the political from the personal, Rankine’s poem operates through insisting on the identity of the two.
What is also crucial to the book’s use of iteration is its recognition of the way that the milieu of social media and 24-hour television—the world of tweeting/retweeting, posting/reposting, tagging, texting, and sharing—has become implicated in the aesthetics of memorialization, creating a sensation of living repeatedly through incidents, seemingly infinite in number, constituting a barrage that can leave one at once depleted and on the verge of striking out. Beginning with what its narrator assumes is a familiar sense of enervation, “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows,” the poem nonetheless finds itself drawn repeatedly, incessantly, to mediated—whether through television or radio—moments of outrage that carry the force of immediate affronts.5 Woven into these mediated encounters are relatively brief narrated moments of “everyday” racism—a comment from a colleague about affirmative action or a moment when the speaker’s first visit with her therapist provokes what is now described as a “Karen” incident, a histrionic reaction by a white woman to an unexpected or unwanted encounter with a black individual—that themselves have the quality of the kind of vignette made for retweeting, sharing, or reposting.
The success of, and possibly the ceiling for, this politics and aesthetics of iteration—the recitation of names and moments—can be gauged, as Cedric Johnson has noted, by the astonishing rapidity with which BlackLivesMatter has gone from being a provocation to a slogan embraced by different class layers, emanating as “facile expressions of unity in endless memes and viral videos of police-civilian line dances conceal substantive political differences among protestors and within broader U.S. publics.”6 And while any one of these instances of iteration might serve to exemplify this dynamic, perhaps the most emblematic occurred on June 2 when none other than U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, came perhaps as close as he ever has been to eloquence in addressing the murder of George Floyd on the Senate Floor. McConnell intoned:
This is an hour of great pain and unrest in our country. Americans from coast to coast have been grieved and horrified by the killings of African American citizens: Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis. In each disturbing situation, investigations and reviews are ongoing…We need the truth, and we need swift justice under law.
But here’s something that requires no investigation: In no world whatsoever should arresting a man for an alleged minor infraction involve a police officer putting his knee on the man’s neck for nine minutes while he cries out “I can’t breathe” and then goes silent. To me, to a great many of my fellow Kentuckians, and to millions of outraged Americans, these disturbing events do not look like isolated incidents. They look more like the latest chapter in our national struggle to make equal rights and equal justice under the law into facts of life for all Americans rather than contingencies that sometimes depend on the color of one’s skin. Obviously, this struggle remains incomplete. Our nation cannot deafen itself to the anger, the pain, or the frustration of black Americans. Our nation needs to hear this.7
McConnell, of course, went on to flash his credentials as a longtime supporter of Civil Rights, despite his recent role as the point of the spear for a rightwing assault on the U.S. federal courts and then to condemn the looting that occurred in some cities where protests were staged, calling upon state and local authorities,and ultimately the federal government, “to crack down on outside agitators and domestic terrorists,” making it apparent that he was equally, if not more, disturbed by the looting that ensued after the police murders than he was with the event that precipitated this recent crisis. But the fact that McConnell could run the BLM/Say Her Name playbook—calling the victims by their names, repeating Floyd’s desperate words before he lost consciousness, making apparent the role of racism in these deaths, insisting that these events were a part of long, unfinished story, and acknowledging the imperative of listening to the pain of black Americans—without first being blinded on the road to Damascus is an important part of this story.
The politics of BLM is a politics of expression, premised on a contention that the refusal to name the names of the victims and to say “Black Lives Matter,” is both symptomatic and causal. “Silence = Violence” (or as Rankine notes in “Weather,” “white silence equals violence”) is a common subtitle on the “Black Lives Matter” signs that now dot lawns and windows across the country. From this standpoint, the refusal to acknowledge the individuality of the victims of police violence and the failure to speak out betoken an indifference towards these killings that constitutes an act or posture of complicity. And while every activist associated with this movement will insist that the words need to entail a commitment to act, the fact that McConnell and a host of major retailers (as I began writing this I received in my inbox an email from the CEO of a public relations consulting firm with the subject line, “One White Woman’s Lamentations,” the second paragraph of which consists solely of the sentence, “Black Lives Matter”) have said the words and committed to a variety of actions cannot, a priori, be dismissed as mere lip service. They are, in some fundamental way, unfolding the logic of BLM. Saying certain words and repeating phrases and slogans cannot be a matter of indifference.
