In 1855 Walt Whitman published “Song of Myself,” a poem regarded as a seminal literary work at least partially for its take on American citizenship. With this work, Whitman helped to inaugurate the tradition of writing poetry about American citizenship and American identity. Over 150 years later in 2014, Claudia Rankine published Citizen: An American Lyric, stepping into this tradition of poets writing about American citizenship. Whether intentional or not, Rankine ineluctably asserts herself as Whitman’s 21st century-heir with Citizen. And while the parallels between Rankine’s operative definition of selfhood and Whitman’s definition of selfhood undeniably exist, Rankine updates Whitman’s take on American citizenship mainly with the explicit inclusion and celebration of the African American experience, threatening to destroy Whitman’s conception of the American citizen. Thus Rankine creates her own spot in the literary tradition of American citizenship.
Walt Whitman was perhaps as famous during his lifetime for writing about American democracy as he was for writing poetry. Scholar George Kateb writes, “Walt Whitman is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the culture of democracy” (Kateb 545). Thoreau was quoted as saying that Whitman is “the greatest Democrat the world has ever seen” (Kateb 545). So it is not surprising that Whitman is recognized as one of the primary forces in inaugurating the literary tradition of defining what it means to be an American citizen. Scholar John Michael Corrigan summarizes Whitman as an “American poet [who] seeks to incorporate the entire nation into his own person so that he can speak for every man and woman.” Corrigan points towards Whitman’s collective idea of selfhood and, more broadly, Whitman’s conception of American citizenship. Whitman illustrates this idea with one of the most famous verses from “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then….I contradict myself;/ I am large….I contain multitudes” (Whitman). Here we see Whitman’s all-encompassing definition of selfhood on display. Whitman believed that his soul encompassed all of America and all of its people, and “Song of Myself” was the ultimate declaration of that belief.
Whether intentionally or not, Claudia Rankine steps into Whitman’s tradition of writing about American citizenship and identity with her work Citizen: An American Lyric. While Rankine draws on a plethora of sources both directly and indirectly in this work, Whitman’s shadow is cast over nearly every page; in The New Yorker, writer Dan Chiasson refers to “Song of Myself” as “a clear antecedent” to Citizen. Rankine’s use of the second person “you” harkens directly back to Whitman’s famous use of the same tool. Rankine also seems to subscribe to a similar theory of selfhood and American citizenship, at least at a surface level. She writes, “you are you even before you/grow into understanding you” (Rankine 139), implying the same sort of collective and cumulative definition of selfhood which Whitman so famously endorsed. With a closer look, however, we see that despite the similarities both thematically and stylistically between Citizen and “Song of Myself,” there is one significant difference between the works: the way in which they address race.
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” seems to claim to be representative of all American citizens. Whitman writes, “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,/…I am the poet of the woman the same as the man” (Whitman). But “Song of Myself” was published in 1855, or during the midst of the American Civil War. Even with its renowned place in the American literary canon, “Song of Myself” cannot escape the implications of the period during which it was published. Despite its sweeping statements of inclusion like the one above, the poem’s time period makes it difficult to be sure that Whitman’s conception of the American identity truly included African-Americans. Critic Jason Frank writes, “Whitman’s reaction to the United States’ slow descent into Civil War was famously ambivalent…he did not believe in eradicating slavery” (Frank 407). Charles Glicksberg goes so far as to say that “while Whitman hails the promise of democracy and stresses the need for national unity, he nowhere denounces the evil of racial intolerance and racial discrimination” (Glicksberg 326). It is important to contextualize Whitman’s beliefs regarding the institution of slavery within the political context of the time period; still, what he does not say about race in this time in American history leaves room for doubt as to whether or not his definition of the American citizen truly includes African Americans.
