In the Hood: The Art of Ambiguity in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

Beth Bockes

In an interview with author Lauren Berlant, poet Claudia Rankine talks at length about the images she chose to include in Citizen, strategically punctuating her text with a silence that, unlike the blank page, is neither “empty [n]or effortless” (“Claudia Rankine”), perhaps to express what in words is either beyond expression or too time-worn to be noticed, to reach her reader in another, more sensory, way. For all she tells of her curating, however, Rankine is remarkably silent regarding her cover art selection, David Hammons’s 1993 In the Hood. For, as reductive as it feels, it is in what Rankine does not say but submits to the reader’s imagination—as the visual artist must—that she proffers “an answer to question” (Rankine 118), leaving In the Hood to speak for itself. Yet, one might be tempted by uneasiness to turn away from the ambiguous but foreboding image, to dismiss what suggests a faceless, vacant personification, taking permission to unsee the haunting image from the very “[c]ome on … [l]et it go … [m]ove on” brushstroke of erasure America whispers in the Black ear (Rankine 151). Instead, Rankine detains her Citizen reader, gently drawing the fearful, unknowing, dismissive, or reluctant into the Black reality, the “dark light [that] dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds … which gets reconstructed as metaphor” (5)—perhaps In the Hood. “I don’t know what my work is,” claims Hammons, adding, “I have to wait to hear that from someone” (Hammons). In response, an intimate encounter, in essence an indwelling, with the provocative presence of Citizen’s cover image and what it holds returns a rich reading of how it feels to be Black in America.

Poet and multidisciplinary artist Holly Bass rightly asserts that “Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanism against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves” (Bass), but surprisingly, given her artist identity, she fails to recognize that it is not that the brilliance of Rankine’s poetry alone disarms us but that, by merging the poetic and visual, in a sense, she lures us into imagining ourselves the subject of our own unconscious racism. Interestingly, though, when Rankine pulls us into the world of Black art, she breaches a boundary that, according to artist Lorraine O’Grady, Hammons attempts to delineate via the ambiguity of his work. O’Grady explains, “Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves” (O’Grady), curiously suggesting that there are certain things he considers either out-of-bounds or beyond the comprehension of the white viewer.

Either way, implying that none of us—regardless of color—is ever truly race- or racism-free (Bass) because the past is part of us, cached deep within us, in the marrow of our bones (Rankine 63), Rankine challenges, indeed leaves her reader little choice but to step into Hammons’s work of art. There the myriad psyches and circumstances of Citizen’s shifting speaker and amorphous subjects and the myriad possibilities of what this “twice beheaded hoodie” (Johnson) conjures from history and the present alike are distilled. Come, she beckons. Enter my world. Moving fluidly between the various subjective grammatical positions of the self that signal point of view and inform perspective, Rankine skillfully orchestrates and manipulates a remarkably dynamic relationship between herself, her reader, color, and the Hood. Try it on. Working to dislodge us from our silent observer/distanced reader position, she artfully draws us at once into the hood and her reality with a play of pronouns:

I they he she we you turn
only to discover
the encounter … (140)

Other times, perspective pivots, unannounced and ambiguous, on a single shifting pronoun, you, effectively creating a curiously intimate, disorientating sense of participation in the disorientating world Rankine reveals. Try it on. Consider how, looking out from within the hood, the various identities and perspectives of you oddly impart a second-self sense: “This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho. What did you say? you ask, though you have heard every word” (41). As Bass notes, Rankine “mudd[ies] the personas and pronouns” (Bass), at once destabilizing the reader and illuminating the instability of the Black world. Try it on, try it out. How does it feel, Rankine asks, this disembodied hoodie? Naked? Conspicuous? Humiliated? Powerless? Thus, Rankine introduces the myriad possibilities In the Hood recalls.

