Color in America: Rankine’s Citizen

“Citizen” is an interesting collection of writing. The works, which vary in length, mainly tackle to the problem of segregation and the race struggle in America. Whether just free writing, or describing the events of Hurricane Katrina and the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Rankine is able to successfully make the reader feel the oppression that existed and be able to understand what happened regardless of their personal life story.

One moment in “Citizen” that intrigues me is the 2 page spread at the beginning of the book that has the lines “I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED…” and “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND.” These two lines would be powerful if they were written out in a regular font on the page as black text on a white page. Yet Rankine decides not to follow the “norm” for writing and insteads gets very creative in her writing out of these lines. The writing resembles that of a student in middle school who has done something wrong and is now copying their sin down on the chalkboard over and over. The first page which contains the line “I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED” is interesting without the addition of the second page. The lines are slowly blurred as the reader moves down the page and the ink appears to smudge more and more eventually making it very difficult for the reader to differentiate between the text and the smudged ink. In the first few lines it is apparent that the stark contrast between the dark and the light make the writer feel colored. They literally stand out against the rest of of the page. However, as the page gets darker they start to feel more comfortable as they are surrounded by the darkness. This could be more a comment on the comfort that blacks felt within their own communities contrasted with the negativity they felt directed at them by the whites.

Additionally, the second page only reinforces the first page. The line stresses what we already know, which is that the whiteness made Rankine feel different, and clearly not in a good way if it has to be mentioned, whereas among people similar to her she felt comfortable and not like an outcast. Similarly the use of the word “Thrown” in these lines indicates that she is being forced onto this white background and if it were up to her she would not be forced onto the “SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND.” What interests me most about this is that the rest of the book is then written in black text on a white page. This would normally not carry any significant value as printing white text on a black page for example would just be very cost inefficient. It is interesting that she makes such a distinction at the beginning of the book and then proceeds to write about the struggles of black people in the face of white oppression in the back text on white page.

I see a connection between Rankine and Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America.” Both Hughes and Rankine describe their struggle as blacks living in America and the harsh segregation they experience in their lives. Both Rankine and Hughes are proud of their ancestry and yet it seems that while Hughes embraces his Rankine has more difficulty with hers. On those same pages I discuss above the smudging of the ink could be a sign that Rankine is losing her own identity and is fitting the non A-Type personality that the whites would have wanted the blacks to have. In contrast, Hughes embraces his ancestry and skin color and shows a more proactive approach in his seeking equality, “When company comes./Nobody’ll dare/Say to me.”Eat in the kitchen,”/Then.” (10-15). Hughes has embraced his ancestry and is ready to move past what the white people tell him who he should be.

 

Questions for the class:

  1. Do you see the smudging of ink at the bottom of the page as a sign of lost identity or as something different?
  2. Do you think that Hughes and Rankine share a connection or is Rankine more closely connected to another poet?
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Post due Mon 4/27 @ 6pm (Comments @ 12am)

For this last blog post, discuss a moment from Citizen that interests you or  confuses you. Use evidence and analyze and wonder about this moment. Draw connections between Rankine and at lease one other poem/poet we’ve read this semester explaining said connection. Use evidence and pose two debatable questions.

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Rachel’s post

The nature of  Ancestry is a very lyrical one.  It is different then lineage in that it is more subjective, it is not only bestowed upon the person but also the persons choice. Ancestry implies a certain familial closeness, yet also a distance due to time or place. Patricia Smith and Etheridge Knight each examine a different aspect of the phenominum.

In Smith’s “Skinhead”,  the persona seems to be choosing his ancestry.  The White supremecist, skinhead declares “I’m your baby, America, your boy, drunk on my own spit, I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful.” In ways this may seem empowering for him, but in other ways its extremely isolating. This skinhead has nobody, he only has “his own beauty”. He talks about black people he sees on the street that act as if “their fat black mammas named them freedom”. The people he despises have family, they have ancestry. He is alone. Saying that he is “Americas baby”, he could be asking for America’s love back. Back to a time  when America looked similer to his own beauty. “I am your baby America” he is asking for accpetence, asking for closeness.

