Every encounter with whiteness is initiated in an explosive moment of negation. Claudia Rankine’s ability to stay within this moment never ceases to amaze. For some time, her work has contemplated the state of mind that, when least violent, imagines Serena Williams’s foot in a place where it is not in order, figuratively, to steal her spirit, and when most violent, literally triggers the impulse to rid the world of the impossible presence of Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson… Rankine tries, heartbreakingly, to keep a list. She is interested in the space between foot fault and death. (A hair’s breadth? A breath’s breadth? An abyss filled with money?) It requires profound courage in Black life and art to forego the impulse to turn away from, ultimately to transcend, that space.
For, provided one survives, the operational negation of whiteness is never complete. The person toward whom the operation is ostensibly directed does not disappear. Rather, she lives on and with (as the poet Édouard Glissant writes) her nondisappearance. A string of mundane (constant) and strange (when you think about it) events pummel her with the false fact of her absence. “The patience is in the living. Time opens out to you,” Rankine writes in Citizen.
The brilliance of Help (and Rankine’s across her body of work) lies in exposure of the aspect of whiteness that is not murderous reason—partly, to be sure, a vicious thinking of domination / subjugation—that would then be susceptible to refutation, deconstruction, politics. Help returns to the terrifying, embodied entanglement that lies at the core of American racism, to which Du Bois pointed in The Souls of Black Folk when he wrote of the Black woman and white man, linked together by a present-past of sexual violence and exploitation, who “hating, went to their long home, and hating, their children’s children live today.” Help’s Narrator asks, “Are our lives, his life and my own, not inextricably tied together? […] Doesn’t my whole life exist in his hands? If so, could it, would it, help me to know him better?” before concluding, “His proclivities are the definition of the Black woman’s possibilities. And lack of possibilities.” I am returned to that old and often-elided Du Boisian information—racism is sensory, somatic, and erotic damage. (Do we not want to think about the ways in which perpetual violation can’t be healed?) Rankine dramatizes a feeling Black personhood (herein lies her poetry) that demands radical attention to our “shared reality.”