On Little Girl, Citizen, and Racism
Little Girl by Kate Clark
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a poetry book, but more than that it is a consolidation and expression of protest, identity loss, and memory. Beyond the evocative words, Rankine includes images throughout the eerily white pages of the book, forcing the reader to stop and think. Perhaps the most disorienting and jarring image in Citizen is that of a creature with a deer's body and black woman's face. Claudia Rankine makes no explicit mention of the creature, instead leaving the image with its own blank page. On the previous page however, she describes a black client walking "down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass" only to arrive at the doorstep of a therapist and be labeled as a dangerous trespasser by the therapist.
The image is in fact a photograph of a sculpture “Little Girl” by artist Kate Clark. Out of the few mediums Clark used, infant caribou hide stands out. The majority of Clark's works are characterized by this synthesis of human faces with animal bodies, demonstrating a tense and sensitive comparison between the two. The strained dividing line between human and animal no longer exists in "Little Girl", posing the implicit question: should a black person be viewed as the same as an animal? And even more broadly, what does it mean to be human? The sculpture suggests an answer: a human is both animal and human, rendering the sculpture a reminder to society that all humans, white or black, possess "animalistic" features and neither is more "human" than the other. In fact, the animalistic instinct of irrational fear built on stereotypes—a tool animals use to identify threats—manifests itself prominently on the white woman described in the accompanying anecdote.
At first glance, Clark's creature looks like nothing less than a monster, and even after processing the image, the reader still finds it as something that might solicit a cringe, disgust, and finally pity. Both the creature and the black woman are defenseless and unsuspecting to the aggression against them. The deer body is merely that of an infant, unable to defend itself and susceptible to pray; the woman suffers from trauma (as deduced by her need to visit a trauma therapist), an experience that can reduce any human's confidence and persona. Both entities transformed into a single being suffer from the judgmental eyes of the viewer who can only spare a second to look at them before forming a judgment and wanting to look away.
Comparing a black person to the deer-human hybrid might seem like a stretch, but beneath aesthetic differences, the black person in Rankine's micro story was viewed by the therapist as exactly as that. The therapist's horrified reaction is similar to that of the viewer of "Little Girl". The therapist's reaction is instantaneous and uncontainable, almost done unconsciously due to ingrained stereotypes and habit. Only after she realizes that the woman has an appointment does she appear modestly appeased. Her following apology conveys that this appeasement is far from acceptance. Rankine sets the apology on a separate line, drawing significant attention to the simple "I am so sorry, so, so sorry." Perhaps if there were only one line, it could simply be read as a functional apology. However, the repetition of "so sorry" hints at a genuine sentiment: pity. The final line of the page can be implicitly read as an expression of pity that the woman is black rather than a self reflection over the therapist's erroneous and insulting assumption. It is quite apparent that the black woman is less than human in her eyes, an ironic judgment in context with her own near animalistic response.
In fact, Clark makes it clear that her sculpture is meant to resemble a human through her title "Little Girl". The creature, in name and stature, exudes a sense of sadness. It is as though the creature's body and form do not appropriately fit under its title, "Little Girl", which is more frequently associated with a cute, young child. Clark forces the reader to see both the name and creature as a single entity despite how quick society is to reject that nation. As a result, the aforementioned sadness relies on the therapist's and more broadly society's complete immersion in preconceived notions that she can commit any action, including hurting others, to preserve herself. These actions ironically do not protect her actual threats, but rather from the own darkness of her imagination.
As the reader's eyes follow to the next page, Clark's creature stares out helplessly as easy prey. The creature is something that has ceased to be human, implying that it once was human until the black woman's face was torn away and attached to the body of a deer. In a similar way, Citizen's black woman, who is biologically human, ceases to be human in the very context that Rankine describes. Thus the deer human image is both a testament to the black person's identity and the all-consuming fear that envelops others in stereotypes.
Lucy is a freshman at Duke University.