Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Our imagined American identities

Sunday, February 5, 2017 - 5:23pm

On Jan. 16, Claudia Rankine spoke at Rackham Auditorium about her book-length poem, “Citizen: An American Lyric.” There was an exchange during the question-and-answer portion that I will expound upon here:

Crowd Member: I want to preface my question by saying I come from an all-white suburb which does nothing for Martin Luther King Day. Where people have Confederate flags hanging out of the back of their pickup trucks.

Claudia Rankine: Oh, so you come from America.

This moment had a profound effect on me. It made me reckon with the way in which I imagine the United States based on New York City, where I grew up, and the diverse group with which I rode subways every day.

I do not mean to suggest that New York City is some egalitarian wonderland — far from it. Eventually, the subway ride ends, and I come out onto streets, which are starkly divided by color, creed and background. The subway ride, then, serves as a moment, a fleeting blip, in which the influence and existence altogether of certain fundamentally American barriers seems to dwindle.

And I think this blip, this moment, which allowed me throughout my childhood to view the United States as wholly egalitarian and diverse, also spreads to people who grow up in almost entirely white suburbs, who did not experience this daily blip in the form of subway rides. Instead, it might have come in the form of certain narratives promoted by the media, by their teachers and their textbooks, etc. And this blip expands and can very easily consume us until it is all we see.

In the above interaction, the crowd member subconsciously tries to transcend the world she knows in order to align herself and her experience with the United States in the world of that fictitious blip. According to a Brookings Institution study, if zero is a measure for perfect integration and 100 is complete segregation, the U.S.’s largest metropolitan areas have segregation levels between 50 and 70. Yet this crowd member — along with me and millions of others — has been taught that our lived experience of a segregated, divided country does not resemble the real United States.

And Rankine, whose work deals explicitly with the white imagination and its deleterious consequences, demands that we do not allow this collective, dominant imagination to shape our perception of the United States, but, instead, that we scrupulously and skeptically interrogate what we see and feel every day.

Amanda Alexander, assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, introduced the lecture with an excerpt from Rankine's poetry: “Because white men cannot police their imaginations, Black men are dying.”

In her discussion, Rankine also mentioned the 2016 film "Moonlight," whose main character, Chiron, is a closeted homosexual. As a child, Chiron is nicknamed “Little” because of his small size and meek personality. But as he gets older, Chiron gets extremely buff. We see him at the gym lifting massive weights; he has physically transformed. Rankine connected this muscle building to a trend she sees among Black Americans at large: She argued that Chiron tones his body this way as a shield for the evil, restricting world around him.

I would like to extend Rankine’s point to white people and, specifically, to the person who chose to preface her question by saying she comes from a homogenous, racist town, for the purposes of saying she comes from a wild, unusual place: This is indeed also a shield against the dangerous and scary idea that the United States is a homogenous, racist place. This shield, like Chiron’s, stems directly from the dominant narratives that we are told: Chiron is forced to transcend his actual identity because of the homophobic world around him. Likewise, this crowd member was forced to transcend her background because of the insistence of the dominant narratives about the United States that this is indeed a relentlessly egalitarian, democratic place.

This reminds me of Shaun King’s discussion at Rackham Auditorium on Jan. 23, in which he continually asked the question, “If this is true, how is this true?” Then he would show two consecutive images: The first might be a graph that shows linear human progress over time, therefore situating the present moment with the pinnacle of our progress, while the second image might be a video taken in 2016 of a young boy being shot and killed by the police. If Black people are being murdered by the police, if Donald Trump was just elected, we cannot be at the pinnacle of our progress.

Instead, King posited that history operates in a series of what he called “dips:” moments in which humanity regresses intellectually, politically and socially. Crucially, King noted that in American history, these dips always take place after what he called “introductions of innovation.” His first example was the end of slavery, which was followed by an era of Jim Crow laws and segregation. His next example was the civil rights movement, which was followed by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Finally, he noted that the election of our first Black president was followed by the election of Donald Trump.

So today we live in a dip. It seems to me that the only way out of a dip, just like the only way out of any difficult situation ever, is to face it, to name it, to recognize it and to call it what it is. And this is what Rankine was getting at with her response: She was calling the questioner’s experience one that is foundationally, centrally and fully American.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.