Poetry, Review

On Race and Art: Failures, Difficulties, and the Attempt

racialimaginary

Reviewed by Muriel Leung

Over 40 writers and 12 artists contributed essays and artwork to the discussion of race and the creative imagination in the forthcoming collection, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence Books, 2015) edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. In 2011, Rankine penned an open letter for the New Media Poets website on race and art and gathered writing from a wide array of writers on the subject that eventually became this larger project of creative responses to a complicated and divisive issue. That the focus is on the “imaginary” points us to its double usage—at once referring to the imagination that powers an artist’s ability to invent as well as the tenuous definition of “race” in the fraught political history of its understanding in the U.S. As Loffreda and Rankine state in their introductory letter:

What we mean by a racial imaginary is something we all recognize quite easily: the way our culture has imagined over and over again the narrative opportunities, the kinds of feelings and attributes and situations and subjects and plots and forms “available” both to characters of different races and their authors. The racial imaginary changes over time, in part because artists get into tension with it, challenge it, alter its availabilities. (Loffreda & Rankine 2014)

By compiling these letters, essays, and art, the collection’s editors create a space for a necessary conversation that presses upon the urgency of both white artists and artists of color to speak on the stakes and consequences of the “racial imaginary.” They discuss the familiar trappings of artists creating art about race that, despite malicious, neutral, or benevolent intents—factors that are arguably futile but nevertheless occupy a great deal of space in debates about race and art—perpetuate and cause injury. The purpose of this collection is not to embrace the watered down politics of diversity and tolerance in the name of a totalizing “humanity” that erases how differences become violently declared in the embodied experiences of people of color in the U.S. bur rather highlight the various failures in attempts to talk about race and art and how these failures can ultimately be more generative than silence.

The scope of voices across this collection showcase a brilliant eclecticism of views on race and art with each artist possessing shared determination to (1) speak thoughtfully and honestly on race and the creative imagination (2) challenge harmful reproductions of racism, sexism, classism, and other institutional forms of violence in writing and consequently in our lived experiences (3) shift the conversation on how we talk about race and art away from a set of prescriptive tactics and more towards openness and possibility that does not preclude the responsibility with which we regard each other’s humanness—or as Loffreda and Rankine state, “history is not an act of the imagination.” It is perhaps this last objective that is often greeted with contention for what some would argue as a challenge to the presupposed limitless quality of art-making. For every argument that eschews the significance of responsibility in art-making, there’s a perspective that directs us to the debilitating detriments of this thinking. Such is the case in Ronaldo V. Wilson’s account of being accosted by police at a Los Angeles gas station for being a black man driving at night and the negotiations one makes at the moment of this violent occurrence; how every instance after is an attempt to grapple with this trauma, “of constant interpolation, slipping in, where one slips away, examining how one escapes and begins to process the story of survival, from contrition to understanding.” It is what Hossannah Asuncion calls the dilemma of “choosing a violent failure or a violent failure—to say something or to not say something” in her struggle to write about race. The stakes for an artist of color are written into flesh, through embodied experiences with race in the U.S. It is a privilege to evade the responsibility of examining race in one’s own art. Or as A. Van Jordan questions, “If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race, what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?”

It is important to note that this collection honors the rage, frustration, sadness, and determination of the artists of color represented, especially as these responses converse with the admissions, accounts, and critiques of white artists. Rachel Zucker opens with the French origin of the term “essay,” which means “to try” and as such, her essay reads as an attempt through footnotes and admissions to ascertain where her reasoning fails as she grapples with her identity as a Jewish woman writer and when “This essay is starting to feel like a white apology.” Frequently, white artists in this collection point out when their tone exacts their racial privilege as is the case when some critique the way they fall into the trap of congratulating themselves over even broaching the topic of race when the artists of color must contend with greater pressures to do so everyday. Kristin Palm ponders “where, in [the writing] community, is the room for stammering and stuttering? For humility?” Her question alludes to the fear that most white artists evade the topic of race because of the absence of accountability structures. Yet this “stammering and stuttering” feel necessary and can be productive if white artists are open to engaging with their failures to speak.

