- Being Private in Public:Claudia Rankine and John Lucas's "Situation" Videos
On November 9, 2015, johari osayi idusuyi, then a student at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, attended a rally for presidential candidate donald trump, and, unimpressed with Trump's rhetoric and the ugly treatment of protestors, began to read a book. Because she, along with a number of other people of color in the predominantly white crowd, had been strategically invited to sit behind Trump, footage of her engrossed in claudia rankine's celebrated Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), with its already iconic cover featuring david hammons's artwork In the Hood (1993), was broadcast across cable news (Figure 1). Images of this moment and its juxtaposition of trump's bigoted bombast and idusuyi's quietly absorbed reading quickly went viral, trending on Twitter and appearing everywhere from Jezebel to Jimmy Kimmel Live! to the Wall Street Journal to damon young's VerySmartBrothas site, which named idusuyi its "Blackest Person Who Ever Lived This Week."1 The rash of media coverage of idusuyi's inspired reading [End Page 377] in turn inspired renewed sales of Citizen, returning it to The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller list thirteen months after its release.2 Asked for a comment on the episode by The Rachel Maddow Show, rankine herself responded, in part, "I love [idusuyi's] resistance against being managed in the name of good manners. She is a citizen shaping her own dialogue within and against trump's performance of racism and violence."3 The unlikely shape of that dialogue—assuming not the more overt dissent of the activists forcibly removed from the rally but instead the intimate exchange between a reader and her book—sparked both curiosity and contempt: contempt from the Trump supporters seated behind idusuyi, who found her public display of private absorption irritating enough to confront her, insisting she put down her book; curiosity on the part of the larger public, who spent the next few weeks wondering who she was, what she was reading, and why.4
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Among the many scenes of resistance to Trump's toxic campaign, why did this one in particular attract such interest? Surely Idusuyi's act of reading involved a degree of deliberate political protest. Although she claimed that she wasn't "trying to make a scene and it wasn't originally planned to be a protest," Idusuyi nevertheless added, "I'm not going to waste my time listening to somebody who I can't respect anymore, so I started to read."5 Her choice of reading material certainly suited the occasion: Rankine's Citizen centers on a choral account of racial microaggressions and relentlessly tracks the damaging effects for people of color negotiating public spaces shaped by and for whiteness. Moreover, whatever Idusuyi's intention, the circulation of the image of her reading itself carries with it a long and ongoing history of overdetermined responses to both female and Black readers as loci for cultural anxieties about the subversion of white patriarchy—as rebellious or even unlawful figures whose imaginative immersion proves alluring but whose dangerous energies ultimately must be repressed or contained.6 As Young succinctly put it, "she's a Black woman reading a book in a public space. And you can't get much Blacker than that."7 In this regard, the image of Idusuyi reading in public more specifically evokes a history of civil rights resistance distilled, for example, in photographs of Black men and women antagonized while reading during lunch counter protests (Figure 2). The power of such images might be ascribed to their visible protest, or to "the canonical idea," in Jeffrey Clapp's words, "that visibility, recognition, and representation can serve as solutions to injustice and inequality."8 Yet the animating charge of Idusuyi's reading, I suggest, has as much to do with how its moment of...