Knight, knowing very well who his family is, plays with the idea of closeness and ancestory. The speaker is in a prison cell and looking at pictures of his family. At some points he feels very close to them, saying  that ” I am all of them”, other times he creates distance, saying “I am me, they are thee.” He’s captivity creates a physical barrier as well as an emotional one, saying that “he is a theif” in contrast to his family. He explores this feeling of being far way from them, however I feel that the narrator is still optimistic in the closeness he feels with his family. I believe that this is the case in the way he describes his uncle that ran away from the family. The uncle left, but his grandmother still talks about him because her bible doesnt have a place for “whereabaouts are unknown”. Drawing on the Bible and religion, he makes his grandmother god character, and a merciful one, one that does not completely give up on kin even when they leave the family. Even when, in religious terms, they are an apostate. In that way, the speaker, while exploring the distance and the seperation he feels from them does have this sense of family, even from within his jail cell.
Looking at these two poems together, the speaker in Knights “Idea of Ancestry” is in many ways the black man that the skinhead hates. While Knight sits in jail alone, to his family he is freedom. He has the acceptence and closeness, the skinhead seems to hate and crave. Because Knight has that reassurance, he is able to examine the closenss and seperation between them.  However the  skinhead, as mentioned before doesnt have this leasure he parades his own beauty and claims yet begs America to be a product of it, to be its repsonabiltiy.

Questions:
Do you think somebody can demand/create their own ancestry like in skinhead?
What do you make of the use of numbers in “The idea of Ancestry”?

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What does it Mean to Belong?

Knight seems to protest his ancestry in an almost masochistic, spiteful manner. He conveys a strong feeling of isolation and detachment from his large family; despite sharing a name with “1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle,” he identifies himself as an outsider. In his use of strong descriptive language, Knight is able to convey a powerful response from his audience.

“They are all of me,” “I am me, they are thee,” Knight writes. He both recognizes the similarities he and his family share, and distances from them simultaneously. This is a powerful protest against what it means to belong to a family, and perhaps this is due to a deep feeling of abandonment and loneliness while in prison.

Smith approaches the protest of ancestry in a similar manner, with her use of visceral imagery (“mangled hand,” “filled with my own spit.”) Most powerfully is her use of enjambment to emphasize the skinhead’s affiliation with America; this protests what it is to be a “pure” American, while also bringing to question what it means to have pride in one’ country. Smith protests the violent nature of American culture, in the wide-spread anti-faggot/anti-nigger sentiment. Smith seems to protest the long-standing hatred Americans have for all that is “alien,” which has been perpetuated by people not unlike Smith’s skinhead persona.

 

  1. Why does Knight separate his poem with numbers?
  2. What is it that the flies “know” in Smith’s “Buried”?
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Protest Poetry

In beginning to understand these three poems, “Skinhead”, “Buried”, and “The Idea of Ancestry” it becomes clear that all of these poems are protesting in different ways. In Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” we are introduced to the white supremacist who is clearly very bothered by the fact that “The coloreds and spics got ‘em all” in talking about jobs. In Smith’s second poem, “Buried” it is less clear what is being protested. However, I believe that what is being protested is this idea that people were being forced to literally bury their loved ones and the apparent PTSD it caused those digging the graves. As the title of Knight’s poem suggests, the poem is protesting the idea of ancestry and the ridiculousness of the idea.

Protesting the idea of equality among races is not a ‘cool’ thing to do nowadays. When I first read “Skinhead” my first reaction was, “Wow, this is incredibly racist, nobody in their right mind would write this today.” What I found fascinating is that Patricia Smith is not a white male who, as the poem suggests, lives in the south. She is a black woman writing using the idea of persona poetry. Through the use of this skinhead she is able to grapple with the racism that was present pre and post-civil war. Her imagery is extremely descriptive and she is able to force the reader to see the face that “Scraped pink and brilliant, apple-cheeked.” Though this imagery everyone has the experience of being a skinhead yet each persons’ interpretations of the skinhead is going to be based on their individual life experiences.