The Racial Imaginary shifts the balance of the conversation from modes that tiptoe around white privilege without challenging the power structures in place that make race such a volatile point of discussion. In the organization of the collected writings and artwork, we are led through a series of artists acknowledging that their thoughts on race are always in progress. The collection’s refusal to propose a fixed idea of race—by doing so would reinscribe the injury of homogenizing its very complicated notions—concludes with Dawn Lundy Martin who forges an analogy between the mixed company onboard her Greyhound bus trip and the ways different racial identities can coexist alongside one another. Or more eloquently stated: “You’re all in this shitbox together.” This gesture is composed of as many collisions as there are connections, and here, in this undeterminable space, is where the collection’s offerings end so that the dialogue it has started may continue off the page.

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Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

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Fall, Poetry, Review

Feeling is First: Lessons on Resistance in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

citizen

Reviewed by Muriel Leung

Body, language, memory, and feeling reverberate through the landscape of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which aptly begins, “When you are alone and too tired…” From the onset, Rankine establishes the racialized body as an avatar marked by fatigue and affective distancing both as an involuntary response to and means of survival in a world flooded with transgressions. The sense of removal that Rankine’s speaker experiences takes place through a range of experiences from microaggressions (being confused for another black colleague at work, a woman drives to the other side of a parking lot after catching the speaker’s eye) to forms of more explicit violence (Jena Six, Trayvon Martin, the racial profiling of black male bodies). In each moment, Rankine examines where the body fails to catch up with language, when language fails to catch up with memory, and how feeling is mediated when these assorted aggressions puncture the world. Citizen is a call for synchronicity of these parts, proving to be especially necessary in the volatility of current debates about race and institutional violence in the U.S.

Through variations of prose and hybrid text and images, Rankine’s poems are equal parts meditation, questioning, and fury. These parts shape the arc of Citizen, moving us from episodic moments of quiet transgressions to historical accounts to the abstract—and necessarily so to order these variations along a spectrum and not hierarchize the events. By establishing the relationship between the daily concerns of navigating the world as a black body to institutions that propagate violence, Rankine reshapes how the majority of this world views racism. She offers that it is neither just isolated instances nor the issue of authority, but rather what permeates through all these moments, erects dangerous silences, and traumatizes. Rankine writes, “The world is wrong” and then takes the reader through the motions of the body experiencing that moment of transgression: “He said/ what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard?/ Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your/ mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?” The culmination of this line of questioning is a bodily response that distances in order to cope; the sigh is a slight gesture that is ultimately insufficient but what must suffice in that particular moment. Of this contention, Rankine writes as well that “to breathe you have to create a truce—/ a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.” The clinical conclusion of these lines suggest that even in moments of supposed reprieve, the efforts to combat transgressions necessitate a distancing of self from situation as a means of survival.

Sleeping Heads (2006), Wangechi Mutu

Sleeping Heads (2006), Wangechi Mutu

Similarly, Rankine’s use of images throughout the text operates as a means of bridging those affective gaps and becomes a different language in conversation with text. From digital media to traditional paintings, Rankine exposes the reader to a wide range of artistic objects to destabilize the trappings of the distinction between high and low forms of art. She features Hennessy Youngman, a satirical art commentator and YouTube personality, in image and textual discussion, alongside contemporary artist, Wangechi Mutu’s mixed media collages, and concludes Citizen with a traditional oil painting by 19th century artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner. These images speak when speech is not enough or is silenced and often invigorates speech in times of silence. For instance, Rankine gives us two versions of Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship (1840). The first is the painting in full view with the ship in the background and a blurred commotion in the waters in the foreground. The following is the painting zoomed into the commotion, revealing fish and the scattered remains of the bodies of slaves thrown overboard a slave ship. This move on Rankine’s part forces the reader to confront the stakes of the assorted violence that takes place throughout Citizen, to recognize that no transgression is truly benign; that we should stare into the face of this terror, be charged with discomfort, and acknowledge racism’s terrible truths.

The Slave Ship (1840), Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Slave Ship (1840), Joseph Mallord William Turner

Citizen is a powerful follow-up to Rankine’s acclaimed Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and continues the earlier text’s conversation on American racial politics with boldness and incredible insight. Rankine demonstrates once again that we have an obligation to language, to respond to violence in order to make oneself visible. “Language navigates this [hurt],” Rankine writes, and it is “Your alertness,/ your openness, your desire to engage actually demand/ your presence, your looking up, your talking back as/ insane as it is, saying please” that makes up our responsibility to each other.

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Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

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