Out of the silence of Rankine’s cover art bursts Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (Hurston 1031) —or so it seems. Indeed, Rankine repeatedly invokes Hurston’s sharp white background contrast; her goal, as she tells NPRs Eric Westervelt, being “to create the field of encounter; what happens when one body comes up against another and race enters into the moment of intimacy between two people” (“In ‘Citizen’”). Indeed, Hurston’s words serve Rankine’s purpose perfectly, as does Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background) (Rankine 52–53). But the pervading dark tone in which both Rankine and Ligon shroud her words is an unnatural convolution of Hurston’s colorful essence. “There is no great sorrow damned up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes,” Hurston tells her reader, “[e]ven in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life … I do not weep … I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (1031). In short, to Hurston, the world is not her discontent but her delight. She expresses “[h]ow it feels to be colored me” in technicolor, where Rankine sees only black or white, hears only blue. “You hold everything black,” Rankine confides, “giv[ing] yourself back until nothing’s left but the dissolving blues of metaphor” (70). But Hurston holds nothing back. “[Dancing] wildly inside herself,” she revels in the soulful, syncopated notes and rhythms of jazz (1032). Here, in a Hurston context, In the Hood might be understood as a chrysalis. And when Hurston’s contemporary, Alain Locke, suggests as much in asserting that “[b]y shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation” (985), it prompts the question, Could the future have appeared brighter for Black Americans in the early twentieth century to Hurston and Locke’s contemporaries than it does today? Where Rankine depicts a Black world of come-on-let-it-go-move-on repression, Locke, like Hurston, sees a world of Black expression where “the mind of the Negro seem[ing] suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation … shaking off … implied inferiority” (985) frames the Hood as a vestige of the past.

That Rankine reaches for but never really develops the chrysalis metaphor Nick Cave’s Soundsuits enlivened butterfly-like sculpture (Rankine 33) would so beautifully and hopefully complete attests to just how elusive inner peace is to her and the reality of others held behind the veil Citizen lifts. It is, of course, to Serena Williams that Rankine might have looked for a reflection of Hurston’s true meaning and spirit, but instead she concludes that “[e]very look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through [Serena], onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background” (Rankine 32). In contrast and without apology, Hurston refuses to be hemmed in or “tragically colored” (Hurston 1031), as Rankine colors Serena. In a Believer Logger interview, Rankine explains that although initially Cave’s art projects an “escapist” or “surrealist” moment, a deeper inquiry reveals its power to loosen the hold of historical injustice and the oppressive present-day reality of the Black body (Interview)—an interpretation the chrysalis metaphor serves well. But the critical moment slips away when—upon silently alluding to a connection between Soundsuits and Serena, thus illuminating a colorful, joyful, Hurstonesque Black vision—Rankine turns the page, at once deflating the vision and collapsing Serena’s Hurston-spirited Crip Walk, her celebratory dance, into Hennessy Youngman’s quasi-satirical, quasi-cynical “Be ambiguous” (35). When Rankine reaches one last time for Locke’s chrysalis, it accordingly arrives ambiguously reincarnated in Caroline Wozniacki, ironically, as Rankine makes clear, “giv[ing] the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving Serena’s ‘angry nigger exterior’ behind” (36), in other words, the best of women’s tennis—in a white body. Hence, In the Hood as chrysalis fails, and what might have been a freeing Black experience fails to materialize in the reader’s imagination of shifting pronouns and Rankine’s world alike.

When, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the hoodie emerged at once as a symbol of Black solidarity in the face of pressing and historical racial injustice, and In the Hood hence took on a prophetic sense, it was not the leap it seems. For although Hammons’s work predates Martin’s birth, it is, in the essence of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the “vitally metaphorical” work of art, the language of the poet, that “marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension” until the work or words no longer simply convey thought or pose a question but signify something bigger, elevating artistic expression to the eternal and universal (Shelley). In that light, In the Hood might indeed be understood as visionary, prophetic, and Martin’s death its playing out. That Rankine speaks to this playing out—this realization—of the unapprehended in “In Memory of Trayvon Martin” upholds Hammons’s work as signifier, where looking ahead brings ambiguity, looking back, clarity:

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers … accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through … (89–90)

Suddenly, as symbol, the disembodied hoodie teems with meaning, dark and chilling.

But it is not only by slipping her reader into the haunted hoodie that Rankine compels her audience to confront all that In the Hood stands for. With the effortless turn of a pronoun, she complicates what the reader feels, placing us face-to-face with the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, the Grim Reaper, lynching, decapitation. Look at yourself, she insists. Indeed, Rankine explains to Berlant that the visual art in Citizen works at once as “the break from and passage back to the unbearable,” whereby “you want to look away and can’t look away because it’s your doppelganger that’s been shadowing you” (“Claudia Rankine”). Nowhere does this ring truer, perhaps, than staring vis-à-vis into the heartless faces of the Hood.

