In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve become very accustomed to a certain representation of black masculinity and violence, which lyrical poet Claudia Rankine synthesizes in her 2014 American lyric, Citizen. Citizen features a variety of expressions of the black experience in America, including poems, scripts for situation videos, art, and vignettes. In a ten page section featuring two situation video scripts centered around a photographic piece, Rankine explores the consequences of aggressive black masculinity. A lengthy discussion exists surrounding the origin of such aggression, its portrayal in the media, and how the black community can work to end it, but Rankine puts her own spin on it, creating a heartbreaking narrative that follows the pressure on black men to its culmination of violence. Rankine agrees with critics that the root of aggressive black masculinity is the white patriarchy and dominant white culture and her composition of art showcases the effects this violence has. Rankine’s blend of images and poetry combines the rhetoric of the media and visualization of the black body and works to humanize her black male subjects, an inversion of the media treatment they usually receive.
Herman Gray, an academic whose article, “Black Masculinity and Visual Culture,” appears in the literary journal Callaloo, articulates how black men express themselves in contemporary culture as “self representations of black masculinity in the United States are historically structured by and against dominant (and dominating) discoursed of masculinity and race, specifically (whiteness)” (Gray 401). He argues that black men must create their own image in response to their lack of visibility, which creates a hypervisibility and political disturbance. The mainstream white media consistently views black body as “the other,” forcing black Americans to construct their own representation. So, when the white media creates the “menacing black male criminal body,” black artists take this stereotype and “reconstruct the image of black masculinity into one of hyperblackness based on fear and dread” (Gray 403). The hypermasculine violence that many critics point to in black culture is a response to white supremacy. Gray constructs an argument in his essay that black expression emerges to counter a white culture that puts certain expectations upon black men and violence, and visual expression is an understandable reaction to the pressures of white supremacy.
In “The Bodies That Were Not Ours: Black Performers and Black Performance,” Coco Fusco also examines how black bodies are portrayed and how black men portray themselves. She takes Gray’s argument to a further conclusion: there exists “a traumatized collective historical memory among African-Americans community of watching the black body be subjected to pain for public consumption” (Fusco 30). Mass media and entertainment have long depended on the commercial exploitation of the black body, from minstrelsy to recent Hollywood films. Fusco makes no claims about violence in her essay, but she identifies a common injury to the black American population that has led black artists look into the torture of the black body in their work, much like Rankine and her husband do in Citizen. The script for the situation video in memory of James Craig Anderson addresses the torture of the black male body beside the humanization of the white male. Anderson was a 49 year old black man who was run over by a truck, driven by a white man in 2011. As Rankine writes, “the pickup truck […] makes a […] black object,” describing how in the media, the pickup truck was given more humanity than Anderson, who was treated like the object of this encounter, rather than the subject and victim (Rankine 93). This situation video is an example of how black men and the violence against them are treated by the white media, which then translates to the artwork on the next page, examining how black artists can visualize their masculinity amidst the violence against them.
P. Gause, another academic critic looking at black masculinity, focuses more on the effects than the cause, though he agrees that the white patriarchy and resulting reactionary black politics have shaped black masculinity into what it is. Gause describes a “web of dichotomous thinking that arises from polarities generated by living under white oppression: the inclusion/exclusion dilemma, acceptance versus rejection of mainstream norms and goals,” and many more (Gause 40). A binary emerges, both between white and black masculinity, and within black masculinity itself. There is the white depiction of black masculinity, and then there is true black masculinity. Gause believes that through spiritual and emotional awakening, black men can reform the aggressive masculinity many embrace as a way to fight back against the violent caricature presented by white media. Gause provides a powerful summary of the pressures on black men and their consequences which John Lucas illustrates in Male II & I:
“The current construction/representation of the black male brings together the dominant institutions of (white ) masculine power and authority – criminal justice system, the police, and the news media – to protect (white) Americans from harm. Working this heavily surveyed and heavily illuminated public arena, the figure of the menacing black male is the object of adolescent intrigue, fascination and commodification. By drawing on deeply felt moral panic about crime, violence, gangs, and drugs, numerous black entertainers; namely, athletes and rap artists have rewritten the historic tropes of black masculinity from provider and protector to pusher and pimp. This corrosive nihilistic construction of males reifies notions of (hyper)sexuality, insensitivity, and criminality that serve as the new tropes of fascination and fear for the dominant culture.” (Gause 44)
hooks further examines the dual pressures of media representation and internal expectations, finding that black men are conditioned to be violent both by the white racist patriarchy, and by black anti-racists, who believe violence is the only way black men can earn their equality. Again, she looks at the representation of black men, claiming that “it has really been mainstream white culture that both requires and rewards black men for acting like brutal psychopaths” (hooks 45). The duality of violent expression, required both by the dominant white supremacy and by the internal push back against it, is the topic of Male II & I (pictured above) by John Lucas, a two page print of a photography project. On the left is the depiction of white masculinity – white men are shown amidst houses and gates, gardens and private signs. Their masculinity is isolated, yet complete, destructive in the smokestacks of a factory and protected by windowpanes and fences. All of the men are pictured whole except a child, whose masculinity hasn’t fully formed yet. The opposite page presents a collage of black masculinity. Black men are surrounded by pictures of barbed wire fences, ripped newspapers, and bare trees. Many of the black men are split into two pieces by the frames. These two parts represent the duality of black masculinity and its ensuing violence – there is the masculinity expected of them by white culture, and the masculinity expected of them by their own culture, and both ask them to be violent. Both the white and black men appear to be unhappy, yet the black men are visually anguished – they suffer not only from imposed masculinity, but also from racism.
