Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric

  • 32-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 7 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a background in literature
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Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 32-page guide for “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Microaggressions and The Lie of “Post-Racial” America.

Plot Summary

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a genre-bending meditation on race, racism, and citizenship in twenty-first century America. Published in 2014, Citizen combines prose, poetry, and visual images to paint a provocative portrait of the African-American experience. Essays, poetry, and artwork are all employed by Rankine to shine a light on everyday racist encounters in the so-called “post-racial” United States.

To understand the importance of the many cultural references in Citizen, it is crucial to place the bookin a historical context, particularly in lieu of certain major events of the twenty-first century prior to the book’s publication. With Barack Obama’selection in 2008 (and re-election in 2012), some argued that America had entered into a “post-racial” era, meaning that the ills and repercussions of slavery were no longer a concern. Yet, racism persisted, and persists. Many of the major milestone events of the last twenty years are covered in Citizen. They include the killing of Trayvon Martin, the case surrounding Jena Six, and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, among others.

Citizen encourages the reader to think critically about race, and in doing so it exposes the pervasiveness of systemic racism. Some of these racist encounters are ‘minor’ offenses and seemingly-innocent mistakes, while others are intentional offensives in the schoolyard, at the grocery store, at home, on the soccer field, on the tennis court, on TV, and online. Racism, even in supposedly “post-racial” America, is everywhere, all the time. Rankine aims to show how, taken collectively, stresses upon African-Americans due to systemic racism can inhibit ability to function. Rankine also explores the idea of how language (our “addressability,” in Rankine’s words) is connected to our feeling of community and belonging and, therefore, to our citizenship.

Form (and formlessness) is crucial to the meaning of Citizen. The book is comprised of seven chapters, with each chapter relying on different verbal forms, ranging from essay to prose to poetry, and interspersed with visual imagery and artwork. Without a table of contents to serve as a roadmap, the reader is prompted to dive into the material without guidance. The reader is immersed, disoriented, and must find their own way through the text.

The opening chapter outlines racial microaggressions experienced by “you,” while Chapter Two discusses the YouTube character Hennessy Youngman’s ruminations on black artists, as well as the racial incidents affecting celebrated tennis star Serena Williams. Chapter Three digs deeper into the poisonous power of systemic racism and the insidious threat of racist language. In the fourth chapter, Rankine writes on the nature of language and memory. Chapter Five is a complex poem on self-identity, interspersed with more incidents of microaggressions. Chapter Six is a series of scripts for “situation videos” created in collaboration with John Lucas. Most of the videos focus on major events of racially-charged trauma, including Hurricane Katrina, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the shooting of James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, and the 2011 race riots in the U.K. spurred by the death of Mark Duggan. The final chapter ends with a complex meditation on race, the body, and language.

Claudia Rankine is an essayist, poet, playwright and the editor of several anthologies; she is currently the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. Citizen is the winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, and the PEN Open Book Award. Citizen holds the distinction of being the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category.

The tone in Citizen is one of detached objectivity, punctuated with moments of intense emotion: fury, weariness, and revulsion. Citizen confronts America’s sullied history with race as it attempts to eradicate the fable of a “post-racial” society.

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Chapters 1-2