Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric

Sometimes words carry the weight of a sledgehammer behind them. It’s as if a grimy construction worker is swinging the deadly instrument into your chest, crushing the fragile bones protecting your heart. This is what I felt from the first line of Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric. “When you are alone and too tired to even turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.”

I read her words and swallowed hard, trying to find the place where my insides should have been. I know that tired. It’s not a tiredness of the body, even though the body feels weak and listless. It is a weariness of the mind. A soul-deep fatigue, if such a thing exists. It’s hard to not believe in a soul when a weight the size of an elephant pins you to your pillows even though nothing but soft blankets cover your skin. It seeps into your bones until you lose all strength to fight. Even raising an arm is too much.

The world is wrong.  The wrongness overtakes me, and I feel as if the world we live in now is really just a strange joke. Any moment the cameras will come out, and I can laugh because the nightmare is over. It never happens, though. I scream in outrage and frustration, but my voice is lost in an overwhelming tide of hate and petty cruelty.

At times it feels impossible to keep going, like when Rankin says “It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t uninhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.”

I have a son. He is nine years old. He’s sweet, kind and loves his puppy. Unlike me, my child is black.

You may argue that he’s not black. Many people feel the need to correct me when I discuss my child’s blackness as if my blood has whitened him and washed away the darkness of his heritage.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that my child’s skin is mocha and his big, loopy curls are soft. The world will always see him as black. Obama’s white mother didn’t prevent him from being called our nation’s first black president, and it certainly didn’t stop people from calling him a n*****.

The cruelest thing about the times we live in now is that for a while I had hope that it could be different. I was in high school when the Rodney King trial happened. School officials shut down the school for a week out of fear of race riots. I never imagined we would have a president that wasn’t white.  When Obama won, for the first time I thought change was really possible. He offered more than hope for political change. To me, he represented a world where my child could grow up with unlimited opportunities, and more importantly, without fear. 

The hope I once had is gone. It died the day I had to explain to my little boy why the police murdered the dark-skinned man on the television. The ugliness brought to the surface with our current president’s campaign and rise to power filled the void where hope once lived. Now I live with a sick, hopeless rage that can’t fit inside my flesh despite all the room I’ve made for it.

When the unrest in Charlottesville happened, I reached out to friends and family and urged them to take the situation seriously. My pleas were ignored. Worse, I was often rebuked for being too dramatic and political. I tried calm, factual reasoning, but it fell on deaf ears.  More often than not, people would tell me that that racism isn’t really a thing anymore and it would all go away if the blacks would stop complaining so much. No one wants to talk about it.

When I posted online about another recent event where two Gwinnett County police officers kicked and beat a handcuffed black man who was lying helpless on the ground, literally none of my white friends or family responded in any way. When Trump promoted police brutality in a speech, no one cared.   An Islamic terrorist drove a car into a crowd of people, and the Facebook crowds posted wildly about standing with England. A white nationalist terrorist drove a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, HERE in THIS country, and the feeds were silent.  Moreover, they (my “friends”) kept trying to tell me to shut up about it. Be positive, they told me. Stop drawing attention to the horror that lives in our backyard, please. 

Buried in the darkest heart of my fear is the knowledge that one day my son will face racism and discrimination. He will have his experiences dismissed, his intelligence questioned, and his motives under suspicion. He will have to endure all of this and never let his justified anger drive him to act out. If it does, he will face harsher prison sentences, higher bail, and will be far more likely to be killed by the police. Claudia Rankin spoke at length about the dangers of being angry and black, but if we need to see it in person the truth is on the news.

I can’t protect him and it terrifies me. 

With all of that, as much as the white neo-nazis anger me, it’s the indifferent, complacent, ignorant ordinary folk that fill me with rage and despair. I want to shake them.  Nothing I say or do dents their apathy and superior sense that those affected by racial discrimination probably did something to bring it on themselves. It doesn’t matter how I approach the subject.  I’ve joined the protests, I’ve shared literature, I’ve offered understanding and patient dialogue. Nothing makes a difference.

Most days I vacillate wildly between seething fury and resigned hopelessness, and I don’t know how to store those feelings anymore.

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric was a sledgehammer to my chest. It illuminates, in heart-rending poignancy, everything I fear and hate in a world where almost every inch of a person’s life is defined in some degree by the color of their skin. In many cases, it was too raw. I had to look away and catch my breath. “Dear world,” I want to say. “Be a kinder place for my son.” But like the image of the blue, black boy, I fear that he will only ever be one color to the world. The color that’s never, ever as good as white.