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Sunday, April 30, 2017


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I so seldom get to see the work of black women on stage that I rushed to buy a ticket to the play CITIZEN AN AMERICAN LYRIC based on a book by the same name by Claudia Rankine without really knowing what it was. 

Though curious, I resisted the urge to buy the book before going to see it because I didn't want to ruin it like I'd ruined movies for myself. Reading only a few of the books that GAME OF THRONES is based on (my ultra-problematic addiction) ruined an entire season of the television series for myself -- and there are only 10 episodes a year.  

I explain all this in order to say that the movie, the television series, the play is never as good as the book because a well written book allows you to feel every nuance of what the main characters feel because you get to know their thoughts. 

But if this turns out to be true for CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC, I'm not sure if I'll be able to read it in public because the play left me feeling wounded and validated at the same time.

If I read it in public I wonder if I might not cry in public.  

And this homie don't play that. 

* * * * *

Reconsidering Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A Symposium, Part I

 "It’s not like poetry, said the students in my Black Poetry course last semester. It’s not (just) poetry, asserted the judges of the National Book Critics Circle Awards’s “Criticism” category, in which Citizen was a finalist in 2014. Reviews of Citizentend to call its components “essays,” “lyric essays,” “prose narratives,” “stories,” and “prose representations” significantly more often than “poems” — even “prose poems” — even when the volume as a whole is referred to as “poetry.” "

Instead of reading this prose-poetry book before I saw the play, I listened to a Claudia Rankine interview while I was cooking. The time stamp at the bottom of the video said it was an hour or so. Too long. But it was about the race and language and how she creates. Since I create, I needed it. 

So I let it drone on in the background. Interesting. But I didn't turn my full attention to it until she started talking about how she rushes to fill that ever-empty seat next to a black man on a bus or subway.  

This doesn't just happen to black men. It happens to me too in very nearly full movie theaters. 
White person after white person looks at the seats next to me, then looks elsewhere to matter how full the theater is. But this doesn't happen as consistently to me as it does to black men, I suppose.
In my old home of New York, there's more public transportation riding than driving of cars. In Los Angeles, I am protected mostly protected from having to ignore this behavior because we drive everywhere.  
During the play when I saw the actor slouch down and lean to one side in his make-believe bus seat, I realized that I'd seen that exact pose on many a bus --that tough, defensive I-don't-care slouch.  And I recently saw the same thing in a black man in a quasi-fast food place, a casual restaurant where the seating is cramped. I've seen this dead-pan-face-with-slouch so many times I can't even count

I recognized that I-don't-care slouch that means

-I don't care if you think I'm not quite human, so sure of my lack of humanity that you'll leave that space empty even if you have to stand.
-I don't care that you're too afraid to sit next to me
-And I'll even spread out a little, curl around the space a little so everyone will think it's me that has a choice about leaving that space empty instead of you.

During her interview, Rankine spoke about rushing to fill the space as if it feels necessary to validate or confirm humanity. At least one black woman in the audience or on the panel said she does the same thing.

I'd seen the space and knew what it meant before the play...but I didn't.

Before I went to see this mystery play based on poetry that I knew nothing about, I thought it might be extraordinary one woman show or an "ordinary poetry reading" in some way.  

I was wrong on both counts. 

And then I thought I might get lost in flowery language for long periods of time. 

I was wrong about that too. 

This was "prose poetry," you see? Story type poetry in bits and little bites.  I needn't have worried about falling asleep or  fidgeting so much I annoyed my neighbors. I didn't need that giant cup of coffee at 7:30 in the evening at a Paris imitating bistro that was virtually inches from the theater. 

This play seemed to be over almost as soon as it began. 

There were so many scenes that seemed pulled straight out of my life. Little off-hand race based comments that come at you from white people at school, in the workplace, in a suddenly-white friend's home.

During the interview I heard online I heard that she interviewed friends and neighbors endlessly about race before she wrote her poetry book.

While I was watching her work being performed on-stage, once again it occurred to me that the "micro" in term "micro-aggression" offends me. 

Seeing so many of the things I've experienced from white people without ever commenting on it -- not even to other blacks it's so common, it made me realize how mentally and emotionally under assault I am on a daily basis, how much I keep hidden inside. 

So many experiences came back to me. 

I wonder if I'd have been so sensitive if I hadn't seen this play on the very same weekend as the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King Shooting, less than 24 hours after I watched John Ridley's LET IT FALL....on the white run, white gate-kept 9PM....on a Friday Night.   

Same as a character in the play, I'd experienced that last minute white folks seating shuffle on a plane, and sometimes buses and trains. But mostly on planes...
You know the shuffle I'm talking about right? 
You're already sitting down by the window. You smile and try to look friendly, just to be polite, not to encourage conversation. The white child or white woman starts to sit in the middle seat and white man says, "No. Come out. I'll sit there."  There's a look exchanged, very brief. Then the white man puts his body between himself and his woman or child.  
I don't think I've ever commented on this out loud though it's happened several times in my life.  Part of what this play did was reveal some of what is hiding in my body.  
Black men probably experience this more often too. 
 In a patriarchal society, men feel like men by dominating / winning-over other men. So it makes sense to me that the dominated man's resentment would automatically be feared; the dominated man may seek to win at his very next opportunity. So that white unconscious fear of resentment is relabeled "potential black violence" and that winds up layered on top of the straight racism that is made up of fear of difference and fear of stored histories inside each black body.

There was a screen with imagery behind the actors, but other than that the stage was bare except for 6 or 7 folding chairs. Four black actors and two white actors that didn't always stand in for white people in every single moment conveyed my personal racial history in a little less than an hour and a half.

CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC wasn't about anger so much as it was about being wounded and 

  • having to overcome in order to just do things like go to work; 
  • having to ignore the questions that pop up in your head about white people on the street, white acquaintances, white co-workers
  • having white friends that go from feeling close to feeling 1000 miles away in an alternate dimension just two or three sentences later in a conversation. 

There was an entire section of the play about Serena Williams that floored me.

I'd heard the racist and white supremacist commentary about her, especially at the beginning of her career. But I don't watch sports, so I didn't see the details of what happened to her. When she wins I jump up and down, fist in the air like I'm the one doing battle and winning on the court. Her wins feel personal to me. But I feel like a bad non-friend now. I had no idea just how aggressively white tennis tried to eject her black body from the sport...

To be continued...

In the meantime, this video on Serena Williams is from a white liberal youtube channel