“To understand the universe you need to…” was the practice sentence that my Portuguese professor presented to us in class and my first response was the language itself. I believe understanding language is critical to how we communicate with one another. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric demonstrates how the absence of quotation marks impacts the understanding of her writing.
Rankine’s prose creates a unique way of reading and understanding her work, especially in the poem “Stop-and-Frisk” in which she sets the stage for a play on words, truth, and dichotomy:
“This is what it looks like. You know this is wrong. This is not what it looks like. You need to be quiet. This is wrong. You need to close your mouth now. This is what it looks like. Why are you talking if you haven’t done anything wrong?” (Rankine 108).
The apparent dialogue is stripped of quotation marks. This style of narration zooms out of the direct confrontation between two people and allows readers to examine what the narrator is voicing. The presence of the word “You” highlights the familiarity of stop-and-frisk, and the contrasts from sentence to sentence suggest the internalization of these occurrences.
The presence of the sentences starting with “You need to…” can be the words of the cop, but it can also be the thoughts of the victim who’s vocalization has become criminalized. Pairing these commands with the words “this is wrong” illustrates the process behind the narrator deciding on what move to make next. Throughout this small part of the poem, repetition, and the ambiguity of dialogue alludes to the systematic oppression that creates these encounters. This internal dialogue can show just how normalized it is to fear encounters with police in the black community.
Just as black bodies are criminalized, black voices are repeatedly dismissed in their efforts to narrate their own experiences, on the streets and in classrooms alike. In her depiction of Stop-and-Frisk, Rankine’s structure of language forces readers to listen more closely to the narrator’s voice by contrasting each sentence with the one preceding and/or following it. We as readers are able to find deeper understanding of the complexity of communication in Stop-and-Frisk, all without the use of quotation marks.
Rankine, Claudia. “This is what it looks like.” Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf