By Sarah Warren
I’m a preschool teacher and a children’s author, so I spend my days wrangling with the messy challenges of new life. I don’t think too hard about death; I’m distracted by flu bugs, pink eye, and celebrity writers—you know, real threats. I like to keep death nice and abstract. The whole concept is like a live wire shock of brainwave that I don’t touch. I know better. Then, I go to bed and I just can’t help myself.
Some thoughts can murder a good night’s sleep. Under stimulated and exhausted, it’s easy to toss, turn, and reach into the stockpile of invisible hurts, swallowed worries, and painful questions I save in my head. Wide-awake, I practice the self-mutilation of second-guessing. What did he mean by that? Why didn’t I tell her what I really thought? Each question is a tiny death as I hack my sense of self to bits.
Poet Claudia Rankine begins her lyric at this harsh edge of slumber. Her book is an anthology of the daily experiences that poison our peace of mind.
With a vicious vulnerability, Rankine dissects these moments and expresses them in vignettes, videos, and visual art. We feel everything. Her reports on current events read like parables. When Rankine describes the unfair calls racist umpires use to subdue Serena Williams, we too suffer the lash. Rankine writes:
“For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.”
These revelations are not sermons from an activist; they are visceral testimonies from a wounded human.
Rankine exposes the insults and aggressions, both sideways and direct, that hijack our wellbeing. She maps the emotional compromises we make to keep the peace with our transgressors. We weigh the consequences of confrontation against the probable comfort ahead, at the other end of the interaction. We try to move on and focus on manifesting the better, badder self that no one can disrespect.
But Rankine tells us that this ambition to forgive, forget, and rise above aids in our destruction:
“You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term-John Henryism-for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to doge the buildup of erasure.”
Rankine’s throbbing prose urges us to consider our wounds and ask, “What have I done to myself? What have I done to you? What have you done to me? Am I going to be okay?” She writes,
“The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much
Are we going to be okay? Rankine offers up hope in human touchstones-folks who love our broken masks right off our faces. Rankine is not the only artist to identify the healing powers of communal intimacy. Over 40 years ago, luscious singer and actress Pearl Bailey pronounced the power of fellowship in her amazing Pearl’s Kitchen an Extraordinary Cookbook
According to Bailey:
“If there is to be weeping and gnashing of teeth, wailing and beating of walls during the time of terrible hurt, it is best in the kitchen. I have loving friends and family come into my kitchen to be nourished in time of mutual loss. I cook and we all try to make laughter while tears come. We speak of the dead in great and glowing terms, and finally get down to messages of assurance and love. The coffee is heated and reheated. Finally they eat.”
In the end, Rankine does not provide false comfort. She gives no answers. Instead, she inspires the most important questions. She hands us a mirror, and the promise that we do not wonder and worry alone.
You can purchase a copy of Citizen: An American Lyric here. Click on each image above to be taken to the web source. All images are copyrighted and strictly for educational and viewing purposes.
Sarah Warren is an early childhood educator and children’s book author. She received a Legacy Award from the YWCA of Minneapolis Children's Center for her work supporting their mission: Eliminating Racism/Empowering Women. She was honored as a "Cultural Caregiver" by the Minnesota Women's Consortium. You can learn more about Sarah and experience a Spanish translation of her award-winning book Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers when you visit Sarahwbooks.com. Her connection to wellness comes from "being a big pile of stories." Her parents wanted to honor her eclectic ancestry so she listened to tales from anyplace where a little bit of Sarah might have come from and that, she says, is a lot of talking. She is still a sucker for good storytellers. Once she gets inside a story she is safe and open to feel, play, tussle, communicate and wonder. Stories provide her favorite pathways to wellness. She can't wait to read with you.