Citizen: An American Lyric

“because white men can’t 

police their imagination

black men are dying”

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric recently. Published in 2014, this poetic, artistic snapshot of Black life in the US is stunning in its impact and intellectual heft. The book is decidedly not written for white men like me, and can, maybe should make white people uncomfortable. The combination of Rankine’s play with subject positions and the language’s poetic density makes me connect with the (narrative) voices. 

Citizen was The Stacks Podcast book of the month (part of the reason I reread it). I really recommend listening to the episode. Darnell Moore’s excellent critique of what is left invisible (queer, trans Black lives) and the strengths of indeterminacy really expanded my understanding of the book.

The case against Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” is a triumph of style over substance, of clamorous white grievance over knowable facts.

This is what Andrew Breitbart, and his progeny, ultimately understood. What Shirley Sherrod did or did not do really didn’t matter. White racial grievance enjoys automatic credibility, and even when disproven, it is never disqualifying of its bearers.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ White Privilege

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released a new song on Friday called “White Privilege II” along with a new album. It’s less pop radio friendly that his hits, and is a 9 minute reflection by Macklemore on white privilege, white supremacy, the way he benefits from it and how he is somewhat complicit in it. I think Macklemore’s strongest work is when he uses his signature flow for critical self-reflection. This is one of those songs. He wonders how he can engage in Black Lives Matter protests as a privileged white male:

You can join the march, protest, scream and shout
Get on Twitter, hashtag and seem like you’re down
But they see through it all, people believe you now?
You said publicly, “Rest in peace, Mike Brown”
You speak about equality, but do you really mean it?
Are you marching for freedom, or when it’s convenient?  

Similar to his other self-interrogating, ally-privilege song “One Love,” this is an okay track that will now be overrated. Nothing he says is radically new. At the same time, I think there is some value in eloquently talking about white privilege as a privilege white male (something I strive to do myself, something I need to get better at.)

The song is also an example of how white privilege works. As mentioned, the song is about 9 minutes long, with 4 long verses about different aspects of white supremacy. Yet, in most posts I’ve seen since the song was released, the discussion mainly  revolves around whether or not he dissed fellow white person Iggy Azalea. He does, but not in the way many think he does. He criticizes white appropriation of Black cultural forms, and uses Elvis, Miley, and Iggy as examples, but includes himself in that critique. I think the narrator’s “you” in this passage needs to be read as referring to himself:

You’ve exploited and stolen the music, the moment
The magic, the passion, the fashion, you toy with
The culture was never yours to make better
You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea
Fake and so plastic, you’ve heisted the magic
You’ve taken the drums and the accent you rapped in
You’re branded hip-hop, it’s so fascist and backwards
That Grandmaster Flash’d go slap it, you bastard

In this reflection about his own problematic position within culture and society, and this pondering over the contradictions included in that, this song is similar to Kendrick Lamar’s great “Blacker the Berry.

As was the case with One Love, the song has some issues, and as a standalone is terribly presumptuous and self-indulgent (which can’t really be avoided – self-reflection usually is, and that is Macklemore’s style) but could be an introduction for many white people to the concept of white privilege and hopefully influence public conversation. Or it might be just another song by Macklemore that white people love uncritically and that puts him on an undeserved pedestal. (Something he also addresses in verse 3.)

What the outcome and half life of the track will be depends on what Macklemore (and Ryan Lewis) now do with the attention, with the success; who they support now, how they share the limelight. They had the same chance with the success of One Love and The Heist, and I’m rather disappointed what they did with it. They mainly basked in their own glow- One Love did help the great (gay) singer Mary Lambert to a greater audience. I think hite Privilege II is already a better, reflective song than One Love, that makes better arguments. I hope the song helps bring more attention to the great Chicago-based singer and poet Jamlia Woods, who contributes White Privilege II’s coda:

Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury
Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury
What I got for me, it is for me
What we made, we made to set us free

Jamila Woods already released the great song “blck girl soldier” earlier this week – and you should listen to it more often that White Privilege II. It’s better and more important. The Muse also  has a really interesting interview with Jamila Woods and Seattle musician Hollis Wong-Wear about the way they were involved in the production of the song and how Macklemore reached out to them to find out how he can help with his voice.

However, I do think there is some value to this new Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song – greatly depending on what happens with it now that it’s out. A good sign is that they launched a website for the song, that includes credits for people involved in making the song,includes links to other groups involved in anti-racism and anti-blackness, and most importantly a promise and suggestion  to support Black led organizations, so check that out. I want to additionally suggest TWIB Media, a Black-led and -owned podcast and media network by Elon James White covering all the issues mentioned here – from problematic allies, Black Lives Matter, and Iggy Azalea

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter To My Son”

Coates, possibly the most important writer at this moment in America, wrote a long letter to his son about growing up and being Black:

“I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.”

The article is adapted from his upcoming book Between the World and Me. It also is about his boyhood in West Baltimore, subject of Coates’ great first book, The Beautiful Struggle. Read it all. 

Clive Bundy, White Supremacy, and the Historical Reality of Slavery

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Cliven Bundy, leader of the absurd Nevada cattle tax stand off against “the Feds,”* also is problematic on other fronts. As Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes from a NY Times piece, Bundy had this to say about poor Black people: 

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Yeah. 

Coates, who in recently has been writing a lot about the historical and contemporary pervasiveness of white supremacy in US society, goes on to show the grueling reality of chattel slavery in the US with examples from “Thavolia Glymph’s bruising monograph Out of the House of Bondage.”  Coates then concludes: 

When people like Cliven Bundy assert the primacy of the past it is important that we do not recount it selectively. American enslavement is the destruction of the black body for profit. That is the past that Cliven Bundy believes “the Negro” to have been better off in. He is, regrettably, not alone.

(*On a side note, what makes Bundy’s stand so absurd for me is that it’s not a case of age old family land being seized by a cruel tyrant government. It’s a businessman refusing to pay fees for using land that wasn’t his. Theoretically-historically, without ‘the feds,’ Bundy wouldn’t graze his cattle in ‘Murica anyway. He’d be in Mexico, or rather in the land of the Washoe.)

This multilingual rendition of America the Beautiful by/for Coke was one of the ads during last night’s Super Bowl that didn’t suck.

It’s quite a beautiful, charming rendition of the song, young voices, celebrating the sublime landscape of the United States, a patriotic song, promoting the essential American drink. In its core, this ad is an example of the ideological narrative of American Exceptionalism. 

Alas, because there were People of Color and non-General American English languages involved, parts of the right wing hated it and even started the #boycottcoke hashtag on twitter. Similar to the outrage surrounding the biracial family Cheerios ad – again, American upper middle class, stable heterosexual nuclear family, iconic American brand – this shows that this vocal part of the US American right wing public isn’t actually conservative – it’s plain white supremacist and racist.