Black Hauntology in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

ENGL 3009

American Literature

A black and grey gradient with dark spots.
Greta Hamilton

Monuments to colonizers, photographs of lynchings, streets named after slave owners and conquistadors, are each a remnant of the United States’s founding as a colonial nation. These remnants haunt citizens of the United States, the violent history of the nation resurfacing as a shared memory in each instance of racial injustice, inequity, incarceration and police-related death in the country. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) considers citizenship through the lens of this resurfacing history. As a Black woman in the United States, Rankine conducts an affective and psychological survey of her experience as an American citizen, interweaving descriptions of microaggressions and racialized violence with cultural events, sports, contemporary art, and visual culture. The writing shifts between literary disciplines as Rankine includes personal reflection, prose poems, and film scripts within the larger lyric form. I frame Rankine’s Citizen as a Black Hauntology, a call to imagine the history of the United States from the perspective of lingering spirits—particularly those lost to colonial legacies. Citizen conducts a Black hauntology by considering history as a lived condition; the colonial legacy of the United States remains an embodied condition of American citizenship today. I propose a Black Hauntological reading of Citizen by drawing on Amy Louise Wood’s notion of witnessing (or otherwise looking away from) lynching photographs as a form of historical haunting, and Keshif Jerome Powell’s notion of protest as a performative memorialization of Black life.  

Hauntology was termed by philosopher Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (1994) as a deconstructionist response to the notion of ontology. In “What is Hauntology,” Mark Fisher explains that while ontology considers being at the level of existence--what is present--hauntology rather considers what is not present. The spectre and the haunting come from “what is no longer or not yet” (Fisher 19). Fisher notes the two directions of hauntology: the no longer referring to the lingering spectres of the past, the not yet referring to the spectres of the future, the shrinking of possibility as time passes from present to past. This essay forges a Black hauntology, focusing on the spectres of colonial violence and their ability to resurface or linger to shape the present. In thinking of a hauntology as always multidirectional, the lingering of the spectres holds a potential to alter what is not yet—that the work of hauntology is always a speculation towards a decolonial future.

The first passages of Citizen describe microaggressions the narrator faces as a Black woman in the United States. Peripheral white characters make offhand remarks of mistrust and ignorance around the narrator, the intentions of which echo back through the narrator’s repeated line, “What did you say?” In one incident, a friend of the narrator makes a remark that histories of violence return accidentally to overtake a conversation—that a past positionality of power or subordination resurfaces to inhabit the contemporary self. Rankine writes,

A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self.’ By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning… Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant. (14)

Rankine criticizes the notions of “the historical self” and “the self self,” and suggests that history is a condition of the self. The white friend insinuates that a universal self exists at odds with a history of power, subordination, and violence, that a person’s race is not a factor in daily interactions, but that it resurfaces through a momentary embodiment of history. Rankine’s criticism of this suggestion frames history as an ongoing condition of existence, memory and consciousness; in being a citizen of a nation where slavery occurred and colonization persists, a self cannot exist without always embodying that history and its contemporary impacts and iterations. By suggesting that the self is contingent on history, Rankine imbues the present with a haunting of the past.  

The notion that history resurfaces as a condition of existence returns throughout Rankine’s Citizen. Rankine includes a photograph from the Hulton Archive, in which a crowd of white spectators gathers to witness a lynching, but the lynched body has been erased from the frame. The image is altered in the style of Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series (2006-ongoing), in which he digitally removes hanging and tortured bodies from lynching photographs, turning the viewer’s gaze onto the spectators. In the Hulton Archive image, the focus of the frame is on the crowd of spectators, glowing white in the flash of the photograph. Their smiles and gawks are posed for their camera; one spectator looks towards the lens while pointing up to the tree. In the original photograph, the viewer would follow the spectator’s hand towards a mangled Black body in the dark, but in this version, there is nothing to look at, no evident cause for the congregation of the white crowd. The photograph contains an absence. By removing the lynched Black body—the cause of the congregation—the image asks, who is written out of the photograph, who is written out of history—and how do we make sense of this erasure in the present?  

