Yin and Yang: On Race in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Kamau Brathwaite’s Strange Fruit
by Vladimir Lucien
Two books that seem to come from a similar place. But even as they do they also do not, though they seem to be aiming to arrive at the same place; and from time to time find themselves intertwined. Jamaican-born American writer, Claudia Rankine and Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite. The former, living and working in the United States, the latter, currently living in the Caribbean having worked in North America for a number of years. It is important as well to note that some of Brathwaite’s earliest critical work, on the West Indian novel — which significantly influenced his poetry— was based on Jazz. The shared space that they both inhabit however, is what could be called the African diaspora. Both of them, in these books, to some degree take their sense of black suffering, persecution, invisibility and degradation from ideas born or more pronounced in the United States. One from a social-realist and humanist position, whose book is fittingly entitled Citizen (Graywolf press, 2014). The other from a mythic/magic-realist position, takes the title of his book from a metaphor that sees man being transformed into contorted and putrid fruit, named after the Billie Holiday song, Strange Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2016).
It is really quite interesting the two different but related paths these books take— a kind of bifurcation, or three-road— the ominous and feared trois chemin of some black folklore. Rankine’s book brings together several various, but all uniformly dismal, experiences of African-Americans facing racism in the contemporary US. She looks at the effect of what she calls micro-aggressions on their intended targets. Rankine’s persona/e is at once a single person and many people, a community brought together by a common experience of degradation. In contrast, Kamau Brathwaite’s book is indeed the account of one person’s experience, but one experience which is being connected through metaphor, through myth, to the experience of the entire community— a community formed also on the basis of a common and real song of persecution. So in one case we have many stories of the race, gathered and told by one voice, and in the other we have one story which is struggling to have its supposed community understand that this story is also theirs.(In a way, this is the story of the US and Caribbean respectively) Both books have been hurt or driven toward innovation or disruption of “form” or “formal” modes, but it is this difficulty of convincing, of making real one’s plight to one’s community that drives Brathwaite’s book toward mythic and magical action where Rankine’s persona/e moves toward small but important social/psychological action/s. For me, whether they arrive at this due to their own dilemmas or they began from there, the two books, though both about black people, emerge from two different though related conceptions of race.
Rankine’s personae are in constant contact with white racism, and therefore are entangled also in a conception of race that was engineered in the encounter between these same people (“white” and “black”) when they first faced each other here in the New World. This conception of race designates a social and economic position of particular races and bases its racial distinctions on the indelible — the readily conspicuous phenotype and skin colour of each race. Which is to say, it is one grounded in science (albeit bad science) and secular readings of human be-ing — the secular perspective which grants authority to man, and mostly to the man who possesses the best of all of these things: social standing, economic wherewithal and so on; who can thus engage, through these privileges, in the production of “knowledge” that will govern how people see things in one way or another. The sense of community is made more acute by this experience, by the common conditions of existence of the marginalised. Citizen, for much of the book, addresses a plural “you”, which acknowledges and takes confidence in the existence of a community, due to the palpable similarities of experience:
A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. Yes, and you want it to stop, you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.
The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers. (17)
A sense of community reaffirmed constantly by acts like these— both the malevolent act, and the response it engenders. In Kamau Brathwaite’s book, we find instead, not only the loss of community, but a catch 22 situation in which the means by which community may be formed is strategically prevented:
“And here comes this huge sophisticated apparatus of sharade designed to destroy my life— its participatory xpressioning of<< an alternative- alter/native nativist— cosmology — ‘alter/native only be-<cause of having to fight for/define/maintain its own space of validation because iT represents THE OTHER- other gods & langauge Other challenges & chalices – the capsule not the missile’- sycorax and> NOT the Planter Plantation Playwrite Prospero. and for witch the TARGET /victim/violin- is played upon the block — the auction tree of physical and psycho-cultural lynching.” (The Lynching Tree, 18-19)
This lynching is:
“design not only to destroy my personal ACHIEVEMENT CONTRIBUTION but to mek me a BAD XAMPLE in the eyes of my own people who until this lynching wd have ‘looked up to me’ as a GOOD NEIGBOURLY XAMPLE of how we cd ‘get along’ w/Prospero- GOOD RODNEY KING & CALIBAN- now suddenly & un-Xplainably the OPPOSITE- somebody to be SHAME about….”(The Lynching Tree, 20)
Brathwaite’s sense of race comes from that very place he is attempting to return to, which is race defined and bound by/ to a shared way of not merely viewing “society” or one’s “situation”, but the world, the universe. But this should not suggest an absolute uniformity, but a dovetailing of various related and easily reconcilable world-universe views. Brathwaite’s idea of race is closer to a more elemental sense of it, less one brought about by society, than one preceding the “society” in which the diasporic African finds himself. His is an “epic” sense of race, in which the race is gazing inward at itself, the sense of race out of which an epic could come (and Brathwaite’s first books were epics of the diasporic African), which are race-making stories; stories and legends that affirm the race, its inner structures and justifies its prestigious position among other men. The villains in epics are usually tinder for the race’s fire. Challenging but always surmountable in battle. And not only surmountable in the physical sense, but moral as well, for there is no desire to integrate, to live amongst these other men, to in fact join them as citizens in a shared country. (Well at least that is how the story goes.) There would be no tears shed, therefore, when they were killed. “[T]he epic experience of the race is compressed in metaphor”(47), Derek Walcott says in The Muse of History, and that is what has happened in Brathwaite’s book. The metaphor of Strange Fruit, borrowed from Holiday, is a compressed version of the aspect of the experience of the race that Brathwaite wants to draw to his reader’s attention, which is the race’s suffering. And this suffering would thereby draw attention to Brathwaite’s own Cultural Lynching, as he refers to it, which he has been trying to make his community aware of— his community which is all but absent. They “who leave me here beneath their tree. its splintered branches in the speechless breeze” (at the dark end of the stick, 46).