In admonishing his audience to listen to the anger, pain, and frustration of black Americans, McConnell, whether wittingly or unwittingly, identified a distinctive feature of the politics and poetics of BLM, namely its hyperattention to bodily response—not merely the pain felt by George Floyd as Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, but the pain felt by those who saw and continue to see the incident on one of their devices, and more specifically, the pain engendered by a felt, embodied knowledge that one’s ancestors and those perceived to be like oneself were either subjected to, or are statistically more likely to be subjected to, like treatment. This notion of historical and statistical embodiment is vividly displayed in Rankine’s Citizen, as the narrator recounts separate instances of watching Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, the 2004 semifinal against Jennifer Capriati, and the 2009 semifinal against Kim Clijsters. In the former, Williams was subjected to a series of bad calls by the chair umpire Mariana Alves so egregious that John McEnroe “‘was shocked that Serena was able to hold it together after losing the match’” (27). Serena did express her outrage after losing to Capriati, saying, as the poem recounts, “‘I’m very angry and bitter right now. I felt cheated. Shall I go on? I just feel robbed’” (27).
But the point of the first instance is that Serena does, “hold it together,” her relative poise leading the narrator to remark, “And though you felt outrage for Serena after that 2004 US Open, as the years go by, she seems to put Alves, and a lengthening list of other curious calls and oversights, against both her and her sister, behind her as they happen” (28). It takes the second match, the 2009 semifinal against Clijsters, when a rare foot fault is called against Williams, for Rankine to drive the key point home. This time, in reaction to the lineswoman’s call, which was at best overzealous and more likely wrong, Williams explodes, shouting at the lineswoman, “I swear to God I’m fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God!” (29). For Citizen’s speaker, Williams’s outburst is almost cathartic. She remarks, “It is difficult not to applaud her for reacting immediately to being thrown against a sharp background. It is difficult not to applaud her for existing in the moment, for fighting crazily against the so-called wrongness of her body’s positioning at the service line” (29).
The poem doesn’t read the outburst simply as an instance of Serena being fed up with the unfair treatment she’s received over the years and finally deciding that enough is enough—a common human experience for which “the straw that broke the camel’s back” has become a stock phrase. Rather, Citizen seeks to make the point that Williams’s body itself has become the repository of not only the incidents that have happened to her, but the injustices visited upon black people for centuries. As the poem unfolds further, Williams’s body—and by extension all black bodies—become the bearer of experiences that set black people apart from their fellow citizens. The poem’s speaker asserts:
Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games. (28)
In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief—code for being black in America—is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship. (30)
To be black, according to the logic of the poem is to exist within a body “governed” by those “lived through” moments of capriciousness in which others’ perception of one’s body as black dissolves into one’s own experiencing of oneself as black. The lesson to be learned from Williams’s ordeal is that to “understand” what has happened to her “is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background” (32).
Although the purported target of concern is the treatment of “any” black person and the fact that events like this happen all the time to people whose mistreatment never comes to our attention, the paradigmatic quality of Williams’s experience depends on the contrast between the outsized nature of her achievement and the contempt for her person conveyed by the slights against her. Arguably the best athlete in the world over the last decade, Williams’s treatment at the hands of these court officials demonstrates that “[n]either her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world” (26). In order to make its point that it is the “black body” that matters, Citizen must highlight the dangers to and the indignities visited upon high-achieving black Americans. In an interview with Lauren Berlant in Bomb Rankine described her
conscious decision to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book in the sense that the middle-class life I live, with my highly educated, professional, and privileged friends, remains as the backdrop for whatever is being foregrounded. Everyone is having a good time together—doing what they do, buying what they can afford, going where they go—until they are not.8
In order to show that race—which is to say, the confrontation with blackness—and not something else prompts the interaction, the poem’s early scenes happen within the domain of the professional managerial class. The salience of the assault, whether psychic or physical, depends on a prior sense of wellbeing among those who are reasonably well off. Rankine also notes that this sense of wellbeing is illusory—the “eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic” outlook of highly successful black people who continue to play the game” (28). These assaults are not merely inconveniences but potentially life and death matters. The members of this class suffer from what has been called “John Henryism,” defined as a malady specific to those “people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure” (11). The body, however, knows what the mind tries to hide from itself. As the narrator observes later, “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you” (63).
