Citizen: An American Lyric Summary

Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric

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Citizen: An American Lyric Summary

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It is difficult to classify Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric. Most critics agree the book is a poem, interspersed with images, commentary, and art. It could be considered a lyric essay, a relatively new term for works consisting of an assortment of media and influence in a hybrid genre.

Chapter one begins with the ending of a day, in which Rankine describes melancholia and the appeal of returning to a familiar place: bed. Rankine asks us to remember a time of complete listlessness. We are told to remember being a Catholic schoolgirl with a system for cheating. Sounds in our mouth are powerful; words are powerful. There is a memory of conversations.

It is raining outside. The rain makes the trees even more beautiful than usual. It is another moment, like any other moment, that connects us to other memories and stories. Rankine considers the physiological costs of racism.

Rankine begins to explore the various micro-aggressions she and her friends have encountered: someone does not want to sit near you on a plane; a mother blames affirmative action for her son’s college rejection; a friend explains the difference between a person’s “historical self” and their “self self.” Other examples combine to create a picture of a hostile world that racism makes difficult to maneuver.

Rankine returns again to the memory of being in school, getting away with cheating because the nun who was your teacher did not notice the offense because she never really noticed you.

A picture of YouTube artist Hennessy Youngman opens chapter two. He asks young black men to watch the Rodney King beating video as inspiration to create for themselves a stronger exterior. A certain kind of black anger has been commodified, he explains, but authentic anger creates nothing but loneliness.

Rankine moves on to discuss tennis player Serena Williams. She allowed her rage be made visible at the 2009 Women’s US Open Final. Serena’s black body, she wrote, must have blocked out the line judge’s vision, resulting in an incorrect call. Williams’s career is discussed further, including her victories, which shattered the image of an almost entirely white sport. When Williams expresses anger and frustration—even when justified—she is painted as an angry black woman, a terrible and infamous negative racial stereotype.

In chapter three, Rankine returns to micro-aggressions. Language plays a powerful role this time, including name-calling among black women and name-calling by other racial groups. Rankine’s list is long, and its effects heartbreaking. Language causes both erasure and relentless visibility. In all cases, one’s color set against a stark white background causes people of color to question their identity.

In chapter four, Rankine turns to issues of mental health. The chapter, however, opens with a sigh. Sighing encourages anger. Sighing is a response to pain. When the sighing stops, the pain remains.

Rankine considers the importance of narratives, and the power of memory. The book circles back to Serena Williams, and the power of the commentators who report the events that cause Williams’s frustration. They build the narrative, and their story becomes embedded in people’s memory.

Rackine begins chapter five by considering the connections and differences between the body and words. Though words may seek to mediate and alter stories and memories, the body always remains. Black bodies are simultaneously fetishized and ignored. Overseen and unseen.

The narrator considers her own voice, and the way it sounds. Voice is a unique convergence of word and body, dependent upon both, and influenced and influencing both.

Chapter six contains a series of poems about Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, “Stop and Frisk,” Mark Duggan, the 2006 World Cup, Jordan Russell Davis, “The Justice System,” and an altercation on a subway. In each of these cases, people of color were brutalized. These examples move away from the abstract considerations of race that marked the earlier chapters and toward the tangible effects of racism. The final two poems, about the justice system and Jordan Russell Davis, are blank, indicating a complete lack of a response.

In the final chapter, Rankine discusses feelings of worthlessness and invisibility in the black community. Again, the body becomes an important location of consideration. We cannot escape our bodies, but at the same time, for people of color, their bodies lead to their invisibility.

Lives are supposed to have meaning, but the words we use to describe them are either inadequate or get in the way. Stories that have no ending are difficult to tell. The book ends with an image of a black person’s foot connected to a rope, surrounded by dead fish.

Citizen is concerned with the role race, and by extension the black body, has in the lives of people of color. Rankine repeatedly considers how the body is both seen and unseen as the situation provides, but never to the advantage of the black person. As such, the book weaves visual images—paintings, photographs—throughout its text. This strengthens the connection Rankine builds between what we see and the words we use to tell the story of what we see.