In contrast to “Skinhead” Smith’s second poem “Buried” does not rely on the vivid imagery as much as it does on repetition. Upon reading the line “Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss it.” in the third stanza for the first time the repetition struck me as off. It was the only line repeated so far and the two lines were back to back.However, after finishing the entire poem those two lines became an eery representation of the protest at this PTSD experienced while burying the dead, specifically what appears to be a father burying his son. The connection between searching for one’s son under a pile of dolls and having to dig a grave for him is scary. What adds to this eeriness is the difference in spacing between the two lines in the two instances they appear. In the third stanza there is no extra space between the lines giving the reader that this is just a very repetitive process and it could keep going forever. However, in the second case there is a full line gap between the lines which I believe is there solely as a pause for effect. This pausing for dramatic effect is also the reason for the line saying “Toss-” and not “Toss it” as a way of depicting the harsh grasp of reality ripping him from his happy daydreams back to the horrible task at hand.

While the first two poems relied heavily on just one poetic convention, Knight relies on a combination of enjambment and long sentences to give the poem an un poemlike feel. That is to say that by writing in long sentences and enjambment “The Idea of Ancestry” has the feel of a rant more than a poem. This ties heavily into the idea that this poem is a protest against the idea of ancestry. Knight seems to mock the idea that she can share the name of an uncle who is no longer considered to be part of the family. In order to fully explain the long story behind her ancestry she must keep rambling on with very few breaks in between lines until she can explain her frustration with it.

 

My questions to the class are:

  1. Do you see the poems as protesting something other than what I discussed/Is the protest achieved through a different poetic convention?
  2. If we were not to know that Patricia Smith is a black woman alive today would that change how we read her poems? What effect does the actual author have on the persona found in persona poetry?
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Blog Posts due 4/22 @ 6pm (Commentors by 12am)

The three poems you are responsible for each deal with ideas of ancestry in some form. While Knight wrote his poem in the late 1960s from prison, Patricia Smith is a poet who is writing now. Although both write in the lyric tradition, Knight’s poem is more of a personal lyric, while both of Smith’s poems are persona poems. Choose one question below to which to respond.

1. How do you see these poets responding to and complicating the idea of ancestry? Put their work in conversation with each other around the idea of ancestry. You can also think about how these poems bear witness to ancestry. What questions do you have about these poems? Use evidence to support your viewpoint and pose two debatable questions.

2. How can we understand these three poems as protest poems? What do they seem to be protesting and what poetic conventions are particularly important to their protest? What questions do you have about these poems? Use evidence to support your viewpoint and pose two debatable questions.

3. Open: Develop your own question around which to discuss these three poems.

 

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Conor’s Post

In reading Perelman’s Chronic Meanings one is able to grasp this idea of the “new sentence”. Throughout the poem we see Perelman avoiding any consistent narrative. Weather it be ending every line with a period or ending them abruptly with an “a” or “but” we see that Perelman is not allowing for his poem to build a rhythm comfortable for the reader. Especially when one reads a line like “Blown up chain link fence.” and is then followed by “next morning stronger than ever.” The reader however is able to extract some level of meaning from some lines, “On our wedding night I./ The sorrow burned deeper than.”, but with the poem’s narrative constantly being disrupted it is difficult to comprehend what Perelman is trying to convey. This creates ambiguities throughout the poem as it is unclear as to which sentences carry more meaning than others as it is difficult to understand how they build off of each other. However, with the poem coming to an end the poem becomes more clear with “I remember the look in./ It was the first time./ Some gorgeous swelling feeling that.”. It appears as though the poem is an illustration of Perelman wrestling with feelings of love. Yet, to make this connection one would have to cherry pick lines throughout the poem, which is either what is intended or speaks to the lack of narrative in this poem. Perhaps what Perelman is trying to do is challenge weather or not a story needs to be constant in order to illustrate it.