The following piece in Citizen features black male violence against a white male. The Jena Six incident became infamous after the black teenage boys who beat up a white teenage boy received overly harsh sentences. The justice system and the media treated these black boys unfairly, as Gause outlined, which contributes to the cycle of violence surrounding black men. Yet Rankine chooses to focus on the act of violence itself and its origin, not the media coverage, as she did with Anderson. The point being made is not how this case will be understood by society, but rather how similar cases and pressures on young black boys to perform a certain kind of masculinity have led to this incident. Rankine reminds readers of the nooses found in the schoolyard and ties them to the lynchings of black men in the past, “this is how they will learn the ropes did the hardness in the history books cross the hardness in their eyes,” a public display of the black body in pain which has embedded itself in the black consciousness (Rankine 99). The trauma of seeing the black body in pain creates an expectation for violence, yet the white supremacy vilifies the black boys for their violence without looking at historical context.
Through these three pieces in Citizen, Rankine outlines the pressures of aggressive black masculinity and how the logical conclusion is violence. She wrote a narrative about black men who have been hurt and blamed enough and who have coped with this trauma through more violence, which is held against them by society. Beginning with the senseless violence against the black male body by a white man in a truck, Rankine shows how the media depicts black men as an object, not a subject. In order to attain some level of autonomy, black men turn to violence to fight against the constraints the white supremacy puts on them. White men are not vilified as a whole for their violence, as Rankine notes with the treatment of the pickup driver’s media coverage, “the announcer patronizes the pickup truck, no hoodlums, ‘just teens,’ no gang, ‘just a teen’” (Rankine 94). White men are afforded an excuse that black men are not, giving black men even more to fight against.
Male II & I continues the comparison between white and black masculinity and highlights the pressure upon black males to react a certain way. As hooks wrote, “all men living in a culture of violence must demonstrate at some point in their lives that they are capable of being violent” (hooks 46). Black men have something to prove not only to the dominant white culture, but also to those in the black community who believe violence is the best way to fight against the white supremacy. Rankine’s placement of this art piece ties the two situation videos together, suggesting a linkage between two seemingly unrelated events. Yet both situations took place under white supremacy and both times the black men were dehumanized by society. As the visual portrays, black men are broken up more than white men could imagine, and their surroundings produce more strain on them than those which white men experience.
To then transition to a description about black boys performing violence onto a white boy sends a powerful message. For boys to fight seems to be an accepted fact for Rankine, writing, “boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity heaving butting heads righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence” (Rankine 101). What makes this different than “boys being boys” is the noose in the schoolyard and other symptoms of pressure the black boys were under, depicted by the preceding image. The black boys have already suffered from a society weighted against them and from images in the media portraying other black boys as thugs and criminals. Their “fists the feet criminalized already are weapons already exploding the landscape and then the litigious hitting back is life imprisoned” (Rankin 101). The boys were tried by the jury of the media and found guilty for their blackness, no thought put into the nooses that evoke their collective history of trauma. Rankine has given the Jena Six their humanity back, by looking at their crime from their perspective and pain.
Rankine has inverted the usual treatment black men receive: rather than objects, they are her subjects. Looking at the writings of many academics, it is clear that Citizen takes theories on black masculinity and incorporates them into lived experiences, artwork, and poetry that reflect the lived reality of the black man. Through the use of the “you” pronouns, Rankine puts the reader in the shoes of the black man, giving black readers another outlet for their collective trauma and asking white readers to consider their actions and media presence. Rankine has constructed a narrative in ten pages that showcase a multitude of theories on black masculinity and uses artistic means to give black men a voice.
Fusco, Coco.”The Bodies That Were Not Ours: Black Performers, Black Performance.”Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 5.1 (1996): 28-33. Project MUSE. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Gause, C. P. “Chapter 2: BLACK MASCULINITY.” Counterpoints 337 (2008): 37–59. Print.
Gray, Herman. “Black Masculinity and Visual Culture.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 401–405. Print.
hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 2003: 43-60. Print.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. Print.
Pledged – Julia Storch