Reading Between Lines of Citizen
In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the blank white space occupies more area than all of the black text and pictures combined. As a relatively short American Lyric, one must assume that this half of the book – the parts where nothing is said – has great meaning and is equally as important as what is said directly. This great amount of white space blurs the lines between what the subject is – the words or what is around them. It makes it unclear where emphasis should be drawn, and where your eyes should go. The monochromatic representation of black inked words surrounded by blank white space can be used to reflect on the hyper-visibility we place on people of color in today’s society. Additionally, the juxtaposition of images and text compared to the surrounding white space reflects on decontextualization we create in current media.
Hyper-visibility is an observation based on a sensed difference which leads to a sense of deviance around the subject being observed. This concept is exemplified heavily throughout Rankine’s lyric, but I’d like to draw specific attention to an excerpt that quotes Judith Butler’s response to being asked what makes language hurtful: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness is carried by our addressability…” (Citizen 49). Butler emphasizes the attentiveness we pay to a subject when we address them. The method in which the subject is insulted has everything to do with themselves as a being, and “all the ways [they] are present.” Racial comments towards an individual are not meant? to wipe out the person, but the opposite. They are used to put the spotlight directly on them, and hence, they become hyper-visible. Rankine recreates this sort of of hyper-visibility with dark ink on a white page so that the audience can take more notice of where we do and do not look. Our eyes gravitate and our minds wander towards what is being emphasized which, in the case of a book, is the words, even though white space takes up much more space than the words do. This concept leads us to question how the arrangement of image and space can change the meaning of the section.
The cover art of Rankine’s lyric also puts the concept of hyper-visibility and decontextualization into question. The cover art shows a black hoodie placed against white background. There is nothing behind it to take your attention away from the central vision of the empty hood of a cotton jacket with dangling strings and wire. It seems to begs the question: what is the context of this image? The rest of the jacket is not in the picture, the setting is not in the image, the face of the individual to whom this article of clothing belongs is not even included. Every detail seems to implicate something- even down to the wire poking out of the hood to represent danger. This image seems to reference directly to the death of Trayvon Martin, but the image is cited as the work of David Hammons in 1993. It slightly unsettling to learn that the image that we just assume is about Trayvon Martin predates his death by 20 years, and it seems to reflect on the repetition of seemingly identical grievances against people of color across many decades. The cover art titled “In the Hood,” and it suggests racism even with its homonym: the white imagination readily turns hoods into ‘hoods. The implication of this association is that suspicion and its associated endeavors are connected directly to the “ghetto/ bad parts of town” where people of color often live. The white backdrop recalls the quotation from Zora Neale Hurston, “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white sharp background” (Citizen, 52-53), that keeps cropping up in “Citizen.” This use of white space seems to mimic the way American society takes the words and actions of people out of context. The image we associate with Martin is a black boy in a black hoodie. This image was used to criminalize him: to say he was inherently suspicious.. He was black, he was suspicious, he was shot. No background information concerning the fact that he was just a boy going to buy a box of Skittles is included, and his race and his article of clothing are taken out of context, much like the hood of the jacket is on the cover: seen with nothing behind it but a sharp white background. This white space and positioning around the hood create parallels between formatting and perception of the message of decontextualization and hyper-visualization of people of color in today’s society.
The format of the words and whitespace alter the perception of the message being conveyed. Rankine incorporates graphic representations and space into her writing to reflect on the hyper-visibility of people of color in today’s society. There is certainly a theme Rankine incorporates that describes Zora Neale Hurston’s quotation, “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white sharp background,” (Citizen, 52-53) which is one of the two full bleeds found in the book. The text is clear and coherent at the top of the page, and as you go down the page becomes smudged with black ink and no longer easy to read. The movement from clarity at the top of each column toward disorder at the bottom alludes to the ways in which what appears to be a simple statement is, in fact, tangled in a complex web of associations. In isolating fragments from longer texts- “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” — with no suggestion of their original contexts, Ligon transforms language into a kind of abstraction, repeating the text until it is insignificant by its own repetition. The text seems most distinguishable with a solid white background behind it, comparable to Rankine’s general statement that we tend to compare the two races as separate mediums– the ink and the blank space. This specific use of space and color creates a subconscious focal point on the deep shades of ink. Such a stark contrast between monochromatic shade and light convey the message of hyper-visibility by visually representing how a sensed difference of ink and color leads to a sense of deviance and focus around the subject Hyper-visibility is also reflected upon by the juxtaposition of images and text during the world cup script.
Rankine changes the style by putting the main content only on the left pages of the book, and the right pages are saved for indicating the speaker. It would ordinarily seem unorthodox to only place words on one side, but Rankine told the entire story on one side to reflect the fact that Materazzi was painted as a victim and the media listened to only his side of the story. We have two sides to every story, seen very literally on a book with pages on both sides. This example cries out the one-sidedness of today’s media—we are bias and selective in the ways we choose to investigate and find information. While both parties were in the wrong (one for physical and one for verbal abuse) only Zidane was held accountable and the media would not confirm what was said to him. It was only “lip reading” – an ironic statement reflecting on the doubting of many of the racist acts in today’s society. This irony stems from the fact that officials refuse to rely on the information Zidane provides and instead go through the less accurate and time consuming process of watching the movement of Materazzi’s lips.
Furthermore, the notion that the quotes from individuals at this soccer game are placed directly below one another with no indication of who said them without looking at another page also recreates the sense of decontextualization. Rankine is taking quotes and instances out of context and placing them by themselves – surrounding them with white space – to mimic the media’s tendency to do this to people of color in today’s society. It is peculiar, however, that Rankine places a certain amount of context – the names of the individuals – near the quotes, yet if the reader is seeking further context, they must flip to the very back of the book to the “works cited” page to see the correlation of the images to the text, as well as what this information even came from. This form of page-flipping to locate the true meaning of the argument also creates a sense of disorientation and confusion around the subject at hand. By putting the onus on the reader to do the extra work, Rankine’s message of taking something clearly out of context is conveyed.The abrupt endings of profound and to the point statements followed by a blank page allows the allows the mind to wander and create its own meaning to the subject at hand without the bias of an explanation of the author on the same page. This blank slate below the thought-provoking subject of the writing thus forces the readers to fill in context for themselves. “Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy. / What do you mean? / Exactly, what do you mean?” (Rankine 47) The statement is not self explanatory and forces the reader’s mind to wander to connect the dots, before the next subject is abruptly introduced after a quick page turn. It also allows the reader to contemplate how the following statements on a sequential page will be connected to the seemingly isolated ideas. The effect of keeping individual instances on separate pages is also reflective of a message Rankine is attempting to create: when will we connect the separate instances and admit we have a problem with racism in American society?
The reoccurring white space in Rankine’s Citizen is crucial to the message being conveyed. By letting a single sentence or image be the only content on an otherwise blank page, the reader can begin to experience the hyper-visibility that Rankine and many other people of color have experienced in the instances shared in “Citizen,” such as the world cup and Trayvon Martin. Additionally, the juxtaposing of these profound literary arguments beg the question of the underlying context from which it was pulled. There is so much white space in the text, as if to underscore the whiteness most of see, blinding us to the everyday slights of what it means to live inside black skin.
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