In her essay, “'Somebody do Something!’: Lynching Photographs, Historical Memory and the Possibility of Sympathetic Spectatorship,” Amy Louise Wood describes the impact of witnessing lynching photographs. Wood writes of the Black subjects in these photographs, “The torture is ongoing; it exists in the present….the continued existence of the photograph extends the victim’s torture” (Wood 3). Wood suggests that witnessing violence against the lynched victim’s body, even in a photograph, brings the victim’s suffering into the present. Lynching photographs carry the haunting of Black bodies, the history of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the United States. What happens for the viewer then when the subject is removed from the image, when the lynching photograph’s focus becomes the white spectators gathered to witness violence? To remove the lynched body from the frame is to metaphorically end the victim’s torture, but removing the cause of the image, or intended meaning of the image, leaves an absence—it reframes the victim’s suffering into a haunting.  

Wood goes on to describe the temptation not to look at lynching photographs, especially for Black viewers. Wood notes that the need to look away or not look is caused by the relationship of ongoing torture between the subject and the viewer of the photograph, and the embodied suffering a Black viewer might feel when witnessing this history. To look at these photographs, Wood notes, evokes in the Black viewer “that visceral feeling of identification with the lynching victim and a sense that the terror of lynching persists in the present” (Wood 14). Notably, critic Hilton Als expresses a similar feeling of witnessing himself as the lynched victim when encountering these kinds of images, in his essay “G.W.T.W.” (2013). The suffering is present for the Black viewer, the history awakened, haunting in memory and in flesh. The Hulton archive image included in Rankine’s Citizen, offers the Black reader/viewer the ability to look away by erasing the subject—perhaps it offers the narrator, or Rankine herself, the ability to look away. The removal of the lynched body from the photograph maintains its poignancy by allowing the viewer to witness the white faces of the crowd, the perpetrators of violence, without reifying the victimhood and death of the Black subject. Rankine’s inclusion of this photograph offers an affective mode of being in history rather than observational—she asks us to feel history, rather than see it, almost like a seance.

Rankine draws out the notion of looking and not looking as Citizen continues. The narrator suffers from headaches caused by witnessing a tennis match with Serena Williams in which the referee continually makes “bad calls.” The events accumulate for the narrator as a deep pressure in her head, like a migraine or concussion. The narrator takes relief by receding into darkness and wearing sunglasses in the house. Rankine writes,

You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives. To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form someone. The headaches begin then. Don’t wear sunglasses in the house, the world says, though they soothe, soothe sight, soothe you. (61)

The narrator’s headaches are caused not only by stress and anger at witnessing the bad calls of the referee, or at the previous onslaught of microaggressions in the earlier section of the lyric, but at watching Black women suffer at the world’s bad calls. The headaches alter the narrator’s vision; she needs to close her eyes, she’s sensitive to the light, she refuses to look at the world. The headaches are caused by “the world” telling the narrator not to remember. The headaches are the manifestation of a forced amnesia; the world asking her to forget about feelings, about herself, about history. The world’s memory is at odds with that of the narrator. Her refusal to look offers again an affective relation to history, to feel history and make narrative of memory, rather than observe what history, or “the world” wants her to observe. Rankine’s notion of selfhood as contingent on history is deepened by this embodied feeling of history. An affective relation to history offers an entry point into that which has been forgotten; it allows us to feel through embodied memory those who have been written out. Perhaps in feeling rather than seeing history, the ghosts of the past are more present, the absences of Black lives can be communed with, acknowledged, remembered.  

The final passages of Citizen are a series of situational film scripts, a number of which are dedicated to victims of racialized violence. The scripts lyrically describe scenarios of racial injustice, police brutality, riots and protests. Each film script takes on a voice slightly different than that of the narrator in previous sections, at times more factual, and other times nearly diaristic. At the end of the film scripts, a list of names is printed across two pages, memorializing victims of police violence—“In Memory of Eric Garner, In Memory of Michael Brown, In Memory of Tamir Rice,” and in the 2020 reprint, “In Memory of Ahmaud Arbery, In Memory of Breonna Taylor, In Memory of George Floyd”—names whose loss of life sparked protests across the United States over the last decade. The inclusion of this memorialization ascribes Citizen with a sense of absence that forms a hauntology.

