Speech is not easy in the face of tragedy. Words can’t capture the depths of grief, but they can circle slowly at its edges and, in their circling, evoke the empty center. In “February 26, 2012/In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” published in Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Claudia Rankine uses short, declarative sentences to evoke and validate Black Americans’ grief in the face of racist violence.
In her poem, Rankine uses declarative sentences to develop an informative or factual tone. The poem begins with a paragraph composed almost entirely of declarative sentences, and this form of syntax repeats throughout the poem. In the first paragraph she writes, “My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious” (Rankine 89). Here, Rankine asserts that the criminal justice system and white America at large criminalize Black men and limit their opportunities. She explains that her “brothers” have not physically been to jail, but are still “imprisoned” by their notoriety and their inability to perform simple (non)activities like “waiting” unmolested. Rankine’s syntax breaks the various parts of these assertions into deceptively straightforward statements. Declarative introduce a subject, describe its action, and end with a period, creating the appearance of simplicity and factuality by drawing an apparently uncomplicated connection between a subject and an action. Rankine expresses sentiments of great political and figurative complexity as matters of what simply “is” or “is not.” This gives her statements the feel of common (and unremarkable) knowledge.
Rendering her ideas as common sense both evokes the numbing effects of continual tragedy and challenges the racist strategy of denying the validity of Black people’s experiences and knowledge. The accumulation of declarative sentences on the topics of imprisonment, racism, and the inability to exist creates a contrast between tone and subject. The factual tone combined with the sorrowful subject matter mirrors the detached manner of a person who is experiencing shock, or who has become numb to grief through the proliferation of tragedy. When dehumanization is part of the fabric of a person’s everyday life, pain must, at times, go underground for the sake of survival. Rankine’s detached tone adds to the power of her poem by underscoring the constant nature of racist violence. Furthermore, her tone is an implicit valorization of the knowledge Black people gather through their daily experiences— knowledge that white people devalue in order to maintain our power. By stating these appearances in a factual tone, Rankine asserts their truth.
Rankine, Claudia. “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin.” Citizen: An American Lyric, Graywolf Press, 2014.