I was unaware of the Freddie Gray murder until some of my relatives started posting things on Facebook about their friends back in Baltimore staying safe (this branch of the family belatedly moved somewhat west after my branch did to the West Coast decades previously) . I was confused, did some light Googling, and my responses went roughly like this:
First: "What the hell, how did the cops separate someone's spine and let them die? What century do we live in??"
Second: "Shit, I have to go to a meeting in Baltimore in three weeks. But it's in the suburbs, I'll probably be okay it's away from the rioting."
Third: "What the hell society do I live in where neighborhoods are still essentially segregated so strongly that I can avoid having to see the product of hundreds of years of oppression and a categorical denial of personhood of people from 'bad' neighborhoods??"
Watching the reaction unfold on Facebook (I'm really not present on TV news anymore, being from my generation), the reactions were predictable: white family members of mine from the suburbs of Baltimore fell into the "don't destroy your own city" camp and everyone else (younger, more diverse and in some cases radically liberal) was posting the MLK quote about riots being the only outlet to those with no power left. Something along the lines of Audre Lorde's "the master's tools cannot destroy the master's house" came to mind, but Facebook is not the place to try to work out my nascent opinions (as someone almost 100% removed from the details of the situation, besides being an American citizen with a conscience).
It was difficult articulating the sense of discomfort I had both about my reactions and the reactions I was seeing. How in the 21st century is it so easy to unwillingly be able to ignore the systematic violent oppression of so many people in the United States? How does it take a riot for these things to finally get news coverage, online or otherwise? In some ways I knew it had to do with income inequality, the racial and class inequality of the War on Drugs, desegregation in the 1960s (talk about some hellish stories my mom can tell about how the teachers acted towards the new African-American kids at her school), and white flight. All those things put together, though, made me angry and frustrated. How could my reaction fall so easily into self protection (personally and professionally) when I know intellectually that I am not in danger, that it was somehow still in the enculturated narrative to worry about safety first around angry young black men and not the resurgence of their murder by perpetrators that too often walk free?
To some extent, Citizen
addresses that. The prose poems, artwork, and strongly graphical layout address the feelings of invisibility, inequality, damaging assumptions, and total bullshit like being confused with the only other person of the same race in the office after years working there. Rankine's voice is strong and is exactly the kind of wake up call that a lot of Americans need. The poetry is clearly at times political, but in the sort of way that exposing the simple facts of life for a marginalized group too often overlooked is political. With all the ruminating I'd been doing about a city that I visited frequently as a child but only had a cursory association with, I wanted to point to this book and yell "see!" at a lot of people. Any society where one group of people can be socially beaten into invisibility by another group of people has major, systemic problems. Some people, like Rankine, have been experiencing it first hand and have been able to communicate it. The rest of us need to wake up to the casual racism that still pervades modern American culture and allows back men to be murdered by police in the name of "public safety".
The poetry is also good, but it is also the kind of poetry that influences social movements and reflects the deepest issues of the time in which it was written.