So that while John McEnroe, as we have seen, feels outrage on Serena’s behalf and even expresses surprise at the restraint of her response during the Capriati semifinal, his feelings and those of the poem’s speaker are not the same because his body cannot remember—has not become the repository of—historical outrage. Indeed, the riots that follow the Rodney King verdict and the murder of Trayvon Martin lead the narrator to contemplate how “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” (89). The effect of this accumulation leads the speaker to wonder ambiguously, “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” (116).
At least two beliefs that were once staples of racist thinking have now become rallying cries of antiracism. The first is that centuries of living under and through adverse conditions have set black people somatically and psychically apart from their fellow citizens. The second, to quote from Madison Grant’s racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race is that “race lies to-day at the base of all the phenomena of modern society, just as it has done throughout the unrecorded eons of the past and the laws of nature operate with the same relentless and unchanging force in human affairs as in the phenomena of inanimate nature.”9 Frank Wilderson, the scholar most prominently affiliated with the idea of Afro-Pessimism asserts that this doctrine “is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness.” He elaborates:
Blackness is social death, which is to say that there was never a prior meta-moment of plenitude, never a moment of equilibrium, never a moment of social life. Blackness, as a paradigmatic position (rather than as an ensemble of identities, cultural practices, or anthropological accoutrement), cannot be disimbricated from slavery. The narrative arc of the slave who is Black (unlike Orlando Patterson’s generic slave who may be of any race) is not an arc at all, but a flat line, what Hortense Spillers (2003) calls “historical stillness”: a flat line that “moves” from disequilibrium to a moment in the narrative of faux equilibrium, to disequilibrium restored and/or rearticulated. To put it differently, the violence which both elaborates and saturates Black “life” is totalizing, so much so as to make narrative inaccessible to Blacks.10
Combining the ideas of separateness and historical persistence, Wilderson and his epigones, some of whom don’t fully share in his pessimism, nonetheless insist that the first step in understanding social reality is to acknowledge the singularity of the condition of black Americans.
These scholars derive a variety of implications from this acknowledgement. Yet one stipulation holds constant across these formulations: Black people, regardless of their social positioning, face an existential threat not present for other people, and that all forms of social and economic organization—liberal or neoliberal capitalism, socialism, or Marxism–that do not stipulate this distinction will be insufficient to the task of bringing about justice for black people. By invoking “blackness” as a condition or a modifier, critics, commenters, activists, and scholars invest the people designated by the term with an existential radicality—they exist outside of, against, in excess of, fugitives from any norms that typically structure social and political life. More importantly, unlike the disparitarian discourses of liberal and neoliberal antiracism, which at least concern themselves with redressing those material inequalities produced by discrimination, the existential radicality of Afro-Pessimism actually turns out to be dismissive of the efficacy of ending any form of economic inequality. The prevailing conviction of Wilderson and company is that the commitment to antiblackness is fundamental and impervious to amelioration or erosion by conditions of material equality. Hence, as the key moments in Rankine’s poems reveal, the incidents that matter most in their considerations are those that manifest intraclass difference between blacks and those of other races who hold the same jobs, earn roughly the same salaries, live in the same neighborhoods, and send their children to the same schools. To the extent that these individuals can feel that their victimization serves no purpose other than to express or enforce antiblackness they can present themselves as the paradigmatic figures of an abiding blackness. As a consequence even the most well-heeled black individual can, in an instant, be transformed into a voice of radical dissent. Bertolt Brecht once quipped, “The idea of race is a petty bourgeois’s way of trying to become an aristocrat. At a stroke he acquires a set of ancestors and has something to look back—and down—upon.” Brecht’s adage still holds, but for the current moment we might also add the following paraphrase: “The idea of Blackness is a petty bourgeois’s way of trying to become an activist. At a stroke they acquire a radical tradition and the posture of speaking truth to the very power they themselves exercise.”
Blackness, then, is a claim of exceptionalism masquerading as radicalism. This exceptionalism is derivative of a belief that the U.S. and the West, even without recourse to discredited theories of social Darwinism, have fully realized Madison Grant’s dream of making race the prime mover of history and social reality such that white supremacy has become the hooded ghost in every imaginable social machine. Ostensibly indicating a concern with those most victimized, those whose voices and needs have been ignored, “Blackness” substitutes claims of shared experience for structures and practices of democratic governance and accountability. Personal feelings confer authority on anyone who can attest to certain experiences to speak on behalf of a collectivity presumed to feel exactly the same way. And those who speak the loudest are those for whom commentary on matters of race is a part of their job description.