Keshif Jerome Powell notes in his essay “Making #BlackLivesMatter: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the spectres of Black Life—Toward a Hauntology of Blackness,” that Black Lives Matter protests offer a performative mode of occupying the absence created by the loss of Black lives across time; as such, the protests forge a Black hauntology. After a list of names and causes of death, including many of the same names as Rankine’s memorial list in Citizen, Powell writes, “The fact that everyone don’t die the same, don’t change the structures of violence erected from the past to organize the racial logics of the present. It don’t change the overwhelming forces of absence that layers affects of nonexistence upon the body” (Powell 255). Powell describes how the history of Transatlantic Slave Trade across the United States informs contemporary memory, consciousness, and being. He notes that an absence is formed within the lives and bodies of Black people through the haunting of history and the persistence of history through repeated acts of violence; that though Black people die for disparate reasons, still the racial logic of anti-Blackness is inherited by citizens of the United States, particularly by Black citizens, and forms a sense absence, an affect of non-existence. He notes that Black life is constituted by absence, that history as a condition of being is contingent on the immense loss of Black life, which informs Black existence.  

While describing several infamous protests, including the months of protests in Ferguson and the protests of a handful of sports players in 2014 donning t-shirts that read “My Kids Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” Powell notes that protests as performance alter the sense of absence that informs the racial logic of the present. He writes, “Through a phenomenological transmutation, the spectral force of Brown and Garner’s (non)existence is…imperceptibly cemented into those continuing to live within the conscious or unconscious (re)memory of the…vacuous constitution of black life” (Powell 256). In other words, the performative aspect of the protests allows the protestors to momentarily occupy the absence of the victim, to exist in the voidal space of the victim’s life. The performance of protest allows the spectres to shift into the present and cohabitate the previously vacuous constitution of Black existence; the protest is a momentary reversal of the absence into a presence. This performative intervention alters the logic and constitution of Black life. It begs the question, how much of Black citizenship in the United States is protesting? And how much is it feeling loss?  

Rankine’s Citizen forms a Black hauntology through notions of erasure, whether to look or not to look, and to feel memory and selfhood through an affective relation to history. Rankine concludes that what makes a citizen is the collective grief of all of the events she’s witnessed, and the events of history that collide with the present. She calls for action, “And still a world begins its furious erasure…All our fevered history won’t instill insight, won’t turn a body conscious, won’t make that look in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing to solve even as each moment is an answer” (Rankine 142). For Rankine, the haunting of history is what makes a citizen; it is in the feelings of the present, the narrative of each moment, where a resolution of this haunting arrives.

Greta Hamilton

Greta Hamilton is a writer raised as a settler on Liǥwildaʼx̱w Kwakwaka’wakw territory. They currently reside as a guest on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations in so-called Vancouver. They hold a BA Honours from OCAD University in Visual and Critical Studies, which culminated in an auto-theoretical thesis considering the queerness of public bathing. They are a writer of poetry, non-fiction and emails, and have written on topics including feminist photography, fermentation, saunas, cyborg futures, and dragons. They are an editor of Silverfish Magazine, a collective and publication for emerging artists and writers in Toronto/Tkaronto, and currently hold the position of Literary Arts Coordinator at Oxygen Arts Centre in Nelson, BC. Their writing has appeared in C Magazine, Maclean’s Magazine, Grain Magazine, and in numerous other publications, exhibition statements and zines. 

Works Cited & Consulted

  • Fisher, Mark. “What is Hauntology.” Film Quarterly, Vol 66, No. 1 (Fall 2012). University of California Press. pp. 16-24.
  • Powell, Keshif Jerome. “Making #BlackLivesMatter: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the Specters of Black Life—Toward a Hauntology of Blackness.” Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies, Vol. 16(3). 2016. Pp 253-250.  
  • Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press. New York, New York. 2014.
  • Wood, Amy Louise. “’Somebody do Something!’: Lynching Photographs, Historical Memory and the Possibility of Sympathetic Spectatorship,” European Journal of American Studies, 14-4. 2019. Pp 1-27.