This is where Claudia Rankine departs from Whitman’s version of the American citizen. Where “Song of Myself” is vague or ambiguous about race, Citizen: An American Lyric explicitly includes the African American experience as a fundamental part of what it means to be an American citizen. Holly Bass writes that “Rankine wants us to know that no American citizen is ever really free of race and racism. The potential to say a racist thing or think a racist thought resides in all of us like an unearthed mine from a forgotten war” (Bass). But accomplishing this task is difficult; for many white Americans, being vague and ambiguous like Whitman about including America’s racial history in their own identities is much easier than acknowledging our brutal racist past. Critic Shaelyn Smith warns against this: “it’s too easy for us to refuse to carry what doesn’t belong to us” (Smith). To combat against this impulse, Rankine uses example after painful example of the constant microaggressions against African Americans in everyday life, forcing all of her readers to include the African American experience as part of their own American identity. Rankine recalls a drive home with a colleague when suddenly the man tells her “[my] dean is making [me] hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there” (Rankine 10). She describes an incident when a new therapist mistook her for a criminal after arriving at the therapist’s door: “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard!” (Rankine 18). She recounts meeting “a friend in a distant neighborhood of Santa Monica. This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41). By giving us these painful anecdotes in the second-person style Whitman used in “Song of Myself,” Rankine gives us a glimpse into the racist microaggressions which Bass describes as “simply quotidian lived experiences for (Black) readers” (Bass). Rankine forces the African American experience onto her reader.
We are approaching what I think is at the core of what makes Citizen’s definition of the American citizen so important: Rankine explicitly breaks down the barrier between the African American experience and the white American experience, colliding the two together to create one American citizen and one American lyric. Through this process, Rankine creates a definition of American citizenship which begins to not just depart from Whitman’s conceptions, but actually threatens to subvert and engulf them. We see this in what I think is Citizen’s description of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration:
“When he opened his mouth to speak, his speech
was what was written in the silence
the length of the silence becoming a living.
And what had been
‘I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully
execute the office of the President of the United States…’
‘I do solemnly swear that I will execute
the office of the President of the United States faithfully…’”
With one turn of phrase, Rankine subverts one of the most famous quotes associated with American citizenship. Through switching the location of “faithfully,” Rankine alters the meeting of the presidential oath. By being inaugurated, Obama is officially killing off (or “executing faithfully”) white America’s traditional idea of the Presidency, much like Rankine’s operative definition of the American citizen threatens to kill off Whitman’s vague, sweeping generalizations of the American citizen. With Obama’s inauguration we are now forced to begin to explicitly include the African American experience in our idea of American citizenship.
We also see more of this subversion in another verse from Citizen: “And there is no (Black) who has not…wanted…to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled” (Rankine 124). To me this is more than an expression of black anger; whether intentionally or not, this verse seems to directly subvert one of the most famous lines from “Song of Myself”: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles” (Whitman). As part of the ending of the poem, this line serves to communicate Whitman’s conception of soul and identity, or the idea that his all-encompassing soul will live on through everything in the America after he dies. But Rankine’s line insinuates that it is actually the African American who has been beaten down into the dirt, and it is the white American whose bootsoles have been doing the beating. Again, Rankine’s conception of identity and citizenship which originally seemed to be built off Whitman now seems to be fundamentally undermining Whitman’s core ideas.
While Rankine has firmly established her place in the tradition of writing about American citizenship to the point where her ideas significantly challenge those of Whitman, it is important to consider that Rankine’s subversion of Whitman’s conception of American identity may have been exactly what Whitman would have wanted. Whitman ends “Song of Myself” with a challenge to future Americans:
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failling to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you” (Whitman).
Whitman anticipated the longevity of his poetry, knowing that his words will last generations into the future and become a part of the collective American identity of which he was so enamored. He challenges future thinkers to find him and his ideas. Most importantly, he ends “Song of Myself” without a period, as if he wanted future Americans to come along and continue to update and remix his conception of identity. Rankine certainly takes up this challenge, picking up the mantle from the dirt where Whitman left it, something of which Rankine is keenly aware. In Citizen she writes of “this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful” (Rankine 128). While the struggle might be endless, Citizen is probably the closest thing we have to confirming a cohesive identity for modern America today.
I have acted honorably in completing this assignment, and am unaware of any violation of the code by others.
-Henry Good Stockwell
Bass, Holly. “Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen.’” The New York Times 24 Dec. 2014. NYTimes.com. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.
Chiasson, Dan. “Color Codes.” The New Yorker 27 Oct. 2014: 73. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Frank, Jason. “Aesthetic Democracy: Walt Whitman and the Poetry of the People”. The Review of Politics 69.3 (2007): 402–430. Web.
Glicksberg, Charles I.. “Walt Whitman and the Negro”. Phylon (1940-1956) 9.4 (1948): 326–331. Web.
Kateb, George. “Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy”. Political Theory 18.4 (1990): 545–571. Web.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. New York: Graywolf, 2014. Print.
Smith, Shaelyn. “Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.” The Rumpus.net. 27 Sept. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn: Black and White Classics, 2014. 26-86.