Brathwaite presents his plight, throughout the book in a numinous form— “the Basilisk”. The Basilisk works as a metaphor, an “epic compression” of a recurring experience of the diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean — which is the frequent absence of a community, many times when it is most needed (and the spiritual torment and death this gives way to, for the individual). The lack of race-consciousness among them. Brathwaite’s lament for a lot of the book is this absence of community, this divergence in cosmologies, in ways of seeing, as the different ways of seeing between his community and himself makes his real-life plight (his Cultural Lynching) invisible. It is like Brathwaite is trying to show— through the metaphor of ‘Strange fruit’— that our social experience of racism and its attendant cultural lynching is not just a social experience but a cosmic one. That we are not merely social actors, but cosmic actors. And therefore, his plight must take on, and is being experienced by him-alone, in cosmic proportions. He finds himself therefore aligning himself with similar figures in history:
“because i was the spirit Marcus & the Highhead Bedward and their certainty of Africa.” (104)
And this is not for him merely figures in history, but, since we are dealing with myth, we are dealing also with the simultaneity of past and present. Brathwaite would then be the second or third or umpteenth coming of that same being that came to the world as Marcus [Garvey] and [Alexander] Bedward— both of whom were eventually let down by their own people’s inability to act. Again: “The epic experience of the race compressed in metaphor.” From that point of view, Brathwaite is not like these men, but is these men.
Strangely, maybe even ironically, Rankine finds this community that has abandoned Brathwaite’s persona, but a community affirmed in the present and recognised as historically created by the confrontations presented in her book— between black persons, and white racists who either render them invisible or find them threatening. But the sense of community is stronger and surer in Rankine’s work,despite its origins in the strategic societal and racial “engineering” of early European capitalists in the 16th century and current white conservatives and liberals in the United States.
Essentially, the ways of seeing are not distinct. Rankine is writing a sort of psycho-social epic of the black person in America. Brathwaite is doing similarly. One through a collection of multiple experiences, the other seeing his experience as representative of multiple experiences native to that race. The concepts of race in the books are arrived at in different ways, but end up with similar parameters. Just as the elemental sense of race evoked in Brathwaite would not have been based on fine distinctions of colour and phenotype in the way that it was in the New World, Rankine’s conception, though emerging from that New World history, is not based as securely on actual fine distinctions of colour and phenotype or “humanity” (a black man could be of all kinds of mixtures — mixture is part of what “blackens” for white supremacists and purists). They either circumambulate or make creative use of the phantoms that an imagination of one who considers himself “outside” the race, conjures. In fact Rankine’s title seems to get to the heart of the problem— that the word citizen, the status of citizen held the hope of creating equal terms, respect between the two “races” (white and black) and perhaps may — and I’m not saying Rankine is saying this— have created the possibility of a truly New people, in a truly New World, embalming them in a common experience of the world, and returning us to the elemental sense of race which was wider than colour and phenotype. A much more fluid conception of race, that, though affirmed jingoistically in things like epic, was always prepared to redraw its boundaries, albeit quietly (as all drawing is done). Brathwaite’s title however speaks of contraction or more so, contortion (And remember it is Brathwaite who hoped for but saw the failure of the creolisation process between whites and blacks in the Caribbean) And this is a result of his inability to find a community, in a time of suffering. Suffering —as in plague, calamity, famine, mass exodus or even a single death — as in Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad, or the death’s of Martin, Malcolm, Medgar— which are race-making moments, god-making moments, people-making moments, man-making moments.