1. Does narrative need to be consistent in order to communicate?

2. Why does Perelman end every sentence with a period?

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Heijinian’s My Life as “Our Life”

The new sentence is an interesting literary strategy in addressing the ever-present issue of correctly, if not as accurately, depicting life itself. Life is a culmination of fragments; experiences, emotions, interpretations, conversations.  All of these elements are what make up the human experience, what construct the consciousness, and these are ironically completely individual but intricately woven together to create a unique web of perceptions.  The new sentence method of writing tackles the issue of accurate depiction in attempting to visually reflect the weaving together of this linear expression. Life, similar to the writing process, is experienced in a linear fashion, with a constant building of tension and relation to previous experiences;  in the writing process, this is experienced in terms of context.

Lyn Heijinian expresses this building of tension well in his work My Life. He relies heavily on the reader projecting his own emotional experiences onto his purposely vague yet ultimately familiar prose. “You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon,” Heijinian writes. This usage of second person immediately involves the reader in the prose, forcing the reader to place himself in the scene depicted. This is such a regular situation, one that everyone has mechanically done numerous times in their life, but it is ambiguous enough that there is room for the reader to apply prior experience to set them into the scene.

Heijinian follows this statement with a description of his father, which familiarizes the reader and allows for further projection of whatever emotional context the reader attaches to the word “father.”  He continues to do this throughout the poem by inserting random, fragmented experiences involving members of his family; these situations depicted, such as his mother breaking her arm while compressing the trash, or his grandmother pulling down the shades, all seem to be detail –oriented but ambiguous enough to  allow for further application of personal interpretation. This, coupled with the seemingly unnecessary statements, such as “he broke the radio silence,” or the sunning of an infant in a bonnet, truly express the “new sentence” writing process in explaining the overall experience  of consciousness with a culmination of fragments and experiences.

  1. Why, then, do you think that Heijinian mentions the German goldsmith?
  2. What is the significance of the line “A blue room is always dark”?
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The “New Sentence” & “Chronic Meanings”

The “new sentence,” as discussed by Perelman in his essay, “is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance…” I found this idea to be interesting because it makes us look at language and writing differently. When we read a novel or a poem, we take it for granted and assume that each line will connect and form a coherent story. However, after I read these poems, I learned otherwise. In our society, we watch television and movies, receive information, and just absorb. The “new sentence” forces our minds to do the opposite.

At first glance, Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings” structurally looks like any poem we have read in class. As I started reading I noticed that I did not understand what the first stanza was saying. I decided to read it again and yet, I still took no message away. Quickly after I made the connection to his essay and I realized that it wasn’t my lack of understanding poetry that was the problem here- the lines really did not connect to each other to form a coherent message. Or did it? The first line of every stanza ends abruptly as if it should continue but cannot. For example, the speaker says, “On our wedding night I ” (17). Then what? I found this to be frustrating, but thought about it as a way for the reader to fill in the blanks and really engage in the reading. In addition, each line has no connection to the next. Reading it, I almost felt as if a man was literally pulling lines out of a hat to determine what the next line should be.

After reading, I asked myself what the point of the “new sentence” is. I know that it definitely forced me to think a lot more than if I had read a different type of poem. I had to constantly try my best to make connections between lines and tried to make some sense of the random words. In many of the stanzas I was able to find a general theme. For example, I concluded that the ninth stanza as a whole discusses time, and the eleventh stanza talks about nature. However, I was not able to create a theme for every stanza that I had read. While I might be able to make some sense of each stanza, I was not able to make sense of the poem as a whole.

Questions:

  • What do you think is the point of using this writing style? Does it say something about the speaker?
  • Do you think it is possible to come away with a message after reading the poem in its entirety, or only through each stanza alone?
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Blog Post due Mon 4/20 @ 6pm (Commentors @ 12am)

Use the background/information on the “new sentence” with which to discuss one of three poems you’ve been asked to read. How is this poem using “new sentences”? What do you see as a central tension or problem in this poem, and how do these “new sentences” help to create it? What questions do you have/what ambiguities do you see present in the poem? Please use evidence in your discussion and pose two debatable questions.

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