Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


The Sharp White Background

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2014);
Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae (Factory Hollow Press, 2014).


Claudia Rankine and Shane McCrae are both writers who directly, clearly, and pointedly approach the past and present injustices inherited by black people in our society. Their books take on the legacy of racism that is still handed down, that continues to implode us (just say Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr; just ponder the disparagement of Serena Williams, Barack Obama, any prominent non-white American). Rankine’s Citizen and McCrae’s Forgiveness Forgiveness give us a poetry touched by humans owning other humans, discrimination, and extermination.

Claudia Rankine’s book resists categorization. Her lyric essays include passages that hold their own as prose poems. It is more, too, than both essay and poetry, thanks to her careful inclusion of mixed media and collaboration with her husband, photographer John Lucas (a range of photographs, media, and visual art reflects and heightens the prose). In the book, at times, one hears a multitude of voices—yet Rankine somehow blends them into a single, urgent speaker, a voice that attests to racist interactions, spoken and implied. Blatantly, insidiously, the stories gather, before we’re even quite on guard against their terrible fact:


The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?


Citizen is about listening to and receiving information about race, but also about the hearer’s response. Rankine is an observer (carefully preserving her own distance with her “you,” while simultaneously using it to pull all readers into the experience), and she is also the first responder. She sorts through varied reactions, clarifying the one the world can’t seem to acknowledge: “you’re not sick, not crazy,/not angry, not sad—//It’s just this, you’re injured.” The “you” acts as an equalizer, a solidarity-builder amongst blacks while shrinking the understanding gap for whites (“you” are in this, now—it is imaginable, for “you”). This identification of injury is explored in detail in the section about tennis star Serena Williams. Throughout her profile, one senses the inevitability of discrimination, even against the black superstar—covert racism behind bad calls in her matches, and the vilification that ensues when she reacts angrily against the fault. Rankine uses Williams as a subject to dramatize Zora Neale Hurston’s statement: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Serena Williams not only feels the contrast, she is the contrast:


As offensive as her outburst is, it is difficult not to applaud her for reacting immediately to being thrown against a sharp white background. It is difficult not to applaud her for existing  in the moment, for fighting crazily against the so-called wrongness of her body’s positioning at the service line.


Rankine explores Williams’ experience, the internalization of both open and disguised hostility toward her playing. In the reminder that “your physical carriage hauls more than your weight,” the words carry the legacy of post-slavery black America, the physicality of race, the wearying weight of racism, seen through the struggles of a remarkable and enduring athlete.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the author of To the New World (Salmon Poetry). Reviews and poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in the Boston Globe, Blackbox Manifold, The Common, and Gulf Coast online.

2015 Pushcart Prize Nominations
Vanishings and Returns