What black boy, teen, man could escape the terror of “[a]nd you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description” (Rankine 105) streaming in the background of his life? Moreover, the foreboding phrase does not stream solo, for juxtaposed with Citizen’s cover art, the hoodie becomes a mutated, mutilated inversion of the night-riding Ku Klux Klan, out to purify America, thus evoking a tempest of historical, genocidal terror and, further back still, the dehumanizing nightmare of slavery. To this, Woodrow Wilson stands witness as he recalls the Southern white men’s “‘delightful discovery of the thrill of awesome fear which their sheeted, hooded figures sent among their former slaves … [throwing them] into a very ecstasy of panic to see these … Ku Klux … move near them in the shrouded night’” (qtd. in Rogin). Too, when Rankine shines a light on the “pickup … beating the black object,” the reader understands truck and object alike as human, the heartless pickup with powerful Black-crushing traction taking the part of the Klan and the powerless, lifeless black object being James Craig Anderson. Quietly noting that “this pickup is not about beauty. It’s a pure [emphasis added] product” (94), Rankine challenges her reader, us, to face, to study, search deep into the emptiness of this hooded image, however disturbing, for traces of ourselves, for even a trace of impurity.

With Citizen’s sixth section of “Situations,” Rankine points once more to the cruelties of social injustice rooted in color as Hammons’s Hood assumes an eerie Grim Reaper persona, harvesting Black lives and dreams alike, stopping youth short before it fully blossoms, cheating old age of its bittersweet farewell. Understood as the Reaper, Hurricane Katrina deals its black victims a disproportionate blow, heaps “missing limbs … bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying facedown, arms outstretched …” (84) like threshed straw, the Black body stripped of life, self, worth, the outstretched arms in supplication to all of humanity. “[W]ho could see it coming?” one asks (83); and from another, “I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come” (85). Stated otherwise, in the dark reality of the world Rankine portrays, in the face of Black hopelessness and despair, only the figurative Grim Reaper comes. And reading aloud, one senses the Reaper’s merciless scythe’s rhythm, swift and sharp, in Rankine’s recitation into eternity—or oblivion, should the Grim Reaper have its way:

In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
In Memory of Michael Brown
In Memory… (134)

The image of slavery the Reaper and scythe conjure here might appear a contradiction, for, historically, it is not the master but the slave who reaps, who wields the scythe. Yet, the slave wields the scythe at the master’s will, just as the present-day master—white-centric American society—in Rankine’s “Memory” piece wields its fateful power. In light of literary critic Mark Turner’s interpretation of the Grim Reaper figure as a “blend” (76)—in essence a fascinating conflation of the event of death, the one who kills, and the one who reaps—the apparent contradiction speaks to the very real, deeply-rooted, unresolved complications and racial tension Rankine conveys through the shifting pronoun in concert with Hammon’s art. In his deconstruction of the “immortal” Grim Reaper, Turner notes that “the same Grim Reaper who cut our ancestors down will cut us down” (79), words that resonate with tragic irony in the racial context of Citizen.

What Rankine asks over and over of her reader, whether looking into or out of the Hood, is to defeat what critic Nick Laird calls “the paradox of being seen but not seen” (Laird) that not only underlies virtually every passage, every situation in Citizen, not only shapes the lives and futures of Black Americans in untold ways, but also, in the end, confounds working through the ever-present, seen-but-not-seen issue of race. “Never mind our unlikeness, you too have heard the noise in your voice” (71), Rankine writes, suggesting that the question is not to whom the issue of race belongs, since it burdens us all, but how to move forward. “Join me down here in nowhere” (73), she writes, for Blacks cannot do it alone. No more climbing over bodies (83), knocking over little boys in the subway (17), no more “[n]o, no, no, I really didn’t see you” (77), no more Reaper, nor erasure, no KKK, she pleads, as if to say that there in the nowhere, the ambiguous space, the emptiness, in the Hood of invisibility and hypervisibility, belong faces, human faces with real bodies and beating hearts, loved ones, memories, yes, memories, but also hopes and dreams and, above all, feelings. And when the speaker asks, “Have you seen their faces? … Have you seen their faces? … Did you see their faces?” (83–86), the reader understands the relentless, haunting inquiry as Rankine’s appeal to look for, look into, the face of the Other, In the Hood, for neither a “win” nor a “match,” but a “lesson” (159).

Works Cited

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Cave, Nick. Soundsuits. n.d. Mixed-media, wearable sculpture. Photo by James Prinz, Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Citizen: An American Lyric. By Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 33. Print.

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Ligon, Gregg. Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background). 1990. Oil stick, gesso, and graphite on wood. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Citizen: An American Lyric. By Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 52–53. Print.

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O’Grady, Lorraine. “A Day At the Races, Lorraine O’Grady on Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Black Art World.” Artforum International 31 (1993): 10–12. Web. 03 Oct. 2015.

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