Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric

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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 21st-century America. Published in 2014, Citizen combines prose, poetry, and images to paint a provocative portrait of the African American experience and racism in the so-called “post-racial” United States. 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.

Upon President Barack Obama’s electoral victories in 2008 and 2012, some argued that America had entered into a “post-racial.” To them, the election of a black president signified the true realization of equal rights for African Americans, a kind of crowning achievement that had been set in motion in the 19th century with the Emancipation Proclamation and continued throughout the civil rights movement of 20th century. Pointing to events such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, the case surrounding Jena Six, and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, among others, one of the central ideas of Citizen, however, is that racism persists.

By exposing the pervasiveness of systemic racism—in the schoolyard, at the grocery store, at home, on the soccer field, on the tennis court, on TV, and online—Citizen encourages the reader to think critically about race in America today. Some of the racist incidents it chronicles are seemingly minor offenses or clumsy missteps, while others are more intentional. Rankine aims to show how, taken collectively, these stresses upon African Americans can inhibit an ability to live full, meaningful lives. Rankine also explores the idea of how language 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 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 is written in the second person and outlines racial microaggressions; Chapter 2 discusses the YouTube character Hennessy Youngman’s ruminations on black artists, as well as the racial incidents affecting celebrated tennis star Serena Williams. Chapter 3 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 5 is a poem about identity and chronicles further microaggressions. Chapter 6 consists of scripts for “situation videos” created with collaborator 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, events surrounding 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.

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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